The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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M.E.

 

 

The Late Johnny Lancer
Second in the Delgardo Legacy series. Follow the link to see the stories listed in sequence.

Dusk had not yet spread its hand across the valley, but a growing chill in the air inspired Teresa O’Brien to start the fire in the great room early. Her father used to tease her about her fondness for building and tending fires, calling her “my little firebug” or simply “Firebug.” He had raised her to be strong and independent, “a true O’Brien,” he told her. With no mother to tend the family hearth, she took on the job herself at an early age, but her enthusiasm for the chore amused her father as much as her skill pleased him. “You were born to stir things up, Firebug,” he used to say with a kind smile, “just like your mother.”

With no memory of her mother, Teresa had to rely on the recollections of others. Only Murdoch, Francisco Toledano, and the vaquero’s wife Guadalupe Villanueva were left of the people on the ranch who had known her, and once in a while she would ask them to tell her a story of the woman who had brought her into the world. In her mind, her mother was forever a winsome girl of twenty with golden hair, always smiling, always inspiring joy. How else could she imagine a woman named Angel? It was easier to hold that cheerful image of her. Teresa knew mothers died in childbirth every single day in the world, but that did nothing to relieve the tug of having caused the death of that living, breathing ray of sunshine. Her quiet guilt motivated so much of her intensity, that fire mirrored by the hearth blazes she love to start up.

She shivered as the kindling sparked and sent rich smoke up the chimney. The first anniversary of her father’s murder was still many months away, but the chill in the spring evening air summoned up every vivid memory of the last night of his life. She thought of him every day, of course, but this cool dampness retrieved all the emotions of that terrible night. She could feel every sensation again: the thunder of the horses running as the thieves dashed off with the estancia’s prized stallion, the sharp reports of Murdoch Lancer’s rifle as he shot at the fleeing men, the fear and excitement as she chased after her father and he joined Murdoch to pursue the thieves, her shivering as she stood barefooted in her nightgown in the cold night air of the ranch yard, watching her father and his boss ride bare-headed and rifles drawn into the gloom. That was how she always thought of her father and Murdoch: side by side, friends for life despite one being the ranch owner and the other the foreman, meeting every challenge together. They almost met death together that night. Instead, her father passed through the veil alone, and only by sheer force of will did Murdoch manage to stay behind.

She stood and approved the growing blaze, basking in the growing warmth generated by the rich oak logs. How gloomy she was tonight! That sorrow belonged in the past. Everything was so different now. Murdoch had all but adopted her, his long-lost sons had come home to help their father defend the ranch from the land pirates, and they had agreed to stay. Where mere weeks ago this had been a household of damaged strangers, now a new family gathered around a rekindled hearth.

“What a wonderful idea,” Scott Lancer said in crisp tones as he entered the great room with a book in his hand. He set the book down on the table and joined her before the growing blaze, holding out his hands to gather the warmth.

“How’s the meeting going?” she asked.

“They headed out to look at the fences to make sure everything is ready when the new bull arrives. Is Johnny back yet?”

She glanced out the large window at the hills as the edge of the sunlight crept its way up the slope. “He should be back anytime now.”

As she watched Scott admire the fire, she appreciated her unlikely new “brothers” all the more. How different these two half-brothers were in every way, from their heritages to their upbringings and their personalities—Scott the capable, fair-haired Boston blueblood and Civil War veteran, Johnny the savvy half-Mexican street kid-turned-gun hawk with bright blue eyes contradicting his swarthy complexion—and yet how similar they were, with their shared quiet disinclination to talk about their pasts, their disenfranchisement from their birthright as rancheros, and their fierce loyalty to each other and the father they had never known. In the short month since they had arrived at Lancer, the brothers had forged a tight, unbreakable bond that she admired and envied a little.

Teresa glanced out the window again. She didn’t like the idea of Johnny traveling so soon in his recovery from the bullet wound he had received during the battle with the land pirates. His youth and strength helped him recover after the rifle bullet had been taken out of his back, but she still objected when he insisted on riding alone all the way to Stockton to make the final arrangements for the shipment of the bull—just as she scolded Murdoch and Scott for letting him go. As long as she lived, she would never understand stupid male pride.

Apparently reading her mind, Scott said, “Teresa, there’s no reason to worry about Johnny. He’ll be fine.”

She was about to give him a lecture about how older brothers were supposed to look out for their younger siblings when they heard the sound of a horse approaching.

He gave her a charming smirk and said, “You see?”

His smile faded as they regarded each other with concern at the sound accompanying the horse’s steps—wheels.

Thinking a dozen worrying thoughts, Teresa accompanied Scott to the house’s front entryway. He opened the door and startled a man who had his hand raised to knock. The stranger appeared to be Mexican and perhaps in his early fifties. His clothes were clean, aside from road dust, but the old suit had seen better days. Gathering himself after the surprise, the visitor gave them a polished, too-smooth smile. “Good evening, señor and señorita,” he said in competent, if somewhat unsteady, English. “I hope I have the pleasure of arriving at the home of Señor Murdoch Lancer.”

Alert but not alarmed, Scott said, “You do have that pleasure.”

The man’s smile broadened. “Thank you, señor, I am most pleased to know I have found the correct home. And such a pleasant and grand home it is!”

As the man continued to offer kind words about the house and ranch, Teresa looked past him to his one-horse buggy. The beat-up conveyance had a couple of satchels on the luggage rack but otherwise stood empty. The old and tired horse appeared grateful for the rest. For the man to arrive at this time of day, he clearly expected to be an overnight guest.

His recital of compliments concluded, he said, “But I do not wish to dispose your time. I have come to this fine place because I have information that I wish to present to Señor Lancer.”

In a neutral tone, Scott said, “Anything you have to say to him you can say to me.”

Suddenly coy, their visitor said, “This is of a rather personal nature.” The man asked with an extra layer of deference, “Do I have the honor of speaking with a member of Señor Lancer’s family?”

The ever-watchful Scott replied, “You do.”

A long moment of silence hung in the chilly air, and the visitor felt all the awkwardness of it. “You are, perhaps, Señor Lancer’s…nephew?”

“No.”

Another moment of silence ensued, but the man did not wait as long to fill the void. “Sir, may I inquire as to your connection to him, so I may speak to you properly?”

With a poker player’s opaqueness that Teresa had come to admire, Scott replied, “My name is Scott Lancer.” After another moment of silence to test the man’s patience, he continued, “Señor Lancer’s son.”

The man’s eyes widened with surprise, and Teresa could see a great many thoughts flowing behind the man’s crumbling mask of a smile. He studied Scott, eyeing him from head to toe, seemingly searching for any details he might be able to glean. He then shifted his attention to Teresa, examining her as well, probably trying to divine how she figured into this unexpected development. “Señorita, you are perhaps…a niece?”

“No.”

His eyes trailed back and forth between the two. “…Daughter?”

“No.”

Teresa didn’t like this glib fellow and his roundabout attempts to ingratiate himself. With his efforts to gain their confidence, he gave every impression of being a criminal. Despite her usual forthright nature, she found leaving him dangling alone in his unsuccessful fishing efforts quite satisfying.

With an uncomfortable smile he said, “Certainly not wife….”

“I’m his ward,” she said, tiring of this game.

He frowned. “I am sorry, señorita, I do not know this word.”

In a succinct manner, she explained his legal guardianship of her as an orphan.

He nodded, a glimmer of genuine appreciation appearing in his eyes. “I thank you, señorita. There are so many new things to learn in this world!”

Scott’s patience had been tested enough. With a polite, but firm, resolve, he replied, “We feel the same way. Is there anything we can do for you, señor…?”

The man closed his eyes and gave a small, smiling nod. “I give you my apologies, señor. My name is Rodrigo Alfonzo Domingo Sánchez Escobar. I have had the great privilege of being…acquainted with Señor Lancer’s wife, María Delgado.” With a wrinkled brow, he gave Scott a gesture of deference. “His…second wife…?”

Teresa was more than ready to throw the scoundrel out, but, as Scott seemed interested in toying with him, she chose patience. For now. Although, come to think of it, something about this seemed oddly familiar.

Scott gave him a slight nod. “Yes, his second wife.”

With a nod of briefly visible relief, Sánchez said, “Yes, second wife.”

“And what has brought you here?” Scott asked.

The man glanced past Scott to the doorway of the great room. Perhaps he was looking for Murdoch, or he was hoping to be invited in, but Scott chose not to take the hint. Sánchez said, “I have learned that Señor Lancer has been searching throughout Mexico for his son.” He quickly gave Scott a slight nod. “His other son.” His deference shifted to concern. “…Does Señor Lancer have…other sons?”

Scott thought for a moment. “I don’t think so.” He gave Teresa a pensive gaze. “Has he ever mentioned any other sons?”

With a mighty effort, she kept a straight face. “Not lately.”

Scott nodded, then offered Sánchez a confidential shrug. “Not that we know. But you can never tell about these things.”

To Teresa’s surprise, their visitor seemed to accept this as a logical response. He surprised her further: He smiled. “Then Señor Lancer should be most pleased with the good news I can offer him.” The man glanced to something just out of sight beyond the door frame. She wondered if he might be hoping Murdoch would appear. Instead, he reached for what he had looked at. “Señor, I introduce to you….” He pulled, and an arm appeared, followed by the rest of a man. “John Lancer.”

Scott and Teresa stared at the young man. In his early twenties, part Anglo and part Mexican, with cool blue eyes glinting in his solemn face, he regarded them with little emotion.

Teresa and Scott exchanged a gaze of consternation. How they needed a quick discussion to figure out how to proceed! She looked at the serious young stranger, then Rodrigo Sánchez. The man’s delighted smile indicated he misinterpreted their astonishment.

Teresa blanched—Rodrigo Sánchez! That’s why his name seemed familiar! She glanced over his shoulder at the road Johnny would be riding up at any moment. They had to get this man out of here before Johnny came home and killed him.

Scott finally spoke. He said to the man who had been presented as his brother, “Pardon me, this is quite a surprise. Won’t you come in?” He stepped to the side and gestured for the guests to enter. The silent young man nodded and came through the threshold, looking around as if trying to recall the house. Sánchez followed with delight, admiring every detail of the décor. Scott faced the doorway to the great room, then changed his mind and gestured back to Murdoch’s small, private study on the other side of the front door. The open door indicated the room was unoccupied, which meant Murdoch and Cipriano were still out by the paddocks. Teresa at first wondered why Scott would choose the study, since the two would probably return to it, but then she realized its advantages of being more private and having a lock on the door. She hung back as Scott escorted the visitors into the room and took the chair behind the small desk where Murdoch conducted his confidential business. She stood with her back to the door as the men settled into the chairs opposite the desk, and, as she and Scott regarded each other, she reached behind her back and took hold of the skeleton key in the lock, turning it until she heard the soft click. With the guests facing away from her, she showed Scott the key, and he gave her a nod and the smallest of smiles.

Scott began the conversation. “You’ll please forgive our reticence when we met.” Sánchez’s brow creased at the unfamiliar word, and Scott clarified: “Our slowness to respond.” Sánchez nodded his thanks. “As you can imagine, Señor Sánchez, we’ve had other young men arrive who have claimed to be my brother.”

Sánchez blanched, and his young companion gave him the slightest of glances. Apparently, they had not imagined that possibility. Sánchez recovered and shook his head. “The world is full of coyotes.”

“Indeed,” Scott replied.

Sánchez added, “But, I helped raise the boy. Who would know better than I who is the real legado?”

Scott nodded. “Señor Sánchez, you’ll please forgive me if I ask a few questions.” He said to the young man, “It’s nothing personal, of course.”

The young man nodded, and Sánchez gave Scott a gracious gesture. “Of course.”

“Thank you for your understanding.” He began by asking the man when he first heard about Murdoch’s search. Sánchez replied with a vague statement about a friend telling him.

As fascinated as Teresa was by this cat-and-mouse conversation, she couldn’t stay still as she lingered by the door. She had to warn Murdoch, and she had to steer away Johnny. Before Sánchez could complete his answer to Scott’s innocuous question, she had an idea. “Scott, how about if I make a pot of tea?”

As Sánchez thanked her but requested that she go to no trouble on their account, Scott gave her a slow, significant nod. She returned his nod and made some forgettable remark about tea being no trouble as she turned, fumbled the key out of her pocket, unlocked the door as quietly as she could, and slipped outside. She listened for a moment as the conversation inside continued, and she silently locked the door from the outside before dashing through the house to the back door.

She found Murdoch and Cipriano on their way back from the paddock. Murdoch was leaning heavily on his cane, the lingering effects of his rifle bullet wound clearly bothering him in the cool air. He smiled at her approach, but his joy dissipated as she explained in a breathless half minute the presence of their surprise guests. The segundo was taken aback, but an incensed Murdoch was ready to march to the office and toss them out.

Teresa blocked his path. “Murdoch, the fact that they’re liars isn’t the problem. That man is Johnny’s stepfather.”

“What difference does that make?” Murdoch rumbled.

She didn’t like betraying a confidence, and under any other circumstance she wouldn’t. “One night, a few days after his surgery, it was Johnny’s first night without the laudanum and he couldn’t sleep. So, he came out and we talked, almost half the night. He hates his stepfather. He’s convinced the man killed his mother. He said if it was the last thing he ever did, he would kill him. Murdoch, if Johnny walks into the house and finds his stepfather here….” She couldn’t find the words to express her fear that Johnny would do something he couldn’t justify and they would lose him forever. “We have to stop him.”

His anger derailed, Murdoch calmed, thought for a few moments, and then regarded her with a fatherly smile. “Teresa, this household has missed a woman’s good sense for a long time.” He put an arm around her. He said to his capable segundo, “Cipriano, go out on the road and stop Johnny before he gets to the house. Tell him…something.”

Cipriano nodded. “Sí, patrón.” He left for the barn.

With his arm still around the wise child, Murdoch said, “Let’s go meet this pretender.”

 

 

Scott had to admit that this Sánchez fellow had done a good job of finding and schooling the boy. He knew all the right details, and he displayed no unnatural eagerness to please people he thought had cast him out. Beyond the gross details of his physical similarities, he bore no resemblance to Murdoch and only a passing one to the photographic portrait Murdoch had of Johnny’s mother. If Sánchez really did know María Delgado—and he had recounted enough details to make it likely he did—he probably would have believed her fiction about their being sent away by Murdoch. As a result, Sánchez could not have anticipated that the “heartless” husband might have kept an image of his errant wife with which he could compare this “son.”

As Scott listened to Sánchez explain how he had tracked down “John,” whom he claimed had run away from his mother when he was eleven, he wondered what this man expected from this. It could only be money. Perhaps he anticipated a finder’s fee. Sánchez couldn’t believe Murdoch would offer to let him stay on at the ranch. Maybe Sánchez worked out a deal for the young man to send him money from time to time.

Scott started when he heard a horse outside, and he looked out the window at the gathering twilight. He could see no one, but he could hear the horse moving away. Teresa must have sent someone to intercept Johnny. Smart girl. His brother had said very little about his childhood, but Scott knew it had not been happy. Add to that Johnny’s intolerance of slick operators like this Sánchez, and he imagined their next meeting would not be a friendly one.

Scott heard a quiet sound outside the study door, and he saw the doorknob turn. The young man jumped at the sound behind him, on edge and alert, as Sánchez chattered away about his epic search for the long-lost boy. Scott guessed “John” felt ill at ease with this subterfuge. That was one point in his favor.

The door opened, and Murdoch held the door open for Teresa, who carried a tray with a teapot with cups and saucers. Scott had forgotten the ruse allowing her to leave. Sánchez looked over his shoulder, then did a double take when he saw Murdoch. He tapped his young friend on the arm as he stood. The young man followed his example and stood to face the man he hoped would claim him as his son. Only then did Scott wonder if this boy might not even know his real father.

Murdoch, who was not adept at dissembling, regarded the two visitors with an uncomfortable tilt in his large frame. “So,” he said, casting his gaze back and forth between the two, “these are our guests.”

Scott made the introductions. He had no idea what Teresa might have told him about their conversation, so he introduced them as Rodrigo Sánchez and “yet another young man who believes he might be John.” Murdoch eyed the young man, giving him a more thorough examination than Scott expected. Perhaps he intended to convince them of his serious interest, and yet it seemed a little more sincere. Did the boy remind him of someone?

The group engaged in about a half hour of excruciating conversation, every five minutes or so marked by an anxious Teresa glancing out the window. Most of the talk consisted of Sánchez’s detailed story of his search for María’s son, making the point—twice—that the lad had run away at age eleven. He regaled them with the story of how his distraught mother had sent him, her “trusted friend,” to search for the boy, but his efforts had been in vain. He then recounted how he had recently learned that Murdoch was searching for his son. Imagining that the cause could only be a matter of the utmost urgency, he took it upon himself to try again to find the long-lost boy. When he found him, working as a vaquero on a cattle ranch in Sonora, he immediately persuaded the boy to travel with him to return to his father and the home he had left long ago.

When Murdoch asked if he had stopped off to show the boy to María first, Sánchez seemed startled, then offered a clumsy story of having lost touch with the boy’s mother, and instead he had written her a letter at her “last known address,” reassuring her that he would visit her once “John” had joined his father.

Murdoch then quizzed the young man at length. “John Lancer” had all the correct information, which he shared without eagerness or, in fact, any emotion. He spoke good English, and he did not indulge in Sánchez’s self-aggrandizement or overly-dramatic language. Scott had to wonder if his aloofness was part of their strategy, or if he simply was concentrating on keeping the details straight. Either way, his deadpan responses proved quite effective. He perfectly portrayed a son who thought he had been cast out of his father’s life before the age of two. He recited the details of living with his mother until he ran away, and then, in somewhat more detail, he talked about life on his own, working at various jobs as he traveled west from Paso del Norte, and then how he found a home working at the ranch where Rodrigo had found him. He did betray a bit of pride when recounting his skills as a vaquero, but beyond that he remained aloof, detached, withdrawn.

When Sánchez looked out the window at the cool evening, he announced that they had intruded at the family time of day and they would go find a place in town so they could return in the morning. When Murdoch insisted they remain overnight as their guests, the two did not resist. Teresa suddenly launched to her feet with a rushed and clumsy announcement that she would “ready guest rooms for the guests and tell the housekeeper about the guests,” and then she all but fled out of the study. Scott concluded that she knew she had to lock up Johnny’s bedroom to keep it from prying eyes. Then again, why were they trying to protect this charlatan and his Myrmidon? What was their plan, anyway? A family council would be in order as soon as they could get these two ensconced in their quarters.

After another fifteen minutes of listening to Sánchez share anecdotes about his “friendship” with María and watching her son grow up, a calmer Teresa returned and offered to show the visitors to their rooms, where they could rest and wash up for supper, which would be in about twenty minutes. Sánchez effused his flowery gratitude for their generosity, and “John” offered characteristically low-key thanks. Teresa showed them out.

With the guests gone, Murdoch shared Teresa’s concerns about Johnny’s possible response to the presence of his stepfather, which surprised Scott, and then he told his son about Cipriano being on watch along the road to try to divert him. Scott realized that was why Teresa kept looking out the window. In a large ranch on a moonless night, a lookout could easily miss his quarry.

Scott was sharing how the encounter began when Teresa returned, looking mildly anxious but mostly angry. “I swear,” she said, “Señor Sánchez is the most mercenary…he did everything short of asking how much every piece of furniture cost!”

Murdoch gestured for her to lower her voice, even though she had closed the study door. “That doesn’t matter right now. What we need is a plan for how to deal with them.”

“Agreed,” Scott seconded.

Not quite looking at either one of them, Murdoch said, “We’ll need to protect the ranch, and the property, and ourselves, until we determine just exactly who they are.”

It took Scott a moment to comprehend what Murdoch had said, and Teresa blinked with astonishment. She asked, “What do you mean?”

Scott added, “We already know who they are. Or, more accurately, what. They’re charlatans.”

Murdoch’s slow response sent a chill down Scott’s spine. “How do we know that? It’s clear Sánchez knew María. The boy does look a bit like her, and his eyes are exactly the same color as my father’s.”

Scott and Teresa stared at each other in disbelief. How could Murdoch entertain such an outlandish notion?

Teresa said what Scott was thinking. “Are you saying…you think he might be the one instead of Johnny?”

Murdoch offered one of his typically inscrutable shrugs. “It’s possible. There are some weak links in the Pinkerton trail.”

Scott scoffed, and Teresa shook her head. “No,” she said, “I don’t believe you.” She looked to Scott. “Do you believe Johnny isn’t your brother?”

Scott had had enough. He glared at his father and exclaimed, “Of course we got the right one!” Murdoch’s gaze continued cool and unfathomable. He alone had read the Pinkerton agency’s final report. What did he know that the others didn’t? “Of course we did.” He glanced at Teresa for support, but all he could see was her worry. He returned his gaze to Murdoch. “Didn’t we?”

 

 

Supper with the guests passed just as the conversation in the study had, with awkward interludes and agonizing pleasantries. Following the plan that the three had hatched during their brief conference, they continued the charade that these two were only the latest in a string of hopefuls who had arrived at Lancer claiming to be the missing second son. They had not had time to address Murdoch’s concerns about the Pinkerton report or Teresa’s fear of Johnny—Johnny Madrid, not this “John Lancer”—encountering his stepfather again, so a second secret meeting was scheduled for after the meal.

The visitors accepted the story that they were here to prove themselves. Sánchez responded to the challenge by doing most of the talking, regaling the others with stories about Johnny’s childhood and his own friendship with the boy’s mother. He offered Murdoch many compliments, even going so far as to saying he now doubted some of María’s stories about her husband, attributing any misunderstandings on her part to her youth and her “lively nature.” If the man had paid any attention at all to his audience, he would have noticed Murdoch’s growing irritation at the endless reminders of his missing wife and her abrupt departure, and he would have wisely kept his mouth shut. Apparently, wisdom was not one of Sánchez’s talents.

Teresa could barely sit still during the ordeal. Yes, while Sánchez was in fact confirming a few of the stories Johnny had told her on that restless night, all she could think about was the increasing likelihood of Johnny walking through that door and seeing the man who had created so much unhappiness for him…and then who knew what would result? Johnny had not even been with them for a month. He was still more Madrid than Lancer. What if he made good his threat and shot down the braggart? Spanish Wells and Morro Coyo didn’t have lawmen, but word of a murder would get out eventually. How would they explain this? The power of the Lancer name would not protect Johnny from the law. Just as he was settling in with his family, he would take off, and they would never see him again. She couldn’t bear that thought. They would have to break the news of all this to him slowly, carefully, and in a controlled manner.

Teresa quizzed Sánchez about María’s current whereabouts, but he deflected her questions by saying—again—that he had not seen her in eleven years, when her son had run away. Scott asked why, and Sánchez, growing a little uncomfortable, said he had business matters that took him away from Paso del Norte at that same time, and she left town shortly thereafter.

When Scott tried to press him on what type of business matters, Murdoch commandeered the conversation by dismissing the matter. Instead, he focused on the quiet young man and asked him to talk about himself. With the same calm detachment he had shown before, “John Lancer” repeated the details Sánchez had shared, then talked about his life on his own and how he had learned ranching and ended up on the large cattle ranch south of Nogales. Then Murdoch asked him about his contact with other family members, which the young man said were few. Murdoch asked about his uncle. Sánchez froze, his fork with the bite of beef at his lips, and without a noticeable response the young man asked Murdoch if he meant his uncle in Matamoros. When Murdoch nodded slowly, the young man said simply that he saw the man once, and he continued with his meal. Sánchez finally took his bite of food, trying very hard not to look relieved.

Murdoch asked the young man a few other vague questions, which he answered well, and then asked about Rafael Gutiérrez. Teresa had never heard the name, and a glance to Scott revealed he also knew nothing. Sánchez blinked a few times, but the boy only shrugged, saying he had met a lot of people on his travels. Murdoch said, “It’s my understanding that you two were friends for a while. I imagine someone like him would be interesting to know.”

Sánchez started to clear his throat, but his young companion did not flinch as he regarded with a cool gaze the man he claimed to be his father. “Señor, I met a lot of interesting people. A child traveling alone in the world is not safe. You make friends where you can. Some friendships last. Some do not. But you do the best you can with what little you have.” He returned his attention to his food.

In a quiet voice, Teresa asked him, “Why did you run away?”

He paused for a moment but did not look up. “Because I hated my stepfather.” He carved a piece out of the beef on his plate. The only response from Sánchez was a thoughtful glance around at the dishes on the table.

Murdoch acknowledged his words with a nod and switched the topic to the weather.

 

 

Supper was followed by brandy in the great room, and then, after receiving Murdoch’s promise to show them around the estancia in the morning, the guests retired. Murdoch went out front for a while, as a glum Teresa concentrated on the fire and Scott wondered about Murdoch’s doubts. Who was Rafael Gutiérrez? Had he made up the name? Had the boy passed a test or failed it? How would they get rid of the interlopers? The longer they stayed, the more difficult would be their departure. Why was Murdoch keeping them around?

Teresa jumped at the sound of the front door closing, but Murdoch entered the room with a shake of his head. “Cipriano came back. There’s been no sign of Johnny. He must have been delayed somewhere.” He slumped in his chair and stretched out his long legs with a mighty sigh.

Teresa abandoned her fire tending and began asking the questions at the top of Scott’s list: “Who is Rafael Gutiérrez? What was the story about Johnny’s uncle? And what are the gaps in the Pinkerton report?”

Murdoch replied, “I told the Pinkertons to start with María’s brother outside Matamoros. Manuel Delgado told them that when Johnny was fourteen, he and someone who said his name was Rafael Gutiérrez came to visit him. Manuel had promised María that he would tell no one where she was, because she was convinced that Sánchez—her husband—wanted to kill her. Manuel didn’t say why. Just as this young man said, Manuel only saw him that one time, as he didn’t acknowledge Johnny as his nephew.”

Scott shook his head. “Sánchez would have told him about María’s brother. Only seeing him that one time would be a logical guess on our guest’s part.”

“Possibly,” Murdoch replied. “Manuel told the Pinkerton agent that María recognized Gutiérrez as a gunman who used the name El Halcón, The Falcon. Manuel didn’t have any more information, so the agent went looking for El Halcón.”

Teresa perked up. “Wait—are you saying María was there when Johnny went to his uncle’s house—and she didn’t talk to him?”

Murdoch shook his head. “Manuel said María claimed the boy was an imposter. She said her son had been murdered by her husband, and that El Halcón—Gutiérrez—had been hired by her husband to kill her.”

Before the fuming Teresa could explode, Scott said, “How do we know any of what she believed isn’t true?”

Murdoch answered, “Manuel told the Pinkerton agents that he knew María was wrong because he recognized the boy who came to visit him as being a member of their family.”

Teresa seethed, “And he didn’t tell Johnny.”

“He’d promised his sister before any of this started happening. He said he felt terrible about it.”

Her anger wouldn’t let her sit still, and she got up to pick up another log to put on the fire that did not need it. “What kind of a woman is she?” She tossed the log onto the flames, then turned to the men. “Don’t you understand? Johnny thinks Sánchez killed his mother, but she’s alive. At least she was then. Johnny’s been carrying around a grudge against that man for years. If they’d crossed paths, he could have killed him, for no reason. He still might kill him!” Frustrated, but with nothing she could do, she flopped on the floor before the fireplace.

Scott didn’t know exactly where Matamoros was, but he was glad it was too far for Teresa to visit in her current state of mind. In the meantime, he had his own questions. “Murdoch, what were the ‘weak links’ in the Pinkerton report?”

“They searched for an El Halcón, or a Rafael Gutiérrez. El Halcón disappeared about five years ago, somewhere west of Laredo. But they found a Rafael Gutiérrez, living as a lay brother in a monastery in Monterrey. The brothers there all knew he claimed to have been a gunfighter, and they said he had a gunshot injury to his knee that would end a career as a man of action.”

Murdoch continued, “The Pinkerton agents said Gutiérrez told them about knowing Johnny, knowing his birth name was John Lancer, and going to Matamoros to meet his uncle. He also claimed he knew Manuel was lying when he said he didn’t recognize Johnny, and that María was there, but he did not confront them because it would have done more harm than good to all of them.”

Under the circumstances, Scott had to agree with the man’s assessment of that troubled family.

Murdoch concluded, “Gutiérrez then told them to look for him using the name ‘Johnny Madrid.’ The agents spread out, and one of them found Johnny.” He looked at the roaring blaze in the fireplace. “So, the only link connecting Johnny Madrid with María’s son is the word of a man who may or may not have been El Halcón, who may or may not have been Rafael Gutiérrez, and who may or may not have switched careers from professional killer to lay monk.”

The crackle of the fire punctuated the silence in the room. Scott finally said, “He knew a lot of details. Of course, he could have picked them up through whatever grapevine exists in his profession. And a gunman could retire to a monastery. There aren’t a lot of other options.” He hoped he sounded convincing.

Murdoch looked at Teresa. “Johnny seems to have talked the most to you. Did he ever mention an El Halcón, or a Rafael Gutiérrez?”

She shook her head.

Scott thought for a moment. “Did the report have anything about Johnny saying he knew who he was, or who you were, before the Pinkerton agent told him about your offer?”

In a subdued voice, Murdoch said, “Most of that section of the report was about the agent arriving just before Johnny took his turn before the execution squad….”

Teresa flinched at the image.

“…Then about paying off the Rurales, and then a very detailed account of how Johnny saved him and another prisoner when the Rurales turned on them, and then about Johnny leaving separately.”

Scott replied, “That proves he already knew who you were, since he left on his own and knew where to find you.”

“We don’t know what the agent said to him,” Murdoch countered. “He could have told him my name and where to find me. Even if he only said my name, all Johnny would have to do is get north of the border and ask where to find me.”

Teresa shifted away from in front of the roaring blaze to a nearby stool out of the heat’s path. “It’s ridiculous that you’re even asking those questions. You know he belongs to us. What matters is what are we going to do about Señor Sánchez and his friend? If he is Johnny’s stepfather, Johnny might kill him. We can’t risk that. We have to get those two out of here first thing in the morning.”

Scott wondered if Murdoch was thinking what he had come to realize. If so, that could explain a lot of Murdoch’s actions.

The father detached himself from his gloom and turned a steady gaze on his elder son, waiting for his opinion.

Scott said, “I’m sorry, Teresa. That’s the one thing we can’t do.”

“What do you mean?”

He took a long breath. “Imagine you’ve been wanting to do something for a long time. Years. It’s been one of your foremost motivations in life. It doesn’t matter if it’s right or wrong, good or bad. It’s so important, it’s part of who you are.” He leaned forward. “Then, when you leave home for a few days, this thing you’ve wanted, dreamed about, becomes available. But when you return home, you find out the people you trust and who say they care about you have made it impossible for you to have that one thing. How would you feel?”

Teresa sat in melancholy silence for a few moments. “Feeling betrayed isn’t as important as being alive.”

Murdoch added, “But taking that opportunity away from him is also telling him we don’t trust him to do the right thing.”

With the reckless steel of youth, she replied, “You don’t trust that he’s your son.”

“Maybe that’s why I have to give him this opportunity to prove himself.”

“What,” she fired back, “so he can prove he knows Sánchez and he’s María’s son just before he murders him?”

“Perhaps.”

Teresa glared at him and stood, beginning to pace around the warm room. “I don’t understand you.”

In a weary voice, Murdoch replied gently, “Someday, when you, too, are old and tired, you will.”

“In the meantime,” Scott said with a sigh that betrayed some of his trepidation, “we have a plan. We’ll entertain our guests until Johnny arrives.”

 

 

“They’re not convinced,” Felipe Flores said to Rodrigo Sánchez, craving a cigarillo but afraid of moving their confidential conversation outside where they might be overheard.

Sánchez was admiring the soft mattress and feather pillow in his room as his young assistant stood just inside the closed door. “Of course not. They’re not fools. We don’t know how many others have been here before us. But we have the advantage of truth, my friend. I know everything María told me. And I knew Juanito from age eight to eleven. It doesn’t matter how many other people came here. We have an advantage no one can challenge.”

Felipe regretted listening to this trickster. When they crossed paths in Nogales, the story Sánchez told of fooling a wealthy Americano looking for his lost son had sounded so appealing, especially after Rita turned down his marriage proposal by saying he would never be more than a poor vaquero. However, instead of finding a doddering, lonely old man ready to share his wealth, they encountered a skeptical other son, a girl with the heart of a conquistador, and a cagey ranchero who saw him as just one more in a series of hopeful new sons. He knew now that Sánchez talked a great deal but knew very little. At this point, he saw the best outcome would be that they would be simply turned away, and he would return home unharmed. There were other, darker possibilities. Rich men like this ranchero did not like being played for fools. He had seen his relatively even-tempered patrón dole out occasional vicious retribution for damage to his pride. Being so far from home, they were especially vulnerable to whatever punishment this man might consider appropriate.

Sánchez stretched out on the comfortable bed with a contented sigh. “My young friend, I tell you now, if you do not lose your nerve, we will have you in this family by the end of the week.”

 

 

The next day, Rodrigo Sánchez and his young partner enjoyed a day on the ranch as honored guests. Murdoch, still confined to using a buckboard, drove Sánchez around the easily accessible pastures. Accompanied by Ysidro and Pineda, Scott showed “John” around some of the distant terrain. Teresa stayed home to await the arrival of the overdue Johnny.

After initial resistance, Scott found this would-be brother a good companion. Even though he was still new to ranching life, Scott knew enough to recognize that “John” made intelligent comments about the stock, he praised many of the improvements Murdoch had instituted, and he envied the lush landscape. He even rode off to rescue a bullock that had gotten snared in some undergrowth, deftly extricating the stubborn animal without assistance. This young pretender was a natural horseman, he knew cattle, and he wasn’t afraid of hard work. From the nods and glances of the two ranch hands, Scott knew he had favorably impressed Ysidro and Pineda as well.

Scott asked him a few questions and let him talk. “John” repeated a few of the details Sánchez had undoubtedly drummed into his head, but most of the time he talked about his five years on a ranch south of Nogales, and the joys of the vaqueros’ camaraderie and the satisfaction of producing excellent beef animals in some of the most unforgiving terrain on Earth. He mentioned a girl named Rita a few times, but Scott had the impression that she had so far avoided a commitment to him.

Only one awkward moment arose. As they rode along a hillside above the approach road to the house, the young man noticed the ranch hand who had been sent to the beginning of the road to watch for Johnny. As another hand rode up to relieve the sentry, “John” watched the changing of the guard in troubled silence. Scott had no easy lie to give him, and when the young man asked nothing about the curious activity, Scott didn’t mind ignoring the situation.

By the time they returned to the house, Scott liked him. With the ranch still shorthanded after the terror campaign of the land pirates, they could use good men. When this charade concluded, Scott wondered if Murdoch would be willing to give him a job—if the young man would stay on despite his upcoming defeat.

At the house, Scott could see Murdoch had suffered through a far less pleasant outing. Sánchez was still talking about “the young Juanito” and “the beautiful María,” and the poor host looked ready to take his cane to the loudmouth. As for the return of the missing family member, a solemn shake of the head from Teresa told him that Johnny had not yet arrived.

Murdoch couldn’t get rid of Sánchez fast enough as he suggested the men go clean up for an early supper. Once they were out of earshot, Murdoch grumbled with exasperation, “If Johnny doesn’t kill him, I might.”

Teresa scolded him for making such a poor joke, and he apologized. They compared their sojourns, and, with no useful developments, they retreated to their own preparations for supper.

 

 

As the sun descended to the western hilltops, for the hundredth time Johnny Lancer regretted volunteering for this journey. Teresa had been right. It was too soon for him to travel that far, and he knew she wouldn’t let him forget it. Despite riding the dark, sweet-tempered gaited mare to smooth out his journey a little, his back ached from his healing gunshot wound and pain radiated down his leg. Even with taking a shortcut through the pass to this high cattle trail, from the look of the sun he would be late for supper. Oh, the lecture Teresa would give him!

Yet, for all the grief that awaited him, he felt an unfamiliar satisfaction with this painful journey. It had been a long time since anyone had missed him. It was nice to be worried about. For five years he had only companions and allies. They might be concerned about him, but none ever truly worried. Ever since Rafael got his leg shot up and retired to that monastery, Johnny had ridden alone in life. Only occasionally did he team up with others. It had suited him. Staying here, in one place, with responsibilities and obligations and chores he didn’t like, had been quite a turnaround. But even with all the nagging, pestering, arguments, and complications of having to answer to others, he had to admit he liked this better.

When he reached the curve of the last hill, he could see the house in the distance. He’d surprised himself by how quickly he got used to the idea of “home.” Even when he was living with his mother, they moved often enough that “home” was a word that had no real meaning. He used it for where they were living, for a while. The longest they stayed anywhere was two years in Paso del Norte, but he never thought of it as home. When he first met El Halcón—Rafael—and they went back there in search of his mother, he felt nothing for the place beyond unpleasant memories that clung like dust in his mouth. Funny how seeing that hacienda up ahead, resting comfortably in the middle of the valley like that painting he’d seen once of the fancy lady reclining on a sofa, could after only a few weeks make him feel something so strange and warm and…something nice. He could feel the word, but he couldn’t think of it. Scott would know. He was a walking dictionary. Having a brother like Scott was almost as good as going to school.

The last mile took much too long. When he reached level ground, he urged his horse into her ambling gait, but it was too much for his back and he had to give up and let her return to a slow walk. As he watched the house lamps light up one by one, he wanted to charge up to the house and startle everyone, but he’d only hurt his back to the point of not being able to hide it from Teresa, and Murdoch would scold him for bringing in his horse all lathered up and making extra work for the hand who would have to cool her down before stabling her. He sighed. What had he just been thinking about how all the annoyances were worth it?

He could smell supper before he reached the out buildings, but the aroma was cold now. He’d missed the meal. He hoped they’d saved something for him. The housekeeper had made something Mexican, not a common menu in this house, and his mouth was watering. What a cruel trick!

As he approached the front portico, he could smell smoke from a cigarillo. A guest—that explained the special menu. He saw someone appear from behind a pillar. With the lamp behind the guest, Johnny couldn’t see his face clearly, but he could read the sudden alarm in his movements as he turned to face him. By instinct, Johnny stopped his horse just outside the reach of the lamp’s light.

“Who’s there?” came a young man’s voice. The words were English, but the voice was Mexican.

Johnny said nothing, waiting for his eyes to adjust so he could get a good look at this stranger.

“Who’s there?” he asked again, this time in Spanish.

In English, but drifting into the Texas rhythms he had picked up during his travels there, he said, “Just a traveler. Who are you?”

“John Lancer.”

Johnny didn’t move. With a glance, he sized up the stranger and the situation. No gun—not a sentry. He stood in full view, the light behind him—not a criminal. Nothing out of place—house safe. Cheap tobacco—not someone important. Murdoch had never mentioned family here, only people back in Scotland. In short—confusing, but not alarming.

“What do you want?” John Lancer asked.

By instinct, Johnny fell back into his slow, reveal-nothing way of talking to strangers. “Well, I was just passing….”

The front door opened, casting a broad swath of light on the portico and ground before the house. Johnny blinked in the brightness, but he recognized Scott’s outline as he came through the door. He stood next to John Lancer, glancing back and forth between the two with uncertainty. The light now shining on the stranger, Johnny saw a familiar reaction as the young man stared at him, his mouth falling open with dismay. Johnny might not know who the visitor was, but the visitor knew who he was.

“Um, hello,” Scott said, still glancing back and forth between the two.

Johnny knew explanations would have to wait. “I was just telling this fellow that I happened to see your spread here, and I wondered if you might need a wrangler.”

Scott glanced at the visitor, who had tried hard to hide his reaction to seeing Johnny. “Well,” “Boston” said, collecting himself, “my father is the one who does the hiring. Uh, what’s your name?”

“Juanito Morales.”

Scott said, “You stay here, and I’ll go get….”

A long shadow reached out across the portico to the feet of Johnny’s horse. Murdoch stood in the doorway, as unsure as Scott had been moments ago. He looked at Scott, a question on his face.

Scott said, “Murdoch, this is Juanito Morales. He wanted to know if we’re hiring.”

Murdoch stood a little taller as he thought, then glanced back into the house. “There’s always room for a good hand. Have you worked with cattle before?”

Johnny nodded. His father and brother looked confused and uncertain, but not afraid. He would keep playing along. “Horses mostly, but I’ve done my share of wrestling cattle.”

Murdoch said, “Let’s talk in the morning. Why don’t you spend the night in the bunkhouse?”

Scott said quickly, “No, the bunkhouse is full. Maybe he can stay with….”

Murdoch nodded, scrutinizing Scott, apparently agreeing with the lie about the half-empty bunkhouse without understanding why he should. “Of course. I forgot.” He pointed off in the direction of the homes for the married hands. “Go down that road about a quarter mile. The first house belongs to one of my top men. Toledano. Go see him. He’ll put you up for the night.”

A sharp yelp from the stranger made them all jump, and Johnny’s hand was instantly on his gun. The stranger dropped his cigarillo stub and sucked on his finger. He had been so distracted, he must not have noticed it burn down to his fingertips. His eyes grew even larger as he regarded Johnny’s hand on his holstered gun. He muttered an apology.

Behind Murdoch, Johnny saw a man in the hallway. He didn’t recognize the man’s outline, and, in a pose of ease as he dusted something off his pants leg, the second stranger made no move to join the group outside.

Johnny said to his father and brother, “Sorry to disturb you. I’ll come by in the morning.” He nodded and turned his horse to take the road to Toledano’s place. He held the mare at a slow, shuffling walk, keeping his ears tuned to the sounds behind him, but all he heard was Murdoch inviting the others to come back into the house. He heard the door close as the porch fell back into half-darkness.

Johnny rode on in silence. Toledano sure as hell better know what was going on.

 

 

“I tell you, it was Johnny Madrid!”

In an emphatic whisper, Felipe tried in vain to make his point to Rodrigo Sánchez, who stood before the mirror in his room and worked to hide the frayed edge of his jacket’s lapel. “Last July, in Nogales, three pistoleros tried to ambush him and a compadre in a cantina where my segundo and I were eating. They filled the place with bullets—they didn’t care how many others they killed—but before we could even think about flying under a table, or his compadre could pull out his gun, he killed all three—with three shots.”

Not taking his eyes off his reflection, Sánchez said, “You exaggerate, my excitable young friend.”

“I do not. I was there. I saw him.” Frustrated at this fool’s willful disbelief, he turned away and paced around the room. “Now so many things make sense. The vaqueros waiting on the road all day. Why they’ve been keeping us here without doing anything. ¡Dios Mío! Why have they brought a killer here? I tell you, you idiot, he’s here to kill us!”

“If they hired him, why would he give a false name? Also, how would they find him so quickly? And you forget, killers like Johnny Madrid cost a lot of money. Why would they waste so much for so feeble an offense? No, your story is unreasonable. They have no need to kill us. At worst, they will show us the door.” He gave up on his lapel. “In the darkness, your fear saw something—someone—that was not real. Be brave, John Lancer. Victory is within reach.”

Felipe wanted to leave. Whatever riches might be gained, this was not worth it. But without a horse of his own, he could not go. If he stole a horse, they would have every right to kill him. He closed his eyes. Dios Mío, please save me. I will never do anything bad ever again.

 

 

Johnny sat in quiet bafflement at the tidy home’s dining table as Francisco Toledano’s wife and youngest daughter cleared away the dishes. Mother and daughter, both named Guadalupe, were honored to have the pátron’s son stay with them, and they expressed their delight at his gratitude for the delicious leftovers from their modest supper. Johnny felt sorry for people who couldn’t feel the deep satisfaction and love contained in a bowl of perfectly cooked beans and rice.

That love and satisfaction helped balance out the disturbing emptiness left behind by Toledano’s words. An imposter had showed up at the ranch, claiming to be him, but he and his companion hadn’t been sent packing. Why were they guests in the house while he had been sent to stay with Murdoch’s most trusted vaquero? That seemed ungrateful, as he thought of Francisco Toledano and Guadalupe Villanueva as family, and Johnny felt comfort and peace in these pleasant surroundings. But someone else was in his home, in his place. Toledano could tell Johnny all the what, but he couldn’t explain even the smallest part of the why.

“I’m sure Señor Murdoch has an excellent reason for this,” the faithful Toledano had said more than once. “You know he does not always do the best at explaining, but his reasons are sound.”

A soft but urgent knock on the front door put all of them on alert, and when Toledano opened the door, no one was happier than Johnny to see Scott in the doorway. As Johnny stood, Scott slipped inside and closed the door behind him. “Sorry, brother, I only have a few minutes before I’ll be missed.”

“Would you please tell me what the hell this is all about?”

“Two men showed up yesterday. One claimed to be you, the other said he was the one who found him.”

“Why are they still here?”

Scott glanced at a vacant chair at the dining table. “It’s a little complicated.”

“A little?” Johnny replied with enough heat to make all of the others uncomfortable. Scott sat as Johnny continued, “Who is he? Unless he’s me, he should’ve been out on his ass before he had a chance to sit down!”

Young Guadalupe giggled as her mother steered her out of the room.

“And what was that about the bunkhouse being full? There are dozens of empty bunks in there.”

“There are a couple of hands who don’t know how to keep their mouths shut. But that’s not important right now.” Scott patted the table in front of where Johnny had been sitting. With a sullen glower, Johnny returned to his chair.

“First, I want you to promise you won’t lose your temper.”

“Like hell I will.”

“Promise.”

“No.”

“Then you’re going to have to stay in this house until you do.” He glanced at Toledano. “Sorry.” The vaquero offered an understanding shrug.

Johnny simmered, then, ever so slowly, calmed himself. He knew Scott didn’t make a show of it, but he could be just as stubborn as the rest of them. “All right.”

“All right.” He thought as he took a long, deep breath. “The other man, who isn’t pretending to be you…is Rodrigo Sánchez.”

Johnny felt every ounce of emotion leave his body. He should have known that bastard wouldn’t miss one last opportunity to stick a knife in him.

He realized he had shown too much when he saw Scott’s alarm. Teresa must have put everything together and told them.

“Johnny, you can’t kill him.”

“Sure, I can.”

“No. It’s…it seems….”

Johnny had never seen Scott at a loss for words. His concern grew.

Scott gave up. “It seems he didn’t kill your mother. She may be alive. At least she was eight years ago.”

For a moment, Johnny sat in stunned silence, but then the years of hatred whispered in his ear. “Did he tell you that?”

“No. Well, not in so many words. But in the report Murdoch got from the Pinkerton agents, your uncle in Matamoros said she was alive at the time you visited him.”

Johnny said nothing as his mind spun. His mother, alive! How long had Murdoch known this? Why hadn’t he told him? Did he know where she was? Had he sent for her? His uncle had recognized him! Why didn’t he say anything? If his uncle lied to Johnny, he could have lied to the Pinkertons. Where was she? Did his uncle know where she was? She had gotten away from Rodrigo. Had she tried to find him? Did she know about him? Did she know what kind of a man her son had become?

The flurry of thoughts propelled him to get up without realizing it and start to pace around the room. One thing was clear, however.

Scott insisted, “So, promise me you won’t kill him.”

“I won’t kill him.”

Scott nodded with relief and stood.

“Right away.”

Scott glared. “Johnny….”

“Aren’t you due back at the house?”

“Do not kill him.”

“I won’t, I won’t,” he said in shallow, placating tones, leading his brother to the door and opening it.

Scott stepped out into the night. He looked back at his brother, waiting for the rest of his statement.

“Not until he tells me the truth. All of it.”

Scott fumed.

Johnny closed the door.

Toledano said nothing as Johnny returned to the table. The vaquero’s wife appeared and poured him a cup of tea with cinnamon. He sat in sullen silence as Toledano tried to distract him with questions about his trip to Stockton, how soon before the bull would be delivered, and half a dozen other minor topics.

Johnny had to find out what was going on in the house. Scott didn’t know enough to answer all his questions. Even if Johnny asked Murdoch, the man wouldn’t tell him. Murdoch treated the world like a high-stakes poker game, hiding everything he could as if his life depended on it. Toledano was the only one on the ranch who had been with Murdoch from the beginning. If anyone knew what the old man was thinking, it would be this wise, humble vaquero. But Johnny played poker, too, and he didn’t want to show his cards until the right time. He would ask Toledano later; for now, he would do his own investigating.

He answered a few of the vaquero’s questions—the trip had been uneventful, the bull would be delivered next week by Washburn himself, because he wanted to visit his friend Murdoch who hadn’t been up to making the trip. Johnny stood and stretched as if he were tired, making his back twinge. He said he needed to work out a few kinks from the day’s ride. With an apology to Señora Villanueva for his earlier outburst, and ignoring the vaquero’s grim look of concern, he went outside.

Johnny stood on the home’s front porch and breathed in the sweet, warm air. A light breeze moved a small windchime of twine and little bells under the porch’s eave. He looked up at the stars with the intention of letting his eyes adjust to the darkness, but the door opened and Toledano appeared, closing the door behind him. Johnny should have known better than to think the man would simply let him leave. Toledano knew the father, and he had started figuring out the sons. “Señor Johnny,” he said in his kind, knowing way, “I think the night is not the best place for you. Your back will hurt more in the morning.”

“Who said my back hurt?”

Even in the darkness, Johnny could see the man’s small smile. “You did, every time you moved. Please come inside. We’ll build up the fire for you. My young Guadalupe is quite fond of checkers. I’m certain she will enjoy challenging you.”

Johnny appreciated his efforts, but his gaze kept trailing to the house in the distance. He had to know what was happening.

“Señor Johnny, I ask you not to go. Please, trust your father.”

He thought for a few moments. “Look, I…I’m grateful for what you’re saying. But I know Rodrigo. If that man is my stepfather, I know what kind of person he is. I don’t understand what game Scott and Murdoch are playing. But I know for Rodrigo it isn’t a game. I have to see what he’s doing. I hope you understand.”

Toledano shrugged, not wanting to admit defeat.

“Look,” Johnny continued, “I promise I’ll be back in an hour. And I won’t kill him. At least not tonight.”

The vaquero said with a steady gaze at the young man, “Remember that sometimes what a boy craves is not so satisfying to a grown man.”

Johnny nodded, not acknowledging the wisdom of his words, and he stepped off the porch into the night.

Breathing in the comforting aroma of herbs and tassling corn as he passed the families’ communal garden, Johnny tried to focus his mind on Rodrigo, but his thoughts kept returning to his mother. Had she really been alive when he and Rafael visited his uncle? If so, why had his uncle said nothing? Why didn’t he tell the two of them where she was so they could find her? Where had she been? Had Rodrigo been holding her hostage somewhere? Or had she already gotten free from him? And how long had Murdoch known about this without telling him?

In the weeks since he and Scott had arrived at Lancer, they had started to become a family. He didn’t share the fatalistic ideas of so many of his old comrades, as he believed they created their own fates, and yet it did seem like there was some sort of higher power involved with how quickly they had learned to work together and rely on each other. Now he questioned every bit of that closeness he had felt. Murdoch knew, and he hadn’t said a word. Did the old man think he’d take off and go find her? He stumbled on a rut in the road and tweaked his back, and he spat out a curse. Okay, maybe he would do that. But maybe she would come back with him. And if Murdoch really did love her, as Teresa said, maybe Murdoch would be glad for him to get her. Maybe his mother felt ashamed about making a stupid decision and thought no one would forgive her. Maybe he could convince her that it would be okay for her to return. Maybe she still loved Murdoch, and maybe he still loved her, or maybe they’d learn to love each other all over again.

As he reached the open ground surrounding the house, he felt embarrassed about thinking like a child. He was building plans on a lot of maybes. What was it Father Mateo used to say about when you were a child it was okay to be a child, but when you grew up, you had to leave childish things behind and be a man…? It was funny how sometimes what Toledano said reminded him of the priest.

He reached the house without being seen, and he approached the portico between the side windows of the great room. No one had drawn the curtains, and he could see Teresa sitting in her favorite spot before the fireplace. He could also see the back of someone’s head as he sat facing her—it looked like “John Lancer.” Staying in the shadows, he stood against the wall next to the window frame and listened.

He heard a too-familiar voice, and the night air turned cold.

Rodrigo.

The man was talking about something he had done. How Johnny had learned to hate the sound of that man’s voice and his endless bragging. He was sorry he’d promised not to kill him tonight.

He stepped away from the wall, out of the reach of the light through the window, and moved around to see the others through the large window behind Murdoch’s imposing public desk. Rodrigo had his back to the window. Typical—the man never thought ahead or considered potential problems until they hit him in the face. Murdoch had his feet up on the stool. He tapped the side of his boot with his cane. Maybe he was pretending his boot was Rodrigo’s head. Scott was frowning at his glass of brandy. They both looked miserable. Why were they putting up with the man? For a moment, he wondered if they were softening him up before Johnny took him down. No, those two didn’t play those games.

He moved closer to the window again to listen in, but he stepped on a small fallen branch. The crisp snap echoed in the quiet night. “John Lancer” perked up, and Johnny stepped back into the darkness as the young man jumped to his feet and came to the window. He peered out as the others looked at him. Too far from cover to hide, Johnny stood still in the darkness and hoped the intruder couldn’t see him from the bright room.

As the young man looked out into the night, Johnny could get a better look at him. He looked half-Anglo, and he could make out enough similarities that he could understand why Rodrigo would try to pass this man off as him. Seeing the imposter on the inside, while he had to stay away from his own house, made him angrier. He didn’t even care that this probably wasn’t the imposter’s idea. He was looking forward to tossing him out.

“John Lancer” continued looking out at the night, and then he looked in Johnny’s direction. The imposter wasn’t carrying a gun, but Johnny had his hand over his holster out of habit. The other man squinted, then he stared. Johnny knew he’d been seen. He was angry enough that he didn’t have to work on his cold glare. He gazed at the imposter, not moving a muscle.

With wide eyes, the man continued to stare at Johnny, almost as if he couldn’t move. Suddenly he twitched and looked back over his shoulder. Someone must have spoken to him. Johnny took the moment to step back into the night. The imposter looked out again, and Scott appeared next to him, looking out and then shaking his head.

Johnny turned away and didn’t look back.

 

 

“What happened?”

Teresa stopped Scott before he could leave the great room after the guests retired. Murdoch had left a half hour earlier, complaining about his back, but Teresa knew the real source of his discomfort had been having to talk—well, listen—to the senior member of the visiting duo. She wanted this ridiculous farce to end as soon as possible, and she still wanted the men to be sent away before Johnny had a chance to meet Sánchez again. She didn’t share their belief that a day or two of waiting would calm him down enough to avoid violence. Scott’s preoccupation during the evening increased her worries about how it would end.

“He promised not to kill Rodrigo,” Scott replied.

She had learned enough of his mannerisms to know he had shared the truth, but only about ten percent of it. “Did you tell him about his mother?”

He nodded, suddenly busying himself with gathering up the brandy glasses.

“And?”

He looked at the glassware in his hands, then took a thoughtful breath. “I saw why people flinch when they hear the name Johnny Madrid.”

She had to do something. It was late to go to the Toledanos’ house, but they would understand.

Scott read her urgency and set down the glasses, taking a gentle but firm grasp of her arm. “Teresa, he has to work this out for himself. The Army taught me about how different men deal with trouble. I’ve seen people like Johnny. He has to handle this in his own time, and in his own way. You can’t force something on him, and trying to make him talk about it is only going to make matters worse. The best thing—the only thing—you can do for him is be there when he’s ready. Until then, you’re just going to have to trust him.”

“Is that what you and Murdoch are doing? I don’t see how keeping these men here, and forcing Johnny to stay out of his own house, is helping. You’re telling him you don’t trust him.”

Scott thought for a long moment. “Maybe you’re right. And the truth is maybe I don’t trust him, not completely. Not yet.”

She glowered. “So, he has to pass a test before you’ll accept him as a full and equal partner. And what test did you pass in order to become his judge?” She marched out of the room.

Teresa hesitated by the front door, and then she went outside. She walked into the grassy verge by the side of the great room, looking out into the blackness. In a loud whisper, she called, “Johnny? Are you there?” When the imposter had gone to the window, saying he had seen something, and then he had turned away with such fright, Teresa knew Johnny had been out here. None of the others said a word, but she imagined they knew it, too. “Johnny?”

Silence. She looked in the direction of the married hands’ homes. No lights shone in the night. It was too late for her to visit. Everyone had turned in, resting up for the new day. Slowly, she walked back to the house’s front door. Would she even sleep tonight?

 

 

“I would like to borrow your carriage in the morning.” A solemn Felipe looked out the window of Rodrigo’s room as he stood with his back to the closed door.

Rodrigo shook his head. Apparently, he had been mistaken when he thought this youngster had the mettle to accept this challenge. “You would like to run away, you mean.”

“No.”

The boy looked positively morbid. He would need an extra-long speech of encouragement this evening. Whatever had frightened him out on the lawn certainly drained the manhood from him.

“I will find out from the vaqueros the location of the nearest church,” Felipe explained. “I need to make my confession so I can face my end prepared.”

Rodrigo rolled his eyes at the boy’s melodramatic speech.

Felipe glared at him. “You should do the same. I’m certain you have many more sins to confess than I do.”

The man shook his head. “Johnny Madrid, Johnny Madrid. So, you saw him lurking out in the bushes this evening, did you? Is he also hiding under my chair?”

Felipe ignored his mocking tone. “I think now you are right about one thing. I don’t think Señor Lancer hired him. I think Madrid has been following you. He caught up with us when we stopped.”

Rodrigo scoffed. “You are dreaming! Who would want to….” A cold thought crept into the back of his mind. No, she wouldn’t…not after all this time. No. Impossible.

Felipe’s lips curled into a small smile. “So, there is someone who would be happy to see you dead.”

He had gathered himself back into his usual confident dignity. “You may not borrow the carriage. You may attend church with the vaqueros on Sunday. Then you can stand in line for the confessional.”

Felipe looked out the window again, then crossed himself. “After seeing his eyes, I pray I live until Sunday.”

 

 

Early the next morning, as the low, gray sky snagged on the hilltops and occasional wisps of drizzle passed through the valley, Cipriano and Toledano agreed that they couldn’t count on every hand pretending not to recognize Johnny. They decided that Toledano and Johnny would work the hills searching for heifers and cows who had gone off to drop their calves overnight. In keeping with his story of being a new hand named Juanito Morales, Johnny would ride a horse from the remuda instead of his favorite, Barranca.

After sleeping in a bedroll by the hearth, Johnny started the day more agitated than when he’d gone to bed. Despite Toledano’s efforts, Johnny spoke little during breakfast, and he could see the husband and wife exchanging many serious glances during the meal.

Johnny was an inattentive companion for the ride out to the upper pastures. All he could think about was what Scott had said about the Pinkerton report, and his mother, and how long Murdoch had known about all of this without telling him. Maybe his father thought he wouldn’t want to know, or maybe he thought he would say something when Johnny was recovered from his gunshot wound, but the more excuses Johnny made for Murdoch, the more they felt like excuses. He even wondered if Murdoch would have told him about the Pinkerton report if the situation had not been forced by the two visitors. He stayed lost in his thoughts until they found the first cow and her new calf, and then he fell back into the rhythms of the job and went to work.

The pair had only found the one cow-calf pair when they spotted two riders coming up the slope towards them. Johnny recognized Danny Cook, one of the new ranch hands, but he was surprised to see him accompanied by “John Lancer.” Johnny tried to read the stranger’s face as they approached, but all he could see was grim resolve. Cook moved his hand up to give Johnny a salute of respect, then caught himself and turned it into a friendly wave to Toledano. Everyone noticed the gesture, but, to Johnny’s surprise, the imposter didn’t react.

Cook explained that “John” had asked to talk with the new hand, and the visitor added, “Alone.”

Toledano gave Johnny a look of concern—more care than fear—and then nodded for Cook to move off to the side with him. They directed their horses to the nearby water hole, where they dismounted to talk.

The imposter leaned forward on the pommel of his saddle in a confidential pose, even though the others were too far away to hear them. “Señor Madrid,” he said in Spanish using a confessional tone, “I am certain you do not remember me. I was in that cantina in Nogales last summer when you killed those three pistoleros. You saved my life, and that of many others there. I thank you for that.”

Johnny remembered that afternoon with painful clarity. Rafael had warned him about the first time his life as a pistolero would endanger ordinary people, and that how he responded would show him his true self. When he and Rafael rode together, the wise man had always managed to steer them away from the reckless patróns who cared nothing about others, and, after Rafael left, Johnny followed his mentor’s techniques and enjoyed mostly good luck. The terrible moment came when his pal Isham talked him into signing on for “easy work and even better pay” to protect a minor Sonoran ranchero locked in a bitter water dispute with more powerful neighbors. Johnny and Isham blew up an earthen dam the others had built to block a stream that flowed into their patrón’s land—Isham had always wanted to play with dynamite, and as usual he’d gone a little too far—and the explosion restored the stream’s flow, but the banks collapsed and made the precious water inaccessible to the neighbor’s cattle.

Isham wanted to celebrate with a good meal in town, but three of the neighbor’s hired guns tracked them down. He learned later that the trio had been on guard duty at the dam, and their employer blamed them for the setback and fired them without pay. Johnny could still hear the terrified cries as the men burst into the crowded cantina, bellowing for revenge and shooting even before they came through the door. Johnny’s right side faced the entrance, and he had a clear line between his holster and the door. His instincts kicked in so fast that he didn’t even remember drawing, only firing. In moments, all three of the gunmen lay dying in the entryway. Amid the wails and thunder of people fleeing, Johnny heard Isham’s laugh when some of the customers tripped over the bodies in their panicked dash out the door. For the rest of the day, all Johnny could think about was how many people would have died if he hadn’t sat in that exact chair.

As for the rancheros, faced with the grim reality of spilled blood, even if it was only hired, they quickly patched together a peace treaty and dispersed their armies of professionals. Isham headed north, while Johnny went east to Texas, where he signed on for an even worse job, and from there he drifted back to Mexico, where he eventually went to the aid of the péons in the failed uprising that nearly cost him his life.

He studied the imposter. His words were accurate—he had no memory of him. This fellow thought Johnny had saved his life. He didn’t realize Johnny was the one who’d put him in danger.

The young man said, “And I’d like you to know, even if you have been hired to do so, you don’t need to kill me. There’s nothing to be gained. I am humiliated already. I would have left when I saw you, but I came in Sánchez’s carriage and I have no way to leave without stealing a horse. I do not wish to be tracked down and hanged, so I’ve stayed and waited for your justice.”

Johnny had to admit the kid had guts. “Why did you come here?”

After glancing down the slope towards the house, he said, “Sánchez said an old gringo was looking for his son, who was surely dead, and since I looked like him, I could make an old man happy and maybe get some money.” He shook his head. “I think Sánchez believed the old man would give me this estancia.”

“Do you still want the money?”

The imposter shook his head. “I want to go home. Even if it means Rita won’t marry me. I’ll find someone who thinks a poor vaquero is good enough.”

Johnny let out a breath as he thought. He felt embarrassed about how angry he’d been at this frightened kid. “What’s your name?”

“Felipe—Flores.”

 “Who’s your patrón?”

“Enrique Rojas.”

Johnny looked down the hill at the house. He still had most of the fifty dollars Murdoch had given him for his trip to Stockton. He regarded Felipe’s horse. It was one of their best stock animals. This was going to make Murdoch angry, but he only owned a third of it.

He fished the coins out of his pocket, then flipped them one at a time to the surprised young man. “That ought to get you home.” He pointed his chin at the horse. “Take good care of that animal. And you tell Enrique Rojas I said he should give you your old job back.”

Felipe gaped. “But this horse…I cannot….”

Johnny shook his head. “I’ll square it with them. Somehow.”

Felipe stared at him, and then his face crumbled and he sobbed.

Toledano and Cook looked up from their conversation at the unexpected sound.

Johnny felt uncomfortable at the man’s outburst, and he was grateful when Felipe gathered himself. Wiping his eyes on his jacket’s sleeve, he said, “This is the second time you have saved my life.”

Johnny told him how to take a couple hours off his journey, and avoid going past the house and possibly running into Sánchez, by following the cattle trail behind them through the pass to the road south.

Felipe beamed at him. “I am forever in your debt, Señor Madrid.”

Johnny nodded. “Just get home safe. …And it’s not Madrid. Not anymore. It’s Lancer.”

Felipe’s brow tightened in confusion, and then he stared at his benefactor, stunned. He gestured to the distant house. “…Sánchez is your.…”

Johnny nodded. “Yeah.”

“Madre de Díos,” Felipe muttered. He crossed himself, then turned his horse in the direction of the cattle trail through the hills. He said in a hoarse whisper, “Thank you, Señor Lancer. Thank you.” He spurred his new horse and dashed up the trail, not looking back.

Toledano and Cook watched the young man flee, then looked at Johnny. They mounted their horses and joined him. Toledano asked, “Where has he gone, Señor Johnny?”

“Home.”

Cook frowned, looking ready to pursue him. “But that’s a Lancer horse.”

Johnny shook his head. “It’s a Flores horse now.”

While Cook looked baffled, Toledano had a small smile on his face, and Johnny realized he was smiling, too, the first time in days. Too bad it wouldn’t last.

 

 

If Scott didn’t wring Sánchez’s neck by the end of the day, it would be proof that the Age of Miracles had not ended.

Taking his turn at being the man’s host meant yet another tour of the ranch, and, as the visitor was no horseman, that involved a ride in the one-horse shay because its fold-up top would protect them from the unseasonable mists. That also meant sitting much too close to the man who seemed incapable of being quiet for more than thirty seconds. Today’s soliloquy centered on the beauties of Mexico and what an incredibly respectable young man John Lancer—“your fine brother”—had become. Sánchez could not take credit for the glories of his homeland, but he did assign to himself more than the lion’s share of responsibility for John, standing in as an authority figure “in the absence of your fine father.” He quoted praise of the young man that Murdoch most assuredly had not said and added how proud he felt to see “your family line carried on with such grace!”

In truth, Scott listened very little to the passenger. Instead, he spent most of the journey wrestling with Teresa’s question about why he felt he had the right to be Johnny’s judge. He had made great use of rationalizations about Johnny’s “under-supervised” childhood and his lawless career in contrast with his own exemplary and privileged upbringing, but the time had come to face the truth.

He had also decided that tonight Johnny should come home for supper and face the guests. He concluded that after a day of work, Johnny would have calmed down enough to deal reasonably with this man, and his long-awaited reunion would not turn into a fistfight. As soon as he got Sánchez settled in the house, he would find Johnny, assess his mood, and ease him into the idea of meeting Sánchez. Knowing his brother, that meeting would be noisy, but Scott felt confident that, with the proper groundwork, this could be resolved with some dignity.

Scott ended the excursion early to escape the damp day and be free of the liar. He stopped the buggy at the house’s front door and all but leaped out. He saw Cook leaving the house and asked him to take care of the horse. Scott made it to the front door just as Sánchez was about to let himself in as if he lived there.

Sánchez stood in the front entryway with a sigh of high satisfaction, patting his chest and wondering aloud if a light midafternoon meal might be had. Knowing that the man had eaten his fill and then some at lunch, Scott downplayed the idea. He hoped the guest would choose a siesta, but instead he walked to the great room. Teresa came into the entryway just as Sánchez disappeared through the threshold. Scott gave her a long-suffering shake of his head, and she replied with a knowing smirk. “How was the tour?”

“I can’t take much more of this.”

Her smirk grew into an impish smile as she turned towards the kitchen. “Too bad I have to help with—”

“—Oh, no, you don’t.” Grateful that her hard feelings from the night before had ebbed, he took her by the shoulders and steered her back in the direction of the great room. “There will be no shirking of duty on my watch. We will all suffer together.”

She tried to suppress a laugh as he guided her through the great room’s doorway.

A pleasant fire combatted the chilly damp of the day, and Scott noticed someone slouching in Murdoch’s leather chair in front of the fireplace. A bit of dark hair could be seen above the chair’s back, so Scott knew his father was safely elsewhere and would be spared another conversation with their guest, at least for now.

Sánchez said to the person in the chair, “My dear young friend, I do not believe you should be sitting in your father’s chair without permission. Not until you are fully accepted, I mean.”

When the person in the chair didn’t respond, Scott felt a ripple of dread. Perhaps it was a trick of the cold light, but that hair looked darker than that of their young guest. The man’s stillness was both strange…and yet familiar. He and Teresa glanced at each other, and he could see she shared his concern.

Sánchez repeated, speaking more emphatically, “John, please, I ask you to show respect for your father.”

A voice Scott knew well came from the other side of the chair: “Felipe showed his respect by leaving.”

Scott shuddered, and with a flash of fear Teresa grasped Scott’s arm.

Sánchez recoiled, then did his best to gather himself. “Who is Felipe?”

The figure got up slowly from the chair and turned. Not acknowledging the others, Johnny stood before the fire and regarded Sánchez with cold eyes. Johnny had on his gun belt, and his hand rested on the holster.

Sánchez frowned. “Who are you?”

Johnny said in a soft, yet menacing, tone, “I heard you were looking for me. Looks like you found me.”

Sánchez stared and examined him, then his face bloomed with terror. His legs buckled, and he dropped to his hands and knees on the large rug. Ragged groans erupted from his lungs.

Johnny didn’t move. “You don’t look too happy to see me, Rodrigo.”

“Johnny,” Scott said in a steady, warning tone, trying to soothe his brother and hide his alarm. He failed on both counts.

Unnaturally still, Johnny said to the helpless man before him, “I’ve waited a long time for this moment.”

The man rasped as his lungs rebelled. He muttered something in Spanish that sounded like a question.

Johnny replied, “Don’t be rude to your hosts, Rodrigo. Talk in English. I remember what you’d do to me when you said I didn’t show the proper respect.”

The man tried to gather himself as he didn’t quite look up at his tormenter. “Is it true…are you Johnny Madrid?”

The sick feeling in Scott’s stomach grew. He had seen more than his share of this terrible game of power and helplessness during the war, and he knew how it usually ended. “Johnny, stop it. You’ve won.”

His brother ignored him, never taking his eyes off his hated stepfather.

The man managed to say, “Did your mother hire you to kill me?”

Johnny seemed surprised by the question, but only for a moment. “Where is she?”

“I do not know.”

“Where is she!?” he demanded.

Sánchez pushed back and tried to stand, but his legs wouldn’t support him. He dropped back and sat on the floor like a child. “I haven’t seen her since you ran away.”

“Since I what?”

The man made a feeble gesture with his hand. “Since you left.”

The cold steel in Johnny’s eyes gave way to a rush of rage. “Tell the truth for the first time in your whole God damned life!”

Sánchez closed his eyes. “Since I left you in that village.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Scott saw Teresa look at him. He gave her a glance but returned his attention to his brother.

Sánchez continued, “When I returned, she was angry. More than I had ever seen her. I went back to find you. But you were gone. I traveled to all the villages around, but you were not there. I went back. I hoped you had returned. You must believe me. I did. But…. She said she would kill me. Then she left. I have not seen her since that day. I swear to you, Juanito. I have not seen her. I do not know where she is.”

Scott could see the abandoned little boy in his brother as he shouted at the man, “I don’t believe you!”

“Johnny, stop it,” Murdoch’s command rumbled into the room as he stood in the great room’s arched entryway. “He’s not worth it.”

Johnny glared at him. “Is my mother worth it?”

Scott wanted Murdoch to shut up. His heart might be in the right place, but he would only make this terrible situation worse.

Murdoch said to his younger son, “There’s a better way. Use your head, boy.”

Johnny returned his attention to the lump of the man on the floor. With great slowness, he removed his pistol from its holster.

Sánchez stared at the weapon and made a brief wailing sound as perspiration dripped from his face. Helpless, he waited for the inevitable.

Scott watched his brother with dread, but something strange happened. The man folding up and surrendering seemed to take the fire out of Johnny. Still not pointing the gun at him, merely holding it at his side, he stared at the shivering Sánchez as if seeing him for the first time. “People like you,” he started, then rethought. “A big, brave man who threatens children, because you’re afraid of everyone else. I’m sick of people like you.” He regarded the silent braggart for another few moments, and Scott tried not to show his relief as he saw his brother ease out of his killer’s stance. “Rodrigo, if you ever, ever come here again….” He turned his gun sideways, showing it to the man in a threat more eloquent than any words.

Blinking with surprise at still being alive, Sánchez looked up at his stepson and nodded, his head bobbing up and down like a toy on a string. “Yes. Sí. Whatever you say. You will never see me again.” He rolled to the side and scrambled on all fours to the doorway, pulling himself up to his feet using the threshold as Murdoch stepped out of his way. He scurried out into the hall and through the front door.

The others began breathing again. Johnny looked at his pistol for a long moment, then slipped it back into its holster. Scott couldn’t tell if he felt disappointed with himself, but Scott could not have been prouder.

Teresa broke from her frozen pose and went to Johnny to give him a hug, but his cool look stopped her. She settled for a kind hand on his arm. He patted her hand without looking at her and turned away to face the fireplace.

Leaning on his cane more heavily than usual, Murdoch came the rest of the way into the room and stood next to Scott as he regarded his younger son. “Cook told me that the impostor left this morning.”

Over his shoulder, Johnny replied with a quiet, “Yeah.”

Almost in spite of himself, Murdoch continued in a stiff voice, “He said the two of you were talking, and then the impostor took off like he was frightened half out of his mind. Did you threaten him, too?”

Scott closed his eyes. Why couldn’t these two men stop baiting each other?

Johnny turned and glared at Murdoch as if he couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. “I gave him forty dollars and one of our best horses. Does that sound like a threat to you?”

Murdoch lowered his head, but, before he could say something, Johnny continued, “Why, did you prefer him to me? Is that why you kept him around?”

A stolid Murdoch countered, “Johnny….”

The younger son had the bit in his teeth and refused to stop. “He was polite, and he was quiet. Nice kid. I’m told he’s a hard worker. Did you like the fact that he didn’t give you any trouble?”

Scott didn’t want to step in between these two again, but he could see his brother ramping up. “Johnny, that’s not why we kept them here.”

“Okay, let me ask you this.” He shifted his gaze between Scott and Murdoch. “What would’ve happened if Rodrigo had showed up before I got here? Would you’ve taken Felipe in? Do you wonder if you got the right one? Maybe I’m an impostor, too.”

Before Scott could think of a mollifying reply, Murdoch did what he seemed to do best around Johnny: “Tell us about Rafael Gutiérrez.”

Scott winced at the question that was tantamount to a challenge. Johnny scowled at their father, then his face went slack as he transformed back into “I don’t care about a damned thing” Johnny Madrid. In a quiet voice he said, “Let me pass a few tests, huh? Then maybe you’ll take a vote on believing me?” Johnny picked up his hat from the table behind the sofa and looked at it as he headed for the great room’s threshold.

Scott could see what Johnny could not, that Murdoch was kicking himself, again. The man seemed destined to make every mistake in his long-delayed lessons in fatherhood. In as neutral a voice as he could muster, the old man asked, “Where are you going?”

Johnny stopped by the archway, then turned and almost looked at him. “I’ll let you know when I get there.” He passed through the threshold and out the front door.

Scott could see the tears welling in Teresa’s eyes. He scowled at Murdoch, who appeared thoughtful but otherwise impossible to read. Scott growled, “For a man who insists on calling the tune, you can be remarkably tone-deaf. Johnny’s tried to meet you partway, but you just can’t budge, can you?”

“Scott, you don’t understand.”

“You’re right, I don’t. Were you ever going to let him read that Pinkerton report?”

“He doesn’t need to know about that right now.”

“He already knows. I told him.”

Murdoch flushed with indignation. “You had no right to tell him.”

Scott countered, “He has every right to read it.”

Murdoch thought as Scott could see his regret fighting with his reluctance to admit that he’d blundered, again. “Maybe you’re right.”

“Of course I’m right. I just hope we’re not too late.”

 

 

When Johnny emerged from the portico, he could hear bursts of frantic activity in the stables accompanied by Rodrigo cursing. The man wasn’t a rider, and he had no skills with carriages, either. As a matter of fact, the only two things he was good at were getting angry and jumping to conclusions. With everything else, he was always two steps behind. Johnny could see that now. Father Mateo was right about putting away your childhood when you became a man. How frightened he used to be of that bully! Frightened and full of hate. Now he could see him for what he really was, just a sad, useless man. Johnny knew he married his mother because he thought she was wealthy; that was his first mistake with Johnny’s family. He hoped this would be his last.

Johnny had no interest in seeing the man again, so he climbed into the saddle of his remuda horse and headed for Toledano’s home. He had a few things there that he would need before he went out to the west pasture to find Barranca. He thought about the few personal items in his bedroom at the hacienda. There was a nice photographic portrait of him and Scott that Murdoch had insisted on after they signed the partnership agreement. No, that wasn’t worth the price of going back to the house. He had his pride. Maybe too much of it, but he was much more of a Delgado than he was a Lancer.

Where would he go first? Matamoros. He wanted to talk with his uncle and get to the bottom of the story he told the Pinkertons. He should stop off in Monterrey afterwards. Rafael would be interested in hearing about the last month. The old gentleman would scold him about turning his back on his family, but Johnny was ready for that. Besides, he probably deserved a scolding.

As he approached the homes of the families, Johnny thought about what he really wanted. He didn’t want to leave. But Murdoch made it impossible for him to stay. Either he was an equal partner, or he was just a hired hand who got to sleep in the house. He stopped his horse in front of Toledano’s home, but he felt no hurry to go inside. He looked back at the hacienda. No one had followed him. He sighed and turned back to the vaquero’s house. It was time to go. That was okay. He’d done lots of things in his life that he didn’t want to do.

As Johnny stepped down out of the saddle, Toledano rode up from the direction of the south pastures. “Señor Johnny, I did not expect to see you here,” he said in Spanish. “I thought you would be at your house. With the young man gone, surely your stepfather has left as well.”

“Yeah, well, some plans don’t turn out the way you expect,” Johnny replied as he tied his horse to the hitch on the house’s front porch post.

Toledano dismounted and walked with him to his front door, confused. He opened the door for Johnny and followed him inside. As Johnny gathered his belongings, the vaquero made quick work of extracting from him the story of what had happened—and that Johnny felt obliged to leave. Johnny could see him thinking and trying to make up his mind about something, and by the time Johnny had finished collecting his few items, Toledano had made up his mind. “Señor Johnny, before you leave, I would like for you to go with me. I want to show you something.”

Johnny knew the man’s sentimental streak and suspected this might be a trick to see Murdoch again. “It’s not in the house, is it?”

“No. It’s in the storage building.”

That caught Johnny by surprise, and, after he packed his gear onto his saddle, he rode with Toledano to the adobe structure behind the stables. As they approached the building, Toledano said, “What I will show you is not supposed to exist. Murdoch ordered me to burn it. But as I still hoped for sons, and now I hope for grandsons, I have kept it hidden. If the occasion should arise for you to discuss this with your father, do not tell him, or I shall be in great trouble.”

They dismounted at the storage building’s side door as Johnny wondered what this dangerous object could be. Toledano led the way past the organized sections of tools and spare tack back to a forgotten section of broken equipment with parts for scavenging and items too worn to use but too good to throw away. Behind stacked lumber, Toledano reached down and produced a small wooden contraption. It looked like the body of a small chair, constructed in two mirrored pieces of side-by-side wood, but the armrests curved out in front and connected to make a barrier. The base was at least eight inches deep. In front, a stout metal latch secured together the two pieces of wood, while the back had a sturdy hinge. Rotted leather straps, some short and some long, dangled from the contraption.

“Your father made this for your first birthday,” Toledano explained as Johnny puzzled over it. The vaquero pried open the stout latch, and the chair halves swung apart on the back hinge, revealing in the bottom a cavity exactly the shape of a saddle horn and pommel. “Can you see? This locked in place over Murdoch’s saddle. The straps held it secure to the horse, and also kept you inside.”

Johnny took the tiny chair from Toledano and examined it, marveling at the design.

“He wanted you to ride with the best, to be at home in the saddle. Your mother,” he shook his head with a tolerant, wistful smile, “she was so worried. ‘He will fall! He will be hurt or killed!’” He gave Johnny a knowing gaze. “My beloved, wise wife says women worry too much because men do not worry enough. Your father made this, so you could ride with him and be safe.”

Johnny tried to imagine Murdoch as a young father, measuring and carving this when his ranch chores were done. “I used it?”

Toledano smiled fondly. “You were never happier than when you were snug in there, riding with your father. Old Domínguez—he was your father’s first segundo—he used to make all of us laugh when he would imitate how you would shriek with joy when your father eased his Sebastian into a canter.”

Johnny smiled lightly at the image. He wished he could remember any of it. But there were other things he was just as glad not to recall. “Do you know why my mother left? And why she took me?”

The vaquero’s smile faded. “My Guadalupe knew her much better than I did, so I must rely on her wisdom.” He thought for a moment, then proceeded with care. “No father ever loved his child more than Murdoch loved you. You must never tell Señor Scott, but I believe he gave you more love because he gave you everything he felt for your brother, too. When you were born, he told me he knew God had forgiven him for sending your brother away. You were his second chance. Most fathers have little interest in their children until they are older. Murdoch wanted to have you with him every moment he could.”

Toledano considered his words. “Guadalupe said once that as a flower needs rain and sunshine, she wondered if your mother needed to be the center of attention. My dear wife never said anything else about her after she left, but I have come to believe it is possible María was jealous of how much Murdoch loved you, and you loved Murdoch. Your mother, perhaps, was afraid that you would love him more than her. So, she took you away from him.”

Johnny struggled with Toledano’s words. This was so contrary to what his mother had said about their being thrown out and what Teresa had said about her running off with a gambler. He knew now that what his mother had said was a lie, and he knew there had to be more to Teresa’s story that she didn’t know. …But could he have been the cause?

Toledano concluded, “Of course, Señor Johnny, how can we know what is in another person’s heart, when we don’t even know what’s in our own? But I do know part of your father died when you and your mother left. For Señora Katherine to die was terrible, but for young Señora María to leave by choice almost destroyed him.”

Johnny doubted the vaquero’s kind statement. His old man didn’t act like a doting, broken-hearted father around him. “How do you know?”

“You see the answer yourself in all the younger brothers and sisters you do not have.”

“What are you two talking about?”

Johnny started at the sound of Scott’s voice. “Boston” approached, regarding them with polite interest. Johnny was grateful they had been speaking in Spanish. He gave his brother a small smile. “Toledano made me promise not to tell you that Murdoch loved me more than he loved you.”

Scott nodded. “It’s good to keep promises,” he said in dry tones. He indicated the small chair that Johnny still held in his hands. “What’s that?”

Johnny shrugged. “Something for Toledano’s first grandson.”

Scott took it from him and examined the rotted leather straps, then said to the vaquero, “I see you planned well in advance.”

Toledano retrieved it from him and put it back behind the lumber.

Johnny said to his brother, “Took you long enough to find me.”

Scott nodded. “First I hid Barranca. I knew you wouldn’t leave without him.”

Johnny responded with a light chuckle. “Yeah.”

“So,” Scott said in an overly casual tone, “We wanted to know if we should set a place for you at supper.”

Johnny looked at where Toledano had hidden the saddle, then at his brother. “You didn’t answer my question. What if I’d showed up late? How do you know you got the right one and I really am a Lancer?”

Scott tried not to smile. “The next time you and Murdoch battle it out for an hour over something two sensible men could settle in five minutes, ask me that question again.”

Johnny smiled, then laughed lightly. “Yeah.” Johnny may have a lot of history to patch up with his father, but at least he had one unshakeable ally. “What’s for supper?”

Scott grinned, and, as they headed for the storage building’s door, he collared his brother in a playful headlock.

 

 

When Scott and Johnny reached the house, Scott hoped Murdoch had made the only sensible decision. They found him in his study, going through several envelopes as he sat at his small, private desk. Murdoch smiled to see his sons together, and Scott hoped his brother could see their father’s relief and joy. But, instead of saying something about his return—which was just as well, considering his record of saying the wrong thing—Murdoch said to his younger son, “I have some papers here that I thought you might like to see.”

He held out two envelopes to Johnny. The larger top one contained the elegantly-printed return address of the Pinkerton Agency. Johnny took the envelopes and looked at the postage cancellation mark on the top one. He frowned. “When did you get this?”

“It arrived the day after you left for Stockton.”

Johnny regarded it for a few moments. Scott wondered if Johnny thought Murdoch had had this for a long time.

Johnny dropped the envelope on the desk and studied the other one.

Murdoch picked it up. “Don’t you want to read this?”

“No. I already know what happened.”

“I thought you might like to know where your friend Rafael ended up.”

Johnny glanced at him. “I know where he is. Who do you think took him to that monastery after he got his leg shot up?” He tapped the other envelope as Murdoch reacted thoughtfully.

Scott beamed. Johnny had answered that final test without a challenge or even a ruffle of ego. There was hope for the boy yet.

Murdoch said, “That other letter is from your uncle in Matamoros. It arrived this morning.”

Johnny said, “It’s addressed to you.”

Murdoch nodded. “He included a small envelope for you, just in case the Pinkertons found you, and you decided to come home.” Murdoch’s voice wobbled a bit on the word “home,” but Johnny didn’t react as he found the note inside and regarded it. “Mine was filled with apologies. I imagine yours is as well.” Murdoch regarded his younger son. “Your uncle is a good man. I hope you’ll read it.”

Johnny tapped the envelope, then asked, “What time is supper?”

Murdoch smiled with relief. Scott regretted that Johnny didn’t look up from the envelope to see it. “Six o’clock, as usual.”

Johnny nodded, then put the small envelope into his jacket pocket. “Call me, okay? I’ll be reading.” He glanced up at Murdoch and Scott, then made a thoughtful turn and left the study.

 

 

Teresa sat before the waning fire in the great room fireplace. What a horrible couple of days, she thought as she looked around the quiet, dark room, and yet somehow they’d survived. Supper had passed without Murdoch saying something challenging or Johnny getting defensive. In fact, they actually seemed to be trying to get along a little better. Maybe they’d realized just how much they had to lose and decided their dignity wasn’t worth the cost. She hoped so, but only time would tell if they would be smarter than stupid male pride.

Scott stuck his head in the great room doorway. “I should have known.” He came into the room. “Teresa, do you know what a pyromaniac is?”

“No.”

“It’s you, with your fascination for fire.”

“I thought women were supposed to keep the home fires burning,” she replied in a playful tone.

Scott looked at the empty leather chair. “No Murdoch?”

She shook her head. “He went to bed early. He hasn’t been sleeping well for the last few days.”

“Who has?” Scott headed for the table and the brandy.

The sound of a light step in the doorway made them both turn to see Johnny enter the room. Scott held up the bottle and a glass in a gesture offering him a drink. Johnny nodded as he joined his brother by the table.

Teresa didn’t know if it was ruder to ask or not ask, but her forthright nature would not let her stay silent. “What did your uncle’s letter say?”

Johnny accepted the glass Scott offered him. He said in a quiet voice, “Like Murdoch said, mostly he apologized about not admitting he recognized me when I visited him.”

“…What about your mother?”

As Scott poured his own drink, Johnny said with quiet reluctance, “He got a letter from her about a month ago. She mentioned possibly marrying a cattleman from Nebraska.”

Cipriano appeared in the great room’s doorway with a question, and Johnny went to him to see if he could help.

With wide eyes, Teresa whispered to Scott, “Johnny’s mother can’t marry anyone. My father said a couple years after she left, Murdoch heard she died, so he never divorced her. They’re still married.”

He glanced at Johnny, who was smiling over something Cipriano had said. In a quiet voice, Scott replied, “Heaven help us all if she ever comes back here.”

Cipriano left, and Johnny returned to the others. Scott held up his drink in the pose of making a toast. “To happiness—may we all find it.” Johnny nodded with a faint smile, and they drank.

Scott glanced at Teresa, then continued, “Towards that end, brother, I owe you an apology.”

“What for?”

“I did you an injustice. I always thought people were a product of their environment and how they were raised. I know I am. And I assumed that you were, too. But I realize now I didn’t allow for your innate....”

Johnny frowned, not knowing that word.

Scott noticed and nodded. “...Your real self to be better than what you went through in your life.”

Johnny shook his head slightly. “It wasn’t all bad. I’ve known some good people.”

Scott gave him a knowing gaze. “Like a gunfighter who became a monk?”

Johnny smiled, then laughed lightly. “He’s not a real monk. He has trouble following other people’s rules.”

Scott grinned, then grew thoughtful. “Either way, I’m sorry for underestimating you. I’ve known you long enough that I should have known better. But I’m a product of both my very judgmental upbringing and Boston, which is not the most tolerant of cities. So, I’m sorry I saw what I thought instead of the real you.”

Teresa smiled with glistening eyes. She’d regretted her harsh words to Scott, and not only had he forgiven her for what she’d said in anger and worry, but he’d also turned her unkindness into something wonderful and wise. She could not have been prouder of her “brothers.” She gave Scott a hug. He accepted gladly.

Johnny gave her a playful frown of disappointment. “What about me?”

She chuckled and slipped one arm away from Scott and wrapped it around Johnny with a moist-eyed smile. The men chuckled and gathered her between them with fraternal affection.

They basked in the moment of gratitude, but then Scott developed an impish frown. “You know, brother, I realize now that this whole mess is Teresa’s fault.”

She pulled back from them in shock. “My fault? What are you talking about?”

“If you hadn’t interfered, and made us worry about things that were never going to happen, which made us force Johnny to stay out of his own home—with no explanation—and get angrier by the minute, I’m sure all of this would have been settle amicably within….” He gave Johnny a theatrical, thoughtful pout. “A few minutes.”

Johnny nodded with all seriousness. “Not even that long. Seconds.”

Scott concurred. “And amicably.”

Teresa couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She had saved at least one life and the happiness of the entire family! Then she noticed that mischievous spark in Scott’s eyes, and Johnny was having trouble keeping the smile off his face. She gave them an overdone frown. “And I suppose it was my fault that Johnny insisted on riding all the way to Stockton when his back hurt—”

“—Who said my back hurts?” he bellowed.

“And it was my fault that the Pinkerton report just happened to arrive while you were gone—”

“—Admit it,” Scott said with a straight face, “that was your fault.”

“And Johnny’s back hurt so much that he was delayed a day—”

“—Will you get off my back!?”

“—So the man you hated more than anyone else in the world could get here and settle in before you got home.”

Johnny narrowed his eyes and said in a low voice, “Oh, there are lots of people I hate more than good ol’ Rodrigo.”

“Like who, for instance?” she countered.

His playful smile grew. “Oh, a sassy little girl I know who’s always right….” He gave her a teasing poke in the side, making her giggle. “And never lets people forget it.” He added sternly, “Except you’re wrong about my back.”

Scott replied, “If that’s the case, brother, you’d better turn in early, because we have a full day of work ahead of us. And then some—we’re still shorthanded, and you drove off someone who could have been one of our top hands. And you gave him one of our best horses. You have a lot of making up to do. Good thing you’re in perfect health.” He gave Teresa the slightest of winks.

Caught in his own trap, Johnny tried to backtrack a little with qualifications and excuses as they headed to the hallway.

Teresa smiled as she watched them. How had they managed to come through this dark time together, and somehow ended up even stronger than before? With a last glance back at the fireplace to make sure the logs were safely down to embers, she left the darkened room and followed two of the best men in the whole world.

 

 

~ end ~

Continued in Dark Forest, the third in the Delgardo Legacy series------>

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