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M.E.

 

 

Dark Forest
Third in the Delgardo Legacy series. Follow the link to see the stories listed in sequence.
Trigger warnings: offensive language, violence, references to sexual violence.

“The heart of another is a dark forest.” Russian proverb

 

The third anniversary of Paul O’Brien’s death came with rain and wind. For a week the rainy season had been threatening its arrival, but the storm on that November night announced the turn of the seasons with blustering certainty.

Teresa knew Murdoch tended to be thoughtful and quiet on this sad occasion, certainly recalling his own near-murder on that terrible day along with the loss of his friend, and this evening he poured all his attention into going through the day’s mail at his desk in the great room. Teresa sat by the roaring fire and put the finishing touches on a blanket for the newest Ysidro granddaughter, who would be making her first public appearance when the one-month-old’s cuarentena ended in a few days. Jelly was absent, attending a birthday party in Green River for Willy, the oldest of his “boys,” who had turned eighteen. All the families still in the area that had adopted his collection of orphans were gathered for the festivities. He was expected to return to the ranch in a few days, weather and soggy roads permitting.

Scott and Johnny sat side-by-side at the table, Scott’s Complete Works of Shakespeare between them. With this year’s cattle shipped east and the less hectic season upon them, the brothers offered to exchange evening lessons: Johnny would teach the Easterner some Spanish, while the Harvard scholar would give his practical sibling “Shakespeare lessons.” This week’s play was Henry V. Despite his many protests that he wasn’t much of a student, and his need to consult the dictionary for every fifth word, Johnny had dedicated himself to the task and sometimes demonstrated an impressive grasp of the stories despite his few opportunities for a formal education.

Scott explained, “Falstaff is important in this play.”

Johnny replied with thoughtful confusion, “Even though he isn’t in it?”

Scott nodded and tapped the page. “He’s there, in a way—we just don’t see him. He’s important because of when he dies. His death happens just before Henry leaves for France. When he dies, the last trace of the irresponsible Prince Hal disappears with him. So, his death signals Henry leaving his past, leaving his childhood, and becoming his real self, the person he needs to be.”

Johnny thought for a moment, and Teresa glanced up at his silence to see a distant glint in his eyes. In a soft voice, he said, “So, Falstaff is kind of like Wes.”

Teresa had to think for a moment to recall the man. Wes had only worked at the ranch for a couple months, more than two years ago, before he decided to move on. The boon companion and hellraiser had lured the restless Johnny away from his family, only to get himself killed by drunkenly taunting a wild stallion Johnny had captured. The price Wes paid for the freedom to be irresponsible had made a sad lesson for them all.

Scott smiled at his brother with quiet pride. “Exactly...Your Highness.”

Johnny turned his gaze to the book with a sheepish grin. “I wouldn’t make much of a king.”

Scott replied, “You don’t want the job. Being king isn’t all nice food and fancy clothing. You end up stuck with a lot of problems you didn’t create and can’t control. I’d rather be me.”

Johnny chuckled softly. “Me, too.” Scott gave him a big-brother pat on the shoulder.

Teresa looked to Murdoch with a smile to share the moment, but her joy faded. He sat at his desk, his shoulders slack, a faraway shadow on his face, staring at a piece of paper before him. He looked lost. “Murdoch, is everything okay?”

After a moment, Murdoch came back to himself and regarded her with a benign, opaque gaze. “What’s that, honey?”

“You looked worried.” Teresa noticed Scott and Johnny turn their attention to their father.

His gesture to shake off his gloom fooled no one. “No. Just thinking about something I have to do.” He returned to his packet of mail.

Teresa glanced at the brothers, who had picked up her concern. Scott gave her the slightest of nods towards Murdoch. She acknowledged it and set the baby blanket aside. She got up and ambled over to the desk. Murdoch was notoriously alert to subterfuge, so the fact that he didn’t decipher her movements gave vivid testimony to his distraction. She stopped next to him and leaned down over the desk in a solicitous pose. “How about some mulled wine? It’s the perfect night for it.”

“That’s an excellent idea,” Scott replied with enthusiasm.

Murdoch gathered up the papers before him and stood slowly. “I think I’m going to turn in. I’ll see you all in the morning.”

Teresa asked with some hesitation, “Are you thinking about my father tonight?”

“What? Oh, yes, of course.” He gave her a fatherly kiss on the head before heading out of the room, taking his papers with him.

After he left, Teresa turned to the brothers. “I couldn’t read the message, but it was a telegram. From a lawyer in Texas. Austin, I think.”

They regarded each other. The brothers could make no more sense of it than she could. Scott said, “I know he lived in Texas for a while after my mother died.”

Johnny added, “He was in Texas when he met my mother. But Austin isn’t anywhere near where they were.”

They regarded each other, but no one had suggestions. They would have to wait for Murdoch to open up.

 

The three didn’t have long to wait. When Murdoch arrived for breakfast, he waved off María the housekeeper as he sat at the table. Looking tired and pensive, he commanded everyone’s immediate attention, and they all stopped their meal and waited.

“I received a telegram yesterday,” he began as if he had been rehearsing his speech all night. He kept his gaze on nothing in particular. “It’s from an attorney in Texas.” He forced his eyes to come to rest on Johnny. “He said he was writing on behalf of....” He took a breath. “Mrs. María Delgado Lancer.”

Johnny flinched with surprise.

“She’s requesting a divorce.”

Scott and Teresa glanced at each other.

“In exchange for an immediate agreement, she will request no settlement.”

A stiff silence hung over the table, and eventually all attention came to rest on Johnny, who focused a troubled gaze on the coffee pot.

Murdoch concluded, “As this involves the family, I wanted to consult with you before I reply.”

Scott examined Johnny, who continued to keep his gaze on the coffee. He could only wonder what his younger brother was thinking. He knew if his own mother could return, Eurydice-like, to their lives, he would be ecstatic at the chance to reunite with the woman he knew only through a thousand stories from his grandparents and aunts. However, Johnny’s relationship with his own mother had been unsettled and complicated. She had taken Johnny away from Lancer when he was a toddler for reasons no one understood, and later, when she had to explain her actions to her son, she lied, telling him that Murdoch had cast them out. Her next husband—apparently, on that occasion she had not bothered to seek a divorce beforehand—tossed Johnny out of the family, setting him on a course that would ultimately lead to his life as a professional gunman.

Scott knew that for years Johnny thought the woman behind all of this was dead. Her actions triggered so much trouble and grief...and yet Johnny loved her.

And what could Murdoch be thinking? According to Teresa, three years ago, when Murdoch lay at death’s door after being ambushed by the gunman who killed Teresa’s father, Murdoch inadvertently revealed that he still loved his long-missing wife. Now, she had resurfaced, only to ask to be released from the bonds of the marriage she had abandoned more than twenty years ago.

With no one else volunteering to stir the dead air in the room, Scott asked his father, “What do you have in mind?”

Murdoch said with a steadiness that spoke of hours of rehearsing, “I feel it’s only fair that if she wants a divorce, she should ask for it in person.”

Scott had a moment of surprise, then wondered at Murdoch’s response. If he still loved her, he wouldn’t let her go easily. Was this a good idea? He had no idea. He looked at Teresa, who shrugged her assent. Johnny, looking at nothing in particular, offered a non-specific nod. Scott responded to Murdoch with a resolute-sounding, “That sounds reasonable.”

In the silence of his heart, he added, And may heaven help us all.

 

By evening, the matter had been settled. Murdoch sent a reply to the telegram with his terms, adding that he would cover her travel expenses. He lingered in town for a response, which came less than an hour later. She would arrive on Tuesday.

The household flew into a rage of preparation. The arrival of President Grant could not have earned more attention to every detail: All the household linens were washed, the best guest room was cleaned, recleaned, and redecorated three times, including new curtains sewn and its windows washed inside and out twice. He gave the housekeeper a list of meals she should be ready to prepare, and then he finally ordered the entire house cleaned from the chimney to the wine cellar. Murdoch acted as if this was completely normal for every out-of-town guest. No one dared to admit otherwise.

Scott had seen his father this agitated only once before, when Scott’s grandfather came for a visit. As it turned out, Murdoch, who was usually cool-headed in an emergency, had a right to be chary, as the wily Harlan Garrett pulled out every stop in an attempt to force Scott to return to Boston. Knowing what the old meddler could do, Murdoch had been more than justified in his agitation.

However, this preparation mystified Scott. María Delgado Lancer had vanished so completely that both Murdoch and Johnny believed she was dead. They learned they were mistaken two and a half years ago, but only through her brother. She continued to elude any form of contact—until now, when she wanted something.

Why was Murdoch so determined to make the house and grounds perfect for the woman who had broken his heart? The man avoided every effort to have that conversation by barking out new orders and careering off to some new task. Certainly, he must think she was worth this effort. But why?

In truth, Scott didn’t know what to think about María. He had a fairly clear image of her created from her actions—marrying Murdoch because she had to, running away with a gambler, lying to Johnny about why they had left his father—but he had to admit that the picture he created in his mind was ungenerous, coarse, and didn’t match the intelligent, well-mannered women Murdoch found attractive. The only people he knew of who had known her were his father and brother. Johnny occasionally talked about his childhood but rarely about his mother, and Scott had never heard Murdoch mention her again after that awkward conversation when he and Johnny first arrived at the ranch. Scott would have to wait to find out more when she arrived.

While Murdoch became a whirlwind of preparation, Johnny retreated into every ranch chore that would take him away from the hacienda—and the inquiries of his family. No task was too grueling, no worksite too distant. If he actually returned to the house in time for supper, he maintained a steadfast silence at the table. After Johnny missed the third supper in a row and Murdoch started leaving meals early when the subject drifted to their expected guest, Scott and Teresa made a pact not to bring up the topic in front of the others.

Of course, they could talk of nothing else when the others were away. Over several private conversations, they questioned why María would contact Murdoch about a divorce after all this time. They both suspected that she had found someone else she wished to marry. Given the location of her lawyer, and the fact that she had to seek a divorce rather than simply remarry at will, they concluded her proposed new husband was a Texan, wealthy, and socially responsible enough to know about and object to an inconvenient current marriage. For her to be willing to heed Murdoch’s request to travel all the way to California meant several possibilities: She trusted her future husband enough to leave him alone with the knowledge of her trip; she had already married him and needed to take care of her legal complication as quickly as possible; or her plans had soured after her proposed husband learned the truth and she was desperate. As for what the truth actually was, they would have to wait until she arrived...if they could get the truth out of her then.

With María due to arrive at the Cross Creek rail depot the next morning, the pair pretended to clean the immaculate great room while Scott quizzed Teresa one more time in hopes of gaining some useful insight. Teresa wiped a dust cloth across Murdoch’s dust-free desk as Scott made no effort to clean the spotless room. “Surely there’s something your father told you about her that could explain...this.” He gestured to the thrice-cleaned room.

Teresa dragged the cloth across the desktop again, then abandoned the charade of cleaning. “My father was the assistant foreman when Murdoch brought María here from Mexico. He never said it in so many words, but I know he didn’t like her very much. But that doesn’t mean she was a bad person.” She gave him a small, self-conscious smile. “The truth is, I think he was a little infatuated with your mother.”

That drew a smile from Scott.

“He used to say so many nice things about Katherine, and how she never complained about the rough-and-ready West or leaving the comforts of Boston behind. When the troubles began, and she was already having a tough confinement, Murdoch was torn, because he wanted to take care of her and get her out of harm’s way. But he also knew he was the last one standing up to Luke Haney, and if he left, the ranch would be overrun. My father volunteered to take your mother to safety. Murdoch was so grateful.” The sadness of the tale caught up with her. “And then, when she died, I know my father felt so terrible. Murdoch blamed Haney, but my father blamed himself.” She gazed out through the giant window behind Murdoch’s desk to the surrounding hills, which were turning green again with the rain. “He told me once that sending that telegram to Murdoch was the hardest thing he’d ever done.”

Teresa looked down at her dust cloth, then at Scott. “He grieved as much as Murdoch did. ...And he never said anything specific about it, but when Murdoch returned from Texas with a new, beautiful, young wife, and he looked so happy....” She gazed at Murdoch’s desk chair, which glistened with its new coat of wood oil. “I think Daddy resented it. He didn’t blame Murdoch. He blamed her. When he told me about her leaving, and I wanted to know all about her, he said....” Her face darkened, and she spoke in dismissive tones, apparently mimicking her father, “‘Don’t waste your time wondering about her. She’s never coming back.’” She glanced at Scott with an apology in her eyes, then looked back out at the soft, rounded hills. “She fooled him, I guess.” She squinted at something in the distance. “Huh.”

Scott followed her gaze and saw what had caught her attention: a flash of reflected light coming from the road at the crest of the hill overlooking the valley.

She said, “Someone must be coming to visit.”

The light reflection flashed again in the same spot. Whoever was up there was in no hurry.

Scott looked at the bookcase. He spotted what he wanted below the pheasant and retrieved it. The spyglass would be far too weak to show who might be sitting up at the lookout point, but it might tell him something. He trained the glass on the hill, tracing along the road until another flash—still in the same place—helped him locate the source of the light. He could barely make out the shape of a wagon...no, probably an open carriage of some sort...and two horses. He saw movement within the carriage, and he could see the color green. But the glass could do no more for the distant object.

Still trying to decipher the small images, he said, “I wonder who it could be? We’re not expecting anyone, at least not until tomorrow. And even then, we’re picking her up at the train depot.”

They both had the same thought and exchanged a look of dread. He said, “You don’t think she’d....”

“Oh, no, I hope not.”

They turned at the sound of the front door opening. A mud-splattered Johnny appeared in the room’s doorway, his curious gaze directed at the spyglass as Scott passed it to Teresa. “What’s going on?”

“We have a visitor,” Teresa said, concentrating on the view enhanced by the glass.

Scott hoped he sounded diplomatic. “Johnny, would your mother consider showing up early...as a surprise?”

Johnny’s face fell, giving Scott his answer. Johnny tried to recover his mask of indifference as he joined them. “What makes you think it’s her?”

Teresa gave him the spyglass. “What’s your mother’s favorite color?”

“Green.” Scott and Teresa exchanged a significant glance as Johnny trained the spyglass on the hill. Teresa gave him a landmark as a focal point, and a long glint of reflected light helped him find the target.

The light from the hill crest flickered, then moved and disappeared.

“Well,” Scott said, “whoever they are, they’re on their way.” He and Teresa looked at Johnny, who seemed frozen as he studied the hill. Scott was surprised by what appeared to be fear enveloping his remarkably fearless brother.

Johnny came out of his trance as he lowered the glass. “Look, I have some, uh, fence posts left to....”

“Johnny.” Scott put a reassuring hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Perhaps instead you’d like to go meet the carriage. It might be easier for you to talk with her, for the first time in such a long while, without all of us around.” He had spoken the words in a slow, gentle voice, hoping Johnny would take the hint.

Johnny got the message and seemed to come back to himself. He glanced at Teresa, who offered an encouraging smile, then lowered his head and nodded. “Thanks. Good idea.” He looked down at his clothes that bore the marks of all his recent hard work, then shrugged. After a moment of hesitation, he handed the spyglass back to Teresa and, with only slightly dragging footsteps, headed to the door.

 

As he followed the approach road out from the house, Johnny could not stop recalling what was supposed to be his last ride in the back of the wagon on the way to his execution. Huddled with the others, dressed in the traditional péon whites for the condemned after watching the Rurales sell his few possessions to cover their “expenses,” he had felt oddly calm on his way to meet Death. The last half hour of his life had been wiped clean of all complications, all hopes, all worries. He felt no fear of the end. He knew those men were efficient executioners, and there would be no lingering between this world and whatever lay beyond. His only regret was he would have no chance to see his mother one last time, because she would have taken a different path from the one that waited for him.

Now, guiding Barranca in a slow lope on his way to meet the visitors, he felt a strange regret at surviving. Over the previous two and a half years, he had never figured out how to fit together his memories of his mother with the stories people here told about her. He had accepted that she lied to him about why they left the ranch, despite her usual relentless honesty. He knew she had to have a good reason for saying what she did. Almost no one mentioned her around him, even after they learned she was alive, but he knew the people who’d only heard about her through the gossip had the wrong ideas about her.

That didn’t matter now. They would finally meet his mother, and they would see who she really was.

The only thing that mattered now was what the hell was he going to tell her?

He could see the carriage approaching, and he slowed his horse to a walk. A shuddering breath caught him by surprise. There she was in the open-top carriage, a bored young man at the reins and an older woman sitting next to her. She looked like a queen, dressed better than he’d ever seen her. She finally had money, at least. She was talking to the other woman, smiling and gesturing with pride and confidence. She hadn’t noticed him yet, even though the driver had and was slowing the team of nicely-matched chestnuts. Maybe she didn’t recognize him. Maybe she still thought of him as an eleven-year-old. As the carriage drew closer, he felt eleven, and in trouble again.

He stopped Barranca and waited for the carriage to approach. She looked exactly the same, except maybe with a few extra pounds. Having enough to eat could do that to you. He thought about their last meal—beans and rice—and her “husband” Rodrigo complained about no meat, and they spent the evening arguing about money. Johnny slipped out to join his friends, but she tracked him down and dragged him home, his friends laughing at the sight. She put him to bed with another lecture about how he was not an “alley cat.”

That was the last time he saw her.

She spotted him, and at first she examined him with a curious, familiar squint, and then a glow of recognition lit her radiant face. She said something to her Anglo companion, who nodded. Then his mother did something Johnny was afraid she’d do. She started to cry.

The young driver stopped the carriage even with Johnny’s horse as María produced a handkerchief from her small purse. “My son!” she cried. “How beautiful you are!”

As she exclaimed his praises to her companion, she stood at the edge of the carriage and gestured for him to move his horse closer. He looked down at the dried mud splatters on his clothes, then obeyed. Despite the awkwardness of the angle, she drew him into a fierce, yet tender, embrace too many years in the making. As he hugged her back, he felt his own emotions rise, and he promised to thank Scott for his excellent advice. This would have been unbearable with the others standing around watching.

“My beautiful, beautiful child! I have dreamed of this day for so long. My heart is so full, I may die this very moment.”

He smiled even as he sighed. Her talent for drama hadn’t changed.

María reluctantly released him and turned to her companion. “Mrs. Mabel Wentworth, I would like to introduce to you my son, John Lancer.”

The plump woman nodded with a bland smile. “It’s nice to meet you. I’ve heard so much about you.”

Fighting embarrassment, Johnny replied, “I bet you have.” He touched the brim of his hat. “It’s nice to meet you, ma’am.”

María cooed, “Such a gentleman. I’m very grateful you found your way here. Your father raised you to be a good man.”

Johnny blinked at her words, but now was not the time for that talk.

She sat and commanded the young driver to continue on to the house, and he gave the horses a light touch of the reins to get them moving. Johnny rode alongside as his mother said to Mrs. Wentworth, “I am in awe of my son, still a boy, finding his way all the way from Tejas to here, on his own. Remarkable, yes?”

“Yes, remarkable,” Mrs. Wentworth replied. Johnny couldn’t tell if she believed his mother or not. He had the feeling the woman didn’t care. From the way his mother spoke to her, he guessed they hadn’t known each other long. As he rode alongside and his mother continued to tell her companion stories about his childhood, Johnny noticed on the back-facing seat opposite the women what looked like a food basket. His mother was traveling in a grand, big-city carriage, but with a woman she didn’t know and food packed to eat along the way. Something else hadn’t changed about his mother. So many contradictions.

 

Shouts rang out from the ranch hands that a carriage was approaching. Scott was glad he had found Murdoch—he was supervising a reorganization of the wine cellar—and mentioned that he might want to prepare for his guest arriving early. The poor man flew into an agitation just short of a panic and raced upstairs to change his clothes, which he did three times. Now freshly shaved and dressed in a fine suit with a crisp white shirt and the tidy black cotton tie Teresa had given him for his birthday, he stood by the front door in the shade of the portico, watching the carriage proceed along the flat terrain of the approach road.

Seeing Johnny riding alongside the carriage confirmed to Scott that their guest had indeed arrived a day early. Murdoch’s frantic, endless preparations had paid off. Apparently, even after two decades apart, he knew his wife.

Teresa joined them, also dressed in finer clothes than a Monday would normally dictate. Scott alone was in working clothes, but he hoped his stepmother—Good Lord, he hadn’t thought of that until this very moment—would forgive the oversight.

By the time the carriage approached the house, all of the nearby ranch hands and most of their family members had gathered to watch the great lady’s arrival. And great she was. Dressed in the latest fashions in a rich green brocade with a stylish silk hat and looking like the Queen of Sheba, the elegant guest of honor smiled at the workers and their families, giving extra acknowledgments to Francisco Toledano and his wife Guadalupe Villanueva and even calling out their names. Some of the awed assemblage greeted her with spontaneous applause. Scott marveled. This was no act. Here was a woman born to wealth and power. He abandoned every thought he’d ever had of this surprising lady before him.

As the carriage arrived at the house, María no longer saw the crowd or the home she had fled decades ago. With a deep, quiet smile that looked remarkably sincere, she gazed at Murdoch. Scott glanced at his father. The man was transfixed. At that moment, no one else existed in his world. Trying to keep his smile to himself, Scott wondered if this could be a reenactment of how they met. He searched for Johnny to see his reaction to this meeting.

Johnny had dropped back to be out of the way, and Scott needed a few moments to spot him. He stared in astonishment. For the first time since his little brother was fifteen months old, his parents were together. And he looked miserable.

Scott snapped out of his reverie as Murdoch stepped forward to unlatch the low door of the carriage and offered his hand to help María step down. With a gracious smile, she accepted. She practically floated to the ground. Despite her short stature—even in her elegant buttoned boots she did not reach the height of Murdoch’s collar bone—with her manners and grace she was every inch his match. Blind to the presence of anyone else, he gestured for her to enter the house. Scott noticed the other woman waiting in the carriage and quickly stepped up to offer her the courtesy of his assistance. She accepted with a slight nod and trundled to the ground. She called out a blunt order to the driver to unload the baggage and then take the animals to the barn before she went into the house without waiting to be invited.

Scott and Teresa regarded each other, a hundred questions swirling around them. Teresa followed the others inside, as Scott waited while Johnny dismounted and handed the reins to one of the vaqueros. Johnny glanced at Toledano and his family, who regarded him with unreadable, if sympathetic, gazes, and he headed for the door. As the muddied rider reached his brother, Scott asked, “How did it go?”

Busying himself with taking off his hat and gloves, and without looking at him, Johnny said, “Well, it went.” He walked into the house.

Scott stood for a baffled moment. Everything that should have happened didn’t, and a great many inexplicable things had. The next hour would prove very interesting.

He entered the great room just as María introduced the woman who had arrived with her to the others, identifying her as “her traveling companion.” When Murdoch introduced Teresa to María, Scott could see Teresa’s hesitant but pleased response to María’s kind remembrance of her father, whose own remembrances of this second wife were less than kind.

When Murdoch turned at the sound of Scott’s entrance, he regarded him with a look of such hopeful joy that it took Scott aback. Had Murdoch forgotten that this woman came here to ask for a divorce? “María, let me introduce to you my other son, Scott.”

The warmth of the woman’s smile almost made Scott himself forget the reason for her visit. “I am most pleased to know you have come home as well,” she said, extending her hand to him. “How long have you been here?”

He took her hand, and she gave his a sweet squeeze. “Almost three years.”

She beamed at him. “What a most pleasant event it must have been when you joined your father and brother.” She turned to sit in the chair behind her.

Scott and Murdoch exchanged a baffled gaze, and then they looked at Johnny, who stood in aloof silence by the fireplace. He gave them the briefest of glances, an unmistakable pleading in his eyes.

Murdoch said to his honored guest as she smoothed the wrinkles out of her skirt, “Well, yes, it’s good to have them both here with me.” He sat opposite María, his moment of confusion yielding to the overwhelming joy of having her here again.

She asked him to tell her all about what he had been doing, what changes he had made to the rancho, who still remained of those who had known her, and other vague reminiscences that would avoid most of the painful details of the past twenty years.

As Murdoch talked about the land, Teresa excused herself to bring in refreshments, and before Johnny could speak up, Scott volunteered to help her. They escaped to the kitchen, where the housekeeper was preparing lemonade and had Mexican sweets waiting on a platter.

Teresa began the conversation with a breathless, “I’ve never seen Murdoch like that before.”

Scott nodded. “You weren’t exaggerating when you said he was still in love with her.”

“Why does she think Johnny’s been here longer than you have?”

“I have no idea.” Scott took the large pitcher of lemonade from the housekeeper and lifted the tray of punch glasses as Teresa picked up the platter of treats. “And who’s that immensely bored woman with her?”

“You noticed that, too.”

They turned with their cargo to go back to the great room. He said, “I’ll take Johnny. You question Mrs. Wentworth.”

She nodded as they left the safety of the kitchen.

 

After a half hour of polite socializing that avoided every important or difficult detail, Teresa suggested the women might like to rest and freshen up. Thanks to Murdoch’s maniacal need to clean the entire house, a fresh guest room was available for the unexpected Mrs. Wentworth. Teresa showed them to their rooms.

Before Johnny could disappear, Murdoch asked him, “Why does your mother think you—”

“—I didn’t tell her anything,” he protested. “I don’t know why, but she thinks I’ve been here for a long time.”

Scott could see Murdoch wanted to know more, but he could also tell Johnny had no answers for him. “Uh, Murdoch, perhaps now would be a good time for you to check with the men to see if there’s anything they need to discuss with you.”

Murdoch mulled over his suggestion, then gave a thoughtful nod. “Maybe you’re right.”

Scott gave him an encouraging grin and a pat on the shoulder. “You can pick up the conversation again at supper.”

He gave his son a look that mixed agreement and embarrassment, and he nodded before heading outside.

Johnny blew out a sigh of relief, but his respite lasted only a moment as Scott pointed at the dining table with the command, “Sit.”

Johnny looked at the archway out, but Scott pointed at the table again. Johnny surrendered and obeyed. Scott sat next to him. “Why are you so restless? I thought you’d be overjoyed to see your mother again.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“Tell me.”

Johnny thought for a long moment, then said, “What am I supposed to say to her?”

“What do you mean?”

“She has to know I know she lied about why we left.”

“True. But do you need to bring that up?”

“No.”

“All right. Problem solved.”

“But she thinks Murdoch raised me. I heard her tell that woman I came here when I was a kid.”

“Maybe she was just trying to avoid telling her about Johnny Madrid.”

He said emphatically, “She doesn’t know about Johnny Madrid.” At Scott’s surprise, Johnny admitted, “Maybe she’s heard the name. But she doesn’t know that was me.”

“But....” Scott couldn’t find the words to convey his bafflement.

“Madrid isn’t a family name. She would have no reason to think of me if she heard it.”

Scott had never considered that. This was turning into one surprise after another. Where would it end?

Johnny’s frown hardened. “How do I tell my mother what I did, and what kind of life I’ve lived—all because of what she started by leaving and taking me with her?”

Scott sat mute as he pondered Johnny’s dilemma. If she knew nothing about her son’s life, of course María would want to believe that Johnny had been here for years, safely growing up with his father after Rodrigo threw him out. Learning the truth would be a terrible shock. “You’re going to have to tell her. Otherwise, you’re lying to her.”

“I know,” he said with a sadness that made Scott wince. “But how?”

Scott understood, too well. When he returned from the war, his grandmother said she wanted to hear about everything he had done. But Scott knew she didn’t understand what war really was. Like most civilians, she thought war was gallantry and heroism—not carnage, cruelty, vainglorious stupidity, terror, gore, and all the worst aspects of humanity concentrated into a long series of nightmares. He finally told her some of his lighter experiences, and then he gave her glimpses of a few darker episodes. He out-and-out lied about the prison camp, because he couldn’t make the truth soft enough. Johnny would have to do the same selective truth-telling, somehow, when he talked with his mother.

Perhaps Scott could find a way to help. “You’ve always said you weren’t ashamed of what you were.”

“No.” He thought for a long moment. “Not with everyone else.”

Scott appreciated the distinction. “You went into that life when you were fourteen, right?”

Johnny nodded.

“As a fourteen-year-old ‘orphan’ in the border country, how many options did you have?”

Without emotion, Johnny replied, “Not a lot.”

“When I was that age, I had every advantage in life, but I was angry at the world. I think all fourteen-year-old boys are. You, on the other hand, had no advantages, except one.”

“What was that?”

“A wise friend named Rafael Gutiérrez.”

Johnny smiled, even though he didn’t seem to understand Scott’s point.

“Did he ever tell you why he took you under his wing?”

“He said Father Mateo tricked him into it.”

Scott frowned. “A priest wanted you to become a hired gun?”

“Not exactly.”

Scott wondered if he would ever hear that story. “Well, from what you’ve said about Rafael, he seems like a good judge of character. If he thought you should have followed a different path, he wouldn’t have let you join him.” He added dryly, “Being tricked by a priest notwithstanding.”

Johnny smiled lightly at that.

“When I was in the army, one of my commanders described anger as a grenade. He said, ‘If you don’t learn how to handle it, it’ll kill you.’ At the prison camp, I saw a lot of men blow up that way. I think it’s something of a miracle that didn’t happen to you.”

Johnny smiled distantly. “Father Mateo probably called in some favors.”

Scott knew he had to get that story out of Johnny at some point. “The truth is, brother, sometimes I wonder why you didn’t turn into Day Pardee.” Scott regarded him with a grim gaze. “What happened the first time you killed someone? Not might have, but actually knew you had caused someone’s death?”

After a long silence, his gaze focused on the table top, Johnny said with some reluctance, “I shot the son of a patrón. He decided to stop some peón problems by killing the leader’s children.”

Scott winced at the image. In a hushed voice, he asked, “How old were you?”

“Fifteen.”

Scott pictured himself at that age. In his third year at the Redmont School, he had earned the rank of Elite Scholar. He could not imagine how their lives could have been more opposite. “What happened?”

“...I hadn’t planned it. But when I saw him put that bullet in the oldest daughter’s head, I just...shot him.”

“Then what?”

Johnny’s gaze may have been on the table, but he was seeing a faraway scene. “I ran. We all did. There’d be hell to pay. But Rafael found me and dragged me back. The family had taken the daughter’s body away. So, it was just me, and Rafael, and him. And Rafael made me look at him. He said, ‘He was an animal. Your anger was just. There will be terrible times when killing is the right thing to do. But never forget what death looks like.’” Johnny gave him the briefest of glances. “And then I threw up.”

Scott nodded, seeing a distant scene of his own. “After every battle, tough little Major Popp—he couldn’t have been more than five foot four—made the junior officers take turns overseeing the burial details. When we buried the Confederates, he’d say, ‘Treat ‘em with respect, boys. If it weren’t for this damned war, you’d call ‘em brothers.’” He forced away the mistiness that always arose with the memory.

Scott recalled Johnny’s rage when he confronted his hated stepfather and his remarkably few other emotional eruptions. If anyone had a right to be a walking powder keg, it was his brother. And yet, in spite of all the terrible things that had happened in his life, Johnny possessed a remarkable stillness and calm. It made no sense...and yet it did.

“Johnny, as strange as this may sound, I think Rafael and that Father Mateo were right. I think you needed to be a gunman to learn how not to be destroyed by all the things that went wrong in your life.”

Johnny couldn’t put that together in a way that made sense. “Why would you think that?”

“You learned discipline, and the power of fear, and how to pick your battles. But you never learned how not to care.”

Johnny pondered this.

“My point, brother, is you are so much better than the things you’ve done. We’ve all done bad things. All of us. Think about when we were reading Henry V. Remember in the battle scene, when he ordered all the prisoners killed? Shakespeare put that in the play to show that in tough situations, even heroes can make terrible decisions. Doing bad things doesn’t make us bad people. It’s how we deal with the bad things we’ve done that determines whether we...become the Hotspur Percys and Day Pardees or the Henry Vs and Johnny Madrids.”

Johnny responded with a quiet smile of appreciation. “So, I’m supposed to tell my mother all that?”

Scott nodded. “Word for word.” He tapped the table lightly. “You should’ve written it down.”

Finally, Scott saw a hint of a smile as Johnny relented. “Just let me tell her in my own time. And tell the others, too, okay?”

Scott agreed. It was the least they could do for him.

 

The mealtime conversation turned out to be everything Scott expected: polite, shallow, and more of the same careful avoidance of the difficult details that had brought María back to Lancer. Murdoch had been with his segundo until mere minutes before the meal was brought to the table, so Scott knew his father had had no opportunity for a private talk with his guest. That was probably just as well. Once the reason for her presence came out into the open, he knew the tenor of the visit would change.

As they dined, Scott watched María with fascination. She wasn’t merely beautiful, or gracious, or charming, or intelligent. She had a lively theatricality about her, and a magnetism that made her nearly impossible not to watch. Every gesture, even if she merely reached for the salt cellar, commanded attention. If she had been an actress, she would have inspired dreams and broken hearts from Boston to San Francisco to Mexico City. He could see now where Johnny had gotten some of his own appeal with the fair sex, although his powers were much less polished than hers. The daughter of the woman who ran the dry goods store in the hard-scrabble settlement of Wolff Center once fancifully described Johnny as “a beautiful wild animal running through the forest.” He had overheard a pretty saloon denizen tell him he was “untamed and dangerous.” At the time, Scott assumed she meant the danger of his old life. But he would have to reconsider. The surprises and revelations just seemed to multiply.

The other members of the family hung on María’s words, even Johnny, who had recovered enough to watch her with appreciation and love, albeit a love tinged with reticence over the difficult conversation he would be having with her.

The only person immune to the woman’s magic was her companion. Mrs. Wentworth concentrated on the meal, which she enjoyed enough to have seconds and thirds of nearly everything. Scott looked at Teresa, hoping she had learned something about the woman. Teresa caught his gaze, and he gave a slight head tilt towards the guest who was helping herself to more potatoes. Teresa gave him a slight, knowing nod. Good. She had something. ...At least he hoped it was good.

When the last morsel had been enjoyed and the housekeeper came to collect the dishes, Scott watched the glances cross the table. Murdoch wanted to talk with María, and María wanted to talk with Johnny—but Johnny was not ready to talk with her.

Scott stood with his plate in his hand. “It’s a pleasant evening. Murdoch, perhaps your wife would care to see some of the grounds while there’s still a bit of light left.” He looked at his father significantly.

Murdoch responded with a thoughtful nod, then looked to María. “We’ve made a lot of changes. You might be interested.”

She gave him a sweet smile. “I would be very pleased to have a tour.”

One pair down, Scott thought. He knew his brother would not appreciate this next suggestion, but he needed to talk with Teresa. “Johnny, maybe Mrs. Wentworth would care for some sherry and a sit by the fire.” That seemed a safe guess, as the woman had enjoyed every other foodstuff and libation that had been offered to her.

Johnny gave Scott a dubious scowl, but he gestured for the woman to head over to the chesterfield. She responded with pleasure, her gaze locking on the sherry bottle even before she stepped away from the dining table.

Scott picked up another plate as Teresa followed his lead, and they carried their burdens to the kitchen as the housekeeper clucked at them for taking up her task.

The two set down the plates by the wash basin and then proceeded out the other kitchen door. Scott gestured to the wine cellar, and they made their way to the cellar’s absolute privacy. Scott began their covert conversation by sharing what Johnny had told him of his mother’s ignorance of his past and his reluctant promise to address the truth with her. She sympathized, then Scott insisted she explain what she had learned from Mrs. Wentworth.

“She met María three days ago when she came to rent the carriage.”

“Where? That landau is beyond anything in the area.”

She agreed. “She was in San Francisco at least four days ago.”

“Four days!” She was supposed to be traveling from Texas. “What was she doing there?”

“Mrs. Wentworth doesn’t know. Her son is the carriage driver. When María hired it out, she also hired Mrs. Wentworth to travel with her as her companion. She and her son are leaving in the morning.”

That made no sense. If María had come with the intention of getting a divorce, why would she send away her transportation before she was certain she had accomplished her task?

Teresa continued, “Mrs. Wentworth is a strange choice for María to have as a companion. She doesn’t like Mexicans, and she doesn’t like María at all. She ‘warned’ me that María told her all kinds of ‘ridiculous’ lies about being from a wealthy family and how ‘family obligations’ had forced her ‘to live apart from her husband for too long.’”

Scott found that statement troubling. “She is from a wealthy family. But the rest is rather...selective.”

Teresa nodded. “She said the only reason she agreed to come along was to see how big her lies were and because María gave her a lot of money. She said María even had to sell some jewelry to pay her what she demanded.”

Scott contemplated all the contradictions. Teresa’s concerned gaze didn’t help calm his thoughts. There were so many twists and turns, and María hadn’t even been here for eight hours. He didn’t know what to think.

The only thing of which he could be certain was that Murdoch, who tended to be an astute observer of his fellow human beings, had a blind spot when it came to people from his past. He hoped it was safe to leave him alone with María.

 

Murdoch led the way to a bench he had one of the men construct and place under an oak tree. He hoped he appeared calm. María always used to see through him, but if he could fool the others, he would consider the evening a success.

In the cool twilight, he could see María’s smile as she noted every change since she had left. She had turned her back on the ranch, and on him, two decades ago, and yet she seemed to have memorized the place. So inconsistent, as always.

She had changed very little. Perhaps she had thickened a bit around the waist. But, well, so had he. She had a sad tiredness around her eyes that sent a slice of pain through him. Being with her again was such...sweet torture. Years ago, he’d asked a broken-down former deputy in Kansas why he drank when he knew it was killing him. The man said, “Because it tells me what I want to hear, that everything’s going to be okay as long as I keep drinking.” Perhaps he was an alcoholic, too, except María was his whisky. He wanted to believe that as long as she was here, he would be okay. In reality, his life was so much simpler when he thought she was dead. Now it would never be simple again.

She sat on the bench and smiled at him, her face reflecting the distant glow of the veranda’s lanterns. How he wanted to cup that beautiful face in his hands and kiss it until.... He sighed. No, he had to be strong, somehow.

She patted the spot on the bench next to her. “Will you join me?”

If he did, all would be lost. “Tell me about why you’re here.”

The light left her eyes, and she looked away. He wanted to take back those words, but he had to start what needed to be done.

She lowered her eyes and gripped her hands in her lap. “I was very much amazed to learn that you had not divorced me years ago.”

“I had it on good authority that you were dead.”

She looked at her hands. With a ripple of sorrow, she said, “That would have made a great many things easier.”

He fought the urge to disagree and take her into a comforting embrace.

She said, “So now we must attend to the matter together.”

“Why? Why can’t you stay here?” He should have felt embarrassed by his words, but he didn’t.

She eyed him with a cold and steely gaze that he remembered too well. “You cannot forgive what I have done. As you are a man, and a gentleman, you cannot. I have caused too much harm.”

Murdoch had no reply. He wanted to forgive her, but how could he when she was so fiercely determined not to be forgiven? “Why now? What’s changed?”

María concentrated on straightening a fold in her skirt. “There is a man who wishes to marry me.”

Her words stung him...and yet something about them seemed out of kilter. He wanted to marry her, but she had no opinion on the matter? “Who is he?”

She continued to attend to her skirt. “His name is Donald Recklenberg. He is a ranchero in Tejas. Hundreds of thousands of acres, many thousand head of cattle. A man of great wealth and power.”

“And what about you? What do you want?”

She gave the slightest of shrugs. “I wish to be comfortable. To have a refuge in....” She eyed him. “...My declining years.”

“What about Johnny? Are you just going to turn your back on him?”

“I have hurt him even more than I have hurt you. He treats me with respect because he is a young man of honor. I cannot expect him to wish for my continuing presence. I do not impose.”

“Yes. You have your pride.”

Her eyes flashed with anger. “Yes. No matter how far I have fallen from the ideals of my family, I am still a Delgado and a de la Peña. I do not beg. I do not grovel. I do not impose.”

Her unbending pride was helping him find his strength, at least a little. “How did your suitor find out about...your marriage situation?”

She responded with an eye roll and a sigh of exasperation. “Oh. His sons. They have not liked me from the first moment. They hired a man from the Pinkerton Agency to learn everything about me. Even now, I am confident the sons are talking to him endlessly to change his mind and withdraw his offer. Your lack of a divorce has been most inconvenient.”

The more she spoke, the more clearly Murdoch could see the situation. She had no enthusiasm for marrying that man. She didn’t care about him, and his bedeviling sons would make her married life miserable. Emboldened by her apathy, he asked a question two decades old: “María, why did you leave?”

Uncomfortable, she stood. “We should return to the house.”

“Was it because I wanted to send for Scott?”

“The others will be concerned about us.”

“Or was it because I spent so much time with Johnny?”

The fierce glare of her unbending pride returned. “It does not matter now. I made an unforgivable choice. It is done. I have broken everything. Do not ask again.”

She tried to walk around him, but he gently caught her arm. “Some breaks heal.”

She relented, but only enough to replace her anger with sorrow. “You are a kind man, Murdoch. But you do not understand. You cannot.” She slipped from his grasp and walked to the house.

In the growing gloom, Murdoch watched her go. She wasn’t budging an inch. He remembered her many moods, good and bad, but this type of brick wall he had never seen before. Something had changed her, and not for the better.

When they first came outside, he thought he knew what he wanted. Now...he had no idea.

 

Instead of finding his family gathered around the table for breakfast the next gray morning, Scott found a series of notes with explanations: Teresa joined the abuelitas and honorary aunts to help with the baby as the new mother had developed a mild head cold; Johnny departed to Morro Coyo to pick up the recently-ordered veterinary supplies (and presumably avoid his mother); and Murdoch headed out to the east range to inspect some damaged fences (and perhaps also to avoid María). Scott’s only companions were Mrs. Wentworth and her son, who turned out to be named Elmer. They had to leave early, she stated, to have any hope of being home by nightfall. Scott knew the trip took more than one day, but he politely accepted the paid companion’s words at face value—and then watched her and her son wolf down enough food to cover the entire day’s meals.

The young carriage driver made little eye contact and no conversation at the meal to which his mother, and not the homeowner, had invited him. Mrs. Wentworth talked little, and, when she did, she gave an impression of disappointment. If Teresa had been accurate in her assessment of the woman’s desire to watch María get a royal comeuppance for her “grandiose lies,” then she had every reason to be dissatisfied with the warm welcome that had been afforded her. He imagined the paid companion would attribute that to some sort of machination on María’s part that would collapse later.

When she and her son finished stuffing themselves, Mrs. Wentworth was courteous enough to thank Scott for the family’s hospitality and ask him to share her gratitude with Murdoch and Teresa. That she mentioned only the Anglos of the household was not lost on him, and he took it upon himself to thank her on behalf of María and Johnny for seeing that “Mrs. Lancer” returned home safely. The woman shrugged off his statement and left with her son, who snatched up the last two biscuits on the platter on his way out. Scott didn’t bother to see them to the door.

A few minutes later, María arrived with a warm greeting on her lips that faded at the sight of the nearly-empty table.

Scott offered a cheerful greeting. “It’s been an eventful overnight. I’m afraid you’ll have to content yourself with only me.”

Her renewed smile was genuine and unreserved. “Then you and I shall have a delightful breakfast together.” She sat across from him, then eyed with brief consternation the array of empty platters that had once contained a hearty meal. “Thin, but delightful nonetheless.”

He smiled and reached for the coffee pot, which somehow had escaped being drained by the Wentworths. “May I pour you some coffee?”

She accepted as the housekeeper appeared. With an exasperated glance at the empty platters, María Martínez exclaimed something in Spanish too quick for Scott to interpret but clear enough for him to understand. She collected the platters and promised to bring a second breakfast.

María sipped her coffee and regarded her companion. “How pleased I am to get to know you, Scott.” She frowned with frustration, then, with great care, said, “Scott.” She shook her head with a tinge of embarrassment. “I worked very hard to avoid all of the mistakes we make with English. But the one I have not been able to conquer is words that begin with ‘S.’” She shook her head lightly. “I even avoid them, just to be...safe.” He nodded at her successful demonstration. “But there is no way for me to avoid...‘Scott.’ I am afraid you must put up with my occasional weakness.”

He beamed at her. “I find your ‘weakness’ charming. I’ll be very sad one day when I’m no longer ‘Scott.’”

A hint of color touched her cheeks as she smiled at him. “You are so like your father—charming, generous, and a little dangerous.” He grinned at her compliment. She put her hand on the table between them, palm up. “I hope we shall always be good friends and speak directly from the heart with one another. And please, you must call me María.”

He put his hand on hers, and they sealed their friendship with a firm clasp.

The housekeeper appeared with fresh bread and butter, a waft of bacon following her that promised more food to come. She returned to the kitchen as María helped herself to the bread. “What is your plan for the day, Scott?”

“Once Johnny returns with the medicine from the veterinarian, we’ll ride out to the west pastures and treat some unhappy cattle that have developed a hoof ailment.”

She regarded him fondly. “You and Johnny are very close, yes?”

He nodded. “People think we shouldn’t get along because we’re so different, but I believe part of what makes us stronger is those differences. I’ve learned so much from him in the last two years. I feel like I’m an entirely different person now.”

She smiled. “You seem very much to like your new person.”

“I do. Mind you, the old one wasn’t too bad.”

She laughed at that.

“But the new one is...more satisfied with his life.”

He noticed a wistful cloud in her eyes. Comparing who she must have been as a young woman with the glimpses Johnny gave of his turbulent and quick-tempered mother, she too had experienced a transformation into a new person, but her result had been anything other than satisfying. Changing the topic seemed in order. “Would you please solve a mystery?”

“If I am able.”

“Why did you arrive a day early, and go to all the trouble of renting a carriage? We were happy to meet you at the train.”

She considered her response for a moment with a thoughtful pursing of her lips. “I wanted to see the rancho again and know if I had the...strength to come here.” The honesty in her gaze made him pause. “If I had let you meet me at the train, I would have had no choice but to come. I would have been a prisoner of my promise. With a carriage, if I lost my courage, I could have left with ease, and you would never have known.”

He nodded with appreciation. “I’m glad you had the courage.”

She nodded in return, but then she let her gaze drop as she absently drew her finger along the edge of the table. “Now, of course, with the departure of the greedy Mrs. Wentworth—who changed our agreement and demanded more money to stay, money I do not have—I am your prisoner.”

He found it reassuring that she understood the true nature of her hired companion. That also answered the mystery of why she would let her transportation leave without her. “Greedy, yes. Underfed, no.”

She rolled her eyes. “Díos Mío! How that woman could eat! What is the saying in English? Wooden leg? No, hollow leg! And avarice! She wanted so much money for this simple journey, I had to sell a small pair of earrings.” She added, “Which I did not like, so it was no sacrifice.” A sly look filled her eyes. “And a brooch I wore. She insisted on that as well. How sad she will be when she discovers that the ‘gold’ will turn her hands greener than its most beautiful glass ‘emeralds.’”

They shared a laugh over Mrs. Wentworth’s future disappointment.

With the mood lifted, Scott asked her to tell the story of how she and Murdoch met. She shared a glowing account of how she and her brother accompanied their father to a large cattle auction that drew many Anglos from across the river in Texas. As the three of them sat in their carriage and awaited the sale of the bull that half the buyers had come to see, she noticed a man on the other side of the crowd. “He was so different from everyone else there. So tall, with beautiful brown hair, wavy, and when the sun reflected off it, it looked like gold.” She admitted she stopped watching the auction and instead watched the man, who was advising a friend about the animals on which he should bid. As the daughter of a ranchero, she could see he knew cattle well and was offering wise advice.

“Then he saw me watching him, and for us there was no more auction, no crowd, no family, no friend.” When the highly-coveted bull had his turn in the auction, the flurry of bids thinned as the price climbed, and the only bidders left at the end were her father and Murdoch’s friend. But Murdoch became so distracted by her that he missed the auctioneer’s call for a final round of bids, and his friend hesitated, and her father got the animal. The applause and crowd exclamation at the drop of the gavel broke the spell and brought Murdoch back to his senses. María said, “His friend was so angry, and he was so embarrassed!” she said with a youthful laugh. With a sly glance she continued, “He came over to our carriage. He said it was to apologize to my father for driving up the price of the bull, but I knew the real reason was me.” Generous in victory, her father invited the men to join his family for supper. From that evening on, she and Murdoch were nearly inseparable.

She said, “From the time I was a little girl, I heard about ‘love at first sight.’ I thought that only happened inestories.” With a slight shrug and a delicate smile, she said, “But then it happened to me.”

Listening to the enchanting tale, which had not flagged during two deliveries of food from the kitchen, Scott made several observations: María had let down her guard, as she said more words that started with “S” than she had in all the previous conversations combined; every single thought he’d had about her before her arrival had been completely wrong; and, despite her reason for being here, she was still very much in love with Murdoch.

She added with modest deference, “I knew from that first supper about you and your mother. I have always known I was the second. He loved your mother very, very much. And through him, I grew to love her as well. From him, and from others here, I heard so many stories about her courage, and how she never complained about leaving the comfort of Boston for what seemed to her the wilderness, and how brave she was to leave at her most vulnerable time so Murdoch would not be distracted by worrying about her during that terrible danger.” She extended her hand to him again, and he took it. “How it must have hurt her to know she would not be there for you, Scott.” He nodded, and she gave his hand a gentle squeeze. “I know how much your father wanted to have you with him. But he said he had seen too many children spoiled being raised by housekeepers. How did he say it? ‘Boys need family, not keepers. I did not want him to run wild and start life with such a disadvantage.’”

He nodded. “We discussed that. But thank you for telling me.”

She gave him a smile, then released his hand. “This is my way of saying with too many words that I have great respect and affection for your mother. I believe if we had known each other, she and I would have been good friends.”

Scott nodded. “Very likely.” He added dryly, “Although, it would have been awkward for the two of you, sharing the same husband.”

She regarded him with confusion for a moment, but then she understood his joke and responded with a playful, glittering smile. “Oh, I am ecertain we would have made an arrangement. She could have him one week, I have him the next.”

He blurted out a laugh of surprise, and she joined him with rippling peels of light laughter.

“What’s all this guffawing going on so early in the morning?” came a familiar voice from the doorway. “With that and people riding out at all hours, a body can’t hardly get a wink of sleep around this place.”

Scott turned to see Jelly approaching them. His gaze at María was curious but not unfriendly.

Scott made the introductions, and Jelly’s astonishment at learning María’s identity was surpassed only by his uncertainty. Scott knew that he too had heard all the negative gossip and innuendos about her, and his frequent glances at Scott indicated he didn’t know how to reconcile the stories with the lady before him.

María offered him a disarming compliment—“I have heard you are the best horseman on the rancho”—that brought a blush to his whiskered cheeks. He stammered and blushed some more, but when he tried to reply with a compliment in turn, he stumbled over his words, not being able to come up with a single kind thing he had heard about her.

María smoothed over the awkward moment and asked him if he would be willing to bring Francisco Toledano’s wife Guadalupe to the house, saying she hoped the woman would consider resuming her long-ago role as her sometime maid. But then she caught herself with chagrin. “Do you hear how I speak? As if I am the grand lady of the rancho, treating everyone as a servant.” Chastened, she said, “Señor Hoskins, would you please do me the honor of indicating which house is Guadalupe’s? I am afraid I have forgotten. I would like to see the señora.”

When Jelly offered to hitch up the small buckboard for her, she demurred over the extra trouble and said she could walk. After she left to get her hat and jacket, Scott asked Jelly to accompany her, then explained why she had arrived and gave him a stern warning not to talk about anything serious with her. Confused by the juxtaposition of her charm and her mission, Jelly agreed, and a moment later María returned, ready for her walk. Scott watched them leave, mulling over his stepmother’s cornucopia of contradictions.

 

Johnny left the veterinarian’s office emptyhanded. With Doc Hildenbrand attending to an emergency all the way out past Silver Spring, Johnny had no reason to stay in town. With reluctance, he faced the likelihood that today would be the day for the talk with his mother.

He still had no idea how he was going to do this. Ever since she’d shown up, he was eleven years old again. Or, worse yet, eight. And not just eight—a jumpy eight-year-old. During the three years his mother and Rodrigo were together, Johnny had learned that slipping out to the street was better than listening to them argue. Rodrigo might be gone, but Johnny was still running away from his mother. She couldn’t spank him anymore—at least he didn’t think she could—but he was acting just like the time he’d grabbed those limes from the tree of that crabby neighbor who used to call him names, and his mother was about to tan his hide and make him take them back and apologize to the ferocious old cascarrabias. He was as spooked as the first time someone drew a gun on him. What the hell was wrong? She was his mother. He was happy to have her here. Telling her what really happened would be bad...but there seemed to be more going on than that. But the cause didn’t matter at this point. He needed to get his calm back before he made a mess of his talk with her.

The way he was going, it was only a matter of time before he got everyone mad at him. He’d already annoyed Scott when he asked him to chat with his mother to confirm that she’d never heard of Johnny Madrid. He thought it was a smart idea and his brother would go along. Didn’t Scott say you needed to know a situation before you got into it? All Scott did was yell at him about avoiding things and trying to get other people to do “his dirty work.” It only got ten times worse when he asked Teresa instead, and when he and Scott were getting ready to head out with some of the hands, she came by and reported that his mother had never heard that name. Scott almost pushed him into the water trough. No amount of explaining could get his brother to see that he needed to know that ahead of time. Maybe Scott was right, but he didn’t have to be so damned stubborn about it.

Johnny was about to mount up when he heard someone call his name. He turned to see “Penny” Putnam, the plump telegraph operator. The bespectacled man held up a small envelope and waved it as he scurried towards him. “You can save me a trip.” Johnny waited as the man huffed and puffed across the street still muddy from the overnight rain. He stopped before Johnny and shook his head as he caught his breath. “I gotta switch to a better brand of tobacco,” he muttered as Johnny tried to read the name on the envelope. “I assume this is for Murdoch, although I think it must be an operator mistake.” He had spoken the words in an easygoing tone, but a glint in his eye revealed his curiosity...and he knew more than he was admitting. He handed the envelope to Johnny. It read “Mrs. Murdoch Lancer.” Putnam shrugged, then gave Johnny a sly wink. “The message seemed a little odd, too. But it was marked ‘confidential,’ just like the one sent at the same time to the bank, so I shouldn’t be talking about it.”

Johnny looked at the envelope, which was sealed and made out of heavy paper that would defy being read through. Putnam waited, glancing around with a kid’s anticipation of a reward. Johnny expected this from Penny, who earned his nickname every chance he got, but he still felt some embarrassment at a grown man acting that way. With reluctance, Johnny fished a nickel out of his pocket and gave it to the grinning man. “What are you going to do with all that tip money, Penny?”

“Oh, maybe I’ll buy me a fine carriage, like the one Joe Ramsey talked about today. It sure would be nice to travel in style.”

“I thought you said you were thinking about a trip back East.”

“Oh, that was last week. No, I think I want me one of those carriages. They get you lots of respect.” He nodded at the envelope in Johnny’s hands. “Anyways, I’ll be seeing you soon. I reckon you’ll come right back to town based on the instructions in there and the other telegram.” He gave Johnny another wink and a salute as he departed.

Johnny watched him go. Money can’t buy respect, and it can’t buy honor. With a shudder, he closed his eyes. Oh, hell. Now he was repeating his mother’s wisdoms. They were coming up from the forgotten depths of his memory, like bodies tossed in a river floating back up to the surface. He shook his head. He was a man now, his own man. He could listen and remember without being his mother’s echo.

He lightly rapped the envelope against his gloved fingertips as he looked at the bank. Who knew his mother was here? This must have something to do with the divorce. He put the envelope in his jacket pocket. He gathered the reins and took hold of the saddle horn before slipping his foot into the stirrup.

“Aren’t you Johnny Madrid?”

Johnny froze. He let his foot slide back down to the ground. The unfamiliar voice had come from behind him. The tone had been curious, not threatening. Still, he’d heard Texas twang in the words, and he’d spent a lot of time in Texas.

Ready for anything, Johnny turned slowly. Another elegant carriage with its convertible top down stood twenty feet away, four bays in the hitch and a sturdy lackey at the reins. Sitting alone on the cushioned benches was a well-dressed man of thirty who eyed Johnny with curiosity and a gaze that made him feel like a bull on the auction block.

The man nodded with a squint. His scraggly sandy hair and soft face made him look more like a teenager than a grown man. “I think you are Madrid,” he said with an unmistakable central Texas drawl. “Or maybe someone like him.” His lip curled up into a confident, superior smile.

Johnny knew that smirk too well, and he fought the urge to spit. Four years ago, while their father was away, this fellow and his brother stirred up a range war. Despite their old man owning ninety-five percent of their county, the boys couldn’t tolerate farmers having the balls to vote in local elections. Or some excuse like that. The reason didn’t matter. It had been a game. Especially for the younger brother, who wanted to play with real soldiers instead of tin ones. An evil muggins, the exact opposite of that hero king in the play. This brother.

“I’m Madrid,” he replied in a voice that would carry only as far as the carriage. People walking past gave the scene a glance of curiosity but otherwise paid little attention.

Henry Recklenberg gave a laugh of triumph as he grinned at his former gunman, revealing his memory for important details was as bad as his tactics. If he’d really remembered what Johnny had done, he wouldn’t look so pleased at finding him again.

“Well, I’ll be! What are you doing so far from Texas? But aren’t you just the kind of man I’m looking for! Are you available? I need someone who knows the lay of the land.”

Again keeping his voice only loud enough for this turnip-head to hear, he said, “Want some farmers trampled?”

Henry frowned for a moment, then laughed. “I knew you were the right man! No, I just need to teach a whore a lesson.”

Johnny glanced around the street. No one seemed to have heard what he said. “It’s a long way to come just to get back at a girl who didn’t appreciate what you had to offer.”

Henry signaled Johnny to come closer to the carriage. Johnny ignored his gesture as Henry said, “She’s not your average cockchafer. And it was my Pa she set her sights on. She tricked him into a promise of marriage even though she’s already got at least one other husband.”

A cold chill passed down Johnny’s spine. He hoped his instincts were wrong. He said as evenly as he could, “I’ve been here for a while. You know how small towns are—people always talk. I haven’t heard about a woman from around here going to Texas.”

“She just came running home to her husband after we found out what a lying whore she is. I know she’s been here a few days.”

Damn it. Johnny took a few reluctant steps towards the carriage, hoping to keep their voices down. “If she ran away, why chase after her? Sounds like you won.”

“Oh, she’ll figure out a way to get back into the old man’s good graces. He thinks he loves her.” The despising eye roll made clear his opinion of his father.

Johnny pretended to be considering Henry’s words as he glanced around the street. He needed to shut him up and get him out of town before someone else heard him. But using force would only backfire with this weasel. Maybe flattery or logic would work. In his agitation, he kept taking off his gloves and putting them back on. “You’re a grown man, with your own life. So what if your father loves someone enough to marry her?”

Henry clucked his tongue and squinted with disdain at the man he wanted to hire. “My old man’s got nothing to commend him except his money and his land. Just because some two-bit, cock-sucking Mexican whore has my old man chasing after her with his pants around his ankles begging for a little relief doesn’t mean it’s love.”

Johnny had had enough.

Henry had only gotten started. “That round-heeled bitch probably has a passel of bastards scattered across the countryside, and she’ll do whatever it takes to get Pa to leave his ranch to her and her sprats. I’m here to get the goods on her.” A sickening grin spread across his face. “And maybe stake her out in the countryside for a few days of fun to ‘drive home’ my point.”

Johnny turned away to keep from shooting the vermin.

“So, what do you say, Madrid? Want to make some good money and have a little fun in the bargain? I’ll pay top dollar. With enough men, we could raise such a ruck-house that the town’ll turn her over to me and beg us to take her away.”

Johnny tugged on his gloves and faced the monster who had caused the deaths of dozens of innocent people back in Texas and wanted to spread more of his hate here. “Well, you’re gonna be disappointed. Life’s a lot quieter around here, and people don’t put up with that range war stuff. You’d better go home and protect your family honor on your own land instead of somebody else’s.” He turned his back on the surprised shit and got up into his saddle.

“So, you’re saying no to me?”

Johnny nodded, concentrating on adjusting his gloves.

Betraying a hint of desperation, Henry stated, “I’ll give you a thousand dollars for two weeks’ work.”

Johnny knew better. He remembered Henry’s many grand promises about money and how they vanished when the work was done.

“Nope. Thanks anyway.”

“Are you working for someone else?” Henry hissed with a burst of anger. “I’ll triple what you’re getting.”

“Go home. It’s safer for you there, where you got your name to back you up.” He reined Barranca away from the carriage and walked the animal out of town—in the opposite direction of the ranch. The short burst of swearing behind him should have been funny, but after everything Henry had said, Johnny knew it was a warning of terrible things to come. He had to get his mother out of here as fast as possible.

 

Murdoch walked through the house in search of his sons. Johnny should have been back by now with the medicine, but Scott’s horse still waited in the corral. They needed to take advantage of this dry day, and time was slipping away.

He entered the great room and stopped short. María stood by the windows, but instead of looking out, she was regarding that oil painting.

She looked at him and smiled lightly. “Guadalupe Villaneuva has graciously agreed to help me while I am here.”

He nodded, unsure how to respond or if he should continue into the room or leave.

She eased his quandary by offering an invitation to join her: “I am...surprised that you still have this. I thought it would have gone into the fireplace long ago.”

Murdoch approached and stood behind her just a little too closely, looking at the painting that he never should have kept but could never throw out. “It fit there.”

“I remember when you bought this. My father thought you were a fool, buying a copy of a copy of a Spanish painting. ‘If you wish a real portrait of my daughter, I know a competent portraitist.’” She shook her head. “One always dreams of being preserved for future generations by an artist who is ‘competent.’”

He fought his instinct to put his arms around her the way he had as she expressed her delight when he first showed her the painting. “Your father had a remarkable talent for reducing everything to its most mundane level.”

She laughed.

“I don’t blame him, though. I should have had your portrait painted instead of settling on this ‘close enough.’ You never did photograph well.”

“How can you look like yourself, with your head clamped still for five minutes?”

Murdoch caught himself reaching to put his hands around her waist and instead shoved them into his pockets. She’s here for a divorce. Don’t be a silly old man. He forced a smile. “You’ve never stayed still for five minutes in your life.”

She glanced up at him with a mischievous wink, then looked at the painting again. “I never thought she looked as much like me as you said. Now I think I did resemble her at one time. Her confidence, at least.”

He was trying to come up with a compliment when she said in a darker tone, still looking at the painting, “Tell me, why did you keep this?”

“...I just haven’t found anything else...to take its place.”

“Teresa told me when you were injured three years ago...you asked for me.”

He needed to have another talk with that girl about minding her own business. With almost complete honesty, he replied, “I don’t recall saying that.”

She turned to him with a delicate pivot that he knew so well, but her smile of mischief had vanished into a fiery intensity. He recoiled with astonishment at the tears in her eyes. “Why could you not have made things easier for both of us and stopped loving me?”

He stammered, trying to muster a reply, when he heard the sound of a horse cantering up to the house. Something must be wrong. He looked out the window, but whoever had ridden up must have tied up just out of sight at the far end of the hitching post. The hacienda’s front door opened, and a moment later a worried Johnny appeared in the great room’s doorway. He stared with surprise at his parents, and by instinct Murdoch took a step back. “What’s the matter?”

Johnny focused his attention on his mother. “We need to talk.”

Murdoch knew the timing for that conversation could be better, but he would only be an intruder, so he took another step back and said, “I have to—”

“No, you can hear this, too.” He gazed at his mother with a deadly seriousness...and perhaps hurt. “How do you know the Recklenbergs?”

María started. Her brimming tears hidden behind a flash of indignation, she fired back, “How is this of importance to you?”

Johnny sighed with exasperation and planted his hands on his hips in a stubborn gesture Murdoch knew well from both mother and son. “You sure know how to pick ‘em. Rodrigo, and then Donald Recklenberg.” She fired back with a rebuke in Spanish, but he cut her off. “No woman in her right mind would have anything to do with that family!”

Despite not being on María’s side in the matter, Murdoch felt the need to cool down the conversation. “Johnny, I think a little more civility is in order.”

María added with ruffled dignity, “And how do you know about the Recklenbergs?”

Murdoch saw Johnny’s moment of hesitation, but he quickly recovered with, “Henry is in Morro Coyo looking for you.”

Her wrinkled brow and thoughtful frown fired up Murdoch’s protective instincts, but he squashed them as quickly as he could.

“I should have known. That boy,” she muttered, then shook her head. “Boy! Ha! He is too old to be called that, but he will never be a man.”

Johnny fumed, “He’s old enough to do you a lot of harm. That’s why he’s here.”

“How do you know this?”

With reluctance, he said, “He didn’t know I knew you. He tried to hire me to find you so he could ‘teach you a lesson.’”

She shuddered. Muttering an oath, she said, “I am sorry, mijo. I hoped he had enough regard—or fear—of his father to be merely disrespectful.”

Murdoch eyed his son. “Are you worried?”

“Yes.”

That was enough for Murdoch. The ranch was back up to nearly full strength at 130 hands. He had more than enough people to protect her. For a moment, he thought of sending her away to safety, but he shuddered. No, he wouldn’t make that mistake again. “María, why don’t you go find Teresa and tell her what’s going on? Johnny and I need to talk about securing the ranch.”

“Oh, wait.” Johnny reached into his jacket pocket. “I forgot. You got a telegram.”

She frowned with curiosity as she accepted the envelope and opened it. She read the telegram with a serious gaze that grew more thoughtful as she continued. “Perhaps your concerns are not necessary.” She gave Murdoch a wistful smile. “The other son has convinced his father to reconsider.” She held out the paper to him.

He took it and read the surprisingly detailed telegram from the same Texas lawyer who had contacted him at the beginning of this mess. Recklenberg had decided in the best interest of all to withdraw his offer of marriage. To spare her “the embarrassment” of a breach of promise lawsuit, which she could not win under the circumstances, he offered a thousand dollars. The lawyer said he had accepted on her behalf and arranged for the money, minus his fees, to be available to her at the bank in Morro Coyo.

She gave a light, insouciant shrug. “I confess I liked his ranch better than I did him, and his sons would have made every effort to inflict misery on me. It is just as well.” As if she had not a care in the world, she said to the men, “I shall find Teresa. She wishes to speak with me about a matter anyway.” With a light, worry-free step, she strolled out of the room.

Murdoch told Johnny the gist of the telegram, hoping that would ease his concern. When it didn’t, he said, “Tell me about this Texas family.”

“About three years ago, I signed on for what I thought was a family protecting their ranch. It turned out the old man’s two sons, Junior and Henry, decided to intimidate the farmers in ‘their’ county while their father was away. But the farmers didn’t scare easy.”

Scott entered the front hall, and when he saw the two, he joined them.

Johnny continued, “The ‘boys’ decided a little range war would be fun, so they hired every gun they could and even small ranchers from outside the county with promises of lots of money and support. Because the farmers were white, they couldn’t just kill them. So, the boys wanted terror and force to keep them in line.”

Scott asked with alarm, “What’s going on?”

Murdoch replied, “A man who didn’t want to be María’s stepson is in Morro Coyo.”

Scott’s worry grew as Johnny continued, “The first attempt was to stampede cattle through the head farmers’ land.” His anger grew as he said, “I’d met one of the regular people who signed on. Pedro wanted the money because his mother was sick. He felt bad for the farmers, but he was the head of his family, so he had to think of them first.

“They tried to run a couple hundred unbranded yearlings across the farm, with the professionals following to keep the farmers from stopping the stampede. But what do gun hawks know about cattle? Before they even got to the first building, the animals turned, and they trampled the drivers. Pedro was....” Johnny frowned with disgust. “He lived, but he was never going to be able to work again. And Henry, the boy general, said because the stampede didn’t work, Pedro and the other people who were hurt or killed hadn’t earned their money, and he refused to pay.”

“Charming fellow,” Scott observed.

“I quit. Henry said he wasn’t going to pay me since the job wasn’t done yet. I told him I didn’t want his money, but if he didn’t pay the people who’d been hurt, I’d tell his hired guns what his promises were worth, and he wouldn’t have a professional left by nightfall. He paid me, and he paid the wounded men, pissing and bellyaching the whole way. And in front of him I gave my money to Pedro and the others.”

“You did that to him,” Murdoch responded, “and he still tried to hire you today?”

“Henry’s one of those people who remembers things the way he wants to. That way all his failures turn into successes.” He shook his head. “After I left, the whole campaign went to hell. Junior and Henry are murderers, even though they had other people do the work for them. But they’ve got money, and they own the county, so they never had to answer for it.”

“This is the family María wants to marry into?” Scott exclaimed.

With a surly ruffle, Johnny replied, “I’m sure Junior and Henry told their Pa a nice little story about how the farmers started it. I never met the man, but someone who’d let his kids grow up that way probably believed it.”

Murdoch eyed his sons, once again thanking the kind Providence that had watched over them in his absence. “What matters is Henry is here, and Johnny said he’s making threats against María.”

“Do you have a plan?” Scott asked.

“Not yet.”

Ever the tactician, Scott observed, “Well, he’s out of his element. California isn’t Texas. He doesn’t have the power of his forces here.”

“I told him that,” Johnny replied. “He doesn’t care. He means to bring Texas with him.”

“But the point is, brother, that we have the advantage of being at home. People know us, and they don’t know him. We may not be universally loved, but people around here know we’re honest. We can use that.”

“The other point,” Murdoch added, “is the marriage is off. He can go home with another success under his belt.”

Scott looked surprised, but his younger son continued to show no relief at this turn of events.

Murdoch asked, “What’s bothering you, Johnny?”

It took him a moment to form his answer. “What he said didn’t match how he said it. He doesn’t just want to keep her away from his father. He hates her. He wants to hurt her.”

That settled it. Murdoch said, “We have to assume he’ll find his way to the ranch eventually. We’ll set up lookouts on every road and trail. We’ll need tents and rain gear. Scott, I want you to set up outposts and some sort of message relay system so we won’t be surprised.” Scott nodded. “And at no point is María to be alone until this is over. If she goes outside, she has at least two armed guards. Day and night, I want guards outside the house.”

Scott nodded, then thought of something. “I heard Teresa say she and María were going to the gathering for the new baby.” His dubious gaze betrayed his thoughts. “You’re not going to ask us to attend the party, are you?”

If lives weren’t at stake, Murdoch might have found Scott’s alarm amusing. Suppressing his irritation, he said, “Men can stand watch at the housing perimeter, just out of sight. Nothing is going to happen to her.”

Scott nodded. “Agreed.” He left to begin work on the security detail.

Johnny’s spirits didn’t rise with the plans. Murdoch put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Johnny, I promise you, nothing will happen to your mother.”

He nodded, but Murdoch knew he had not convinced his son.

 

Teresa sat on the rug in front of the fireplace, the glow of the modest fire the only light in the great room. She didn’t know how she could be more miserable. Why did she have to ask? Why couldn’t she have left well enough alone? She felt like someone had placed a rucksack filled with a hundred pounds of rocks on her shoulders. Why had she pushed? If only she’d kept her curiosity to herself, and corralled her need to know everything. If only, if only....

She heard someone walking out in the hallway. No, please, don’t let it be María. I’m not ready. The steps came closer, and she realized the step wasn’t light enough to be a woman’s. Keep going, she thought. She couldn’t face anyone right now, especially Murdoch or Johnny. The steps weren’t heavy enough to be Murdoch’s, and there was no jangle of spurs. Let it be Scott, she prayed.

She heard a movement in the doorway. “Teresa?”

Her heart sank. He must’ve taken off his spurs after supper. “Yeah, Johnny.”

She heard him come in. “What are you doing all alone in the dark?”

“Spending time with the fire.”

He appeared above her, a gentle smile on his face. “You and fires.”

“Yeah, I’m a great one for burning things.”

He sat cross-legged next to her on the floor, holding up his hands to the fire’s warmth. “How was the party?”

“It was good. The baby is adorable, of course.”

He nodded. “My mother was really grateful to you for sharing one of your gifts so she had something to give Lucinda.”

She nodded.

They sat watching the fire. She didn’t want to look at him. She might say something wrong and set things in motion. She wasn’t ready.

“So,” he said with a hesitation she rarely heard from him, “what do you think of my mother?” There had been something of a little boy’s tone in his voice.

“I like her.”

“You do?” he said with a hint of eagerness. “Good. I think a lot of people do.”

She nodded, then gave him only the slightest of side glances. “Have you talked with her yet?”

“No,” he admitted. “But I will soon. Real soon.”

She usually treasured their closeness and his willingness to talk with her about things he couldn’t say to the others. But tonight, that only added rocks to the rucksack lashed to her shoulders. “You’ve got to get it over with.”

He looked down at his hands in a way some boys do when they don’t want to admit something. “I know. I’m just...afraid of what she’s going to say.” He looked up at the fire. “Her family was all upright, honorable people. Practically nobility. They had their problems, too, but they were all about honor. She tried so hard to raise me to be a gentleman. But how do you do that...when everything around you pulls you the other way?” He gazed into the gentle flames. “I mean, living the way we did killed part of her.” He sighed. “I don’t know what it’s gonna do to her to find out about me.”

She should keep her mouth shut. She really should. It would be the best for everyone. “Don’t you have any questions for her?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, like why she left, and the reason she lied to you about why.” Part of her hoped she had given him a little indignation that might starch up his spine, but she saw a cold glint in his eyes. Teresa O’Brien, you should cut out your own tongue. “I’m sorry, Johnny. You just need to remember that as much as you might hurt her feelings with the truth, she bears some responsibility for what you did.” Throw more oil on the fire while you’re at it.

“I know. But how do you say that to your mother?” He looked at her. “I mean, you could, because your mother....” He rethought. “No, I guess you couldn’t, either.”

She held out her hand to him, and he took it. “Being a mother is one of the toughest jobs in the world, and life out here doesn’t make it any easier.” Listen to yourself, Teresa. Sometimes you tell other people the things you need to hear.

He gave her hand a gentle press, then let it go and stood. “Thanks, Teresa. You know, you can be pretty smart for a pipsqueak.”

Out of habit, she took a half-hearted swing at his leg. He stepped out of the way with the flash of a grin. At least she got a smile out of him. For a moment. She hoped he wouldn’t hate her later.

 

Scott returned from his pre-dawn trip to town with everything he could find from his sentry post supplies list. Frank Deering and his brother-in-law Micah Jones drove the new buckboard filled with all three field stoves Don Baldomero had in stock at the store so the guards would have some comfort against the damp conditions. Carefully packed to keep them safe were two boxes of flares and multiple cases of ammunition. Scott drove the old bone crusher wagon that should have been consigned to the scrap heap, which was filled with oilcloth for making tents. His purchase of so much emergency equipment would set the gossips to work, but keeping María’s presence at the ranch a secret seemed impossible. Besides, any rumors about preparations might deter young Mr. Henry Recklenberg from attempting an assault on the estancia.

He had no success with his other errand. The bank president assured him that while he absolutely trusted Scott, his instructions about the money wired to María were quite specific—the funds could be released only to her. Scott feared she would insist on retrieving her settlement immediately, even at the risk of encountering her antagonist. With luck, the boy general would be out in the countryside looking for gullible troops and not in town when they arrived.

They returned to the ranch in time for a late lunch, and María confirmed Scott’s fears—she wanted to get the money as quickly as possible. They couldn’t make it back to town before the bank closed, so that errand would have to wait for the next morning. In the meantime, Scott would talk with the Ladies Brigade—his affectionate term for the ranch hands’ widows who had stayed on at Lancer—about designing and sewing the tents.

Scott hoped Johnny would take this opportunity to have the much-delayed talk with his mother, but, instead, his younger brother announced he would organize target practice for the ranch hands and disappeared with the cases of ammunition. Scott knew something was eating at Johnny, but when he tried to ask him about it, he practically fled like a naughty child caught in the act. Scott had never seen him like this, and it was becoming alarming. His brother needed to get over this. The challenge ahead required Johnny Madrid, not little Juanito Delgado.

With nothing else to do, María asked Murdoch to give her a tour of the ranch. Scott watched his father mull it over. Staying within the safety of the house would be the smart choice. However, when she pressed him for the short outing, Murdoch made vague statements about not traveling too far, and sentries were already in place around the ranch, and a clear afternoon during the rainy season sang its siren song. Taking along a few flares as a precaution, to the dismay of his older son, he acquiesced to his wife’s request.

Murdoch had the small buckboard hitched up, while María oversaw the packing of light refreshments. Accompanied by the incongruous sound of pistol fire coming from behind the house, they headed out into the greening countryside. As the wagon reached the first outbuilding, Scott wondered how his father had managed to forget his stout talk yesterday about two armed guards for her at all times. However, as he watched María lean in and say something confidential to her husband, somehow he didn’t feel he should remind him.

 

Murdoch turned the small buckboard off the high road to find one of his favorite spots above the ranch’s main valley. About a quarter mile of bouncing along over a pasture led to a relatively flat prominence sheltered by oak trees. The thirsty soil had soaked up the rain, leaving the ground and new grass soft but relatively dry. María admired the view of the hacienda and grazing cattle as Murdoch put down a quilt and set down the basket of food.

He felt as nervous as a cat. The jostling of the wagon had hidden the trembling of his hands, but now how could he disguise his agitation? What was he thinking? Why hadn’t Scott challenged him about leaving without guards? Thank God no one noticed he’d shaved again before they left the hacienda. María had always been so particular about that. Her admonition still lingered, all these years later: “Either you shave, or you grow a beard. In between is only for ruffians.” A fool he might be, but a ruffian, no.

Locking his hands behind his back, he joined her at the edge of the lookout as she marveled at the vista. “It is even more beautiful than I remember it. You have made this rancho the jewel of California.”

“It’s taken a lot of work. And the work never ends.”

“How grateful you must be for the help of Johnny and now Scott.”

She still seemed to think that Johnny had been here much longer than Scott had. Murdoch thought Johnny had finally had his talk with his mother. He didn’t blame the boy for wanting to avoid that conversation. He had been avoiding a conversation of his own.

She smiled at him with so much gratitude it made him ache. “I cannot thank you enough for what you have done for our son. You have raised him to be an honorable young man. It would have been so easy for you to hold him responsible for what I did. He could have turned out very badly. How he made it all the way here is a miracle which I shall spend the rest of my life trying to earn.”

Damn it, Johnny, why haven’t you told her the truth? I can’t take the way she’s looking at me much longer.

He summoned up all his strength and asked, “What will you do now, with your marriage plans done? After we deal with Henry, of course.”

With that insouciant tilt of her head that had made his heart flutter a hundred times, she said brightly, “I shall collect my money, and I will buy a buggy so I may go wherever I wish, and then...I do not know.”

The last of his resolve collapsed. “Stay here.”

The sparkle in her eyes dimmed.

“You belong here, María. With me. With our son. With all of us. We want you to stay. Everyone loves you. Please. Stay here.”

Tears began to gather in her eyes. “You cannot ask me to do that. You cannot forgive me for what I have done. I could not bear to have you hate me.”

He put his hands on her arms, and her flinch cut through him. “I don’t hate you, María. I never could. I’ve loved you from the first moment I saw you. I’ll love you until the day I die. Whether you’re here, or in Matamoros, or in Outer Mongolia. I’ll always love you.”

The tears skipped down her cheeks as she tried to step away from his gentle grip. “Please. Do not say such things. As you are a man of honor, you cannot forgive me. I have hurt you more than you will ever know.”

“I know you love me. You came back.”

“You forced me to do so.”

“You could have said no. You never even asked. You just came.”

She tried to take a step back, but he would not let her escape, not ever again.

“Please,” she said, beginning to weep. “Do not ask of me what I cannot do. A woman has her honor, too. I cannot ask you to take me back.”

He cupped her face with his hands. “I never did let you go.” With a tender brush of his calloused thumb, he wiped a tear from her soft cheek. “I need you more than I’ve needed anything in my life. I don’t care what you’ve done. There is no past. There is only now. You’re the piece of me that’s been missing ever since the day you left. If you can forgive me for what I did to make you leave, we can start over. Right now.”

She gazed up at him, trying to hold back her tears. “For the last twenty years, I have been running away from you. I thought I could escape. I ran so far. But I see now all I have done is run all the way around the world, only to come back to you.”

He kissed her cheek, the salt of her tears sweet on his lips.

She shivered. “Please tell me you will forgive me, no matter what.”

He kissed her other cheek. “I already have.”

“I do not believe you can do it. But I want to, so very much.”

He kissed her lips, and, after a final effort to resist, she drew her arms around him.

 

The tantalizing aroma of the Mexican feast in María’s honor lingered in the great room long after the housekeeper had gathered up the untouched meal and returned it to the kitchen. As a still twilight settled over the valley with no sign of Murdoch and María, Johnny paced and Teresa stayed at the large window, searching the sky for a flare from the missing couple.

To make the others happy, Scott organized sorties of search parties. However, after watching the two ride off together, he had the distinct impression that they would be just fine, thank you, and they would enjoy a bit of solitude. No one knew the ranch better than Murdoch; Scott couldn’t imagine anyone being able to slip into his proximity without his knowing it. Besides, the man had demonstrated over and again his ability to take care of himself. Scott saw no reason whatsoever to be concerned. However, with the official position being that something must be wrong, he could go along with the others in the spirit of family unity.

An hour after sunset, as Scott sipped a glass of sherry in the comfort of his usual chair and the other two paced and hovered by the window, the sound of a wagon approaching launched Johnny and Teresa in the direction of the great room’s doorway. However, the sound of Murdoch’s voice as he asked Cipriano what the commotion was about stopped them before they reached the hall. They shared a “what do we do?” glance that nearly made Scott laugh, then they retreated to their regular haunts and waited.

The front door opened as Murdoch continued his bemused comments about why everyone was acting so strangely. The buoyancy in his voice wasn’t lost on Scott, and he wondered if the other two noticed.

The pair came through the door, María beaming and Murdoch chuckling about all the fuss. “Does anyone honestly think I got lost?”

Scott put down his glass and marveled at the sight of the tardy couple. He almost didn’t recognize them. Perhaps he was seeing them through some mysterious prism of time, because to his eyes they looked as if they had just emerged from the church after being married. They weren’t merely at ease with each other. They were Plato’s two halves of one whole, round soul ready to take on the gods. As Murdoch apologized and said they had lost track of time, Scott picked up his glass and took another sip to hide his smile. That was quite a picnic.

Johnny fired back with a fiercely defensive comment about how did Murdoch expect them to react when he had been so concerned about security that morning. Scott knew Johnny understood, and he found his brother’s discomfiture concerning. No one knew these two better than Johnny did. But he only knew them as individuals—he didn’t know them as a couple. Was he worried that this wouldn’t last? Or was this more of his mysterious behavior since his mother returned?

María proclaimed that the fault for their tardiness belonged to her, but, before she could come up with an excuse, she breathed in the aroma of the abandoned supper. “Oh, my! Did you have this for me? I cannot apologize enough! Perhaps there is some left?” she said with a twinkle in her eye and swept through the room on her way to the kitchen. A smiling Murdoch agreed with her “excellent idea” before following his wife out of the room.

The three regarded each other. For the moment, Johnny was unreadable, and Teresa’s preoccupied expression from the past day had returned. Scott observed, “One of us should go up to the roof to shoot off the flares so the search parties know they can come back.”

Teresa volunteered, but Johnny departed on the errand before she could protest.

Scott studied her. “What’s the matter, Teresa? You’ve been especially thoughtful.”

She shook her head with an evasive glance. “Just a lot to think about, I guess.” She excused herself and left.

Scott sighed and swallowed the last sip of his sherry. What was going on? Everyone liked María. Why were the others so reticent? Had he missed something?

All Scott could think about was Murdoch’s transformation from this morning...in fact, from how he had been for as long as Scott had known him. Like a lot of tall men, Murdoch often moved with a certain self-consciousness at being so much larger than everyone else. But his awkwardness extended beyond that. Scott recalled that woman from Murdoch’s past—a might-have-been love interest—the one with the troublesome son—Marcy Dane, that was her name. As Scott waited to take Mrs. Dane back to San Francisco for her son’s appointment with justice, he witnessed Murdoch’s farewell. His father felt bad for her, even though she had made a coldly calculated effort to insinuate herself into the family in hopes of providing for her irresponsible child. Murdoch obviously felt something for her, just not what she hoped. As she was about to depart, he had given her a spontaneous kiss with all the gawkiness of a fourteen-year-old suffering through his first infatuation. It had been a little embarrassing to see that in a man of Murdoch’s age. But perhaps it was not surprising. His father had suffered through so many losses, and perhaps he thought love was not meant for him. For all his confidence as a rancher and businessman, he demonstrated precious little poise when it came to the fair sex.

But when Murdoch returned home just now, Scott saw a completely different man. Comfortable, relaxed, at ease with himself. Whatever else María might be, she was good for him. He was genuinely happy. No one deserved it more.

Scott set down his glass and stood. The others could do as they pleased. As for him, he was half-starved and that supper they forwent smelled amazing. He would join the lovebirds in the kitchen.

 

After a long night of arguing with himself, Johnny was ready for The Talk. His mother had never been more contented than she had been last evening. After he fired off the flares to tell the search parties that the couple had been found, he joined his parents—parents, a word he never thought he’d ever use—and Scott in the kitchen for a late supper. It was pretty obvious what had happened during their afternoon together. He found it kind of funny. Part of him had wondered if Murdoch was past all that. Johnny figured it was a good sign for his own future that he wasn’t. And Johnny had never seen his mother so happy. He felt like he was seeing her for the first time. That was how she was supposed to be, not how life had made her. Her fire was still there, but it wasn’t dirtied by anger and disappointment. She’d laughed more last night than all the other times he could recall. She and Murdoch were honest-to-God flirting with each other. He wondered if one of them snuck off to the other’s bedroom in the middle of the night.

But even as he laughed along with them and listened to stories about their short time together all those years ago, he kept brooding on how to talk with her. It wasn’t until he’d gone to bed, and stared at the ceiling for a couple hours, that he realized why he’d been running away since she came back. He didn’t want to know the truth about why she’d left Murdoch. Any fight he’d ever had with her would be nothing to the explosion that would happen when he confronted her about her lie. But he had to do it. It would be impossible for him to talk about his life as Johnny Madrid without forcing her to face up to why she made him hate his father. As a child, he had accepted as gospel her word that Murdoch had thrown them out. Now, he looked back and tried to hear the conversation again as an adult. If only he could recall exactly what she said!

There were times when getting her to talk was impossible. He had known from an early age that asking about certain subjects would earn a lecture or a fierce silence. The most forbidden subject was bad family history. The only reason he knew about what happened to his mother’s cousin was because a neighbor in Paso del Norte had heard about the “honor killing,” and the old gossip had cornered him one day and tried in vain to get out of him more about the woman’s insanely jealous husband. Despite her cousin’s innocence, the scandal had brought shame on the Delgados. Johnny never told his mother what the old gossip had said, and on the few occasions when his mother mentioned her cousin, all she said was that her beloved Asunción, who had been like a sister to her, had been a sweet and gentle woman who died too soon.

The one subject where Johnny risked pushing for answers was his father. He was teased by the other children about knowing nothing, and when he asked her about him, her sadness and anger could only hold back his curiosity for so long.

He had filled the void with hatred for the man. In his mind, he’d mixed up his own father with his friend Paco’s rat bastard old man, probably because they were both Anglos. Just before Johnny turned eight, Paco’s father had beaten Paco’s mother to within an inch of her life before kicking her and their four children out of their home. That cost the bully his own worthless existence at the hands of her brother and uncle. Johnny and a few neighborhood boys stumbled on the ambush. Even now he could see the blood splattering on the adobe walls and smell the stench of the gore and hear the men’s vicious punches, and how the savage sounds changed from deep, solid pounding to sloppy thudding as their victim lost consciousness and his blood-soaked body could no longer offer up a feeble defense. The attackers left him a gasping, oozing pile of broken flesh. Paco’s aunt found the boys standing over the moaning body and herded them away before they could watch him wheeze out his last breath—but not before she spit on the dying bully.

Johnny had come home worried. Had the same thing happened to them? Without telling his mother about the murder he had just seen, he asked for the fourteenth time why he didn’t have a father. She had always said she would tell him when he was “old enough to understand.” This time he tried to force an answer out of her: Had it happened like Paco’s mother, that he had beaten her and thrown them out? With frustration and annoyance, she said she didn’t want to talk about it, but she made it clear that his father had forced them to leave. Her anger told Johnny he had come pretty close to the truth, and his hatred for Murdoch Lancer continued to grow.

The first cracks in her story appeared when he returned to the ranch more than two years ago, and Teresa told him a very different story about their departure—his mother had run off with a gambler. Then Francisco Toledano had opened up more doubts when he tracked him down after Day Pardee and his men killed that vaquero and his wife, when the old man asked him to see his father with his own eyes and not through his mother’s words. Her story had completely fallen apart when Johnny heard how much care Murdoch took to ensure everyone’s safety before that final battle, when he sent the women and children away. He couldn’t imagine how horrible Murdoch felt when he found out Teresa didn’t understand the danger of being within reach of Day’s men and stayed behind.

Why had his mother lied? With every other topic, she was relentlessly honest. She had to have a good reason for breaking that rule. The other thing he didn’t understand was why she’d taken her baby along when she was running off with another man. Especially a gambler—he’d never met one who had much use for kids. Johnny had spent a lot of time over the last two and a half years trying to figure those things out, but he never got anywhere. The only one who had the answers was the one person he couldn’t ask.

Now, his family seemed to be on the verge of something he never thought possible—his parents together...and happy. Murdoch knew about the gambler, and Rodrigo, and now about Old Man Recklenberg. He also knew she had blamed him for why they left. And yet he didn’t seem to care. Johnny knew from his own life that once Murdoch let down his guard, he had a nearly endless supply of forgiveness and understanding for those he loved. Now it was time for him to test his mother’s ability to forgive by telling her the truth about himself.

All their futures rested on his shoulders. He still wasn’t used to responsibility. What if he did it wrong? There was a real chance of that. For all of Scott’s big speeches and Shakespeare, he couldn’t help with this. Even Teresa, with her blunt talk and willingness to say what people didn’t want to hear, couldn’t teach him how to get this right. How had this giant burden fallen on him, the weakest one of the bunch?

He tried to talk it over with Teresa yesterday, but she seemed to be avoiding him. That wasn’t like her. Something must be wrong. She hadn’t been acting like herself ever since she came back from the party for the new baby. He promised himself that when they returned from town this afternoon, after he’d succeeded or failed with his mother, he’d track Teresa down and find out what was going on with her.

They were going to the bank in Morro Coyo first thing in the morning, and he decided the best time for the talk would be after he helped his mother buy a buggy that she said she wanted. He would drive back to the ranch with her. She would be in a good mood with the settlement money from Recklenberg, and maybe—maybe—in front of the others she would be less likely to explode. He hoped she would be willing to hear the truth about how her little boy had spent almost half his life. What was it Scott said? “Mitigating circumstances.” That sounded a lot more respectable than “excuses.”

Johnny still felt he couldn’t talk to God directly, so, when he needed help for something really big, he always went through the closest he’d ever known to a saint. “Father Mateo,” he said more than once during the long night, “I can’t do this alone. Please ask God to make it okay.”

 

Looking more like an Independence Day parade than an errand, a thirty-strong squad of Lancer men escorted María into town to visit the bank. They rode in a casual group rather than a phalanx around the wagon Murdoch drove with its most precious cargo, but the message was clear just the same: Lancer takes care of its own.

Johnny was glad to have Scott in charge of the journey. His brother had three different plans worked out, and at any moment they could switch to another route or a different formation if necessary. There would be no unanticipated problems with Scott in command.

María, of course, said the whole thing was ridiculous. She kept trying to tell everyone that she was in no danger. “Henry is a pest, but he talks very grand and does very little.” Johnny knew better about Henry, and he knew better about his mother, too. That nothing had happened—so far—reassured no one.

When they reached sight of the town, Scott signaled Cipriano, who led a group of six riders to go ahead and scout out the rest of the way. They would signal at the sight of anything suspicious. Ysidro and another eight men dropped back to act as a flank guard and stay on the edge of town, ready to charge at the first sound of trouble.

All was quiet in Morro Coyo when the parade arrived. The size of the remaining group sparked some curiosity, and a few people called out friendly greetings. The loudest and cheeriest was from a grinning Penny Putnam, who leaned against the pillar of his business’s sidewalk overhang. He scrutinized María as the buckboard rolled by.

Cipriano and his group had collected farther down the main street outside the dry goods store, and Jelly and another group of riders stayed behind in front of the main cantina. Both ends of the street were covered in case someone charged into town, and the cantina group in between would meet them if they got through. The remaining handful of men, led by Toledano, stayed with the buckboard.

María and Murdoch concluded the bank errand in less than five minutes. She collected her $837—“That lawyer has some nerve charging you those kinds of fees,” Murdoch grumbled—and no sooner had they exited the building than María asked to go to the livery stable, where the day before, Jelly assured her, he had seen two nice little buggies for sale. The men of the family had no interest in staying in town any longer than necessary, but she had her heart set on having her own transportation. Watching every movement around them, they surrendered and headed further down the main street in the direction of the livery stable, Johnny to the left of the small buckboard at the side of his mother and Scott on the right next to Murdoch, while the remaining ranch hands followed, the trusted Toledano taking up the flank.

As they approached a small cross alley, a block from the stable, the hair on the back of Johnny’s neck began to itch. In the hazy morning sunshine, he could see the shadows of two horses appear in the narrow walkway. Horses had no reason to be there.

“Alley,” he said in a low voice.

Scott and Murdoch focused on the passageway.

Murdoch eased the team of horses to a quiet stop.

Johnny guided his horse forward to be even with the wagon team. In his side vision, he saw Scott do the same. A glance behind him showed Frank Deering slipping up next to his mother and Danny Burgess moving up next to Murdoch. The seven best guns now surrounded his mother. In his side vision, he saw her look around and then put a concerned hand on Murdoch’s arm.

They waited.

A handful of townspeople nearby stopped to see what was going on. Silence filled the air.

One of the alley horses snorted, and then it moved out into the street. In the saddle was Bear Benning, a shaggy brute known around the county as a man who talked a lot but didn’t think much. His services for the day could be bought for two bits and a beer. Following him on the other horse was his pal Hank Vorress, a scratchy little scrapper who must have gotten out of the Silver Spring jail early after that saloon fracas last month.

The men stopped their horses in the street thirty feet in front of the buckboard. Bear nodded to Murdoch as Hank offered a tobacco-stained grin. “Mr. Lancer,” Bear said.

“Bear,” Murdoch replied, on guard.

“Somebody wants to talk with ya.” He looked back at the livery stable and called out, “Okay!”

As the stable doors opened, Murdoch asked him, “Who is it, Bear?”

“Just somebody who wants to talk,” Bear said with a smile that revealed he’d chipped yet another tooth.

Out through the stable doors dashed four hitched horses. The others jerked with surprise and Johnny put his hand over his holster. Scott made a calming gesture to keep the nervous ranch hands from drawing their weapons as Henry Recklenberg’s carriage appeared with the lackey at the reins...but no Henry in the back.

Johnny searched the storefronts around them—no Henry. He scanned the balconies above and behind them. He caught a glimpse of movement behind a window of the Parker Hotel—a man in a suit—Johnny watched him shift back and forth but not present himself.

The ranch hands behind the wagon became more agitated as their nervous horses jigged. Scott glanced around with a fierce gaze, looking for the enemy. The four-horse hitch rushed past, the wild-eyed driver eager to get out of the way. The townspeople scattered. Something bad was about to happen. Any moment now, a nervous Lancer rider would haul out his pistol or even pull the trigger of his holstered gun, and everyone would have weapons out and friends would kill each other in a panicked crossfire.

Wait—how would Henry have any idea where they would go in town? Maybe he guessed about the bank, but after that guess he’d hedge his bets. Besides, Henry sure wasn’t the kind of man to put himself in danger. He’d be where he could watch in safety, and with lots of witnesses to see he hadn’t done a thing to start the firefight that was about to erupt.

Johnny turned his horse slowly and faced the way they’d come. “Hold it,” he said in a quiet voice. The ranch hands calmed their horses as best they could, and Scott and Murdoch watched him. Johnny passed the group of men behind the buckboard, signaling Micah Jones to move up next to María.

Johnny walked his horse at a deliberate pace back along the street and stopped in front of the larger of the two main saloons. Leaning on the batwings, a half-empty glass of beer in his hand, with a crooked smile on his curled lips and hate pouring out of his eyes, stood Henry Recklenberg.

“‘Morning, Henry,” Johnny said, casting a cool gaze around the anxious street. “Isn’t it a little early for beer?”

“This teppered swill? Our feeble old housekeeper brews tea stronger than this piss.”

“Why don’t you come out and join us?”

Henry grimaced, then looked over his shoulder and gave a small tilt of his head for someone to follow him. Keeping his beer glass in his hand, he pushed open the batwings and came out onto the sidewalk planking. He gestured for Johnny to go first, but Johnny returned the gesture, holding his hand in the direction of the buckboard. Brushing a stray lock of sandy hair out of his eyes, then setting down his beer glass on the saloon window’s ledge, Henry ambled up the street.

Johnny waited for whoever had received that signal to follow. Henry was halfway up the block when a figure came through the bar entrance. Lean, dressed in tight dungarees and a sleek jacket of dark leather, wearing a low-slung gun belt with a glistening black Colt in the holster, out strolled a young man who couldn’t have been much over eighteen. Despite his few years, he wore the threat of death on his face to advertise his chosen profession, as if his carefully-chosen dime novel gunfighter clothes hadn’t said enough. But Johnny knew what Rafael would say: “Do not laugh at him until you see his work.”

The teenaged gunman gave Johnny a sneer as he strutted past, showing his back to him in a gesture of disdain. He even turned to look in a store window so Johnny could get a clear view of the three notches carved into his Colt’s handle.

Johnny felt old all of a sudden. This kid was cocky enough to keep going into trouble that any sensible professional would avoid. He would be extra unpredictable, especially if Henry stirred things up just right. And Henry was good at stirring.

Johnny rode back to the buckboard behind the strolling gunman, aware of the returning crowd of uneasy onlookers. He didn’t know if they had faith in his family’s ability to control the situation, or if their curiosity was stronger than their common sense.

By the time Johnny reached the buckboard and resumed his place before his mother, Henry was standing in front of the wagon’s team, just to the side of the off horse before María. His young gunman took the mirror position before and off to the side of the lead horse, his arms folded across his chest in a pose of boastful youth. Behind them, still on their horses, waited Bear and Hank, smiling at being a part of the show.

Johnny sized up the situation. Whether or not Henry knew about the other groups of Lancer riders, Henry was counting on his hired gun taking him down while Bear and Hank covered the rest. With the wagon’s horses between them, and his gunman on the inside of the group, Johnny would have trouble getting a fast, clear shot at the kid, who wouldn’t hesitate to shoot anything in his way. Henry made one major mistake in his desire to stand opposite his real quarry—if a battle erupted, he had nowhere to hide, while his fast gun could be safely in the alley in five running strides. Typical. Henry had thought it partway through but forgotten important details towards the end. Then again, maybe he was thinking he’d move through the chaos to grab María as a hostage and shield. If that was his plan, it was a stupid one. But, whether this was planned or not, a lot of people would be dead or dying in short order, and for no good reason. Just like his little range war.

Henry offered María a lurid smile. Loud enough for everyone on the street to hear, he said, “So, María, aren’t you going to introduce me to your...latest conquest?” He glanced at Murdoch.

Her pride ten feet tall, she glared down at him. “You are a disgrace to the late woman who gave you life.”

He chuckled. “Well, I’d say you’re an expert on disgrace.” He looked at Murdoch. “Did you check to see how many other husbands she has? I figure at least fifteen or twenty between here and Mexico.”

“That’s enough,” Murdoch growled.

Henry smiled.

Johnny noticed Scott glancing across at him with concern. What Scott knew but Henry didn’t was how the taunts meant to anger Murdoch were hitting him harder. Once any of them reacted, that would be the kid’s signal to start. Johnny knew he could remain as calm as the sky, as Rafael used to say, but he needed to derail this pendejo before Henry humiliated his mother in front of everyone in town and ruined her chance of living here in peace and dignity.

As Henry glared at María, Johnny noticed a strange glint in his eyes. He shuddered. This wasn’t just hate. It wasn’t about keeping her from marrying his father. The bastard wanted her for himself. Now Johnny understood why Henry had stuck around. He glanced at his mother, who regarded her enemy with cold annoyance. Johnny could imagine how the whole story had played out: Henry must have propositioned her, she embarrassed him by turning him down flat, and then she made him even angrier by allowing herself to be courted by his father. Mierda. This was a vendetta. Henry wouldn’t give up until he gave her five times as much pain as he decided she had given him.

Henry continued to Murdoch, “I bet you’re enjoying her best. Me and my Pa and brother were comparing notes one day, and we agreed she’s the best mouth fucker west of the Mississippi.”

María recoiled, and Murdoch roiled with rage.

Henry added, “She has this way of—”

A small metal object pinged off the side of Henry’s head, and with a start he swatted at it as the object dropped to the ground. He glanced down, and he blanched. He picked up the bullet cartridge, then stared at Johnny.

In a casual pose, Johnny held his gun with the cylinder open, and in his other hand he held another cartridge as if he were loading his weapon. “Sorry.” He gave Henry a slight shrug. “Clumsy.”

Henry stammered for a few moments, apparently choking on the message. He looked at his gunman, who had not seen all the details, and held the cartridge in his open palm for the kid to see. The gunman glared at Johnny. Johnny gave the kid a shrug of his own, then snapped the pistol’s cylinder back into place. He slipped the cartridge into one of the two empty ammunition loops on his gun belt, then reholstered his gun.

In a quiet tone that could not hide all of her anger, María said to Johnny, “Gracias, mijo.” He marveled at her. She showed nothing but courage.

Henry stared at her, then Johnny. “‘Mijo?’” He let out a belly laugh. “No wonder I couldn’t buy you, Jua-ni-to.” He pronounced his name with a sharp, patronizing edge. “I thought she’d hired you. But she spratted you!” He laughed again. “One ‘professional’ spratting another.” He eyed María with absolute disdain. “Well, Mrs. Madrid, you must be mighty proud of your fine, upstanding boy.”

It was all Johnny could do not to flinch. He could see his mother’s confusion, but her dignity won the brief battle, and she rewrapped herself in her mantle of scorn.

Henry’s youthful hired gun, however, paled. His mouth opened with surprise, and he unlocked his folded arms and let his hands drift down to his waist, holding them out in front and away from his holster. Not taking his eyes off Johnny, he said to Henry in a low hiss, “You never said I’d be going up against Johnny Madrid.”

Johnny fixed a still, cold gaze on the kid.

Henry grumbled, “What difference does that make? I’m paying you.”

The kid took half a step back. “The difference is he’s Johnny Madrid.”

Henry erupted with curses. “He’s a coward and a cock sucker!”

That didn’t seem to be enough of an argument for the young gunman. He took another half step back, glanced at Henry, and then, looking at Johnny with his upturned hands held out in a gesture of surrender, silently stepped back and disappeared down the side alley.

Henry doubled his curses, and Bear and Hank looked at each other in confusion. Watching their protection take off seemed to change their minds about the situation. They looked at Henry, then eyed each other again. Bear offered Murdoch and María a touch on the brim of his hat, and then the two drew their horses back and turned to head down the street and out of town.

Henry turned red with fury.

Johnny said to him, “At least this time you don’t have to come up with an excuse for not paying your help.”

A ripple of nervous laughter passed through the closest section of onlookers. Henry looked ready to explode.

It was time to end this. Johnny said with cool precision, “You need someone who won’t run out on you. Somebody like Day Pardee. You remember him. He was one of your top men in that slaughter of the farmers you and your brother organized.”

A dark murmur passed through the crowd.

Henry thought for a moment, then smiled. “Yeah! He’s a good man. Always full of ideas.”

“He’s not too far from here.”

“Huh.” Henry smirked. “I haven’t heard about him for a while. Soft California living must’ve caught up with him. Mighty sporting of you to tell me about him, Madrid. I can see you live for the fight as much as I do.”

Johnny gestured with his chin towards the east. “He and ten of his best men are about a half mile out of town. In the far end of the cemetery. They don’t get a lot of visitors, so I bet they’d appreciate a call.”

Henry turned white with rage.

Johnny figured if the culero had a gun under his jacket, he’d make his play now. If he did, he was ready for him. “Don’t try to bring Texas to California. It won’t work here.”

Henry shook with impotent fury. Johnny watched his hands shake, but he made no move for a pocket. Just as Johnny thought, once again the overgrown boy had relied on others to do his dirty work and had no weapon.

Johnny gave a long side glance to Scott, who nodded. His brother called back to Ysidro to track down where Henry’s driver had taken his carriage so they could bring it back. Ysidro nodded, and three men joined him in trotting down the side road where the driver had fled.

Murdoch regarded Henry with a remarkable calm, considering how angry everyone knew he was. “You’ve won. She’s not marrying your father. You’re never going to have to look at her again. Go home and count your blessings.”

“This isn’t over, Lancer. It’ll never be over. I’m going to....”

Henry lost his train of thought as his carriage rushed around the corner onto the main street, accompanied by the Lancer vaqueros. The sturdy driver stopped with the carriage’s step next to Henry, a sheepish look on his face. Johnny figured the poor man knew, just because he was handy, he would be catching hell the whole way back to Texas.

Henry stepped up into the carriage. Johnny watched his eyes, but he didn’t glance around at the cushions for a hidden gun. The culero stood tall, glaring at the Lancer group and gathered townspeople. “You’ll be seeing me again. I’ll burn this whole goddamned shit pile to the ground!” He flopped into the seat and barked an order for the driver to go. The man whipped the horses, and within a minute the carriage had disappeared around the end of the street.

A few awkward cheers and a strained spattering of applause came from the onlookers. Johnny took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Henry just might keep that promise.

Johnny wanted a drink, but he had no time. He needed to figure out how to explain to his mother what she’d just heard. She’d finally heard of Johnny Madrid, but she probably didn’t know what “professional” meant. They could get the carriage business done, and then he could explain it all on the way home.
He looked at her, and she caught and met his gaze. He could see the questions in her eyes, but she said nothing as she held out her hand to him. He backed Barranca to be even with her, and he took her hand. She stepped out of the buckboard, then gave his hand a silent squeeze as she let it go and walked to the livery, Delgado pride in every step. He sighed. They were going to have a long ride back in her new buggy.

Scott dropped in next to his brother. “If you’d been in the Union Army,” he said with admiration, “the war would’ve been over in six months.”

Still agitated from the encounter and fearing what was to come, he replied, “And if I’d been on the other side, it’d still be goin’ on.”

An agitated Murdoch signaled the best trackers among the ranch hands, Ramón Bautista and the Burgess brothers, to join him. “I want you three to follow him.” He pulled out his wallet, looked at the ample contents, and then handed over all the currency. “All the way to Texas. I want to make sure he goes home and stays there. Send telegrams when you can.” The three looked a little surprised by such a large request, but they agreed with earnest intensity.

Johnny was reining his horse to go to the livery when Murdoch stopped him. “Johnny, I want you to accompany them to the county line.”

“What? No! I have to help with this buggy.”

Murdoch set his jaw with a firmness Johnny had seen a few too many times. “You’re the one he’s afraid of. I want him to see you following him, so he knows we mean business.”

“But I was going to talk with—”

“You had plenty of time to do that before,” Murdoch snapped. “What’s important now is making sure your mother is safe, and the only way to do that is to get Henry the hell out of here.”

Johnny squirmed. After what his mother had just heard, he had to talk with her as soon as possible. Murdoch had to understand that. “But—”

“—Now.”

He sighed.

Murdoch gave him a cold squint. “Son, I’m going to do you a favor. You may be afraid to talk with your mother, but I’m not. You follow Henry, and I’ll talk with her. You can tell her your version when you get home.”

Johnny shuddered. He really didn’t like that idea, but it was too late. He’d made Scott mad at him, and now he’d pissed off the Old Man. He wasn’t going to get out of this.

He looked around at the Lancer riders. All the other groups had gathered at the buckboard to discuss what had happened. He needed the fastest horse from the remuda to get back in a hurry. Vargas had that dun mustang everyone always fought over. He switched Barranca for the sure-footed runner and joined the trio of trackers as they headed east. At least Murdoch hadn’t asked him to go all the way to Recklenberg County.

As the four trackers rode out of town, Murdoch’s fit of temper began to wane. He could have handled that better, but the boy just needed a good kick in the pants after the way he’d been acting ever since his mother came back.

Scott joined him. “Well, that was one way to handle it.”

“If you think I’m proud of myself, you’re wrong.”

“What are we going to do about María? She has to have a lot of questions about what she just saw.”

“I know. But how much of it did she understand? I don’t know where Madrid came from, but I know it’s not a name from her family.”

Scott said, “I owe Johnny an apology when he gets back. Thanks to him, at least we know she’d never heard of Johnny Madrid before today.”

“That’s something, anyway.” Murdoch looked down the street at the livery as he mulled over his few choices. “I’ll ride back with her in the buggy. If she has questions, I won’t wait until we get home to tell her the truth.”

Before Murdoch could give Scott instructions for the men, Sheriff Tate approached with a professional scowl. Murdoch shouldn’t have been surprised to see him investigate what had happened, but sometimes he wished the sheriff wasn’t so efficient.

“I’d like to have a word with you two, if you don’t mind,” the sheriff said, his frown indicating that this was an order and not a request.

Murdoch glanced at the livery. “Scott, I want you to—”

“Both of you,” the sheriff stated.

Murdoch looked at the livery. “Sheriff, can I just—”

“No.”

Murdoch let out a growling sigh. He owed Johnny an apology as well. Sheriff Tate walked towards his office, and the two dutifully trudged behind him.

 

Jelly felt honored—and a little intimidated—to be riding back in the new buggy with María Lancer. He knew she would rather be riding with Johnny, but that plan fell through with him birddogging that nasty troublemaker from this morning. And then Ysidro said Murdoch and Scott got waylaid by the sheriff, and since they were still in the sheriff’s office when Mrs. Lancer said she wanted to go home, the job fell to him.

Jelly hadn’t had much of a chance to spend time with her since he’d returned to the ranch. With Murdoch so preoccupied, he’d needed to take on some of the boss’s duties around the place. He didn’t mind too much, although he wouldn’t admit it.

Ever since he’d been at Lancer, he’d heard tales about Johnny’s mother. Of course, most of the storytellers had never met her, but they knew all about her. But sitting here next to her, and showing her how to work the reins for the nice horse he’d picked out—funny, she already seemed to know how to drive—maybe she grew up on a ranch or something—he had his doubts about just how much those taletellers really knew. From all their talk, he expected her to be a stormy little border town chiquita, but he was pleased to see she was a right fine lady. He wouldn’t say this to the boss, but it was pretty clear Murdoch had “married up” with both his wives.

They rolled along back to the ranch with about a dozen riders as an escort. A light rain had started, so he put up the top to keep dry. This nice little shay was practically new, and he heard she’d been excited about getting it, so it surprised him that she didn’t seem very interested. Of course, he could imagine she was pretty upset after the incident with that mean-tempered fellow. He hadn’t been able to hear much from in front of the cantina, but he thought she handled it with a lot of dignity. Maybe she was feeling the emotions of it now. She took the reins for a few minutes, but then she gave them back to him and said she had too much on her mind. He guessed he didn’t blame her.

“How long have you worked at the rancho?” she asked.

“About two years now.”

“That means Johnny was here when you arrived.”

“Yes, ma’am. Scott, too.”

She nodded absently.

They rode on for another quarter mile before she said, “It was strange hearing him called Johnny Madrid this morning.”

Jelly sat in silence for a few long moments. He had promised Scott not to say a word about “anything serious” until after Johnny had a chance to talk with her. He always seemed to get into trouble for telling the truth, but this time he’d been warned, and darned if he was going to mess things up. “I didn’t hear that. But I was back with the group by the cantina. We couldn’t hear much of anything.”

She nodded absently. “How much has he told you about that?”

Jelly didn’t know how to reply. He had to be extra careful. “I think that’s a conversation you need to have with Johnny.”

Anger flashed in her dark eyes. “Do you not think we have already discussed this? Why else do you think Henry called me ‘Mrs. Madrid’? Oh, yes, you were far away, you did not hear that.”

Jelly hesitated. He didn’t know where Johnny’s name came from. He’d always figured it was a family name. “...So, you already know all about that.”

“Of course.”

Well, that was different. Scott must not’ve known about that when he warned him. “You must be mighty proud of him, ma’am. He’s really something.”

“I am most proud of my son.”

“Knowing him, he probably didn’t tell you too much about what happened when Murdoch called the boys home.”

She gave him a thoughtful shake of her head.

“Now, mind you, I wasn’t here yet. But I’ve heard the story so many times from the men who were that I feel like I went through it with them.”

She nodded. “You are right. But you know how he is. He does not boast.”

“No, ma’am. But I’m happy to do his bragging for him.”

He spent the next ten minutes telling her about Day Pardee and his men taking over ranch after ranch in the valley and surrounding countryside, and how they set their sights on Lancer, and how Teresa’s father was killed, and Murdoch almost got killed, too, and how when he recovered, Murdoch sent the Pinkertons to find his sons, and how hard it was to find Johnny in Mexico, and how he wasn’t sure about all the details of the Pinkerton man and the firing squad, but he knew the man showed up not a moment too soon. “And I know for certain that if it hadn’t been for Johnny, the ranch would have been lost to those ‘land pirates.’ Why, that day they attacked the house, he himself killed six men, and two more were so shot up they almost didn’t make it to their own hangings.” In a proudly confidential tone, he added, “Mind you, Scott did his part, too, with his soldier strategies. But if Johnny hadn’t been a gunfighter all those years so he could get inside that gang, the place would’ve been lost and everyone killed.”

He glanced at her to see the pride on her face, but instead she looked as forlorn as an orphan calf. “Are you okay, ma’am? Is the road too bumpy for you? That happens to a lot of folks. I can slow down if you like.”

She shook her head, her eyes fixed on the road before them.

It must have been something he said. “Ma’am, I’m sorry. I know it probably sounds kind of harsh, coming from a stranger and all. But he’s a right fine young man, especially considering how he grew up, so wild and on his own like that. It’s practically a miracle he survived long enough to meet up with that gunman who taught him the ropes, “The Falcon” I guess he called himself. You can bet some sort of angel was looking out over Johnny. Otherwise, who knows what would’ve happened to him?”

She began to cry. They didn’t look like tears of joy, either. What had he said? Hadn’t he told her what a hero Johnny was? He harrumphed. Illogical female. Crying when she should be smiling. He was just never going to figure out women if he lived to be two hundred years old.

 

Scott knew something had gone wrong the moment he entered the hacienda. Teresa had brought a side chair into the entryway and parked herself opposite the front door to wait for them, her arms crossed with a blend of anger and dismay.

Murdoch read the situation as well. “What happened?”

“She came through the door crying like there was no tomorrow.”

Murdoch summed up the confrontation with Henry Recklenberg in a few sentences.

She shook her head. “That’s not the problem. Johnny didn’t have a chance to talk with her, did he?”

Murdoch’s chagrin gave her the answer...and admitted that he played a role in the conversation’s delay.

Teresa said, “María tricked Jelly into thinking she knew about Johnny’s past, and he told her everything.”

Furious, Murdoch turned to throw open the front door and summon the troublemaker, but Teresa said sternly, “Don’t blame him. He feels bad enough.” She paused, and the intensity in her gaze frightened Scott a little. Maybe this had something to do with why she had been so moody for the last few days. “Where’s Johnny?”

Murdoch said, “He should be back after supper.”

“He needs to hear this, too.” She glanced in the direction of the bedrooms. All was silent. “She knows I’m going to tell you, but....” She got up and headed for the great room. They followed with growing concern. She signaled for Scott to close the doors, and she took a seat on the hassock in front of the dark fireplace. The men sat opposite her and waited as she wrestled with what to say.

She finally began. “First of all, Guadalupe Villanueva is the one who figured this out.” She paused, then continued in a voice that betrayed deep regret. “I always believed what my father told me, because he believed it. But he only knew a sliver of the whole story.”

“What story?” Scott asked.

“About why María left.”

That wasn’t what Scott had expected to hear. He and Murdoch leaned forward with complete attention.

Teresa said, “How I found out started at the party.” She offered a sad smile. “A big part of those gatherings is everyone wants to take a turn holding the baby.” Her eyes drifted off as she looked at the memory in her mind’s eye. “So, Lucinda brought the baby to María to hold...and she hesitated, and then she took the little girl and cradled her, and María started to cry. She apologized, and Lucinda apologized and took the baby back, but María was so emotional she had to leave. I saw Guadalupe looking at her like...she’d finally solved a mystery.”

Scott thought this sounded logical, with María thinking about Johnny as a baby and what a rocky life was waiting for him. He understood that Guadalupe had been María’s part-time maid, so she would know her better than just about anyone.

Teresa continued, “I took Guadalupe aside and asked her what she was thinking. She didn’t want to talk about it, but I’m afraid I kind of forced her to tell me.” She looked at the rapt men. “Guadalupe said in the two weeks or so before María left, she was depressed a lot of the time, and very emotional.”

Murdoch nodded with sadness.

Teresa said, “Everyone thinks María ran off with that gambler. But Guadalupe said María never talked about him, or acted like she was in love with someone else. Nothing. All she talked about was, ‘Murdoch takes me for granted,’ ‘my husband doesn’t pay enough attention to me.’”

Murdoch sighed. “I don’t know what I did.” He looked at Scott. “Sometimes I thought she resented that I wanted to send for you.”

Scott wasn’t sure how to respond. He’d heard part of that story, but not all of it.

Teresa gave Murdoch a significant look, which he missed but Scott noticed.

She continued, “Guadalupe said that one evening all María could talk about was ‘he’s going to appreciate me,’ and ‘he’ll know what it feels like to be ignored.’ And the next day, she was gone.”

Murdoch sat lost in the memories.

Teresa scrutinized him. “Didn’t you think it was odd that if María was running off with another man, that she would take her baby along?” Scott noticed the weariness in her voice as she said, “Usually, when that happens, the children are left behind.”

With an extra bit of gravel in his voice, Murdoch said, “I always assumed she still loved him even though she didn’t love me.”

Scott and Teresa glanced at each other at that sad admission. She steeled herself and said, “And she left a lot of things behind, didn’t she?”

He nodded, not looking at her. “It would have been impossible for her to leave quickly with all her belongings.”

“How many of Johnny’s things did she take with her?”

“Not many.”

“Didn’t that bother you?”

He gave her a searing gaze. “Every part of it bothered me.”

Chastened, she said, “Guadalupe thinks María didn’t intend to leave forever. She was just going away for a few days, so you’d miss her.”

Murdoch’s baleful expression said María had succeeded in that last part. Scott noticed Teresa bite her lip, then take a deep breath. He waited in silence.

She said, “Guadalupe thinks she knows why what María did made sense to her, and why she acted the way she did before she left. She’s the one person here who’s had a lot of experience with this...as the ranch midwife.”

Scott stared in bewilderment, and an astonished Murdoch snapped out of his reverie. Murdoch launched to his feet, but before he could take a step towards the door, Teresa held out her hand to him. “Stop. You need to hear the whole story before you see her.” Murdoch hesitated. “I made María tell me all of it. She can’t tell that story twice. She knows I’m doing this, so wait until you understand everything.”

Murdoch focused an uncertain gaze at Scott, who didn’t know what to think, and then sat down in a restless pose on the edge of his chair.

Teresa continued, “Guadalupe said it’s common for women who don’t yet know they’re having a baby to have all kinds of emotional ups and downs. Plus, María lived a fairly sheltered life as the daughter of a wealthy rancher. So, when she crossed paths with a well-dressed and well-mannered man in town, who said he was leaving for the gold country, it seemed like a lucky break that she could have a courteous and protective gentleman as a traveling companion for a few days. She had no idea how far away he was going and that he would take her polite request in a very different way than she intended.

“Looking back, she realizes now she should have known something was wrong when he got so angry at seeing the baby. But he played along and kept his hopes up. By the time they got all the way up to Faro Lake, she had made it quite clear that he was mistaken about her intentions. So, he left her there. After stealing all her money and jewelry.” With anger she added, “He even got her wedding ring when she took it off to change the baby’s diaper.”

Scott could not imagine how humiliated María must have felt. He glanced at his father, who looked sick.

Teresa said, “She was stuck in this grubby little mining camp, with no telegraph, no one to help her, and not even enough money to buy paper and postage to send you a letter to tell you where she was.” Teresa said with terrible emphasis, “She had to scrub out the tubs at a bath house just to get enough money to feed herself and Johnny.”

Pale and trembling, Murdoch stood and walked over to the nearest window to look out at his beloved, cloud-draped hills. Scott could not imagine his gracious breakfast companion on her hands and knees with a brush and slop bucket.

Her sadness building, Teresa said, “After about a month, she had enough money to write you a letter...but then she realized what was happening.” She looked at Murdoch, who was still gazing out the window, searching for some comfort. “She knew, in her heart, that if she wrote you, and you brought her home, and then you found out she was having a baby...that you would always have a doubt in the back of your mind...about who the father was.”

Murdoch turned and glared at her. “How could she think....” He didn’t complete his declaration, and the gloom resettled around him.

“She said she tried a hundred times to find a way to send Johnny back to you, because he shouldn’t have to pay for what she’d done.” She looked at Murdoch, a plea for sympathy in her eyes. “But she couldn’t know that you wouldn’t take out your anger on him.”

A guttural protest rumbled out of Murdoch’s chest. “How could she know me so little?”

Scott said in soft tones, “Had she ever seen you tested? Really tested.”

He thought for a long moment, then looked back out the window. “No.”

Scott said, “So, all she had to go on was her fears and her knowledge of how badly some people behave.”

Teresa continued, “She found her way to a convent, and waited, and she prayed every hour of every day that God would give her another little blue-eyed boy who looked just like Johnny....” Her voice wavered. “...So she could come home.” She brushed away a tear. “And then she had the most beautiful little girl with the darkest eyes she’d ever seen.”

Murdoch turned away from the window and stared at her. He took three quick strides towards the door.

“Wait,” Teresa commanded with an outstretched arm. “Wait until I’m done.”

He stopped and stood in the middle of the room, searing intensity pulling against the chases.

She said, “She knew God hadn’t forgiven her...so, she gave the baby to the nuns after the priest baptized her. But the next morning, she realized her mistake. Her children were more important than any humiliation she might face, and she went to the Mother Superior to tell her that she’d changed her mind, and she wanted her daughter back.” A shadow of anger crossed Teresa’s face. “But the Mother Superior said the child had already been adopted, and it was too late. God had heard her prayers and found her unworthy. She had made her bed, and now she would lie in it for the rest of her life.”

Scott hadn’t encountered many nuns in his time, but the ones he had known were kind and hard-working. At the risk of offending God, this one needed a fifteen-pound punch of humility right in the conscience.

Teresa continued, “She begged the priest to send Johnny home to his father so he wouldn’t have to pay for her stupid mistakes.” Teresa paused, and Scott wondered if she was suppressing some foul language. “And the priest said bastard children belonged in an orphanage. She was stunned that he didn’t believe her when she said she was married. And when she insisted again that she was, and all he had to do to confirm it was write you a letter, he turned his back on her and walked away.”

Murdoch could not be stopped. In four strides, he was out through the doorway.

Scott sat in the silent room, which had developed a chill. So much of what María had said and done now made sense. He’d overheard her say to Murdoch that “as he was a man” he could not forgive her for what she’d done. He understood the reason for her arriving early to confirm that she had the courage to face her husband, as well as why she would grow pensive at inexplicable times, and why she had resisted Murdoch’s overtures—which, apparently, she could withstand for only so long.

Something else became clear. “I have a sister,” he marveled.

She gave him a knowing smile. “Another sister.”

He returned her smile.

“It turns out the reason she came to California early is because she went to the convent to beg the sisters to tell her where her daughter was. She promised she wouldn’t go see her—she just wanted to know. If they knew, they refused to tell her.”

He sighed. “How are we going to find her? Did María tell you which convent it was?”

She shook her head. “We’ll have to ask her later.”

“I hope that priest and nun are no longer there...otherwise the rift between the Catholics and the Episcopalians will get a little wider.”

“I wish Johnny had been here to hear this with you.”

“María!??”

The two leapt out of their chairs at the sound of Murdoch’s anguished call echoing down the stairs.

They dashed upstairs and found Murdoch standing in the middle of the unoccupied bedroom. “Where is she?” he thundered, an unbearable ache in his voice. “When did you see her last?”

Teresa said, “About two hours ago. She said she was going to take a nap.” She opened the small door to reveal an empty closet.

Scott pulled open the top dresser drawers and found nothing. Then he saw the small envelope leaning against the dresser’s mirror. Written on it in a woman’s elegant hand was “Mi Corazón.” He picked up the missive, and somehow through the paper he could feel her heart breaking as she wrote her farewell.

He held out the envelope to Murdoch, who accepted it with a sullen stare. He looked at the words on the envelope for a long moment, then started to open the sealed flap. He stopped, glanced at the others, then trudged out of the room.

Scott snapped out of his own gloom at the sound of Teresa’s crying. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I never thought she’d leave....”

He took her in a brotherly hug as she wept. “It’s okay,” he reassured her. “I think she knew this would happen. Perhaps she even wanted it. But she couldn’t face us knowing what she’d done. Why else do you think it was so important to her to get that buggy?”

She nodded, then gave a tear-streaked sigh. “Oh, poor Johnny.”

 

Johnny stayed at the hacienda only long enough to hear what happened from Scott and Teresa and report that Henry Recklenberg had caught the southbound train at Cross Creek—shipping the horses and carriage as well—and the three trackers had gotten on board without being seen by him. He wolfed down some food as one of the hands saddled up a fresh mustang, and he got a report from Cipriano, who had seen the buggy on the south road earlier. With a couple hours of daylight left, he took off with everyone’s best wishes and a heart full of dread.

As he rode, he numbly checked off the list of bombs that had landed on his stunned family. His mother knew the truth about him. She fled because she couldn’t bear everyone knowing what she’d done. He had a little sister somewhere. Murdoch’s heart was broken all over again. How the hell was he supposed to fix this mountain of messes? He could hear Scott’s voice: “One mess at a time, little brother.”

The key to everything was convincing his mother that she could come back. But how? He’d bet his third of the ranch that she never told Murdoch about her cousin, and she’d spent the last twenty years living with the fear that her own husband might kill her to preserve his “honor.” How could he make her understand that Murdoch would never do that?

To use a saying he’d learned from Scott, she would be a tough nut to crack. He kept thinking about the confrontation with Henry, and how strong his mother had been. She’d stared Henry down like he was some flea she could crush under her heel. People sometimes called him fearless. During the times he’d been afraid, somehow he managed to push all that energy into acting like he didn’t care. After this morning, it seemed pretty clear that he hadn’t gotten that from his life, or his career, or even Murdoch. It came from his mother. She would die before she’d admit to any weakness.

He’d figured out the bigger problem while he watched Henry supervise the loading of his horses and carriage into the train’s second baggage car. He yelled at the workers and threatened them with the whopper that his “uncle” owned the railroad. He demanded they move half the cargo to the other car so nothing would shift and touch his precious carriage or “disturb” his horses. Watching Henry pitch a fit to cover up his embarrassment at being kicked out of Morro Coyo, Johnny realized what he’d been covering up by running away. Scott had been wrong when he said he wouldn’t have to talk to her about her lie. It was her story about why they left Lancer that made him Johnny Madrid.

Watching the annoyed railroad workers try to make Henry happy, Johnny remembered a dozen conversations with Father Mateo that always came back to how he had nowhere to go—his father hated him, his stepfather threw him out, and his mother couldn’t give him a home. Even the persuasive priest couldn’t talk him out of all the blind canyons at the end of every path he could take. With no other choices left, he followed the path of the pistolero.

If his mother hadn’t lied, when Rodrigo dumped him in that little village outside Paso del Norte, maybe he really would have found his way to the ranch. Murdoch would’ve been overjoyed to see him. He would’ve had a home. Murdoch would’ve found a way to get Scott back, even if it meant holding Harlan Garrett at gunpoint. They would have been together. He would’ve had a family. He never would have lost his way.

He didn’t have to be cruel about it. But he had to tell her. For good or bad, she helped make him who he was.

With the heavy sky lowering over an empty valley, and the smell of rain hanging in the air, he spotted the shay Cipriano had described to him. She had the horse at a slow trot. He guessed she thought she was safe from pursuers. He slowed his horse to a slightly faster trot so he could catch up without alarming her.

Soon he was even with the carriage. The sight of her swollen, tear-streaked face stripped him of the lecture he’d had ready. María looked up at him and shook with surprise. He waited for her to stop the buggy. When she did not, he lost his patience. In Spanish he said, “Are you just going to keep running?”

She flashed with annoyance, then relented and drew the horse to a gentle stop as she dried her cheeks with a handkerchief. “I am sorry, my son. For everything. Everything. I have hurt everyone I’ve ever loved. I don’t deserve to be forgiven.”

He shook his head with exasperation.

“I have hurt everyone. Why can you not understand that? Everyone. You most of all.”

“Would you stop saying that?” he snapped.

“I should have saved you from that life. When you were a baby, I should have found a way to send you back to your father. And, when you were fourteen....” She hesitated. “I chose to believe Rodrigo had killed you. I chose to believe...when you came to Manolo’s house...that you were an impostor sent by Rodrigo. Both times I made you pay for my self-pity and pride.”

Johnny had practically memorized the letter he received from his uncle not long after he came to Lancer. His uncle had confessed that when Johnny and Rafael traveled to his home in Matamoros in search of her, she had been in the house, just out of sight and listening to the conversation. She’d forced her brother to promise not to reveal that she was there. When he and Rafael left, having no information about her, Johnny was convinced she was dead. He couldn’t blame her for doubting who he was. After all, years later Rodrigo did show up at the estancia with a young man he presented as “John Lancer.” She knew the louse well.

He said, “If we’d talked in Matamoros, what would we have done? Where would we have gone?” She looked away. “Would we have come back here? Or would we have just kept going the way we’d been living, chased out of one tenement after another because we didn’t have a centavo to our name?”

With great dignity, she replied, “I would have been your mother.”

After a long moment, he had to stare down a bitter truth he’d never wanted to see. He admitted in a distant voice, “I don’t think that would’ve been enough.”

She sighed and looked at the road ahead of her. “Teresa gave me a more complete story of your life. My son, I am so very sorry about everything I have done that led you to so much danger and sorrow. For every mistake I made that hurt me, I made two that hurt you.” She focused a fierce, self-accusing gaze on him. “I should have walked back to your father after that coyote gambler left me with nothing but you and my pride.”

“You can’t blame yourself for that. You were young, and you’d never dealt with anything like that before.” He glanced down at his saddle to avoid her fiery eyes. “Life can be a pretty cruel teacher.”

“I was a most inattentive student. It seems every decision I made to help you only made things worse.” She closed her eyes. “The last and worst was Rodrigo. I thought he had money. I thought I could finally give you the life you deserved.”

“He was a confidence man.”

“He was a worthless fool. But I thank you for not killing him when you had the chance.”

How did she know about his “reunion” with Rodrigo? “Teresa?”

She nodded.

Why did he even bother to ask?

“She also told me about that man Pardee you mentioned to Henry. How you knew him, how terrible he was, that he was the one who killed Teresa’s father and nearly killed your father. And yet, when it was all over, you went to the burial for him and his men.”

“Scott went, too.”

“To keep you from falling over. She said you felt honor-bound to be there, even after he shot you in the back.” She hesitated as if she didn’t want to know something. “How many times have you been hurt like that?”

“At least four, I think. Five, maybe. I don’t know.”

“Do you know how many men you have killed?”

“Yes.” He hoped she wouldn’t ask for an accounting, because he wouldn’t give one.

“Good—the direction of your heart is in your favor.  You dwell more on your own sins than those of others. In spite of everything, you are a good man.”

He shivered. Had he been waiting his whole life to hear her say that?

She added, “And, if he is still alive, and you ever meet a gambler by the name of Rudy Hoekstra....” She shrugged lightly. “You would perform a good service...if you...accidentally killed him.”

Johnny stared at his mother with disbelief.

She gave him another light, sadness-tinged shrug. “This is my thoughtless way of saying I forgive you.”

He looked away and shook his head. But she wasn’t going to get out of this so easily. “You can be forgiven. But you have to start by making peace with yourself. I mean, you didn’t hurt anyone on purpose. You just made decisions that kept leading to worse problems. You thought your husband didn’t appreciate you. You trusted a man who looked good but wasn’t.” He took a deep breath and forced out the words: “...You lied to me about why we left home.”

She glared at him. “When did I lie to you?”

He frowned. “You said Murdoch threw us out.”

“I never said such a thing. When do you think I said this?”

“I was eight.”

She thought, and then her face fell slack. “That was when the Domínguez men killed Clara’s husband. Yes?”

He nodded.

She clasped her hands in a prayer pose and gave a sigh of regret. “Oh, Dear God. I knew I shouldn’t have answered your question until you were older.” She looked at him with great seriousness. “I did not say your father threw us out. I said I was compelled to leave and I could never return. I did not say he forced me to leave.”

He stared at her, the words not lining up correctly in his brain.

She paled and put her hand to her mouth. “My Dear Mother of God! Have you believed all these years that your father did not love you?”

Johnny couldn’t think. As he sat in this ill-fitting saddle on a restless, unfamiliar horse, he could only smell approaching rain in the light breeze, and see the thick layer of dark clouds, and hear the rustle of leaves somewhere. Everything else was blank. He didn’t know anything anymore. Everything he’d ever thought in his life, every truth his life had been built on...was untrue.

Shaken, she said, “My dear, precious son, I never, ever lied to you.”

“Yes, you did,” he said in a soft voice. “You said Rodrigo would learn to love me.”

She let out a melancholy sigh. “That was not a lie. I was mistaken. There’s a difference.”

He came back to himself. “Like the difference between someone who’s done bad things, and someone who’s a bad person.” He looked at her with intensity. “You’re not a bad person. You just did things that...didn’t turn out right.”

She regarded him with pride and love, then reached out her hand to him. “Let me kiss you, my dear, wise son.”

With embarrassment, he stroked the stubble on his cheek. “But I know how you feel about beard—”

“—Oh, do not be such a stickler like your father!”

He leaned over to kiss her cheek, but she rose to grasp him in a powerful hug.

He shuddered, feeling the goodbye in her arms. “Come back with me. Please?”

She released him and resumed her seat, gathering herself as she collected the reins. “Your father needs time to forgive what I have done to him. What I have done to all of you. I could not bear to have any of you hate me.”

“We don’t hate you. We want you back.”

She did not look away from the road ahead.

“Look...I know about your cousin Asunción.”

She turned to him with a searing gaze. “How?”

“Old Señora Montez.”

She looked away, muttering a mild oath.

“That’s not the point. I’m trying to tell you that Murdoch isn’t like that. He loves you. He needs you back home. Where you belong.”

She regarded the road.

He stated with more emphasis than he intended, “He could never hurt you. You have no reason to be afraid of him.”

She looked back at him, a tired despair in her eyes. “Not at first. Hatred can grow very slowly, and it can consume you before you even know it’s there. When you are older, you will understand.”

Her words made no sense. Johnny could never feel older than he did at this moment. As the light faded, a cold mist began to fall, and tiny glistening droplets gathered on the buggy’s canopy and the horses’ winter coats.

With a growing desperation, he said, “Not him. I know. Murdoch believes in second chances. Even third and fourth. Probably fifth, too. I haven’t gotten that far yet.”

She relented and gave him a sad, motherly smile. “When I look at you, I see how kind you are, and honest, and strong, and full of compassion.” She blinked a few times as she admired him. “I’m saddened to think how I cut you off from my family. Even the stories—there was so much I could have told you about them. By your clothing, I see you have not forsaken them, and I am humbled by this. You are so like my grandfather de la Peña. How noble he was, like a knight of old. You look so much like him.” She thought for a long moment, then sighed. “From him you inherited not only your eyes, but also the dark side of honor. ...Señora Montez probably told you Lázaro escaped justice but was killed over another matter, yes?” He nodded. She shook her head. “He met his justice. Your great-grandfather tricked Lázaro into a duel. It was for Asunción.”

He had no idea how to respond. How could she compare him with someone who fought a duel? He was no knight. There was nothing noble about him. “Come back and tell me about him.”

Her voice began to waiver. “Despite this curse of violence on our family, I know you’re a good man. I’ll hold that in my heart every day. Perhaps, in this world, I have done one good thing.”

He didn’t want to hear what she was about to say.

“And, my beautiful son, if you are able to find Ángelina, and she wishes to meet you, I believe it will be easier if you are without the person who abandoned her. That’s the second good thing I can do.”

Johnny understood now. She wasn’t afraid. This was about honor. He had no cure for that.

She lifted the reins to urge on her horse.

He pleaded, “Please come back with me. Please come home.”

She concentrated on the reins. “I shall write to you, and let you know where I am. You can tell me how things go.” She stiffened her shoulders, and, without looking at him, said, “May God bless you, my dear son.” She touched the reins to the horse’s back, and the animal began to move forward.

As he watched the small carriage roll away, he felt his insides tearing apart. He couldn’t let her go. But he couldn’t force her to stay. “Please, Mama, don’t go.”

The sound of a shivering breath came from beneath the canopy of the departing buggy, but the carriage did not slow.

“Mama, please.”

The carriage continued on its way.

He couldn’t move.

From the buggy, which refused to stop, came, “I love you, my beloved son.” He could hear the tears in her voice. “Never doubt that, no matter what.”

Johnny sat on the restless horse, no longer able to feel the rain or see the sky. He watched the carriage get smaller and smaller in the growing gloom, until it reached a curve in the road a mile away and disappeared.

 

 

~ end ~

Continued in That The Devil Drives, fourth in the Delgardo Legacy series------>

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