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M.E.

 

 

That The Devil Drives
Fourth in the Delgardo Legacy series. Follow the link to see the stories listed in sequence.

Trigger warnings: Offensive language, violence, references to sexual violence

Chapter One

That Christmas season was the grimmest peacetime holiday Scott could recall. Even the bleak year Aunt Isabelle came down with rheumatic fever at Thanksgiving could not match the pall that hung over the Lancer family after María Delgado Lancer’s unexpected return—and brokenhearted disappearance.

Her brief stay at the home that she had abandoned more than twenty years before stirred up a conflagration of emotions and surprises. Murdoch finally learned why she had left all those years ago, but the answers came only after she had fled again, and they complicated everything. His young wife had not fallen in love and run off with a passing gambler. She intended to stay away only a few days to “teach her inattentive husband a lesson.” Too late did she realize her actions had been spurred by the tumultuous emotions that can plague a woman in the first months before she has a baby. Robbed and abandoned by the gambler, who had misunderstood her innocent intentions, and fearing Murdoch’s wrath after her terrible blunder, she never returned to her home and family and gave up her newborn daughter before disappearing into a self-inflicted, penitential exile in the Mexico border country with her toddler Johnny.

Along with conflicting emotions, danger had followed her back to Lancer. In her futile quest to drive Murdoch from her memory, she had allowed herself to be courted by a powerful Texas rancher named Donald Recklenberg. His grown sons had disapproved, and the younger one, a devious monster named Henry, had followed her to California with dark mischief on his mind. Henry’s angry scheme to punish María had been thwarted, but he left with a vow of revenge. Murdoch had even sent three trusted ranch hands to follow Henry home to Texas, just to make sure he stayed there.

María’s sudden departure when her secrets had been revealed left Murdoch devastated. For a second time, she vanished without a trace. Like a ghost, her absence marked the household with an unshakeable, bone-chilling emptiness.

Murdoch’s state of mind in the weeks that followed proved a constant concern. Being reunited with the wife he still loved, only to lose her again, left the grieving man in a perilous darkness. Scott, Johnny, and Teresa all feared he would leave the ranch. He had done it twice before. After Scott’s mother died, Murdoch went to Texas for several years, and after María left, he relocated to Kansas. His excuse had been to raise money to keep the ranch going, but everyone who knew him well understood that he had fled the home that held too many memories.

After two weeks on pins and needles, the younger generation could begin to breathe again when Murdoch emerged from his dark inertia with his declaration that he would find the daughter he had never known existed, wherever she was, and make sure she was well, contented, and safe.

Murdoch hired the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to track her down. He had little to tell the detectives: María had given birth on Saint Anne’s Day in an unidentified convent somewhere in central California and had given the girl to the sisters; when María changed her mind the next morning, the mother superior said the child had been adopted; and the girl had brown eyes. They also knew her baptism name, which offered a sturdy roadmap to her heritage: Ángela María Antonia Murdag Delgado Lancer. “Murdag” raised a few eyebrows, but Murdoch assured them it had been his grandmother’s name. The trail was thin, but the agency had found Johnny with even less to go on, so the family had hope.

Murdoch had made clear to the Pinkertons one important rule—they were to locate her, but under no circumstances were they to contact her. Scott and Johnny had known about Murdoch, so their being contacted by a detective had been no bolt from the blue. Ángela, however, probably knew nothing of her birth family. Learning the truth from a hired stranger could go very badly. The detectives were to locate her, ascertain her situation, and report back. Then it would be up to the family to figure out the next step.

Every Wednesday, a written report from the detective agency arrived at the post office in Morro Coyo, and a Lancer ranch hand was always waiting to pick it up when the mail was ready; he then would go by the telegraph office in case more urgent news had arrived. The “Lancer Pony Express,” which eventually expanded to five days a week just in case of fresh news, became a popular topic of conversation in town, although no one knew the story behind it. Through November and into December, only routine written reports of the search efforts arrived.

The family members wore brave faces as the preparations for Christmas began. Teresa in particular took on the challenge of raising cheer and staying hopeful. Scott had been favorably impressed to see her natural strength and forthright nature maturing into a complex and gracious talent for creating a safe and welcoming home. Perhaps she was trying to assuage her guilt for being the unwitting catalyst for revealing María’s long-held secrets. Then again, maybe she was growing into becoming a fine young woman.

Of course, Scott wanted to find his missing sister. However—and he burned with embarrassment at the judgments that so liberally popped up in his Boston-bred thoughts—he found himself uncertain about this new situation. He and his brother and father had developed a finely-balanced relationship. Most importantly, he and Johnny were equals within the family dynamics. Having arrived at the ranch at the same time, neither brother had an advantage over the other, and any potential rivalry disappeared with the development of their brotherly bond. War had taught him how relationships solidified—or shattered—in the blast furnace of crisis. Their crucible of the land pirates had forged the three of them into the strong unit they now enjoyed.

However, he also knew how sometimes even seemingly unbreakable bonds could collapse. The first real threat to their happy status quo arrived with María’s return to Lancer. Chaos could have resulted if she had been a manipulative temptress as the rumors portrayed her. However, her charm, good breeding, and gracious insistence on befriending Scott washed away any concerns he had harbored. In truth, he welcomed the idea that her return might be permanent, and her sudden departure left him nearly as distraught as his brother.

But now, with Murdoch’s rage to find his daughter—Johnny’s full sister—how could the carefully-balanced family avoid being disrupted? Scott’s concerns were far more complicated than mere jealousy or fear of being pushed into the shadows. Lessons he had learned in his childhood now came back to haunt his thoughts.

Of late he found himself recalling Columbia Stanford, the oldest daughter of the “second” Beacon Hill Stanfords. As the only child of her father’s first marriage, Columbia had been the apple of her father’s eye until the age of eight, when into the household arrived the lively second Mrs. Stanford, who, in rapid succession, filled the mansion with Ruth, Robert, Richard, Rachel, Rebecca, and little Rosalie. No one in the busy household noticed when the shy oldest girl found solace with an unworthy young man, and, a year before she would have been presented to society, the kindhearted and innocent child was lost to her family forever.

Then there were the upstanding and trusting Chadwicks, whose matriarch had been Scott’s grandmother’s best friend. They had welcomed into their fold a long-lost cousin from the wilds of western Pennsylvania, who repaid their hospitality by bilking them of every last penny, destroying the family’s fortunes and future. Although the affair happened before Scott’s birth, his grandmother often lamented the loss of her friend, as the family had to flee Massachusetts to escape their infamy and the ramifications of their downfall.

Both scandals offered cautionary tales about how easily a stable family can find itself turned upside down. If this sister was still alive, her presence could disrupt the household’s balance in favor of the second family. Murdoch had demonstrated a blind spot when it came to old friends who turned out to be unworthy of his trust; with his deep, thwarted love for the once-again missing María, he might unintentionally favor her children, especially one who had spent her entire life denied her place in the family.

Even more troubling was the possibility that the lost Lancer daughter might not be a benign presence. What if she had suffered a terrible upbringing? What if she had grown up in grinding poverty and would covet what the others had worked so hard to create? What if she intended to drive a wedge between the family members? What if she had been raised to be what others had believed her mother to be, a grasping good-for-nothing?

Scott had been an outsider at various times in his life. He had not particularly enjoyed it, but he had always known it was temporary and that he could return to the bosom of his family. Now, if every worst possibility came true, he might find himself banished from the people who meant everything to him.

Scott kept his misery to himself. He had indulged in the same dark thoughts when he first met Johnny. A lifetime of his grandfather’s teachings filtered his vision as he first encountered the dusty cowboy who flagged down the stagecoach in the middle of nowhere. In an instant, Scott sized up the fellow who stumbled onto him when the stage started up again, from the tarnished conchos on his trousers to the gun worn low on his hip. Even the lessons the army taught him about the foolishness of judging the worth of a man by his manners and appearance couldn’t override that small piece of Harlan Garrett in his mind who wrote off the ruffian as potentially dangerous but no one of importance. The shock of learning that the churl was his brother took an effort to overcome.

The cold lessons of his grandfather were as varied and deep as they were endless. Scott had fought against them from the age of thirteen onward, even when the old gentleman turned out to be right. Still, no matter how hard he tried to tamp down those repetitions of his grandfather’s “wisdom,” they arose at a moment’s notice to cloud his thoughts.

That piece of Harlan Garrett in him had been wrong about Johnny. He prayed these new nagging worries about their sister would be just as wrong. Because if they weren’t, and Harlan’s lessons of mistrust and harsh judgment were correct, his family faced a terrible civil war of its very own.

 

Two weeks after Thanksgiving, Ramón Bautista and the Burgess brothers, David and Danny, returned from their month-long trip to follow Henry Recklenberg home to Texas. After they arrived and watched Henry settle in on his family’s ranch, Bautista had sent a telegram to Murdoch suggesting they stay on for a few weeks to learn what they could about the troublemaker who had made such vile threats against María and the rest of the Lancer clan. Johnny was the one who noticed that Bautista used a telegraph office in a town outside Recklenberg County. Considering it was a day’s ride just to send that message and wait for the reply, it was pretty clear the ranch hand thought a telegram sent from inside the county ran the risk of being read by others. Johnny had always liked Ramón Bautista and his older brother Roberto, who’d been at the ranch for a year. They both had good heads on their shoulders. Even though he wasn’t much older than Johnny, Ramón was a lot smarter about people than most young men were. Ramón’s suspicions about the Recklenbergs showed he’d figured them out pretty quickly.

Johnny knew from personal experience that they should be careful with that family. Back in his gun hawk days, he had worked for Old Man Recklenberg’s sons in Texas when they stirred up a range war to keep the local farmers in line. Johnny had quit in disgust early on when the boys, Junior and Henry, refused to pay their own help when a badly organized attack went wrong. Leaving had spared him from being part of the slaughter of some of the farm families. When he heard about the killings later, he thought he might have been able to prevent at least some of it. But he eventually accepted that he would’ve failed. He knew the hardest thing in the world to stop was bloodlust. Those who tried sometimes found themselves victims along with the people they wanted to save. He had no trouble imagining one or two of the Recklenbergs’ private gunmen enjoying turning the tables on him.

When Henry showed up in Morro Coyo last month, trailing María to keep her from becoming his stepmother, Johnny knew the danger they all faced. They won that battle, but he knew Henry wouldn’t accept defeat. Their troubles weren’t over.

When María had written Johnny a short letter to let him know she had arrived safely in San Jose, Johnny wrote back to tell her not to stay anywhere for too long and, unless she had an emergency, only write when she was leaving without telling him where she was going next. He didn’t want to give Henry any chance to track her down. She wouldn’t be safe from him until Henry found someone else to hate even more than he hated her.

María’s recent visit had stirred up all kinds of thinking for Johnny. Seeing her through an adult’s eyes, he had to let go of a lot of his childhood ideas about her and what she’d done. He also had to look again at one of Murdoch’s old friends, Sheriff Joe Barker. Johnny had to testify at the man’s trial in Sacramento, and he’d heard the story of how the disgraced lawman tried to recover from a couple small mistakes by doing things that just kept making everything worse, to the point where he accidentally killed his own deputy. To get out of that mess, and maybe even make a place for himself on the ranch, he let everyone think Johnny had murdered the deputy. After all the sheriff’s schemes fell apart, Joe’s decisions meant he would spend most of the rest of his life in prison.

Johnny had little sympathy for the man, thinking of him as a lazy and bragging freeloader. But after hearing about how his mother fled from one tiny misjudgment into bad decisions that led to twenty years of misery, he was forced to look at Joe Barker with a little more understanding. One of Murdoch’s familiar sayings was “There but for the grace of God go I.” Johnny hated to think of his mother as doing the same thing Joe Barker had. At least when she made most of her bad choices, she hadn’t been trying to hurt anyone. That’s what Scott would call small comfort.

The afternoon the three ranch hands returned from their journey to Texas, Murdoch brought them into his smaller, private office so they could give their report. Murdoch wanted Scott and Johnny there as well. Johnny knew how much Murdoch’s trust in his sons’ abilities meant to his brother and him. As different as they were, they had their own ideas about problems, and even though sometimes Murdoch overruled them, at least he listened. Johnny wondered if Old Man Recklenberg had done that once in a while, maybe both families wouldn’t be in this mess now.

The ranch hands sat in the guest chairs in front of Murdoch’s desk as Scott and Johnny stood off to the side. The three cowboys had put a lot of miles under their boots, and Murdoch was grateful for all the extra effort they’d put into their task.

Ramón took the lead, giving a brief description of the trip to Texas on the same trains Henry had taken and how Henry had apparently rejoined his family as if everything had gone the way he’d planned. Johnny thought it was funny to hear the half-Anglo vaquero talk like a school teacher, but he probably couldn’t help it, since his mother had been one.

Ramón said, “A couple days after we arrived, we surmised we’d have a better chance of knowing what he was doing if we could get on the ranch. So, we went to see if they needed wranglers. Just in case Henry might have recognized us, I went on my own first. I was told they weren’t hiring.”

Dave Burgess picked up the story. “Danny and I went the next day. We were hired on the spot.”

His little brother added, “It was funny, everyone on the ranch is white. Even the cooks and the maids, from what we could see. Not even people who were part something.”

“What’s the ranch like?” Murdoch asked. 

“Huge,” Danny replied. “Big and dry. They have good animals, but they can’t run a lot of stock because the grazing is poor.”

Dave said, “The father buys the breeding stock. He travels a lot. The place is run by the foreman. I don’t know what the sons do. We didn’t see any of the family the whole time we were there, even though the foreman said all three of the men were on the property.”

Danny noted, “The foreman was a square fellow, but when it was time for us to come home and we said we were moving on, we didn’t get paid for our last week of work. The owners are real skinflints.”

Murdoch gave a thoughtful frown, and Scott said, “That seems a little short-sighted.” He looked at Johnny. “But didn’t you say Henry refused to pay some of the people he hired for his range war?”

Johnny nodded. “He and Junior are only upright when they have to be.”

Ramón replied, “I remembered when you said that on that day in town before we left. So, while Dave and Danny were working at the ranch, I decided to ask around in the towns and villages about the family.” He frowned. “I had to be careful. No one wanted to talk with me at first. Someone even accused me of being sent to spy on them.”

Murdoch and Scott exchanged concerned frowns. Johnny admitted, “I’m not surprised. That keeps people afraid, and it’s cheaper than hiring guns.”

Ramón concluded, “It wasn’t until someone realized that they’d never hire a mestizo that people decided I was okay.”

Murdoch’s only reaction was a deepening of his frown and a disapproving mutter. “What did they tell you about the family?”

“The boys’ mother died twenty-five years ago. The father hasn’t remarried.” Ramón hesitated, then pushed on. “That younger son’s a bad one, sir. People don’t like him. Especially the Tejanos. He’s got a real bad reputation with the families. People hide their daughters when he’s around.”

Murdoch asked, “He’s a Romeo?”

Ramón thought for a dark moment. “No. Romeo asks. Henry takes. I heard a story about a man who defended his sister from Henry. A week later, the brother turned up dead. Henry’s number one man was arrested, but the county judge declared it self-defense before the man went to trial. Everyone I talked to said the judge is in the Recklenbergs’ pocket.”

Johnny asked him, “Who’s his number one man?”

“Someone named Killey. I didn’t see him at all.”

A whispered “shit” escaped Johnny. He glanced his apology to his father, who insisted that kind of language stay outside the house. Murdoch didn’t scold him, so Johnny knew he understood how bad this was.

Scott looked at his brother. “You know him?”

Johnny nodded. “Yeah.” Now wasn’t the time to explain that “Spoiler” Killey was one of the few men who genuinely scared him.

Ramón summed up the situation, “Justice in that county is whatever the Recklenbergs want.”

The trusted ranch hand went on to describe the reputations of the other two men—the father wasn’t too bad, just absent most of the time as he traveled for pleasure and to buy cattle; Junior was arrogant and rude, but he didn’t seem to have as big an appetite for violence as his little brother did. Junior had a wife and children, but the wife ran the house and didn’t seem to have any influence over her husband. Ramón confirmed Johnny’s story of the range war four years earlier, especially how some people were killed for the fun of it. Dave and Danny mentioned that they had heard about the war from some of the ranch hands, but most didn’t want to talk about it. The hands also wouldn’t talk about the Recklenbergs. The brothers figured everybody on the ranch thought it was safer not to know too much about what went on in the big house.

Ramón related a few more stories he’d heard about the family, all telling the same tale. The sons were trouble, and the father had given up what little control he had over them. The young vaquero concluded, “They’re one of those families that makes you appreciate the good people in your life.”

Murdoch sat in moody silence for a long moment, then thanked the young men for their resourcefulness and hard work. When Ramón pulled out the leftover money from what Murdoch had given them to make the trip, the man shook his head and told them to keep it—they’d earned it. The three hands exchanged a look of surprise. From the thickness of the wad of money, Johnny guessed there was at least a year’s worth of salary for each of them. Dave Burgess stammered in protest, but Murdoch stood and dismissed them, thanking them again with a sturdy handshake and telling them to take a day off to rest before returning to work.

After the young ranch hands left, Murdoch retook his seat and pointed at the chairs. Scott and Johnny settled into the empty seats. “Opinions?”

Scott took in and let out a long breath. “I think I’m glad you didn’t settle in Texas.”

Johnny looked at his hands as he rested them on the edge of the desk. It was easier than looking at the others. “Oh, most of ‘em aren’t like that. There are a lot of nice folks there.”

Murdoch said to his younger son, “Tell me about Killey.”

Johnny had hoped Murdoch would forget that detail. He should have known better. “‘Spoiler’ Killey is a very bad man.”

“‘Spoiler’?” Scott asked.

“A nickname he gave himself.”

“Why?”

Why did his family have to be so full of questions? “Because he ‘spoils’ women.”

When Johnny didn’t elaborate, Murdoch said in a solemn voice, “I take it he means not by being extra nice to them.”

Johnny nodded. “The opposite.”

No one spoke for a moment. Scott finally filled the silence. “So, he and Henry are two of a kind, then.”

“Except Spoiler kills people, too, instead of hiring others to do it for him.”

The three sat in the small room as the late afternoon shadows began to gather outside the window.

Finally, Scott asked, “So, what do we do?”

In a gravelly voice, Murdoch replied, “What can we do?” He regarded Johnny. “Do you have any way to get in touch with your mother?”

To make sure she was following his instructions, he had written two letters to her previous addresses. Neither had gotten an answer. Maybe he’d been a little too cautious. “I don’t know where she is.”

Murdoch violated his own rule. “I feel so damned helpless. We have people out there who are in danger, and I don’t know where they are.”

Scott looked out the window. “María doesn’t want to be found.” He turned his gaze to his father. With a cheerful confidence, he added, “But Ángela doesn’t know about any of this. She’s not hiding. The Pinkertons will find her.”

No one replied. The future of their family rested in the hands of strangers.

 

Chapter Two

The waiting came to an end two days into the new year. As Murdoch sat at his desk in the great room and poured over the ranch ledgers to close out the year, he heard a wagon outside and guessed it was the crew back for more supplies to fix Señora Vasquez’s leaking roof. The knock on the front door surprised him, but when he heard Teresa talking with someone, he absently wondered which ranch hand had come in. A couple of the newer men had started mooning over the girl. Teresa seemed pleased by their attentions, but she hadn’t shown a particular interest in either of them. However, Murdoch knew that soon enough the day would arrive when he would be interviewing potential suitors for his ward. How had that happened so fast? His memories of the little girl in pigtails chasing after the vaqueros and begging to learn how to throw a lariat were interrupted by Teresa’s appearance in the room’s doorway.

“Murdoch, there’s a man here to see you. He says he’s from the Pinkerton Agency.”

He launched to his feet as a tall, roundish man with a small, tidy mustache removed his bowler hat and gave him a deferential nod. “Mr. Lancer.”

Murdoch came around the desk and extended his hand to the stranger, who gladly accepted it. When he saw Teresa starting to leave, he said, “No, Teresa, stay here. You can hear this.” Suddenly, the irregularity of this meeting hit Murdoch, and he shuddered. Why had this man come in person instead of following the usual procedure of a written report? ...Could it be bad news? He asked the visitor, “Can she?”

The man nodded and smiled. “I don’t see why not.”

Murdoch gestured to the chairs by the fireplace, then, flummoxed at the prospect of having answers, turned his back on his guest to look at the table with the sherry decanter. “May I offer you something to warm you up?”

The man chuckled as he sat in the chair closest to the welcoming fire. “This is just fine, thank you, sir. By any chance, is your son Johnny here?”

Murdoch sat, feeling all arms and legs and unable to fit comfortably into his usual chair. Teresa sat on the nearby hassock. “I’m sorry, he’s not. My sons are out clearing away some fallen trees that are clogging a stream and turning one of our best pastures into a lake.”

The man nodded with a faint smile. “I understand. A rancher’s work is never done, I guess. I just wanted to see him for a minute. I never got a chance to thank him for saving my life when I found him.”

Teresa said, “I thought you saved his life. Wasn’t he facing a firing squad?”

The man nodded. “Yes. But half a minute later, I was facing that firing squad. He was my first assignment, and I realized afterward that I’d made a couple of really stupid mistakes, like showing those killers my bankroll, and then turning my back on them. If it hadn’t been for Johnny, I would’ve been as dead as those other poor men. What he did sure made me rethink Johnny Madrid’s fearsome reputation.” He shook his head, then looked at Murdoch. “Anyway, I’m sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. My name is Fred Weiler. I’m the one who’s in charge of finding your daughter.”

Murdoch nodded. He recognized the name from the weekly reports. “I hope it’s good news that’s brought you here.”

“Yes, sir, it is. I’ve found her.”

Murdoch’s heart rose to his throat as Teresa clasped her hands together with joy.

“I followed your instructions,” Weiler said, pulling a packet of folded papers out of his jacket pocket. “I didn’t make contact with her.” He held out the papers to Murdoch, who hoped his hand wasn’t shaking as he accepted the pages. “It’s all in there. You’ll have no trouble finding her. In fact, you’ll know her the moment you see her.” He smiled again. “From what I was able to learn, you have every reason to be proud of her. She seems to be a fine young lady.”

Murdoch glanced at Teresa, who was dabbing her eyes with her handkerchief. Murdoch would have time for emotions later. “How did you find her?”

Weiler nodded at the papers. “The trail is in there. In fact, I didn’t want to leave anything out, so I probably gave you more information than you wanted. ...But I’ll tell you something that I did leave out of the report.” He thought for a moment. “Forgive me if I’m being presumptuous, Mr. Lancer. But with this being my second case for you, I feel like I have a sense of who you are as a man, and I think you’ll understand what I’m saying.”

Weiler paused, then said, “When I joined the agency, my first supervisor meant well, but he told me not to let anybody know I’m Catholic. ‘It’s an immigrant religion,’” he said, imitating a gruff voice. “‘Don’t let people know you’re not a real American. It’ll hurt you and us.’” He smiled lightly. “My family’s been here for five generations, and my great-grandfather was at Valley Forge, but that didn’t seem to matter. Anyway, let me tell you, Mr. Lancer, with all his skills, that supervisor never would have found your daughter. In fact, nobody else in that office could have.” He thought for a moment with a quiet smile. “I can say this, because one of my sisters and two of my aunts are nuns.” He gave Murdoch a confidential nod. “If you want to know what’s really going on in a convent, and find the nun who knows where all the skeletons are—so to speak—you need someone who went through parochial school and knows how to deal with sisters. I volunteered for this assignment so I could repay your family for what Johnny did for me. But, apparently, I had to take this case, Mr. Lancer. I’m the only one who could’ve found Sister Mary Jerome—and gotten her to talk.”

His audience leaned forward with anticipation as Weiler retraced his steps and started at the beginning. He told how he canvassed the convents in the central part of the state, how he found the one in San Francisco that specialized in adoptions (“the tip-off was only a well-organized group would have a family ready and waiting the day the child was born”), and how he chatted up the right sisters in the right way to lead him to the one person who knew the whole story.

“Sister Mary Jerome was so disgusted by how your wife was treated that she almost left. But she realized if she didn’t stay, anyone who might come looking for the child would never find out what happened to her. When I told her why I was there....” He shook his head. “She thanked you and blessed you at least ten times. You were the answer to two decades of her prayers.”

Murdoch had no idea how to respond. It was her petitions and those of his wife that had done all the work. He had merely been the beneficiary.

The detective’s smile faded. “The real reason I came in person wasn’t just because I had good news and I wanted to thank your son. ...I came here to warn you.”

Murdoch frowned as he shared a worried glance with Teresa. “Warn me about what?”

“I found out two days ago, when I passed through our office on my way here...that someone in our agency is sharing the investigation results with a third party.”

Murdoch shuddered. The third party could only be one person.

With grim embarrassment, Weiler explained, “Our agency is built on trust and professionalism. We’re nothing without our good reputation. Everything is supposed to be kept in the strictest confidence. But I was shown evidence that someone outside our office is receiving all the details from your weekly report. And since whoever that person is is getting it by telegram and you’re getting it by letter, he knows what’s going on a full three days before you do.”

As Murdoch recoiled with surprise, Teresa shivered. “It’s got to be Henry.”

Murdoch asked, “Where are the messages being wired to?”

Weiler shook his head. “All I know is it’s not being sent directly from our office. Whoever is doing this is using a commercial telegraph office somewhere in San Francisco. How it’s getting to that office, and where it’s going from there, and even how someone outside our agency found out about our investigation, I don’t know.” With a grim determination, he said, “But I promise you, Mr. Lancer, I’ll find out who’s doing this. When he sends the next message, we’ll have him. Whatever the size of the bribe he accepted, it won’t be worth the fire he’ll face from me all the way up to Allan Pinkerton himself. But until we catch him, I have to follow the standard procedure so he doesn’t realize he’s been discovered. I’ll be back in the office in two days, and I’ll have to file my copy of the report then. And the information will go straight out to that unknown person.” He nodded to the papers clutched in Murdoch’s hand. “That means you’ve got two days to get going on your way first.”

Wrapped in silent thought, Murdoch regarded the visitor. Two days.... Somehow, as quickly as possible, they would have to reach her, establish her trust, and get her to leave her home and her family so she could travel back to Lancer for them to protect her. That was a lot to ask, even under the best of circumstances. He started to unfold the pages. “Where is she?”

“The town of Little River,” Weiler replied. “It’s up—”

“I know where it is,” he said distractedly. Up in the heart of Redwood country. Far from here...alien territory. Who knew where Henry Recklenberg might have people ready and waiting? If they were in San Francisco, and they got the word in two days, they would be heading north just as Scott and Johnny were riding past. The boys would have no head start at all. “Mr. Weiler, are you sure you can’t delay returning to your office for a day or two?”

“I’m sorry, sir. I’ve already raised some curiosity by not filing my official report yet.”

Murdoch said with hesitation, “I know it’s a lot to ask of you, but could you file a false report? Tell your supervisor that you didn’t find her after all. It would only be for long enough to give us time to get her to safety.”

Weiler gave him a heartfelt apology. “Two weeks ago, I told my supervisor that I’d found the convent and I was heading north to confirm where she was. He was so pleased, I’m sure everyone in the office knows about it.” With regret, he explained, “I can’t suddenly change my story. And even if I say she wasn’t in that town after all, I told him the name of the convent. That’s not a secret. Someone else will be able to go there and find a way to get the same information. I’m sorry, Mr. Lancer. It’s impossible for me to cover this up now.”

Murdoch’s heart sank. “Only two days, and when she’s so far away....”

The Pinkerton man thought for a moment. “I can give you another day if I take a long time to write up my report. If I submit it after closing time, the spy won’t be able to look at it until the next morning. Otherwise, he’ll have to stay late, and he won’t want to run the risk of drawing attention to himself.”

Murdoch glanced at the anxious Teresa. “Anything you can do to give us a little more time,” he said, “would be appreciated.”

“It’s the least I can do for you and your family. Johnny didn’t just save my life. He made me a better detective—and man—by giving me a chance to learn from my stupid mistakes.”

As the agent shifted forward to rise from his chair, Teresa asked, “Mr. Weiler, can you at least stay for supper? I’m sure Johnny would want to see you. You’ve come a long way just to turn around and go back.”

Weiler gave her a diffident smile as he stood. “Thank you, miss, but I’m already overdue. Delaying one more day may raise suspicions.”

As Murdoch stood to see the man to the door, something in what Weiler said rang odd in his ears. Raise suspicions....

He followed Weiler and Teresa to the front door. She was offering to pack him some food to take along the way, and he shook his head with a smile. Murdoch studied him. Did he seem eager to leave? Maybe his departure wasn’t spurred by wanting to get back so much as get away from them before Johnny returned. What if he wasn’t even a Pinkerton agent? Perhaps he was another one of Henry Recklenberg’s tricks. Luring them hundreds of miles from home would be the perfect setup for an ambush that couldn’t possibly be traced back to him. Murdoch closed his eyes and shook his head. He had been looking over his shoulder for so long that maybe he’d forgotten what honesty and kindness looked like.

With another promise to do what he could to help, Weiler climbed into his buggy, bid them farewell, and then directed his horse around to the approach road. Murdoch put his arm around Teresa’s shoulder as they watched him go.

She asked, “Where’s Little River?”

“Just south of Humboldt County.”

She sighed. “That’s a long way away for such a small head start.”

“I know, honey.” The boys would be dead tired after taking apart that log jam. But they’d still have to leave before sunrise. “Maybe you should talk with María about getting supper started early.”

 

Scott and Johnny could barely walk from exhaustion after a day of playing lumberjack. But the fallen trees and brush had been cleared, the temporary lake was returning to being a pasture, and they had the perfect excuse to take tomorrow morning off.

When they shambled through the front doorway, an amazing aroma promised a delicious early supper. How wonderful of someone to anticipate their famished state! Johnny exclaimed his approval, and Scott’s stomach began to rumble in response to the heavenly fragrance. Scott hesitated when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Murdoch sitting at his great room desk, his serious gaze focused on papers in his hands. Something had happened. With the last of the energy in his tired legs, he went to the great room doorway. “Murdoch, what is it?”

“Good, you’re back. Come in.”

The brothers exchanged a concerned gaze and moved their tired bodies into the room.

Even before they could drop into waiting chairs, Murdoch asked Johnny, “Describe to me the Pinkerton agent who found you in Mexico.”

Johnny regarded him in a moment of surprise, then thought. “Big guy, round head, little mustache. Mostly what I remember was his giant wallet that he did a real bad job of keeping the Rurales from seeing.”

Murdoch let out a breath of relief. “Good. I’ve gotten so suspicious over the last month that when someone’s trying to help, all I can see is ulterior motives.” He gave them a synopsis of the afternoon’s events. The joy of the discovery lasted only until Murdoch shared the rest of the story. With a hint of regret, he concluded, “Go pack now before supper, because you’re going to have to head out before first light.”

Johnny frowned. “Aren’t you going with us?”

Murdoch shook his head. “I was on the fence about that earlier, but now I know I should stay here. You two can travel a lot faster on your own...and I think it will be a little less overwhelming for her if it’s just the two of you.”

Scott knew how much Murdoch wanted to see her, and this couldn’t have been an easy decision. But he had to agree. All three of them showing up might intimidate her or her family, and, under the circumstances, one of them needed to stay and make sure Henry Recklenberg didn’t have the opportunity to infiltrate an under-guarded ranch.

He turned to his brother and said, “Well, are you ready to go off and become a middle child?”

Scott had meant the comment as a jest, but Johnny’s thoughtfulness and lack of a quick response made him regret his tired attempt at humor.

Johnny said instead, “We should take the fastest horses.”

Murdoch concurred. “I’ll have Cipriano pull them tonight so they’re ready first thing.” He thought for a moment, then handed to Scott the pieces of paper he had been studying when they came in. “You two should look this over. It’s interesting reading.”

Scott regarded the handwritten notes. Across the top of the first page was written “Report on Ana Miriam de Peralta.” He held in his hands a summary of a young woman’s life....all of it. In a few days, Ana de Peralta would disappear and Ángela María Delgado Lancer would rejoin the world, whether she wanted to or not.

 

Chapter Three

The trip north was cold, damp, and both familiar and alien. Scott and Johnny followed the same route they had traveled two years earlier when they were sent to retrieve Melissa Harper, who, depending on her father’s version or hers, either had been kidnapped or run off with a charismatic charmer. When they left the estancia, the brothers had undertaken that journey as something of a lark, simply going through the motions to make Murdoch happy, because neither of them felt like interfering with what they believed to be a case of young love.

This time, however, urgency nipped at their heels and drove them to ride extra miles every evening. According to what Murdoch had told them about the Pinkerton man’s plans, by now his report had probably been submitted at his office, and nefarious wheels were turning. Johnny’s excellent suggestion of faster horses meant they were already a day ahead of their previous schedule. Every precious hour they saved meant more time available later to ingratiate themselves with their unaware sibling and encourage her to abandon everything she knew to travel south with two strangers to an unknown future.... Good Lord, Scott mused. Looking at the bare bones of the plan made them appear to be naïve fools at best. What were they going to do?

Scott had taken his turn reading and rereading the Pinkerton agent’s notes the night before they left. They all agreed that they should not bring it along, just in case it fell into someone else’s hands. Besides, Scott imagined he would feel rather violated if a stranger appeared before him with a detailed report of his own life. Keeping the facts within the realm of conversation would be a little less harsh.

The detective’s report had been thorough and precise, much more so than that first rather imbalanced report he wrote about finding Johnny. The man had learned a lot about his profession in the intervening years.

Through the detective’s words, Scott developed a fairly good sense of this mysterious half-sister. Raised as Ana de Peralta, she went by the name of Annie. How convenient that her nickname worked for both her birth and adopted first names. She had lived in the timber town of Little River all of her life, minus the days traveling up from San Francisco after her birth. Her parents, who had no other children, had founded the town’s newspaper. Her father José had died more than a year ago, and she and her mother, Miriam, continued publishing the paper. From his inquiries, the detective had learned that Annie was intelligent, well-educated, and strong-minded.

Scott still had many of his previous, unresolved concerns about her, which he continued to keep to himself. Both brothers, however, did gnaw openly on Murdoch’s two main observations: “She doesn’t seem to know anything about us, so go slow and be diplomatic,” and “the detective said you’ll know her when you see her.”

As they left the soggy flatland of the delta behind and approached the green hills of Napa, the mists gave way to patchy clouds and glimpses of the sun. They stopped for a brief rest to get off their animals, stretch their legs, and shake out their rain gear.

“I’ve been thinking,” Johnny said after he took a few steps away from his remuda mustang. He turned his back to the skittish animal before giving his wet oilskin coat a snapping shake. “What did that Pinkerton man mean when he said we’d know her when we saw her?”

Scott crouched and stretched tall several times, then flexed his feet to unkink his legs. He had been wondering the same thing. “I assume he meant she looks like one of us.”

Johnny folded up his duster and tied it to the back of his saddle over his bed roll. “He’s never seen you.”

Scott nodded. He considered imitating Johnny and taking off his rain gear, but he didn’t trust California winters. Rain could be waiting beyond the next hill. He shook out his duster a second time, then put it on again. “True. Plus, it would be rather odd if she resembled me.”

Johnny stretched, then got back into the saddle. “And he’s never seen my mother, so she probably doesn’t look like her.”

Scott climbed back onto his horse and stretched his lower back. This horse might be fast, but it had a jarring trot that made the journey feel twice as long. He was hoping for a comfortable bed in a nice hotel tonight. “She must look like Murdoch, then.” Somehow that didn’t seem like a compliment.

As they started on their way again, Johnny’s frown echoed Scott’s thoughts. He rode for a silent minute, then said in a distant voice, “Six foot four, square jaw....”

Scott couldn’t keep in his chortle. “She won’t be his double. Remember, Teresa reported María said she has brown eyes.”

They rode for another minute until Johnny said, “Can you see Murdoch in a dress?”

Scott snorted a laugh.

Johnny shook his head, his gaze never leaving the road before them. “Ten, twelve yards of fabric for each dress. Fifteen, twenty, even. She’s going to bankrupt the ranch with those clothes.”

Scott’s heroic efforts not to laugh failed. Somehow, he found it reassuring that Johnny was as unsettled about this as he was. “Don’t invite trouble, brother.”

Johnny glanced at Scott. “I mean, maybe she’s real nice. But until we get her married off, we’re going to be spending a lot of time defending her from jokers like Pal Franklin and Hank Vorress.”

Scott pondered that. “Oh, I don’t know. If she’s six-four, she can probably take care of herself.”

Johnny thought about that, and when he looked at his brother, Scott held out his arm imitating a boxer’s stance, exaggerating the gesture to imitate the length of Murdoch’s arm with a shrug to illustrate his point. Johnny burst out with a raucous laugh. Scott laughed with him. Admittedly, she probably wasn’t that bad. But regardless of what they discovered about their sister, he knew they would work together to make this a success. Yes, this just might turn out all right.

 

Two days and two counties later, Johnny and Scott arrived in the bustling timber town of Little River as the hidden sun slipped behind the low mountain range that protected the town from the ocean. But with trees this tall and thick surrounding the town, even clear days here couldn’t be very sunny. Johnny felt unsettled in forest country. There were too many places where someone could hide and still keep a close eye on you.

All afternoon they had talked about their previous trips up to this part of the world. They hadn’t gone through Little River on their way to Humboldt County to “rescue” Melissa Harper from that vindictive canalla Bobby Cooper, or on their second trip to a nearby town on this side of the county line to testify against the Cooper brothers. Thanks to the judge moving the trial away from their home and many friends, the jury quickly convicted Bobby of beating to death his previous girl, and the other brothers were given long prison terms for helping Bobby cover up the murder, keeping Melissa prisoner, and trying to kill her rescuers. “Accessories after the fact,” “aiding and abetting,” something like that. He and Scott left as soon as the guilty verdicts came in. He remembered reading in the newspaper account that on the scaffold before his hanging, Bobby made a pretty little speech about lost love and an unlucky life and other bullshit that made some of the women in the crowd cry. A canalla to his last breath.

Johnny thought about Melissa once in a while. The last time he saw her was at the trial. She talked about visiting the ranch, but she never did. He guessed she found something in San Francisco to keep herself busy. He used to think about going to the city to visit her. If she’d written to him, he would have. But she never did. Yeah, she found something better.

A light rain started to fall as he and Scott walked their tired horses down the main street, which was four blocks long and showed signs of expanding. A lot of new buildings were going up, and the rising prosperity showed in the difference between the old, single story storefronts and the new, multi-story shops. Many of the older buildings had signs with Spanish and even a few Chinese names, while the newer, nicer buildings were all Anglo. It was easy to see who controlled Little River’s wealth. He heard there was money in lumber, and the new buildings said lumber was booming. A three-story hotel! He wondered if Morro Coyo would ever see something like that.

Across the street from the nice hotel was an older, single-story building with a sign that read “Little River Chronicle,” with the newspaper’s name in Spanish below the English. The storefront needed a coat of paint, and a few planks of its walkway waited to be replaced.

The two moved their horses into the alley directly across from the newspaper’s front door and dismounted, stretching tired muscles. Nearby stores were closing up for the evening, but warm lamp light came through the newspaper office’s large front windows. It looked like he and Scott wouldn’t have a chance to rest yet. They could see a middle-aged Anglo woman sitting at a large table, writing and making notes on pieces of paper in front of her. Through the windows they could see a tidy interior with cabinets along the back walls and a printing press in the center of the room. The building might not be the fanciest one on the street, but the business looked cared-for.

“That must be Miriam de Peralta,” Scott said. Johnny nodded. He’d expected her to be Mexican with that family name, but he realized he shouldn’t have. He could see two doors in the back wall, one open and one closed. “I wonder if Annie is in there.”

“Since we’ll know her when we see her, we won’t have to guess.”

They watched for a few minutes as the dusk turned to a drizzly night, but the only change in the newspaper office was the appearance of a black cat that jumped up onto the work table and brushed against the woman. She continued her work as she absently petted the cat.

Johnny tilted his neck and rubbed a sore muscle. “How about if we get a hotel room and some supper? It doesn’t look like she’s closing up anytime soon.”

“Time is not our friend. We can’t lallygag here.”

This was a new one. “‘Lallygag’?”

“It’s a fine old word.”

“Since when?”

“Don’t change the subject. We don’t have any time to waste.”

Johnny stretched his neck again, then looked around at the town. “How about if I take the horses to the livery and check into the hotel while you don’t lallygag?”

“No.”

“It doesn’t take two of us to watch one little building.”

They heard footfalls on the plank walkway next to the alley and stood in the silent darkness as two men walked past, one lighting a cigarillo and tossing the match into the alley near Johnny’s feet. It sizzled on the muddy ground and went out.

Johnny watched the woman work in the newspaper office for about a minute, then said, “I bet the hotel has a restaurant with really good food.”

“It probably does.”

“They may run out by the time we get there.”

“That’s possible.”

More footfalls echoed on the plank walkway, this time with a lighter step. Near the mouth of the alley, a young woman appeared, wrapped up with a shawl around her head and shoulders against the damp weather, holding a basket and walking across the street. With a sprightly stride, she approached the newspaper office door and went inside. They watched her with keen interest as she set the basket on the table where the older woman was working. The woman glanced up at her with a familiar smile and then said something to the delivery girl.

“I bet that food is nice and hot,” Johnny said as the delivery girl removed plates of food from the tray.

“It’s not steaming,” Scott observed.

Johnny gave him a sour glance. He knew at this point Scott was just being stubborn. “Maybe we can get her to deliver some food to us here.”

“Unlikely.”

The younger woman didn’t remove her scarf, so maybe she wasn’t sticking around. “Come on, Scott. I can be back from the stables in five minutes.”

“What if that’s Annie?”

Johnny let out an exasperated sigh. He looked down the street. Everyone else was being sensible and staying indoors. Being sensible was very appealing on this cold night.

The older woman picked up the cat and set it on the floor as the delivery girl unpacked the food and set up two place settings. Scott said, “She’s not dining alone. Annie should make an appearance soon.”

“Once we see her, then can we go?”

“That depends on what we see.”

Johnny grunted another sigh, looking up to the heavens as raindrops fell on his face. Scott could be such an ornery cuss. He brushed the water off his face, then looked at the street. No one was out walking. Annie must be inside the building.

A lantern outside the door of another small building caught his eye. The sign with Chinese characters and “Good Food” beckoned. It had been way too long since he’d had Chinese food. The hotel restaurant could wait. He knew where he was going to find his supper.

Scott gasped. “Oh, my God.”

Before Johnny could see what made Scott react, Scott turned and blocked Johnny’s view of the street, putting his hands on his shoulders. Johnny could see his brother thinking hard. “What is it?”

His mind still racing ahead, Scott said, “You’re going to have to stay off the street.”

Johnny could feel his face go cold as his mind went straight to Spoiler Killey and a half-dozen other men like him. “Is there someone who knows me?”

Scott was sorting through his plans. “I’ll check us into the hotel, and I’ll take the horses to the livery. We’re going to have to find a way to get you to the room without being seen.”

“What? Who is it?” Johnny knew it couldn’t be Spoiler, because Scott didn’t know what he looked like. He wasn’t in trouble with the law, so it couldn’t be a sheriff or marshal. At least, he didn’t think he was in trouble.

Still distracted, Scott said, “I’m going to have to handle this by myself, at least until...I figure out something.”

Johnny tried to glance past Scott to look at the street, but his brother blocked him. “Scott—what is it?”

“It’s something we didn’t consider.” After a moment, Scott released Johnny’s shoulders and stepped aside.

Johnny looked through the newspaper office windows. The delivery girl had taken off her shawl and was sitting at the table across from the older woman.

He stared at her.

If Johnny had ever wondered what he’d look like if he’d been born a girl, he saw the answer eating soup and smiling at something the older woman had said. Like him, she was a Delgado with enough Lancer mixed in to make things interesting. Okay, she was a lot prettier than he was, but this was unnerving.

Scott said, “Now you understand why you can’t show your face in this town. There’s no way for you to hide the fact that you’re her brother.”

Johnny stared for another few moments. All he could think was how life had played another cruel trick on his mother. She had given up the baby because after her misunderstanding with the gambler, she feared Murdoch would always wonder who the baby’s father was. If only she could have known what Annie would look like, she would have known she had nothing to worry about. She would have returned to Lancer, and all of their lives would have been completely different.

Johnny snapped out of his gaze at Scott’s words: “You stay here, and I’ll check us into the hotel. Then I’ll take the horses to the livery. We’ll figure out a way to get you past the desk clerk without his seeing your face.” He gave his brother a light shrug. “Somehow.” With a last gaze at the newspaper office, and then a confounded shake of his head, Scott left the alley and headed for the stable.

 

The Little River Grand Hotel turned out to be surprisingly grand, an elegant testament to the tiny town’s great faith in its future. The ruse to get Johnny to their room worked better than Scott had hoped. As Scott had already signed for the room and taken up their saddlebags, all he had to do was get Johnny through the gauntlet of chatting citizens in the community’s gathering place of the hotel’s front lobby to the front desk and then up the stairs. Holding a bandana over his nose and mouth as they made their way through the politely curious residents, and then coughing and letting out a loud, fake sneeze as he signed the register, Johnny earned a concerned gaze from the desk clerk. Scott apologized for his sick brother and, to the clerk’s relief, promised to keep him in the room “until he feels better” before he shepherded Johnny up the stairs to the spacious second-floor corner room that overlooked the street.

Scott came back down to order supper from the hotel restaurant, which had not run out of food, and soon the two were enjoying an excellent three course meal as they mapped out their strategy. Johnny was given the job of lookout, while Scott would introduce himself to the women and try to establish a friendly relationship with them. Their original plan included sending Murdoch coded telegrams to report their progress, but Scott had second thoughts about the scheme. The town was small enough that everyone had to know everyone else, and the liveryman had inquired about Scott’s travels and stated that most people who came to town didn’t come in with their own horses, and cowboys and cow ponies were quite a novelty. He’d even quizzed him about the Lancer brand on the animals and wanted to know all about the ranch. Apparently, cattle country was as exotic to the people of Little River as timber country was to him and his brother. Keeping potential complications in mind, Scott and Johnny agreed that multiple telegrams would be unwise, even if the code words made it seem they were about something else. Scott settled on the simple message that they had arrived safely and were ready to “conclude their business,” the code phrase indicating that they would not be communicating again.

The code phrase in fact was the opposite of the truth. He hadn’t figured out how they would get down to business. He and Johnny made a good team when it came to investigating unfamiliar towns and discovering the lay of the land. However, with his best partner stuck in the room, Scott would have to reconnoiter and engage the locals by himself. That didn’t always go very well for him, even without the complications of creating a friendship with a woman who didn’t know she was his sister and convincing her to travel a few hundred miles from her home. Somehow, he would have to find a way.

 

Dressed for travel, Miriam de Peralta paid her usual Wednesday morning visit to the manager of the Little River Grand Hotel. She appreciated both his friendship and the news he shared from the outside world courtesy of his guests. Hedley came out to greet her by the front desk and gave her a warm smile and handshake. “I can’t believe it’s Wednesday already.”

“I know. The time seems to fly by faster and faster.”

He escorted her into his office and closed the door. “How’s Annie?”

“Fine as always.”

“When is she going to start making your midweek trip with you?”

She knew Hedley would tease them both about this, but he never meant it in a hurtful way. “As soon as Miguel stops accompanying me.”

He chuckled. “When is that girl going to give the boy a chance? He’s a nice young man, and he thinks the world of her.”

She pulled her small notepad out of her purse. “Until he stops trying to make her give up working for the paper, his hopes are doomed.” She found her pencil and opened the notepad to the first blank page. “She’ll never give in. As my father used to say, trying to make her change her mind ‘is like tryin’ to put fat on a greyhound,’” she said with a crisp Scottish accent.

He nodded. “She sure takes after your side of the family.”

Miriam agreed with a small smile. “So, what’s new this week?”

“Nothing. It’s the curse of the slow season. Even the stage is a day late. But we’ll have the out-of-town newspapers for you when you get back.” She nodded her thanks. “Oh, we do have something interesting. Two strangers from ranch country.”

Miriam made a note in her pad. “When did they get in?”

“Last night. Brothers. Name of Lancer.”

She stopped writing as a cold chill passed over her. ...She forced herself to take a deep breath. Maybe it was a coincidence. “Any idea why they’re here?”

He shook his head. “I haven’t seen them. Rolf checked them in. I only saw their names in the register this morning. But Rolf said they carried pistols, just like cowboys in the books.”

She pretended to write. “I guess that’s how they all are in ranch country. They have rattlesnakes and such.”

“Rolf said they were nice enough. One of them has a bad cold, though. They were supposed to be passing through, but I imagine they’ll be staying here until he feels better.”

She noticed her hand begin to shake, and she put her pencil and notepad back into her purse and clutched her bag a little too tightly.

Hedley gave her a gentle smile. “How is the paper, Miriam? I know things have still been bad for you. Is there anything I can do to help?”

Dear Hedley, she thought, still trying to do battle with a ghost. He wouldn’t have any more success with her than Miguel would with her daughter. “Thank you. You’ve always been so kind to us. But you don’t want to take sides against the lumbermen. It would be bad for business. Trust me, I know.”

He gave her a sad smile as she stood. “Please, Miriam, if there’s anything I can do for you, anything, just ask.”

She returned his smile as he stood to see her out. “I can’t think of anything more valuable than your friendship.”

He put a gentle hand on her arm and escorted her to the front desk. “I can never thank you and José enough for what you did for this place. You took a seedy little lumber camp and made it into a real town by giving us a newspaper. Your faith that this was a place worth remembering changed everything.”

She surprised herself by getting misty-eyed at his words. “When Owens and Landgraf win, I’m going to put that quote on the front page of our last edition.”

He scolded her for talking like that, then wished her a safe journey and went back into his office.

Miriam stood by the front desk, scouring the lobby with a casual eye. Helena was away from the desk. Jeb and Arthur were chatting in their usual chairs, not paying attention to her. She took a step back towards the desk, then turned and looked at the register. There were the names: Scott Lancer, John Lancer, both of Morro Coyo, Cal. She shuddered. No, no coincidence. She pivoted away from the desk and looked out the window at the street. Why did they have to arrive today? Any other day of the week, she would be able to handle them herself. But if she canceled her trip to the settlements, everyone would know something was wrong.

She walked out of the hotel and made her way slowly across the street. The sun had come out. At least the journey would be dry. She stopped at the newspaper office’s front door and did a slow turn around as if trying to recall something. Without tilting her head, she looked up at the hotel’s façade. In the window of the northwest corner room on the second floor, she could see a figure. The reflected sunlight obscured all but his outline. But there was definitely someone looking down at the street...and their business. She steeled herself. She turned back again, looked in her purse in a bit of mummery for the observer, and then opened the newspaper office door and went inside.

 

Scott was collecting breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant to take back up to the room when a well-dressed, rotund, white-haired gentleman approached him with a hopeful gaze. “By any chance, are you Scott Lancer?”

Scott sized up the man, wondering what this meant. “I am.”

The stranger gave him a genuine smile. “My name is Pierre Aubuchon,” he replied, revealing traces of a French accent. “I’m the mayor of Little River. I know your father.”

Scott set down the tray of food on an empty table and shook the man’s hand. “I see word travels quickly in this town.”

The man’s face flushed as he chortled with embarrassment. “No, we’re not that bad. I was over at the livery this morning and I saw your horses. I recognized the brand, so I figured you would be staying in the best hotel in town.”

“I didn’t realize there’s another one,” Scott admitted, relieved that this encounter was a coincidence.

“Oh, the other is really more of a boarding house. But that is not important. I saw on the register that you and your brother John are here. On business, no?”

Scott wasn’t sure how to answer.

Mayor Aubuchon continued, “It’s just like Murdoch to keep an eye open for investing in a growing industry outside his usual realm. I would like to invite you and John over for supper tomorrow evening, if you’re not otherwise engaged.”

“We’d be delighted,” Scott replied, then realized his mistake. “Actually, Johnny has a bad head cold. He really needs to stay here.”

“Oh, that’s too bad. Perhaps I can send something home with you so he can enjoy some real coastal cooking. Why, my Margaret has a magic touch with seafood.”

Scott couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a good fish supper, and he forced himself to accept in the name of good manners. They arranged the time, and, as the mayor left, Scott returned to his food courier duties.

Johnny grumbled at the news that he would be missing a fine meal, and he also complained about the broth the cook made for his breakfast. “I have to eat this slop so nobody gets suspicious.”

“Soup is good for a cold. You’ll be well in no time.”

Scott ignored his brother’s sour look and asked if he’d seen anything interesting so far today. Johnny reported that Annie’s mother had come over to the hotel for a short time, and then a young Mexican man came by the newspaper office driving a buckboard, and the mother left with him. She had taken a carpetbag with her, so he wondered if she would be gone overnight.

“That sounds like the perfect opportunity for me to ingratiate myself with our sister.”

Johnny considered the unfamiliar word. “Does that mean introduce yourself?”

Scott buttered the fresh biscuit. “Befriend, become acquainted with, make myself agreeable.”

Johnny ignored the broth and cut a thick slice off his ham steak. “How?”

Scott chewed thoughtfully on the buttermilk biscuit, which was almost as light as those their housekeeper made. “To be honest, I have no idea. I’ve been struggling to remember how my friends talked to their sisters when they were trying to make them do something they didn’t want to. But that doesn’t really work if you don’t know the sister yet.”

Johnny nodded. “Mostly I remember brothers threatening their sisters. I mean, not really threatening. But there was a lot of teasing. You know, like, ‘if you don’t do this, I’m going to tell Paco how much you like him.’”

Scott thought as he sipped his coffee. “Learning all the ins and outs of running a ranch is easy compared with this.” He scrutinized his brother. “Are we too old to learn how to have a sister?”

Johnny shrugged as he chewed another slice of ham. “Crap, I don’t know. Maybe we should’ve brought Teresa along.”

“That’s a great idea. Why didn’t you have it a week ago?”

“Why didn’t you?”

Scott gave him an indignant ruffle. “The real question is, why didn’t she?”

“That’s right. This is Teresa’s fault.”

They ate in silence for a moment, then they laughed lightly. Scott said, “I think we’re going to be okay.”

Johnny nodded. “Once you get ingratiated.”

 

Scott walked up and down the main street to get a sense of the place before going to the newspaper office. The three-story hotel dominated the town. Next door stood the only other tall building, the Protestant church that looked like it had been plucked intact from a small New England village. Through the opening of the impressive spire, he could see a substantial bell much larger than what he expected in a town of this size. Considering how much it must have cost to ship it all the way from an Eastern foundry, the bell presented another ostentatious symbol of the uneven wealth distribution in Little River. On the other side of the church stood the impressive home of the Owens Lumber and Land Company, which decorated its headquarters with ornamental architectural elements more at home back east than in the wilds of the California forests.

Further down were various shops and small restaurants, and out at the end of “the commercial district” were two small saloons and an old Catholic church that looked like it pre-dated the rest of the town by at least half a century. A road of homes paralleled the main street on the east side, while the forest lay close to the humbler buildings on the main street’s west side. Little River was still small, but its optimism about its future seemed undaunted.

When Scott entered the empty newspaper office, a sprightly little bell on the door frame announced his arrival. The black cat he had seen the night before lay curled up in a low basket on top of a cabinet, its large yellow eyes examining him with only mild interest.

A young woman’s voice called from the back, “I’ll be out in a moment!”

“Don’t rush,” he replied. He studied the printing press, which looked like it had been through a war or two. As a child, he’d been in a printing business several times with his grandfather, even though he had never seen the process in action. He had trouble picturing how a machine not much larger than an upholstered chair could produce an entire newspaper. Perhaps he’d be able to see it before they left.

Annie appeared in the doorway, wiping her hands on a towel. Her smile of greeting faded into a dubious gaze when she scrutinized him from his cowboy hat to his gun holster. She stepped up to the counter and said in a cool, professional tone, “May I help you?”

For a moment, Scott’s mind went blank. She looked so much like Johnny that he had no idea what to say to her. How could someone who seemed so familiar be a complete stranger?

He collected himself. “I’m sorry. You remind me of someone, and I just....”

Her dubious expression had turned into a small smirk.

This wasn’t going the way he had hoped.

“May I help you?” she repeated.

He realized he hadn’t made sure their conversation would be private. “You’re alone here?”

A suspicious glint in her eye made him regret his question. “Yes,” she replied coolly, “just me, and the cat, and the cavalry platoon playing poker in the back room.”

He smiled at her joke. Well, he imagined it was a joke. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude. I’d like to buy a copy of your paper.”

She appeared singularly unimpressed. “There are free copies for guests at the hotel.”

He had been reaching for a nickel in his pocket, but the chill in her voice caught him up short. “Why do you assume I’m staying at the hotel?”

“Aren’t you?”

She had him there. “But why do you assume I am?”

“You’re hardly boarding house material. And your clothes are clean, so you didn’t just ride in this morning.”

He had been listening to the timbre of her voice, searching for something familiar. The pitch was the same as María’s, but the canny tone was all her own. He also made a note not to underestimate his sister in the future. “How do you know I rode in?”

“The northbound stages have been running on an irregular schedule lately, and the southbound stage doesn’t get in until about one o’clock. If you’d been in town since the last one, you would have already been in to buy a paper. Plus, your boots.” He regarded his broken-in but clean footwear. “Those weren’t made for running through the forest.”

Is this how a fly felt under a magnifying glass? He needed to turn the conversation around. “So, you don’t want my money?”

She eyed him with another distancing smirk, then reached below the countertop and pulled out a copy of the paper. He put the nickel on the counter as he picked up the eight-page edition. The pages were smaller than the San Francisco and Sacramento newspapers Murdoch received by mail. He was struck by another surprising detail—it was in both English and Spanish. As she searched through a jar of change, he shrugged her off. “Keep it.”

“A cowboy willing to pay five cents for a newspaper? You are an odd stick!” Her archness sliced through him.

“Now look...,” he started with more heat than he intended.

The merry little bell at the door jingled again, and he curtailed his lecture when he saw a short, plump Mexican woman come in. The woman glanced at him, and then started to speak to Annie in Spanish. The woman put a half-dollar on the counter, and Annie gratefully accepted it. Scott could follow some of the conversation, and he gathered that the woman owned a bakery and was paying for a small advertisement she had taken out for a special event. The women chatted, and Scott drifted to the edge of the room, pretending to read the paper and trying to figure out how he had been so completely pushed into a corner by this woman who had no idea who she was talking to...and yet had laid him out with an expert’s ease.

In a lower voice, the woman asked Annie who Scott was. He noticed the visitor kept glancing with concern at his gun and holster. Scott had noticed that, like riding boots, guns weren’t worn in this town. He had contemplated leaving his in the room, but with their two-day head start long behind them, not being armed when, or if, Henry Recklenberg’s gunmen arrived seemed inexcusably shortsighted. Unfortunately, his decision had brought unwelcome attention and apparent misunderstandings. Perhaps that was behind his sister’s frosty demeanor.

Replying to the woman in a conversational tone to disguise her words, Annie said he was a stranger who had just arrived in town...and called him one of the nicer words that could be translated as “fool.” He wasn’t sure if he should be amused or insulted.

They continued to chat, and it became clear that Annie considered her conversation with him at an end. He needed to reassess his approach and try again later. He folded the newspaper and tucked it under his arm. “I’m sorry,” he said to Annie, “I can tell you’re busy. Perhaps I’ll stop back again at another time.” He took a step towards the door, then stopped and looked at her with a disapproving gaze. “Oh, and despite the conclusions you’ve obviously drawn, I do know what you called me.”

She lowered her head as her cheeks burned a bright pink. He touched the brim of his hat to them. “Ladies.” He walked outside into the filtered sunlight, where his escaped staccato laugh caught the attention of several confused passersby.

 

“How did the ingratiating go?”

Scott tossed the folded newspaper onto the table. “I was brushed off like lint.”

Johnny stared at him, then laughed.

Scott sat in the chair at the table and flung his hat onto his bed. “She even told someone else who came in that I was a fool. I have no idea what happened.”

Johnny laughed so hard he started to cough. He managed to say, “That’s showing her, Boston.”

The bell in the church tower next to their side window tolled once, startling them as it sent its deep, sonorous tone throughout the small town and made their side window rattle. Scott checked his pocket watch. “One o’clock.”

Johnny looked out the window with concern, but no one on the street seemed alarmed. When he said he didn’t remember the bell ringing before during the day, Scott suggested that one of the town fathers must be from New England, because many small towns there had a bell that struck once during the day for all the people who didn’t have clocks or watches. “It makes me feel at home,” he admitted.

Scott kept running through the conversation with Annie, and it still didn’t make sense. The only other time he had been so thoroughly put in his place like that had happened back in his first year at college, when he had been built up by an upperclassman to expect a girl of their acquaintance to swoon at his every word...and instead she sliced him down with the expertise of a dragoon. He found out afterwards that the fellow had told the girl false stories about him, painting his portrait in many shades of hubris, and had staged the entire encounter for his friends’ enjoyment as a childish prank. “I think I was set up.”

“What do you mean?”

This didn’t make sense, and yet it did. “I think someone warned her to expect me. Has anyone talked with you?”

Johnny shook his head.

The only people with whom Scott had interacted were the desk clerk, the livery man, a few people at the hotel’s restaurant, and the mayor. Of that group, only the mayor knew anything at all about him. Would he have done such a thing? It seemed unlikely, coming on the heels of an invitation to supper. The mayor hardly seemed the type to humiliate someone for his own amusement.

“What about her mother?” Johnny asked. “She came to the hotel this morning.” He pondered something. “And she did kind of a funny stroll across the street on her way back.” He described how she had stopped in front of their office door, turned around without looking at anything in particular, and then went inside.

“Could you tell if she looked up at you?”

He shrugged. “She had on a bonnet. Her face was in shadow.”

They thought for a few moments. Scott realized their sister wasn’t the only one who had drawn an incorrect conclusion. “Just because Annie may know nothing about us...doesn’t mean the same holds true for her mother.”

“I skipped over parts of the Pinkerton report,” Johnny admitted. “Did it say anything about what the nuns told her parents?”

Scott couldn’t recall the part about the conversation with the nun who told the detective about the adoption, and he regretted not bringing the report with them. “We know María had Annie baptized with the name she gave her. I’ve never heard of anyone being baptized a second time with a different name. So, it’s logical that the nuns told her parents her birth name.” He regarded his brother. “I’m sure it will come as no surprise to you that my grandfather holds many professions in contempt. He doesn’t trust reporters, because he thinks they’re always twisting the truth. He once told me, ‘Never underestimate the cunning of a professional scribbler.’ I’m afraid I didn’t think of Miriam de Peralta as a reporter.” He stewed. He had always considered himself a fairly good chess player. But apparently that didn’t apply when he was halfway through a match before he realized someone was playing him.

Johnny nodded. “I bet she knows everything that goes on in this town.”

“And she’s surrounded by friends. While we’re strangers. Who carry guns.”

Johnny added with a serious gaze, “But, if she knows Annie’s real name, we’re not strangers.”

Scott frowned at his brother. “We’re villains here to steal her child.” Scott threw out his hands in a gesture of futility. “Check and mate. Our mission was doomed from the moment we rode into town.”

“So, now what?”

Scott considered their shrinking options. “If we had all the time in the world, I’d say we should use the mayor as our go-between.”

“But we don’t.”

Scott sighed. “Then we ‘must needs go that the devil drives.’”

Johnny frowned his question.

“Sorry. We haven’t read All’s Well that Ends Well yet. It means we have to do something unpleasant because we have no choice. For us, brother, that means we’re going to have to do exactly what we didn’t want to—march right in there and tell her who we are and why we’re here.”

 

The Wednesday “Lancer Pony Express” rider arrived with an envelope that Murdoch had been expecting...and dreading. The short letter from Fred Weiler shared the good news that the corrupted clerk inside the Pinkerton office had been discovered. Unfortunately, the man had admitted nothing and refused to give details or identify his contact. Weiler also warned that while he couldn’t confirm that the turncoat had sent a telegram with the details of his final report, indications suggested that before his misdeeds had been uncovered, the treacherous clerk had managed to get the information out of the office through a third party. Murdoch should be prepared for unknown persons arriving in Little River at any moment.

Murdoch drafted a short, coded telegram message of warning to his sons and sent it back to town via a fresh rider on a fresh horse. Thank goodness Teresa had already suggested they send more men. He prayed they would arrive in time.

 

Chapter Four

Johnny watched the newspaper office from his window vantage point for nearly two hours, growing more frustrated by the minute. The plan was for the two of them to go in when Annie was alone so they could have their conversation in private. But the plan wasn’t working. For a little business that didn’t seem all that prosperous, the place sure had a lot of people passing through. Maybe today was the day everyone paid their bills or took out new ads. Maybe there was nothing else to do in this town. All he knew was the place always had at least one visitor, sometimes three or four.

Scott came in after taking their lunch dishes back down to the restaurant. “Well?”

“It’s still market day down there.”

Scott sat with frustration. “It’s nice to know our sister is so well-liked, but this is getting ridiculous.”

Johnny looked across the street again. The office door opened, and he saw three women leave, chatting. “Wait—it’s clear!”

They scrambled into their jackets and fled down the stairs. Johnny didn’t remember to cover his face until they were halfway down to the front lobby. He grabbed his bandana and held it over his mouth, doing a rotten job of faking a sneeze. He coughed a couple times, and Scott patted him on the back as they reached the main floor. Scott said to the startled desk clerk, “He’s definitely better today!” They scurried past the clerk before he could question Scott’s judgment.

They reached the hotel’s plank walkway in time to see two young Chinese men enter the newspaper office. They stopped, exchanged glum glances, and shuffled towards the alley next to the hotel. Located between the three-story hotel and a two-story mercantile, on the sunny afternoon the shaded alley looked extra dark. With luck, they could wait here unnoticed until the coast was clear.

They stepped into the shadow of the hotel, and Johnny stuffed the bandana back into his pocket.

A gravelly voice said, “Well, fuck me sideways. Johnny Madrid.”

The voice had come from behind them. The two regarded each other with silent alarm. The alley provided even better cover than they’d thought.

Johnny turned ever so slowly and saw three figures in the shadows. As his eyes adjusted, he saw they were hard men, with grim gazes and a thick caking of dust from riding hard. The owner of the raspy voice was the one man Johnny didn’t want to see.

“Spoiler. It’s been a long time.”

“Sure as shit it has. I thought you were dead.”

“I was. A couple times. But I kept coming back.”

Spoiler snorted a laugh. “Even the Devil didn’t want to look at you.” He glared at Scott. “Who’s your friend? I don’t know you.”

Scott replied, “Scott Garrett.” He offered the man the smallest of nods.

Spoiler gave him a disapproving onceover and returned his attention to Johnny. “I didn’t know he sent you, too.”

Spoiler looked even harder and uglier than he had before. He had a new scar on his cheek, from just above his right eye down past his chin. Johnny knew Spoiler had made quick work of whoever did that to him, even if Spoiler deserved it. “Well, you know how Henry likes to hedge his bets.”

“Henry?” Spoiler replied with a frown.

Johnny didn’t move.

After a few seconds, Spoiler pursed his lips the way some men twist a knife. “Since when do you call the boss by his first name?”

Johnny breathed again. “Since he’s not here.”

Spoiler snorted. “One of these days, Madrid, that mouth of yours is gonna get you killed. And this time it’ll stick.”

Spoiler introduced his companions as Johnson and Armstrong. Johnny didn’t know the oversized Armstrong, although he might have seen the lean and grim Johnson somewhere before. He’d know more after the man washed the road grime off his face.

“How long you been here?” Spoiler asked.

“We got in last night.”

Spoiler squinted. “How’d you get here so fast?”

“I was in the area.”

“Why?”

In his side vision, he saw Scott shift his weight to stand square. Now isn’t the time to get ready to fight, Boston. Two bullets from Spoiler’s Model 3 would rip you in half before you hit the ground.

“I’ve been known to work for other people.”

Spoiler’s gaze narrowed. “You know Mr. Recklenberg doesn’t like that.”

“That’s why I quit the other fellow.”

Spoiler had returned his gaze to Scott. “What’ve you done?”

“Cattle, mostly. But there was that train job.”

Spoiler’s eyes narrowed. “Only one?”

“Yeah. We learned you don’t say each other’s names in front of witnesses.”

Spoiler sized him up again, then returned his attention to Johnny. “Just keep him out of the way. He might shoot himself in the balls.” He gave Scott a dismissive glance. “Maybe he has already.”

When Scott didn’t take the bait, Johnny began to believe they might survive the day.

Spoiler looked at the newspaper office. “What’ve you learned so far?”

Johnny said, “That place is almost as busy as the hotel. She’s always got visitors in there.”

Spoiler didn’t like that.

“And something funny,” Scott said.

Johnny froze. What the hell was he doing?

Scott continued, “I think she looks a lot like Johnny. It was...kind of strange.”

Huh, maybe Scott was smarter than he thought. He frowned at his brother. “You do? I don’t think she looks like me at all.”

Scott shook his head. “No, I think you two must be related somehow.”

Spoiler said, “She looks like that ugly twat?”

Scott replied, “They might be cousins or something. And you know what a gentle soul Johnny is. She might be tougher than she looks.”

Spoiler shook his head. “As ugly as Madrid. That’s too bad. But that’s not the part Mr. Recklenberg’s interested in.”

Johnny needed all his strength not to draw on the bastard.

“But thanks for the warning, Garrett.”

They watched the newspaper office as a deputy ambled up and went inside.

Armstrong cursed. “I know him,” he muttered.

“Does he know you?” Spoiler asked over his shoulder.

Armstrong related how he and his brother had been arrested by the man in gold country. “He’ll remember us. When we busted out, Vern shot up the sheriff.”

Spoiler growled. “You’ll have to stay outside of town.” He asked Johnny and Scott if they knew any good, secluded areas nearby where he could hole up, but neither did. As Spoiler and his men discussed things, Johnny got an idea. Spoiler had to be wanted for something somewhere. If the sheriff’s office had a poster, he’d have to stay out of town, too. With only the third man to deal with, that might give them enough time to get Annie out of here.

Spoiler eyed the two again. “You boys be good little watchdogs and keep an eye on things, okay? We’ll be back.” He smirked at them, and then the three left out the back of the alley, the tall Armstrong trying to look a little less noticeable by drawing his hat down over his eyes.

When they were out of sight, the two needed a moment to shake off the encounter. Scott said, “When this is over, I hope it’ll be all right with you if I kill him.”

“You’re good, but you couldn’t take him.”

“Can you?”

Johnny didn’t want to think about trying.

“All right—hold it right there!”

The two froze at the stern voice coming from the mouth of the alley.

Johnny was further from the alley’s street entrance, and from the shadows he saw the deputy who had gone into the newspaper office standing at the alley’s opening, his pistol trained on Scott. The two slowly raised their hands.

The deputy squinted as he glanced around past Johnny. “Where did the others go?”

“Out the back way,” Scott answered. “You can catch them if you hurry.”

Johnny could tell that because they stood in the sunlight and he was far enough back in the shadows they couldn’t see him well. He added, “But don’t go after ‘em alone.”

Confused by their cooperation, the deputy took a step to the side, and Annie appeared next to him. She glared at Scott. “I want to know who you are and what you’re doing here.”

His hands still in the air, he said, “Honest, I’m harmless.”

The deputy replied, “That gun and your talk about killing someone don’t say so.”

“Ask Mayor Aubuchon. He’ll vouch for us.”

Neither of the accusers had expected that. She asked, “How do you know him?”

“He’s a friend of our father’s.”

No one responded.

Scott shrugged. “Ask him.”

Annie’s glared eased, only a little, and then she turned her attention to Johnny. She squinted in the bright sunlight, trying to see his face. “You,” she demanded. “What do you have to say?”

He took in a long breath, then stepped forward next to Scott.

Annie stared. The deputy stammered something.

Then Annie amazed the brothers. As her gaze darted back and forth between them, a small smile crept across her face.

The brothers glanced at each other in confusion.

After a moment, she broke the spell. She tapped the deputy on the arm. “Uh, it’s okay, Kirby. Why don’t you see if you can find some men to go after the other ones?”

“You sure, Annie?”

She nodded. “I’ll be fine.”

He lingered for a few moments, then holstered his pistol and headed in the direction of the hotel entrance.

The two lowered their hands, but their thoughts remained up in the air.

She glanced both ways down the street, then gave them that knowing smile again. “Come over to the shop.” She hurried back across the street.

Neither of the pair moved. What had just happened? Johnny said, “Do you....?”

“No.”

Not knowing what else to do, they followed her.

 

Scott and Johnny found Annie hastily clearing papers off the table where she and her mother had dined the night before. “Sorry about being so rude to you,” Annie said to Scott, not looking up from collecting the pile of paper scraps. “I had the mistaken impression that you were thugs hired by Owens and Landgraf.”

Johnny studied the press, fascinated by all the gears. “Who are they?”

“They own the timber company and lumber mill.”

Scott asked, “Why would they hire thugs?”

Annie scooped the last of the papers into a basket and took it behind the service counter. “Last year, they cut the wages for their workers, claiming wood prices were depressed. Mama wrote a series of articles about how the lumber industry was booming, and especially California lumber was in high demand. When the workers realized their bosses had lied to them, a lot of them quit and went to work in other parts of the state. The owners demanded Mama retract the stories. She refused, because they were true. So, Owens and Landgraf coerced the regular large advertisers to drop us, and the paper that we used to get at the mill was suddenly no longer available, and paying to ship it in has raised our costs four hundred percent. They intend to drive us out of business because they want to control ‘the truth.’”

“Charming fellows,” Scott observed.

“Monopolies tend to take the ‘gentle’ out of ‘gentlemen,’” she replied.

Johnny had wandered over to the cabinets, where he pulled opened some of the shallow drawers. “Are all these filled with letters?”

She nodded. “The type cabinets are the soul of our business.”

She sat at the table, and Scott joined her. He said, “I’d think that would be the printing press.”

She pointed at the cabinets and said, “Think of them as the brain,” then the press, “and that as the heart.”

Scott smiled at her analogy.

Johnny had paused by the cat, who sat up in her basket on top of the cabinet and gave him a soft greeting. He scratched her head. “What’s her name?”

“Luz.”

Scott frowned. “‘Lose’?”

She replied, “Luz, as in Light.”

“You named a black cat ‘Light’?”

She indicated the small tuft of white fur below the cat’s throat. “That patch indicates her heart is light.”

Johnny gave the cat another scratch, then joined the two at the table. “I saw your mother leave this morning.”

“Every Wednesday she goes to Spanish Camp and Boseman’s Settlement to deliver the paper and find out if there’s any news. With luck, she can even drum up a little advertising. The dime and quarter advertisers are the only ones we have left. She’ll be back tomorrow afternoon.”

“That’s a long trip for a woman alone,” Scott said.

Johnny asked, “Who’s the man who went with her?”

She gave him a crooked smile. “Miguel Ramírez. He wants to work for the paper.”

“Why don’t you hire him?” Johnny asked.

“No money. Besides,” she added with some annoyance, “he doesn’t want a job. He wants my job.”

Scott asked, “What are you supposed to do?”

With extra starch in her tone, she said, “Become Mrs. Ramírez and give him twelve children.”

Scott chuckled, and Johnny asked, “What’s wrong with that?”

She replied, “Have you ever had a girl who said she loved you and wanted to spend the rest of her life with you—and then she expected you to change and give up everything you cared about in order to make her happy?”

Johnny shook his head, but Scott couldn’t offer such a firm denial.

She asked Scott, “And how did that make you feel?”

“As if she loved what she wanted me to be, not who I was.”

“Exactly.”

Johnny was about to say something, but she cut him off. “And please don’t tell me it’s different because I’m a girl. Either someone loves you, or they don’t. And if a man’s in love with what he wants to change me into instead of who I am, I’m not interested.”

Scott looked at his brother. “She has a point.”

Johnny gave a non-committal shrug.

Scott looked around at the modest interior and asked, “Are you holding your own, monetarily speaking?”

A playful spark lit her eyes. “Why? Are you interested in becoming financial backers of a small newspaper in an up-and-coming community?”

Scott grinned. “Well, I guess that depends on the investment potential.”

She gestured expansively to the humble interior. “This is the heart of America right here, a free and truth-seeking press. Investing in a newspaper is the most patriotic peacetime activity an American can perform!”

Luz gave a soft meow, and they all laughed.

Something struck Scott. Here they were, comfortably sitting around a table, talking as if they’d known each other for years. He regarded her with a solid gaze. “You know who we are, don’t you?”

She nodded. “You’re Scott and Johnny Lancer of Morro Coyo, California.”

“How did you know?”

She smiled. “You met my father two years ago.”

The brothers shared a questioning glance.

“When you came up to Bear Gulch for the trial of those brothers.”

“The Coopers,” Johnny said.

She nodded, then gave them that secret smile again. “Remember that nice newspaper man who took you to lunch and asked you all those questions about how business was down in ranch country?”

Scott recalled the gentleman. Courteous, intelligent, and endlessly interested in their part of the state. After the trial, he was even kind enough to mail to them the articles he’d written about the trial and aftermath. “That was your father?”

She nodded, her smile blending in pride and love. “He got a lot of information out of you two, and you probably didn’t even notice.”

Johnny said, “I read those articles he wrote. He hardly mentioned us at all.”

His brother may not have figured it out yet, but Scott had. Annie’s father had started the conversation about the trial, but then he asked a few questions about their ranch and let them talk. And talk they did—with such a good listener asking intelligent questions, they were at it for almost two hours, and it would have gone on longer if the jury hadn’t finished its deliberations so they had to return to court.

Johnny’s silence and serious gaze at Annie told Scott that he had figured out something else. Her face darkened as she regarded him, apparently waiting.

He finally said the words: “You know who you are, don’t you?”

She gave the slightest of nods, then, a moment later, a deep shiver shook her and made her catch her breath. She steadied herself. In Spanish, she spoke with a voice that sounded eerily like María’s: “Yo me llamo Ángela María Antonia Murdag....” She couldn’t finish as she began to cry. She pulled a handkerchief from a seam pocket in her skirt and held it to her eyes. Scott wondered if this was the first time she had ever spoken her name aloud.

Johnny put a comforting hand on her arm. “It’s okay.”

She nodded, her head still bent as she tried to gather herself. Scott put a hand on her other arm. “I still like Annie.” He had to speak carefully so the others wouldn’t hear the emotion that had gathered in his throat.

She sat up straight, crying even as she gave a shivering little laugh. “I’m sorry. I didn’t expect this to happen. I’ve been imagining this for the last year, and it didn’t look anything like this.” She stood, again mixing laughter and tears. “I was going to be so dignified, and....” She gestured to them that she was all right, and then she went through the door to the back.

Scott and Johnny looked at each other, neither admitting to the emotions they could clearly see on each other’s faces. Scott finally said in a low voice, “Well, one thing to keep in mind is her mother has to be the one who told her that we were gunmen.”

“Yeah. Except...how did she know her name? It doesn’t make sense her mother would tell her that, but then lie about us.”

Scott agreed. It was a mystery.

Johnny told him that he wanted to look for a wanted poster for Spoiler at the sheriff’s office, and Scott decided once again that his brother was perhaps the cleverest man he knew. He offered to perform the errand, but Johnny said he would probably have better luck finding something since he knew the names of Spoiler’s friends and allies. Scott countered that Johnny still needed to stay off the streets, plus the deputy’s shock at seeing Johnny’s resemblance to his friend would probably be repeated enough times to impair his ability to search. Besides, what would happen if one of the gunmen saw Johnny at the sheriff’s office? Johnny surrendered.

Annie returned, holding a Bible. She appeared more composed. She sat in her chair and opened the book to an envelope tucked into the New Testament.

Scott hated to sidetrack the conversation, but he told her that he had to run an errand to the sheriff’s office. She agreed to let him go, but she needed to tell them something first. “This is a long story, and I’m not ready to tell you the whole thing now, but I’ve known since I was five that I was adopted. Papa knew that I knew, but he made me promise not to tell Mama.”

The brothers exchanged a curious glance.

“That meant he could never tell me the story.” She looked at the envelope as she picked it up. She hesitated, tears appearing in her eyes. “When he became sick....” Her voice thickened with emotion, but she continued. “He wrote me a letter with instructions for me to read it on my first birthday after he died.” She looked at the envelope in her hands. “He actually wrote two—a simple one that Mama knew about, and another, longer one tucked inside it.” She opened the envelope and unfolded several sheets of paper written in an unsteady male hand. She asked Scott, “Do you read Spanish?”

“Not yet.”

“Then Johnny will have to read it to you.” She searched through the pages and pulled out two sheets near the end of the missive. She gave them to Johnny and stood, making a vague gesture in the direction of the door to the back. “I need to...take care of something.”

Scott knew a feeble excuse to escape when he heard one. He also noticed Johnny’s uncomfortable expression as he looked over the pages. Johnny had made great strides in his reading proficiency during his time at Lancer, but only in English. Scott could well imagine that a subtle newspaperman who could question the two of them without their realizing it would employ a sophisticated vocabulary. He said nothing, however, as Annie looked at the first page she had given him and pointed at the line where he should start reading. He nodded, even as Scott could see the uncertainty in his eyes. She stepped towards the back door as Johnny began.

“‘Let me tell you about your brothers,’” he read as he translated in an unsteady rhythm. “‘I met them on the first day of the...trial in Bear Gulch.’”

Annie hesitated by the door, turning her head to listen to his awkward reading.

“‘The moment I saw the younger one, whose name is Johnny, I knew who he had to be. I...introduced myself to him and his brother, and using my...superior....’” Johnny admitted defeat. In a quiet voice, he said to her, “I don’t know this word.”

She had turned back to face him, and, at his confession, she returned and sat next to him. Scott guessed she had probably read her father’s last letter so many times that she had it memorized, but she betrayed none of that as she looked at the page. “‘Interviewing,’” she said in a gentle voice.

“What’s that?”

“When a reporter talks with someone about a story or something that’s happened, that’s called ‘an interview.’ So, if I’m asking you questions, I’m interviewing you.”

Johnny nodded and looked at the letter again. “‘Superior interviewing skills.’”

She smiled. “That was Papa’s joke. Whenever he did something, he always had ‘superior skills.’”

Scott watched them as Annie abandoned her escape and sat with Johnny, watching him read the story of what her father had learned about her “other” family and how he found them to be admirable young men, and he wished he shared her privilege of being able to claim them as family. Through his letter, he also warned his daughter that they knew nothing about her, and that she shouldn’t go investigate them, as her face would betray her relationship with them and force a confrontation for which they would not be prepared; however, if she ever found herself in an emergency, she should contact them. She let Johnny read at his own pace and only offered kind assistance when he asked for it.

Scott’s heart filled as he watched the two of them. His shame burned a hole in his chest at how he had once worried that she might turn their comfortable family upside down. Blast you, Harlan Garrett, for teaching me to believe the worst of people before I even met them. In his mind, Scott imagined a thick, magnificently bound book with its title in gold leaf: The Wisdom of Harlan Garrett. With his thoughts, Scott lit a match under the volume and set the book aflame, watching it crumble into a wispy pile of fine ash, then blow away. He would probably have to repeat this every day for the rest of his life, but the exercise would be a small price to pay for the freedom of accepting people as they really were instead of how his grandfather expected them to be.

He possessed another sadness, and the time had come to do that the devil drives. After Johnny had finished the letter, and Scott smiled at his look of accomplishment, Scott said to her with regret, “Unfortunately, you weren’t the one who brought the emergency to us. We brought it to you.”

Johnny’s moment of triumph faded.

Her brow wrinkled at the unexpected statement. “What emergency?”

Scott replied, “Those other men, who were in the alley with us. We may not be hired guns...but they are.”

Johnny added, “But they’re not being paid by the lumber owners.”

Her concerned gaze passed back and forth between them. “Please explain.”

Age having its privileges, Scott deferred to Johnny.

He began, “There’s this rancher in Texas, who wanted to marry my—our mother....”

She stopped him. “Wait—our mother isn’t married to our father?”

“She is.”

That did nothing to answer her question. “...So why would that Texan want to marry her if she was married to....”

“I’ll explain later. So, he wanted to marry her, but his son hates her, and we kept the son from hurting her, so he hates us. ...And because he can’t get at her now...he hates you.”

She ruminated on this for several moments. “Is this one of those strange Southern blood feuds?”

“No,” Scott replied, “it’s strictly personal.”

With even deeper furrows in her brow, she said slowly, “So...someone who’s never seen me...hired men to hurt me...because of someone I haven’t seen since the day I was born...and it’s personal.”

Scott tilted his head with thought. “That’s one way of putting it.”

“You ranch country people are crazy!” She glared at Johnny, waiting for an explanation.

He stood with vague hand gestures. “Look, I have that errand to the sheriff’s office.” He made another gesture in Scott’s direction. “He can answer your questions.” Grabbing his hat off the table and jamming it low on his head, Johnny left.

Annie turned her stern gaze to Scott.

He thought for a moment, annoyed that Johnny had pulled a flanking maneuver on him and escaped to the safety of the sheriff’s office. He gave her an innocent smile. “Tell me more about your father.”

 

Chapter Five

Johnny returned from his errand to the sheriff’s office disappointed and frustrated. Either no one here cared about criminals from Texas, or Spoiler kept all his crimes in Recklenberg County, where the family would protect him. He did see a poster for Armstrong, so the trip hadn’t been a complete waste of time. But Spoiler was the main problem, and they had no solution. Johnny chatted with the deputy Kirby, who had returned from his useless search for the three vanished gunmen. After he pinned Armstrong’s poster to the board outside the office, the deputy was eager to ask Johnny about his connection to Annie, “just about the prettiest girl in the whole state.” Johnny said only that he was a relative, then changed the topic by asking if there was a safe—and secluded—place outside of town where he could sight his gun, just in case the criminals came back. Kirby told him about a gulch just past the Catholic church where he and the sheriff and other deputies got in their practice a few times a year. The sound didn’t carry far, so he could shoot without alarming folks in the quiet little town. Johnny thanked him and escaped the man’s endless curiosity about his resemblance to his friend.

When Johnny entered the newspaper office, he found Scott sitting at the table, reading papers from a gray metal box. Annie stood behind the service counter, chatting with an older Mexican man. Johnny pulled out his bandana and covered his face, coughing a few times. Annie frowned at him, but then she apparently understood what he was doing and returned to her chat with the man about his grandson earning an award at school.

Johnny went to the table and sat next to his brother, keeping his back to the man. Scott said, “Annie’s letting me read her father’s newspaper work. I’m sorry I didn’t get to know him better.” Scott tapped the page in his hand with a smile of admiration. “This is a circular they put out during a local murder trial ten years ago. A Mexican man had been accused of killing an Anglo miner, and even though the evidence didn’t support the charges, sentiment was running against him, and there was a lot of talk about ‘fixing things.’” He turned the page around to show it to his brother. “Her father, anticipating an acquittal, wrote this up ahead of time and had it printed and waiting. Ten minutes after the judge dismissed the case, this was on every storefront in town. Here, listen to this.”

Scott turned the page back and found the part he wanted. “‘There has been much talk of late in town and the nearby camps of a miscarriage of justice, and how the citizens have been relieved of their rights, and how the laws have been twisted, and how they must take the law into their own hands to achieve justice and hold the forces of tyranny at bay. Some cite the actions of the country’s Founding Fathers and their throwing off the yoke of oppression. They think this claim gives them the right to do whatever it is they wish to do at that moment.’ And here, near the end: ‘The law is and continues to be in the hands of the American citizens. To ignore the rule of law, even if an outcome of a legal action is not in accord with one’s wishes of the moment, does not honor the Founding Fathers—it stands in direct opposition to their beliefs and desires. It trudges back down the weary, well-worn trail of every monarch, every tyrant, every bully, every thoughtless ruffian, and every petulant child who has ever lived.’ And the end: ‘To yield to anarchy, to surrender to the brutal and selfish will of the mob, is to turn one’s back on the very principles upon which this country was founded. It is the most venal form of disobedience an American can commit. In the current matter, it is also murder. Think long and hard before you choose to be counted among the ranks of murderers and traitors.’”

Johnny gave a thoughtful nod. “What happened?”

Scott smiled. “Absolutely nothing. The saloon crowd didn’t even have enough time to fill up on liquid courage before the cooler heads prevailed.”

The cat appeared next to Johnny’s boot, and, after a moment of sizing him up, jumped into his lap. Johnny smiled and petted the animal, who rubbed against him and purred like a locomotive.

Scott nodded. “I see you have a friend.”

“Cats are a good judge of character.”

Scott put the handbill back into the box. “Any newspaper back east would have been proud to have José de Peralta on staff.”

“Except his name was José de Peralta.”

“Ah, and that’s why I didn’t recognize his name when I read the Pinkerton report. For the paper he used the name Joseph Peralta.”

The visitor bid Annie farewell and exited to the sound of the jingling door bell. She joined them at the table and asked about his errand. Johnny explained his purpose and admitted defeat.

She thought for a moment. “He really is that significant of a criminal?”

“If you mean if he’s bad enough to have wanted posters from here to Texas, yeah.”

She considered that, and then Johnny noticed a glint in her eye as she looked at him with a slight tilt to her head. He’d seen that spark before in his brother’s eyes, when Scott was getting ready to pull a prank on someone who’d underestimated him. But seeing it in her, he had no idea what it meant.

She asked, “Where do wanted posters come from?”

Johnny had never wondered about that. All he’d ever cared about was not seeing his name on one. “From the place where the crime was committed.”

She nodded thoughtfully. “And where do they get them?”

He knew this was some sort of trick, but he didn’t know where she was leading. “From the sheriff’s office?”

She nodded, then stood and, at a casual pace, walked over to one of the cabinets along the wall. “And where do they get them?”

Johnny looked at Scott, who was smiling.

She signaled her brother to join her. He put the cat on the floor and got up as Annie pulled open one of the shallow drawers to reveal rows of wood block backwards letters arranged in a metal frame. Across the top, above an empty middle section, in large, reversed capital letters was “D-E-T-N-A-W.”

“If you tell Mama I did this, she’ll skin me alive. ...But if you promise me that he’s bad enough to have one of these, I’m willing to do this.”

Johnny didn’t want to tell her half of what Spoiler had done. “Yeah. He’s that bad.”

 

The three spent the next half hour composing the wanted poster. Once Annie and Johnny agreed on what “charges” Spoiler should be facing—they decided on attempted murder and assault, which would be of more interest to the people of timber country than cattle rustling or horse theft—she went to work on creating the usual wording.

Two sticky moments arose. Johnny needed to think up a county where Spoiler would have earned a wanted poster for those charges but he wasn’t protected by the sheriff. Then there was his real first name, which he hadn’t used since he was seventeen. After running aloud through a long variety of names, and earning his sister’s amusement, he finally remembered—George. Scott suggested they add that he had been seen in the area traveling with two companions named Johnson and Armstrong, the latter being a wanted felon himself. He gave her their descriptions. She wrote out the text on a piece of scrap paper and then began to count the number of each letter she would need.

Scott noticed an interesting anomaly in his new sister. “I thought they ‘fixed’ left-handed children when they went off to school.” Of course, Teresa suffered from the same affliction, but he wasn’t going to let an inconvenient little detail get in the way of a good joke.

“Oh, the teacher tried,” Annie said, not looking up from her task. “Mama and Papa believed in ‘Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,’ so at school I’d write with my right hand—very badly—and write normally at home. Mama would put a note to the teacher on my report card that my poor penmanship grades were her own fault for trying to make me be something I wasn’t.”

Annie went to one of the cabinets and started pulling out the letters so she could set up the page. Scott marveled at her dexterity. She must have been doing this since her childhood. In less than an hour, she had locked up the form for the handbill, transferred it to the printing press, put ink in the machine, and printed up twenty posters. She invited the two to come back into their home where she would put the posters next to the fire to speed up the ink drying process.

She led the way through the back door and down a short hallway, which had a door off to the right, and then emerged at the far end into a comfortable little house. She started up a fire in the modest hearth, and then clipped the posters to lines strung before the fireplace—apparently it had performed this duty before. She told the two where to find tea and coffee if they wished to make some, and then said she would return to the shop to clean the machine and type. She returned to the hallway, and about fifteen seconds later she reappeared with the cat, setting her on the floor by the hearth. She went out again, closing the door to the hallway behind her.

Scott and Johnny sat at the fireside, admiring the tidy little home. The cat contemplated her bed by the fire, but instead she chose Johnny’s lap. He gave his brother a teasing smile and then said to Luz, “You know who the good one is, don’t you?” Scott smiled but offered no rebuttal.

The house might not be overflowing with wealth, but it was filled to the rafters with care, comfort, and love. Johnny indicated a framed photograph resting on the fireplace’s mantle. It had been taken of the family when Annie was about ten. “Yeah, he’s the man who let us talk our fool heads off.” Even with the constrictions required for taking a photographic portrait, the family looked contented.

Johnny regarded his brother seriously. “She isn’t gonna want to leave here.”

“I know.”

“And her mother’s gonna do everything she can to keep her here.”

“I know that, too,” Scott replied.

“But we can’t let her stay. Even if we stop Spoiler, Henry’ll keep trying until he gets her.”

“Right again.”

“So, what do we do?”

Scott gazed at the friendly hearth’s bright flames peeking out around the handbills. “I don’t know. Somehow we need to convince her of how much danger she’s in without making it sound like we’re exaggerating.”

Johnny looked around at the cozy parlor. “Seeing how peaceful this town is...well, maybe we ranch country people are crazy.”

Scott responded with an acerbic smile. “Things are very different here. Compared with this, our lives seem like those juvenile novels I read when I was growing up.”

“Ol’ Harlan let you have those things?”

He shook his head. “My friends loaned me theirs. Grandfather found one and gave me quite a lecture.”

Johnny smirked. “I bet you kept reading ‘em.”

“Of course. I was just a lot more careful about it.” He leaned back in the comfortable chair. “Whipsaw Pete could solve this.” He closed his eyes. Alas, that childhood hero couldn’t ride in from the pages of one of his books to flip this impending calamity into a thrilling victory.

“You know,” Johnny said, “with Spoiler around, one of us should keep an eye on her all the time.”

Scott nodded. Feeling all the weight of the situation, he stood. “I’ll go.”

“Good, because I’m kinda busy here,” Johnny said, scratching the cat behind her ears.

“I’m beginning to feel a bit slighted.”

“Cats just have their favorites,” he said, not sounding in the least bit sorry. “I can’t help it.”

Scott gave him a dubious nod, then opened the door to the hallway.

The smell of volatile chemicals hung in the air, and he closed the door and hurried to the office door. When he opened it, the strong odor of kerosene greeted him. Annie stood over the press, scrubbing the plate with a rag. The front door was half open, letting in fresh air.

“How can you stand that stench?” he asked.

“Oh, it’s not that bad.”

“Your nose must be broken.”

“You get used to it. Ink doesn’t come off with lye soap and water.”

“You should put your admirer Miguel to work doing that.”

She continued to rub the rag on the press’s plate. “First of all, he won’t be back until tomorrow afternoon with Mama. Second, I won’t give him any excuses to start taking over my job.”

Scott went to open the door a little wider. “I was thinking that smell might discourage him.”

She laughed. “If you want to help, I’m done with the can. You can put it in the shed out back. Go through the side door in the hallway to the house.”

He dutifully carried the kerosene can out to safety, scanning the forested terrain behind the house for anyone who might be watching. Seeing no one, he returned to the office, where Annie was scrubbing her hands over a wash basin.

“I’m curious,” he said. “Wasn’t your mother suspicious when your father wrote his letter to you in Spanish?”

“Not at all. Mama speaks and writes it fluently. We use both languages in the house. Although, I admit, with Papa gone, we speak English more now.”

“You’re lucky. I wish I’d known another language when I was growing up. I learned French in school, but it’s not the same.”

“When did you learn Spanish?”

“I’m learning it now. Johnny’s teaching me. He said I should know what people are saying about me when they think I can’t understand them. Like if they think I’m a fool.”

Her smile displayed more embarrassment than mirth.

“Personally,” he added, “on a number of occasions, I’ve found it useful to be underestimated. However, Johnny is the embodiment of the opposite, with problems being avoided by people knowing what he can do.”

She looked up from her ablutions. “What do you mean?”

“Well, his....” The open curiosity in her eyes made him realize she didn’t know about Johnny Madrid. Her father’s letter addressed only their lives on the ranch. Johnny never told him about his previous life. It certainly wasn’t Scott’s place to replay with his sister the trauma that happened when Johnny’s unprepared mother learned the truth about her son. “Well, you know how men are,” he said, scrambling for words, “always challenging each other to do stupid things. Johnny’s quite adept with horses, for instance. So, the men down at the bar don’t make wagers with him to do...dangerous horse challenges.”

That had been the most awkward lie he’d told since he was six, but she simply nodded. “Bars have given birth to many stupid decisions.” She offered another embarrassed smile. “I have a small confession to make,” she said, giving him only the briefest of glances up from her scrubbing.

“What’s that?”

“After I read Papa’s letter the first time, I investigated you a little bit.” She stopped her washing and gave him a serious, curious gaze. “Does your family—I mean, our—or you—really own 104,000 acres of land?”

“It’s about 112,000 acres now. We were up to 140 at one point.”

She shook her head as she rinsed off her hands and patted them dry with a clean rag. “I can’t even imagine that.”

He chose his words as carefully as he could. “You should see it for yourself.”

She shook her head as she went to the table to gather up the type blocks she had removed from the wanted poster template. “I can’t leave Mama.”

“It wouldn’t be forever.”

She gave him a gaze with more than a little suspicion.

He stated, “We’re not here to steal you away from her.”

“Are you sure?”

“Once this emergency is over, your life is yours to live. But, of course, Murdoch would like to see you once in a while.”

She stopped sorting the letters. “You call him by his first name?”

“We’ve lived there for less than three years. He was a stranger when we arrived.”

“Tell me the story.”

He wouldn’t be sidetracked so easily. She waited for a moment, but when she saw that her diversionary maneuver hadn’t worked, she went back to her sorting.

Scott said, “I need to tell you the rest of why we came here. I need to tell you more about that son of the Texas rancher. His name is Henry Recklenberg, and he’s one of the more vicious men I’ve had the misfortune to meet.” He summed up their short, turbulent history with the villain. “It will be impossible for us to protect you from him all the way up here. You’ve got to convince your mother to let you....” He realized his tactical oversight, which only made this worse. “...For both of you to come to Lancer until this is over.”

She shook her head. “I’ll never convince my mother to leave.”

He hated to say this so bluntly. “If she stays, Recklenberg will use her to draw you out.”

She stopped sorting the letters. “If he’s as bad as you say he is, when will this be over?”

He knew she understood, but he still tried a softer answer. “When we convince him that it’s not worth it anymore.”

“Or you kill him.”

He had no reply.

“Look—Scott—you’re talking like this is a dime novel. It’s not. It’s the real world. Maybe that’s the way life is in ranch country. But it isn’t here.”

He said, “I can assure you, ninety-five percent of the time, our lives are very boring. But that five percent happens. And in this part of the country, we can’t walk down the block to the police station and ask them to investigate. We have to take care of it ourselves.”

She scoffed and returned to her work, angrily sorting the letters back into their drawer.

“Annie, I believe that someday California—and Nevada and Arizona and even Texas—will be just as polite and civilized as Boston and Philadelphia. But as long as it isn’t, we have to keep standing up for what’s right. We can’t close our eyes and let the Henry Recklenbergs do whatever they want.”

He hadn’t intended to talk about this, but the words came out on their own. “I spent three years in the Armies of the Cumberland and the Potomac. That wasn’t the real world, either, but it was very real.”

She stopped putting the letters away, but she kept her gaze on the worktable.

He stated, “There are times when you have to do what you don’t want to in order to do what’s right. And sometimes you find yourself doing things you never thought you could or would. But as long as there are people like John Calhoun and Alexander Stephens and Henry Recklenberg, who think the Middle Ages were just fine and they should be allowed to own other human beings and do whatever they want just because they have the power to do so, or ‘to ignore the rule of law’ when it’s ‘not in accord’ with their wishes, then people have to be willing to stand up to them. And I happen to be one of those people.”

Her glare at him for using her father’s words against her didn’t bother him; he probably deserved it.

She replied, “Let me explain something you need to understand. When Papa got back from the trial in Bear Gulch, he told Mama about meeting you. In his letter to me, he told me about that conversation and warned me not to discuss any of it with her. That’s because once she realized how rich and powerful you are, she lived in dread of the day when you would show up and take me away from them. And here you are, ready to do it.”

Before he could respond, she added, “I’m all she’s got. She had to choose between her own family and marrying Papa because he was Catholic. She lost everyone else she loved when she chose him. All she has is me and her friends in this town, and this sad little newspaper that’s being driven out of business by two other rich and powerful men. If she leaves here, even for a short while, the Little River Chronicle will die.”

Firm words cut through their conversation: “And if she doesn’t leave, she’ll die.”

They both started at the sound of Johnny’s voice. He stood by the hallway door. Scott had no idea how long he’d been there. Scott recognized the determination in his brother’s eyes. There would be no arguing with him.

“Look,” Johnny said to Annie, “you don’t understand those people. That stuff we put on Spoiler’s poster—that’s maybe a quarter of what he’s done. He’s a murderer. He’s burned down farms and homes. He’s crippled people for fun. His favorite pastime is violating women. He looks like a man, but he’s an animal.”

“How do you know so much about him?” she challenged.

Scott expected Johnny to equivocate, but he said, “I spent a lot of time in Texas, where there are just enough ‘big men’ like Henry and Junior Recklenberg to keep the Spoiler Killeys employed and protected from the law.” She tried to say something, but he wasn’t interested. “Scott’s willing to do what’s right to protect this family. I’m willing to do what’s wrong.”

The coldness in his eyes silenced her. The weight of his statement hung in the room for a long moment. She averted her gaze, looking at the table as she folded her hands in thought. In a soft voice, she said, “Let me talk with my mother alone when she gets back tomorrow.”

Scott looked at Johnny, who gave him the slightest of nods. Scott didn’t have much hope of Annie being able to win over her mother, but they had to let her try.

 

After the wanted posters had dried, Scott took them to the sheriff’s office. The deputy was gone, but Sheriff Elstad was interested in the papers. However, he recognized where they had been made, and he questioned Scott’s motives and knowledge of the situation. Scott replied with selectively truthful answers, saying he and his brother had arrived in Little River in the belief that Spoiler and his men would be arriving soon, and once he had been spotted—to which his deputy Kirby would attest—he felt compelled to warn the residents about the dangerous man in their midst and had the posters printed. He added that his brother had “seen Spoiler’s handiwork firsthand” in Texas, and all of the information in the poster was accurate.

When the sheriff hesitated, Scott suggested he ease his worries by confirming Scott’s identity with the mayor. Sheriff Elstad took his suggestion and went to the mayor’s splendid house behind the church next to the hotel, taking Scott with him to avoid any possible attempt at subterfuge. The mayor happily vouched for the honored visitor and reminded him of his promise to dine with the family the next evening. That was good enough for the sheriff, who used the trip back to the jail to post the flyer on the most visited buildings in town.

As expected, the posters caused quite a stir in the quiet municipality. A steady stream of curious citizens came to the source of all news in the area to learn everything they could from Annie about the criminals in their midst. A subdued Annie answered what she could about seeing the men in the alley and hearing reports “from someone who had good information about him.” Scott sat at the far end of the room, pretending to read the newspaper while keeping an eye on the visitors in case one of Spoiler’s associates showed up. Johnny stayed in the house behind the office, keeping watch over the back of the building.

After the last of the visitors left, Annie locked up for the evening. She offered to make supper, but Scott wanted to keep up the appearance that nothing had changed, so he went to the hotel restaurant and ordered two hearty meals large enough for the three of them to share. He left the restaurant with the food as if returning to their room, but then he went out the hotel’s back door and brought the food across the dark street.

Annie objected when the brothers agreed to take turns standing watch while the other slept in a bedroll by the hearth, but she surrendered to the inevitable. Johnny used twine from the office to run lines across the windows to the bell on the door; any breach of the newspaper office would be announced.

As Scott took the first watch out front, Johnny and Annie sat by the fire after supper. Johnny told her about their parents, and how they met, and the terrible misunderstandings that had kept them apart for so long. Annie shed tears by the end of the story. “She might have had one tiny bit of solace in knowing that she gave me to the best possible parents.”

She told her brother the story of how her parents arrived in San Francisco to buy the used equipment they would need for their business before continuing north to Little River, where a significant Mexican population hoped for a newspaper. The couple had lingered in the city, traveling to the orphanage and convent, hoping to find a child, but the orphanage wouldn’t give a child to a “mixed” couple and the convent had no children. Her mother had prayed to Saint Anne for help, but when they bought the last of the equipment and had no more excuses to stay in the city, they decided to leave. “The night before they left, Papa had a dream that Saint Anne told him to go back to the convent. They had to backtrack to go there, but they did. And there I was.”

Johnny told her a little about his growing up, but he left out most of the bad parts. He said only that he “became separated” from their mother and lived on his own until he was found by the Pinkerton agent Murdoch had hired to locate him.

Looking at the flames, she asked, “Do I look like her?”

“We look more like her than Murdoch.”

“Is that good or bad?”

He thought about how to answer that. “He’s...not bad.”

“Do you like him?”

“Yeah.”

“...Do you think he’ll like me?”

“He’s loved you since he found out about you.”

She brushed her eye. She watched the gentle flames for a few moments. “Do you think I’ll ever have a chance to meet our mother?”

“I’ll find a way,” he promised.

She smiled at him. “I think you will.”

 

The next morning, Annie insisted Scott and Johnny go back to their hotel room before the town began to stir. Everything needed to look completely normal, otherwise someone would say something to her mother and her mind would be locked tight before Annie had a chance to start the conversation. To Johnny’s annoyance, Annie flatly refused his insistence that he give her a pistol lesson for her own protection.  She claimed she could shoot a gun but would be incapable of shooting someone. Johnny promised her that she would be able to shoot Spoiler if he came after her, but she still turned him down.

Annie said her mother would be back from her weekly circuit through the small communities in time for a late lunch.  She admitted she didn’t know how she was going to discuss all of this with her mother, but she would signal them to come to the office by standing in front of the window next to the door. Scott offered to “cross paths” with her and Miguel on the road and ride into town with them, but Annie assured him that she would not be fooled by a “coincidence” and that would only make her feel more challenged. The best choice they could make—the only choice—was to let her start the conversation.

Unsettled and unhappy, Johnny immediately set up his vantage point in the window of their hotel room. From this height, he could see the roof of the house behind the office and most of the land behind the house. He kept his rifle next to the window. Someone making a move during daylight seemed unlikely, but Spoiler had enough tricks up his sleeve to make him capable of anything. When the hotel’s restaurant opened, Scott returned their dishes from the night before and brought up breakfast for the beginning of their very long day.

 

Scott and Johnny sat at the two windows of their corner room, Scott watching the street on the north-facing church side of the building and Johnny at the west window opposite the newspaper office. Both had their rifles leaning against the window frames, out of sight of the people on the street below. Thanks to the gray day, no sunshine cast a glare on the newspaper building’s windows, and Johnny had a clear view into the office. He reported that Annie was staying busy with more customers. She was working at the table, writing on her pad of paper and talking with the clientele. Johnny observed that none of them seemed too wealthy, and he guessed they were the “dime and quarter” customers taking out tiny advertisements. “I don’t see any money changing hands.”

“Annie and her mother probably let them pay after the fact, and only if they have enough money to pay.”

Johnny clicked his tongue with annoyance. “Here they are, being squeezed out of business by wealthy men with thick egos and thin skins, and they’re all good manners and generosity. No wonder they’re hurting.”

“And no wonder they have so many friends.”

They watched the morning bustle on the street, searching for a familiar and unwelcome face. So far, none of the trio made himself obvious.

A midmorning knock on the door startled them. They set their rifles out of sight and Johnny sat facing away from the door as if he were merely enjoying the view as Scott answered the door. A boy in a tidy coat and cap stood at the door, a small envelope in his hand. “A telegram for you, sir.”

Scott opened the envelope quickly and scanned the note, and then he fished a nickel out of his pocket and gave it to the boy, who in return gave him a small salute and a big smile before leaving.

Scott closed the door and brought the note to his brother.

“What is it?”

“It’s from Murdoch. He said he sent some of the men up after us with a wagon. They should be arriving in the next day or two. I’m guessing someone realized any guests we bring back might not be horsewomen.”

“Teresa.”

“Sounds like it.”

“I guess she’s forgiven for not thinking to come along with us, huh?” Johnny said.

“It’s nice to know we’ll have reinforcements.”

Johnny nodded. “Did he say who was coming?”

Scott shook his head. “It was short and to the point.”

“I hope he sent the best guns.”

“Since he undoubtedly got bad news from Fred Weiler, I’m sure he did.”

With a thoughtful silence, Johnny went back to looking out the window at the newspaper office, and Scott took up his position at the other window.

 

Johnny spent most of the next hour answering Scott’s questions about Spoiler. Johnny respected Scott the strategist and how he always wanted to learn everything he could about the men they were up against. The main thing about Spoiler was his tricks. There were too many to count. One of his favorites was distraction, especially using someone else to get his next victim’s attention so he could get a clear shot. Another one was pretending to give up and start walking away, waiting for that moment when the other man relaxed just a bit so he could pull out his Model 3 and blast him to kingdom come. Johnny had seen people who should have known better get suckered in and killed. He remembered Spoiler bragging about how he’d found some special oil to keep the leather in his holster so soft and smooth that he could pull out that cannon without making a sound. The man lived to kill. He enjoyed it the way some people enjoy good food or nice clothes. His whole life was about perfecting death.

After he answered all his brother’s questions, Johnny found a more pleasant topic: lunch. Ever since he’d seen the restaurant, he’d been hankering for some Chinese food. It hadn’t taken much pestering at all to get Scott to agree to go pick up a feast for lunch. That led to a discussion of the mayor’s supper invitation. With Spoiler and his men in town, Scott felt he needed to cancel so he’d be available to defend Annie and Miriam. He could use the excuse of coming down with a cold of his own, but he would have to wait to send his regrets until after the conversation with Miriam, just in case the mayor happened to see him.

Their discussion of what to have for lunch was interrupted by another knock on the door. They looked at each other. Two visitors in so short a time raised their suspicions. Johnny turned to face the window—and watch his brother in the glass’s reflection—and Scott opened the door with caution.

In the hallway stood a teenaged boy in dungarees and a cotton duck jacket. “You got a telegram,” he said. He handed a folded piece of paper to Scott and left.

Scott closed the door and unfolded the message. With deep concern, he read aloud the paper’s contents: “‘Murdoch suffered apaplexy hour ago. In pain. Asking for you. Looks bad. Come home now. Doc.’”

Johnny got up from his vantage point and took the paper, reading the words with alarm. They considered the dreadful message, and Johnny glanced out the window at the newspaper office.

Something didn’t seem right to Scott, and he took the paper back. “‘Apoplexy’ is spelled incorrectly.”

Johnny said, “Penny could’ve got it wrong. He’s not a genius.” He looked at the note again. “But it just says ‘Doc.’ Not even ‘Doc J.’”

Their suspicions growing, Scott pulled the first telegram from his pocket. He removed the note from the envelope and put it on their room table next to the other one for comparison. The first note gave the origin as Morro Coyo with the usual time and date information; the second one mentioned only the time, and the town was spelled “Moro Coyo.” “The handwriting is different,” Scott observed.

“And the first one came in an envelope, but the second one didn’t.”

Two different delivery boys,” Scott added. “And the second one didn’t even know to wait around for a tip.”

They regarded each other. “Spoiler,” Johnny said bitterly.

A dozen questions arose, but the main one floated to the top—what should they do about this?

 

The church’s bell struck the hour of one as the southbound stagecoach came to a stop in front of the hotel, the stage line’s local depot. Being a day late, the coach had extra mail and packages for the driver and guard to hand down to the waiting hotel staff. The hotel’s owner came out to collect a wrapped package and took it inside as three passengers emerged, one woman going straight into the hotel after collecting her bag and the two men standing to the side of the coach, stretching their legs.

Anxious and solemn, with his hat pulled low and the collar of his duster pulled high around his neck against the chilly breeze, Johnny stood off to the side as the stage crew finished unloading the last of the packages from the top of the coach. Next to him stood a grim-faced Scott. The fresh team of horses, which had been changed at the livery down the street, stamped their feet and shook their heads, ready for the next leg of the journey. When the driver called for the passengers to get aboard, Johnny handed up a satchel as the two other passengers climbed back inside. Sharing a silent, solemn handshake, Johnny and Scott nodded their farewells and Johnny climbed in after the other men. After a last call, the driver flicked the reins and the horses responded, jerking the coach forward. Scott stood in front of the hotel and watched the coach until it disappeared from sight, then walked slowly back into the hotel.

 

Chapter Six

Miriam de Peralta couldn’t get back home fast enough. Even though she was embarrassed by her ruse of lying to her daughter about who the Lancer men were, she hoped it had worked. Miguel encouraged the horses to pick up their usual plodding pace, but the old team couldn’t find enough of their youth again to satisfy her sense of urgency.

When they finally stopped in front of the office, Miriam couldn’t even wait for her daughter’s eager young suitor to help her to the ground. She scrambled down to the soft earth and went in through the door, relieved to see Annie talking to Señora Reyes with no one else in the office. After finding out how her daughter’s day had gone, she would go over to the hotel to collect the package of outside newspapers and find out if the men had checked out.

Miriam’s relief faded when she saw Annie’s smile of welcome...followed by a too-quick glance back down at the piece of paper she was working on with Señora Reyes. Her daughter was hiding something. Miriam knew that even though she herself had been caught in a lie, she could ignore that. She had to find out what secret her child had.

 

A light rain began to fall halfway into Johnny’s march through the forest back to Little River. He had seen glimpses of a horseman trailing the stagecoach, but a full ten minutes after the last time he saw the man, who looked a lot like Armstrong, he waited for the coach to slow at a bend in the road and then opened the door and jumped out. The satchel he’d given the driver was stuffed with straw and not worth the effort to get back. One of the other passengers stared out the window at him, but he only gave the man a wave of farewell and turned back.

Johnny was glad to have on his duster, but his boots weren’t made for walking over uneven ground, and the long oilskin coat couldn’t protect them from the damp. He hoped he’d have enough time to dry them out a little in the hotel room before Scott left for his decoy mission of having supper at the mayor’s house. Johnny didn’t like taking on Spoiler and his men by himself, but they had agreed on an alert signal, and he knew Scott would be within an easy distance of the newspaper and would come to the fight at the first sound of trouble. And he could guarantee trouble would happen tonight.

 

Annie paced the center of the newspaper office. This would have been easier if her mother had been angry or pleading like her friends’ mothers. Instead, the woman who made a living by deploying words stood behind the counter and wielded the formidable weapon of silence with the skill of a master swordsman. All her life, Annie’s only response when she had to face her mother’s silent anger had been talking, and talking too much, and making promises of obedience that would chafe at her later.

But this time the stakes were much higher. She hadn’t pulled Amy Garrigan’s braid after the brat tripped Jessica Maguire, and she hadn’t talked back to the priest about his insistence that a girl couldn’t have Michael as her saint’s name. Her mother...perhaps rightly...felt terribly hurt that her husband and daughter had kept a mammoth secret from her over the course of many years. What could Annie do? She had promised Papa. No, that was making excuses. It had been fun sharing a secret with him. He understood his daughter more than Mama did. Maybe it was because it’s a mother’s job to worry and prevent trouble, while she and her father shared a more adventurous spirit. But now Annie had to face that the two of them had made Mama an outsider in her own family. They hadn’t given her the benefit of the doubt that she could live with the knowledge that her little girl knew she had another family somewhere. Papa had always said he was protecting Mama. For the first time, Annie wondered if perhaps he had underestimated the wife he loved more than life itself.

There was one way to find out. She took in a thoughtful breath, and then she went to the window next to the front door and stood facing out. “Mama, you have to talk with them at some point.” More expertly crafted silence echoed behind her. “It might as well be now.”

“No. I have no interest in speaking with men who sneak around and hide who they are. If they were real gentlemen, they would have come to talk with us when they first arrived.”

“They explained that. They had been told I didn’t know anything about them. They wanted to avoid putting me through the shock of their marching in as complete strangers and saying they were my brothers.”

“They should have written to me.”

“They didn’t have time. Things were happening so quickly.”

“So they say.”

“Mama, I saw those other three men. They were hard fellows. They were exactly what you’d expect of men who live by violence.”

“How do you know they hadn’t been hired by the Lancers just for this, this...intrusion?”

They both started at the jingle of the door bell. Scott entered the office, his hat in his hand, as he glanced between Annie and her mother and closed the door behind him. “Mrs. de Peralta, how do you do? I’m Scott Lancer. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

She cast an icy glare at him and turned, showing him only her profile. “Mr. Lancer, I resent your tactics in this matter.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. We wish we could have done this another way. But circumstances—”

“—For which we only have your word.”

“That’s true,” he said in a conciliatory tone. Annie felt a blush of pride at how her brother was trying to make peace with her mother, when of all of them he was the innocent party. “Mrs. de Peralta, I can assure you, I wish none of this were true. But, unfortunately, you’ve become caught up in terrible circumstances that were not of your making. And since we’re responsible for putting you in jeopardy, we have no choice but to protect you as long as you’re in danger.”

“You do have a choice, Mr. Lancer. You could leave us in peace and explain to this man whom you claim has some sort of vendetta against you that we have nothing to do with you.”

“Mrs. de Peralta, I’m afraid any attempts to reason with him would be useless. Your daughter’s resemblance to Johnny can’t be reasoned, or wished, or bribed away. It’s impossible to deny that she’s Johnny’s sister.”

“I have only your word for that, as well. How can this man you say is in Texas know anything about us?”

“He bribed someone at the Pinkerton Agency office in San Francisco to give him all the information in the reports sent to our father.”

She faced him with high indignation. “And what kind of man ignores his daughter for more than twenty years? His silence has forfeited any right he ever had to claim her.”

Annie’s cheeks burned with shame. Her mother’s stubborn irrationality had fear at its heart, and she would find and endless parade of emotional arguments to fight off the inevitable.

With weary patience, Scott asked, “Mrs. de Peralta, would you care to hear the entire story?”

She said she did, and Scott told her the tale of his family, from his parents’ marriage through the stunning discovery of Annie’s existence. Annie had heard bits and pieces in conversations with Scott and Johnny, but hearing it all laid out like a saga overwhelmed her, and she had to sit at the table and rest her head in her hands. How much grief, and so much of it unintentionally stemming from her!

When Scott finished the tale, Annie was not surprised to hear the emotion in her mother’s voice...and neither was she surprised to hear her argument: “Mr. Lancer, while I’m certain you’re quite sincere, what I’m hearing is a story of a man who gave away one son for others to raise and had so little understanding of his wife that he allowed her to slip away without making a single effort to find her. How can this man expect us—”

“—Mama,” Annie finally said. “Please don’t make out the Lancers to be villains when you’re really angry at me and Papa.”

Annie kept her head in her hands as she couldn’t look at her mother, but she heard the all-too-familiar sound of her mother sucking in a breath with surprise.

The daughter continued, “I know Papa didn’t want you to worry. But I think now he misjudged you.” She looked at her mother, whose stiff pose and ashen face frightened her a little. “If you’re going to be unhappy with anyone, have it be me.” She had to blink a few times to keep her emotions at bay. “But we know he’d take the blame. ‘My brain is sometimes pointed in the wrong direction,’” she said in a lower timbre with a sweet Spanish accent, “‘but, mi amor, my heart is always in the right place.’”

Her mother began to cry and fled the office for the house.

Scott sat next to her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to....”

She shook her head. “No, it’s my fault. I just didn’t know it until today.”

He patted her hand. “I’m afraid everything’s going to happen tonight.”

A shudder went down her spine as he told her about the day’s events, from the telegrams to Johnny’s ruse to make the gunmen think he had left town. She asked him to describe the second telegram delivery boy, and she recognized him as the youngest Gottfried, who had strayed from his family after his mother died last summer. He most definitely didn’t have any sort of a legitimate job, especially working for the telegraph operator.

“Annie,” he concluded, “I need you and your mother to stay at the hotel this evening. Stay where you’ll be around a lot of people. I know it won’t be easy for you, but you’re going to have to make her obey you. Otherwise...I don’t know what will happen.”

She gave him her solemn vow to keep her mother safe, even if it meant sacrificing her job and marrying Miguel.

 

After Miriam composed herself, the mother and daughter had a tearful conversation that established a truce. The next steps towards a full reconciliation could happen later, when they had the luxury of time to heal. In the meantime, they worked on the paper as usual, writing the stories they had gathered during the week and laying out the pages. Scott kept them company, and when supper time approached, he escorted them across the rainy street to the hotel’s restaurant. An hour later, wrapped up against the blowing rain, two figures made their way back across the lonely street to the newspaper office and passed through to the house in back.

Meanwhile, a restless Scott did his best to enjoy the hospitality of the mayor and his wife and two daughters in their elegant, modern home. Scott had surprised them by arriving wearing his holster and carrying his rifle. He explained that with three notorious outlaws in the vicinity, he felt it was his duty to be prepared to offer his services as a deputy on a moment’s notice, as he had done on numerous occasions back home. He left the rifle and holster by the front door, to the dismay of the mayor’s wife but the fascination of the teen-aged daughters, who knew very little about danger beyond what they read in novels. The company was friendly and the meal superb. However, Scott’s attention was attuned not to the conversation but to the sounds of the wind and rain outside, straining to catch any sound out of the ordinary.

 

With the comfortable little house’s window curtains all closed tight, Johnny sat in the parlor by the hearth, watching the fire and stroking the purring cat in his lap. Following Scott’s instructions, Annie had left the restaurant and gone up to the hotel room, bringing her brother the requested camouflage. He stowed his spurs in his saddlebags to keep his movements quiet, and then she wrapped the extra skirt around his waist. Even though this was Scott’s idea, Johnny sure was glad Scott had already gone to the mayor’s house and couldn’t see that. After Annie wrapped shawls around their heads and shoulders, they crossed the rainy street together as if they were Mother and Daughter de Peralta returning from having supper out. Annie then slipped out the back of the house, with Johnny watching through the office’s dark windows with his rifle at the ready. She made her way halfway down the block behind the buildings and then darted across the street, strolling down the plank walkway to the hotel with her shawl wrapped around her head to hide her face. Scott’s plan was for her to rejoin her mother in the hotel, where they would spend the evening in the safety of the front lobby...until whatever was going to happen was over.

As he scratched Luz behind her ears, Johnny regretted not having a safe place to put the cat. He had set her outside, but soon she was scratching at the back door and begging to come in out of the stormy night. He’d been able to resist for about ten seconds. When he closed the door against the weather, the rain-soaked animal gave him a lecture, but, after making her point, she forgave him and reclaimed her new favorite place, even going so far as to roll around in his lap to dry her fur—and perhaps get a small amount of revenge. At least cats had an instinct for survival and knew how to disappear at a moment’s notice. When the trouble began, he wouldn’t worry about her, too much.

As he waited, his ears alert to any unexpected sound outside, he noticed Annie’s Bible on the table next to him. Scott said she and her mother had argued, and then they began to patch things up. He said it had been about Annie and her father not telling her things that they knew. He opened the book to the page with the letter from her father. That was one thing he appreciated about Murdoch. There were no secrets. Sometimes he might say things Johnny didn’t want to hear, but even when Johnny got mad about it, he knew what it really meant, that his father respected him.

That made him think about Henry Recklenberg. When he worked for the brothers, Johnny heard reports that Henry and Junior squabbled a lot, and Johnny heard from Day Pardee that their Pa favored Junior. He also knew that the old man didn’t spend much time with his sons. Johnny didn’t know why. Maybe he’d given up on them, or he felt bad about something. From the way the two boys had gone after the woman their father wanted to marry and ended up ruining his happiness, it sure seemed like they didn’t like him. Maybe he felt the same way about them. Johnny thought it was funny that after spending most of his life hating his father, once he got to know the man, he loved and respected him. Then there were people like Henry, who had all kinds of advantages in his life, but who hated everybody, especially the ones he should have loved the most. Life didn’t make much sense sometimes.

A twig snapped outside the parlor’s back window. Johnny froze, his ear cocked for the next sound. Luz looked in the direction of the noise. Wind had come with the rain, but that hadn’t been a tree branch cracking. He put the Bible back on the table. Luz jumped off his lap and disappeared into the next room. With infinite slowness, Johnny stood and made his silent way to the wall next to the window. He heard no sound beyond the rain tapping on the glass. He listened for another minute. A deer or some other animal would make rustling noises as it moved along. It was either just a random twig breaking...or it was a man.

A light thump against the door startled him and made him pull back his head out of instinct. It sounded like someone momentarily rested his hand against the door. Another twig snap followed, several feet away.

Johnny waited several long moments, and then he moved the lamp to the kitchen. The parlor now in shadow, he went to the chair and picked up his rifle. He headed back to the door and listened. Nothing. He unlatched it, then opened it half an inch at a time. He could see nothing, and the only sound was the rain and the rustle of the tree branches in the swirling breeze.

He opened the door only far enough to slip through, and then, keeping low, he moved with silent steps into the darkness. He leaned against the side of the building, but still no sound out of the ordinary caught his ear. He traced along the wall, stopping at the corner to listen. Nothing. He moved along the narrow path between the buildings and the little shed, then stopped before he reached the corner of the newspaper office at the plankway. He heard only the splatter of rain and the wind curling around the edge of the building.

Johnny stepped silently in front of the plankway and looked both ways down the street. No unusual sounds—but wait—a block away, someone was walking in a hurry down the street close to the buildings. The man turned, looked back at him, and then in a scramble took off. Johnny aimed his rifle at the fleeing figure, but the man turned between two buildings before Johnny could get the figure clearly in his sights. Johnny dashed after him. When he reached the place where the man had disappeared, he ran down the alley, but he saw no one out in the stormy night.

He kicked himself and ran back to the newspaper office. This was a classic Spoiler move, luring him away from the newspaper office. And he fell for it. Good thing no one from the family had been in the building. But he still felt like a muggins, abandoning the home and letting them see that he hadn’t left town after all.

He reached the newspaper office door as a swirl of cold air stung his cheeks. He looked up and down the street. Seeing no one, he took out the key Annie had given him and unlocked the door. He opened it and slipped silently inside.

When he closed the door, a strange smell hit his nose. Kerosene. He took urgent steps forward and kicked something metal. He looked down at a small bell attached to a metal bar lying loose in the middle of the floor. It took him a moment to realize it was the bell that jingled whenever the front door opened. Someone had removed it.

He heard the crackling sound and smelled the smoke at the same moment. Under the closed hallway door leading to the house, he saw a flickering orange glow. That smell of kerosene meant it was already too late to stop the blaze.

Johnny flung open the front door and hurried out onto the empty street. He aimed his rifle at the church tower’s opening. Through the dark rain, he could barely make out the shape of the stout bell. He squeezed off three shots, sending sharp, eerie clangs echoing through the town before dashing back into the newspaper office.

As the first curious people came out of the hotel, flames became visible through the office’s windows. Johnny opened the door to the hallway, revealing an inferno. Cries of “Fire!” and “Get water!” rang through the street. He knew he couldn’t get through the hallway to the house, and he slammed the door shut. The back wall was already darkening from the surging flames. He retreated to the front door, scanning the room and trying to figure out where to begin.

Scott appeared next to him, his rifle in his hands. Their signal had worked, but that small success did nothing to erase Johnny’s shame at knowing he’d failed.

A bucket brigade formed out on the street, and Scott surveilled the office in the shimmering light of the flames. “Can we save anything?”

Before Johnny could answer, Annie and Miriam charged past them into the office. Miriam cried, “Save the type!” Before the two could stop them, the women plunged into the heart of the smoky room. Each yanked on a cabinet, the heavy storage units barely budging as the mother and daughter tried to pull them away from the far wall. Johnny took a step to help them, but several giant lumbermen pushed between the brothers following the women, easily pulling the heavy cabinets away from the blackening walls. The men got the first cabinet to the door and lifted it over the threshold and across the plank walkway to the safety of the street, then sprinted back into the office.

As more men rushed in and Miriam directed them like a field general, Scott said, “I’m going to the house” before disappearing. Johnny looked at the printing press. It was bolted to the floor, and already flames were licking the ceiling above it. The structure would collapse within minutes. He wanted to help, but with all the others here, there was only one job left, and he was the one to do it. He went outside.

Johnny stood on the street, scanning the crowd. The bucket brigade of men and women pulled water from horse troughs and a water pump behind the building next door and tossed it onto the flames. The kerosene-fueled inferno had too much of a head start, but the townspeople refused to give up on their friends. Around the bucket lines and onlookers, children ran with excitement and anxious people searched for something to do for the lost cause. A still figure surrounded by chaos, Johnny searched for three faces, two he knew somewhat and one he knew too well. They were out here somewhere, waiting for the right moment. And he was waiting for them.

A sudden roar of flames erupted from behind the office, and a low groan rumbled from the crowd. The pillar of fire came from the direction of that shed and not the house, but Scott was back there somewhere. A section of the office roof buckled, and flames leaped up through the gap into the sky. A voice bellowed, “Everyone get out of there!” People rushed out of the building, and Miriam stumbled through the door and came to rest in a heap in the middle of the street, clutching a gray metal box.

Johnny stepped away from the inferno and searched the crowd. Where was his sister?

He ran to Miriam and knelt over her, setting his rifle on the ground and taking her firmly by the arms. “Where’s Annie?”

She stared up at him, her eyes wide with recognition and astonishment.

Johnny ignored her dread at seeing him for the first time and shouted, “Where is she?”

Numbly, she looked back at the building as another section of the office roof gave way.

He scrambled to his feet and got as close to the door as the blast of flames would let him. “Annie!” He looked inside, but he couldn’t see anyone, only burning paper and furniture. Maybe she had gone to the house. He raced around to the left to avoid the shed’s inferno on the other side of the building.

The house was aflame as well. Where was Scott? Where was Annie? He saw movement behind the house, heading away, but in the glare of the fire he couldn’t see who it was. Only then did he realize he’d left his rifle on the ground next to Miriam. He pulled out his gun as he ran after the moving figures.

Once the fire was behind him, Johnny could see a tall man pulling a woman alongside him, one arm around her neck and the other clamped on her right wrist. She fought against the man, but her large kidnapper flung her around like a rag doll, and she could do nothing to slow him as he rushed her towards the woods.

“Annie!”

The man glanced back. Armstrong gave him a look of panic and veered to the right, heading back in the direction of the main street.

Johnny chased them up the narrow alley between two dark businesses as Annie continued to struggle against her captor. Armstrong ran onto the quiet section of the main street, two blocks from the fire down on the right. He yanked her hard with his arm circling her neck and spun her around, making her stumble but not letting her fall as they faced their pursuer.

Johnny entered the main street, then stopped dead, realizing his mistake. Armstrong grinned before him, his prisoner still trying to pull away. To Johnny’s left, Johnson had his rifle pointed at him, and on his right was Spoiler, his gun ready in his hand. With them spread out like that, he could get two, but not all three.

Spoiler shook his head with disappointment. “You know, Madrid, somehow I thought you’d be smarter. But I guess when you were dead you got out of practice.”

Johnny ignored his taunt and kept his gaze floating between the three men. If only someone down at the fire would look away and see them! But as close as he and the others were to the action, no one saw them. For all the crowd knew, they could have been in another country.

Spoiler gloated, “Your first mistake was relying too much on Henry Recklenberg’s stupidity. He may not be too bright, but when he gets angry, sometimes he smarts up. He told me all about you, and your mother. He said he’d pay me double if I took you down when I got her.” With his chin, he indicated Annie. “I talked him into triple.”

Johnny hid his shudder. The false telegram—it was about Murdoch and was supposed to be from home—of course Spoiler knew the truth. He cursed under his breath. Spoiler was right. He didn’t always think like Johnny Madrid anymore. But he knew Spoiler, and the man’s biggest weakness was his high opinion of himself. “What were my other mistakes?”

Spoiler seemed surprised to have his latest murder interrupted, but apparently he couldn’t resist a chance to brag. “You let Armstrong trick you into leaving the house. That was kid stuff.”

Johnny needed more time to study the men. The weak link was Armstrong. He didn’t have a gun out, and he was concentrating more on keeping the squirming Annie under control than he was on the standoff. Johnny needed to find a way to use him against the others. “But you didn’t know that was me in there. You thought you were tricking the women. Armstrong should get the credit for that.”

Spoiler twisted his face into a horrible grimace. “Shut your damn mouth, Madrid. I’d forgotten what a God damned smart aleck asshole you are.”

Johnny caught a glimpse of a movement thirty feet behind Spoiler.

“Hey, George!” a voice rang out.

The three gunmen twitched at the call, and out of instinct a confused Spoiler half-turned his head.

Johnson’s face narrowed with rage as he recognized the approaching intruder. He turned his rifle away from Johnny and aimed past Spoiler at Scott running towards them.

Johnny pivoted his gun and shot Johnson as the man pulled his rifle’s trigger, sending him spinning to the ground. Johnson’s bullet flew wild past Scott towards the crowd at the fire.

Spoiler swore as he spun back towards Johnny, firing with rage before he had a good aim. The bullet whizzed past Johnny’s chest and shattered a nearby window. Before Spoiler could fire another round, Johnny’s bullet caught him above his right eye.

Armstrong scrambled to get his gun out of his pocket, but Scott appeared next to him, his rifle pointed at the man’s ear from two feet away: “Don’t.”

The big man froze, then slacked his grip on Annie in defeat. She slipped free and lurched away, rubbing her neck. Within seconds, Scott had Armstrong face down on the muddy ground and fished two pistols out of the man’s coat pockets.

Johnny surveilled the carnage. Johnson was coiling around and groaning in pain, but he was no longer a threat. Spoiler got a much cleaner death than he deserved.

Johnny noticed Annie trying to slip away from the terrible scene. He went to her and caught her by the arm. He knew her sickened look, and he recognized the growing coldness in her eyes as she stared at him. Yes, he was a stranger to her now, and yes, she wanted to get away from this. But now wasn’t the time to be kind.

He pulled her over to Spoiler, her resistance growing with each step. He stopped before the corpse and made her stand facing the body, its glassy eyes and angry sneer unflinching in the steady rain. He stated, “I know how much you want to stay in Little River, but you can’t. Henry Recklenberg will send other men until he gets you. The next ones will start out by killing your mother and anyone else they think might get in their way.” She tried to turn away, but he pulled her arm until she faced the corpse again. “This will happen over and over, except it’ll be people you love.” Johnny could see Scott grimacing at his harsh words, but his brother made no move to stop him. “...You have no choice, Annie. We can’t protect you here. You and your mother have to come to Lancer until this is over. Do you understand that?”

She nodded, her arm going slack in his hand. He let her go. She took two unsteady steps away, then turned and vomited onto the muddy street.

With his cruel task completed, Johnny’s concentration eased, and the wails and shrieks from the crowd at the fire reached his ears. Someone had been hit by Johnson’s wild bullet. Many people fled, while others gathered to help the unintended victim. 

A handful of townspeople rushed towards the scene of the shootout. First to arrive were Sheriff Elstad and two deputies. Kirby covered the prostrate Armstrong with his pistol and demanded Scott put down his rifle. Scott obeyed. The sheriff came up next to Johnny and silently slipped the gun out of his hand, staring at him and then looking back and forth between him and the wobbly Annie, who was soon embraced by her weeping, furious mother.

Johnny closed his eyes. His old friend Hell had found him again. As he looked at Annie and then met her mother’s gaze, and he saw the daggers coming out of the older woman’s eyes, he knew Hell would be sticking around for a while.

 

Chapter Seven

After the jumble of information had finally been sorted out, Sheriff Elstad was ready to let Scott and Johnny go in time for breakfast. Armstrong slouched in his cell, awaiting his transfer to the gold country where he would answer for his part in the shooting of the local sheriff. Johnson still lingered on the edge of death in another cell, where the town doctor sat with him. The physician couldn’t help the man, but it seemed he wanted to overhear all of Scott and Johnny’s explanations. Scott figured it was part of a doctor’s role in society to know pretty much everything that’s going on, and some medical men embraced that part of their jobs with greater fervor than others. This doctor was an enthusiast. Scott thought he even saw the man write down a few of the details. He couldn’t really blame him. As gossip went, this story was a real beaut.

When the brothers finally dragged themselves out of the sheriff’s office, the night’s storm had passed and left behind a bright, crystal clear morning. They received a lot of stares and nervous greetings as they walked the block and a half down to the hotel. Scott imagined this town had never seen anything like the previous night’s skirmish. It had lasted mere seconds, but Scott predicted it would blossom over the years, and future generations of Little River’s citizens would know well every detail of the hours-long gun battle between the large gangs of gunmen.

They approached the smoldering ashes that had once been the home of the Little River Chronicle and the respected de Peralta family. Five of the seven type cabinets had been rescued, along with the metal box of saved articles written by José de Peralta, but everything else that belonged to the newspaper—the printing press, inks, papers, and every past edition—were lost. From the house, Scott had rescued Annie’s Bible with its precious letters from her father, the photographic portrait of the family from above the hearth, and Luz the cat. He might have been able to gather up more if the cat had been a little more cooperative. As it was, he had barely made it out alive after spending an absurd amount of time pulling the angry and humiliated cat out from under a bed and stuffing her into a covered basket. His glove and jacket sleeve would never be the same.

Some friends of the de Peraltas were sorting through the remains of the house and office, but their glum faces told the story of how little success they’d had in finding anything worth salvaging. The kerosene had done a splendid job of fueling the conflagration despite the rain. Spoiler really did have a genius for evil. It was unnerving to look back at the evening and realize how close Spoiler and his men had come to succeeding. Scott hated to think about what the next round would be like.

As the two stopped in the middle of the street in front of the destroyed building, Scott’s foot struck something solid in the mud. He pushed it with his toe, and up from the muck emerged the metal bar and small bell that once graced the door of the newspaper office. During the stampede to rescue the building’s contents, it must have gotten kicked out into the safety of the street. He picked it up, and Johnny looked at it with a dark gaze as Scott scraped off some of the mud.

A solemn Annie joined her brothers. Watching her neighbors search, she said, “Doc told me Marvin’s going to be okay. The bullet cracked a shoulder blade but missed his lung.” Scott figured she must mean the unlucky bystander who caught Johnson’s wild shot.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Scott replied.

They watched the scavenging work in a silence that went on too long. Scott glanced at Johnny, whose weariness spoke of more than just a sleepless night of answering the sheriff’s hundred questions. He seemed to be waiting for the inevitable.

Annie finally looked at him with a dark gaze. Scott concluded she had been grappling with this all night. “Why did those men call you ‘Madrid’? And why did they act like they knew you?”

With no apology in his voice, he said as he watched the workers, “Because I used to be one of them.”

She waited for a few moments, but when he said no more, she looked at the ashen scavengers. “I’ve never seen anyone handle a gun the way you did.”

He gave her a serious gaze, and she noticed and met his eyes. “I’m glad. It’s from a bad part of the world.”

She studied him. “But you’re not Madrid anymore.”

“Part of me always will be.”

“A big part?”

That brought out of him a hint of a wistful smile. “Not anymore.”

“Good.” She put an arm around him and gave him a gentle hug. He returned it. Scott could see his relief.

Annie looked back at the hotel. “Mama still doesn’t want to go.” She took a deep breath. “She also wants to know what time you want her to be ready to leave.”

It was Scott’s turn to give a sigh of relief. If he couldn’t have her support, he would settle for her compliance. Perhaps her understanding would come later. In the meantime, they would need to treat her with great care. “Murdoch sent men with a wagon. They should be here today or tomorrow.”

She nodded, then looked around at the little town’s up-and-coming main street. The emotion rose in her voice as she said, “This was such a wonderful place to grow up.” She turned away and moved with heavy steps to the hotel.

 

An hour later, the Lancer ranch hands and the buckboard arrived in Little River. Scott noticed that as Johnny had hoped, Murdoch sent the best guns, including Frank Deering, Danny Cook, and both of the Bautista brothers. At this point, chances were low that they’d run into problems, as Henry Recklenberg probably wouldn’t hear about this failure for a few days. Then again, maybe he had Spoiler send him a telegram every day to keep him updated. Either way, it was good to be prepared.

Leaving Little River took much longer than Scott expected. He wanted to be gone by noon, and as the women had lost nearly everything they owned, he thought the wagon could be packed in minutes and the farewells made in a similar length of time. However, no one counted on the weight of the five remaining type cabinets. Even if all five could have been squeezed into one buckboard, the wagon would have been crushed by the weight long before they got home. As a result, they had to buy a second wagon. At the livery, the Bautista brothers found a sturdy wagon significantly larger than the usual buckboard. Perhaps it was a lumber industry vehicle. Whatever it might be, it was exactly what they needed, and with it they also bought a team of sturdy draft horses.

The loading of the wagons almost destroyed the entire mission. Frank and Roberto supervised the mighty task, and they agreed between themselves on distributing the weight of the heavy cabinets by laying them on their backs. When the unlucky hands given the job of lifting the monsters into the wagons started to tip the first cabinet over, Annie and Miriam shrieked as if they’d been stabbed. Annie jumped between young Ed Buckhaus and the tilting cabinet, pushing against the back of the behemoth and forcing them to stop. The shaking cowboys apparently didn’t like the idea of crushing the boss’s daughter under her own furniture, and Buckhaus gave her an indignant earful about not understanding what they were doing and interfering with their work. An incensed Miriam gave the young loudmouth his comeuppance by opening one of the drawers and showing him that tipping the cabinets would have dumped out tens of thousands of compartmentalized typeface letters and would have led to weeks of tedious sorting to straighten out the mess. As the angry horse wrangler defended himself by trying to shift the blame to the women, Scott was about to box his ears and fire him when Ramón Bautista clamped an authoritative hand on the garrulous Buckhaus’s shoulder and pulled him away to hitch up the horse teams.

Miriam then took charge and instructed the others to remove the cabinet drawers—very carefully—and lay them flat on the wagon beds with blankets spread on top to keep the letters in their compartments. Frank and Roberto found a way to place the still-heavy cabinets across the drawers without crushing them, and the loads were covered with oilcloth and lashed down. The mother and daughter studied the arrangement, and Miriam finally gave her grudging approval.

Scott shook his head with dismay at the near-disaster, certain the women believed this was just a first glimpse of endless ignorance and highhandedness to come.

What took much longer, however, was the parade of farewells. It seemed everyone in town came to pay their respects to the women. Fond wishes, sorrowful partings, and heartfelt thanks for decades of supporting the town and its residents lasted long after the wagons had been loaded. Most moving were the gifts of food and clothing from families that certainly had very little but were willing to share with their friends who had even less. Scott noticed an elderly Chinese woman and what looked like her grandson in the line, holding a large basket of food for the journey. Johnny would finally get his Chinese food, albeit in a sorrowful circumstance that none of them wanted.

Scott recalled a similar scene from his childhood, when the family of one of the cooks at his school had lost their possessions in a tenement fire, and other staff members rallied to replace their losses. Few of the wealthy parents who sent their children to the school contributed to that cause. When Scott wanted to give his muffler to the cook’s son, who was just about his age, his grandfather said, “That’s the concern of others, Scotty, not us. We provide their salaries. If we do more than that, they will come to expect more and forget the value of a day’s labor. We worked for our wealth, and we give them the opportunity to do the same.” As Scott watched the parade of humble generosity and heartfelt affection from the people of Little River, he knew he needed to burn that book of Harlan Garrett’s wisdoms again.

Miguel Ramírez took his place in the line of farewells. Whatever he might have been feeling at the departure of the young woman he wished to marry but who had eluded him, he kept his words polite and heartfelt. Scott could see the sadness on Annie’s face, but he suspected her sorrow was more sympathy for him than about any sense of loss on her part. After their brief conversation, Miguel walked away, and Scott thought he saw the dejected young man wiping his nose and brushing his eyes as he didn’t look back.

Two well-dressed men, who were identified to Scott as the lumber baron Owens and lumbermill owner Landgraf, came hat-in-hand to express their regrets for the family’s night of terror and destruction. As they had been working to starve the newspaper out of existence, Scott wondered if the shamefaced men realized that this result was what their own actions would have caused, and only a matter of degree separated them from the arsonists. Miriam greeted them with dignity, hauteur, and silence.

Finally, well after lunch, the last of the farewells had been said, the unhappy cat in her covered basket was tucked into one of the wagons, and it was time to leave. Miriam insisted on one final side trip before they headed south.

The entourage overwhelmed the small Little River cemetery. The women prayed and wept at a headstone that was finer than most in the Catholic section. A blank space on José de Peralta’s marker awaited Miriam’s name someday. Scott glanced at Johnny, who watched the scene with a somber gaze, and then around at the Lancer men, who had removed their hats in a gesture of respect.

Scott found himself in a different graveyard several years ago and thousands of miles away, part of an escort for a proud Southern matron and her three small children, saying farewell to their departed loved ones as they were forced to leave after the destruction of their plantation and emancipation of their slaves. At the time, Scott had been courteous, but he saw the devastated family through his belief that they had brought this on themselves by basing their wellbeing on a cruel and unsupportable philosophy. Battle fatigue and his year in the hell of the prison camp had clouded his compassion, but, looking at it now, he felt ashamed at how he had distanced himself from the suffering of his fellow human beings. Perhaps for him as well it was only a matter of degree that separated him from last night’s violent men who were paid to carry guns and do as they were told.

When he and his brother had left on this rescue mission, Scott had looked forward to meeting his sister. How odd that the person he had really met on this sortie was himself, and he had not altogether liked some of the details lurking in his own shadows.

 

The trip south took twice as long as the trip north. The women never complained about the rough journey, but they weren’t used to traveling and tired before the riders did. Johnny couldn’t blame them. He’d seen a fair amount of destruction in his time, and he knew it took a toll on people. Besides, riding for miles every day on a buckboard on rutted roads wasn’t an easy way to travel, especially when they took turns holding the basket with the constantly lamenting Luz inside. Scott always made sure they stayed overnight in a town with a hotel of some sort, even if it meant losing a couple hours of travel. Miriam stated that she and Annie could camp out if necessary, but she seemed grateful that they didn’t have to. Most of the time they successfully snuck the cat into their room without being caught, but the one time the cat gave herself away, a generous tip from Scott silenced the clerk’s objections.

Johnny and Scott took turns riding alongside the women. Scott said one of them should always be right there because it might help them feel like they were family instead of captured treasure. The women sat together in the smaller, less jarring of the two wagons. They looked pretty forlorn the first day, and the second day Scott drove their wagon in an effort to chat with them and try to cheer them a little. Johnny objected. Scott was their strategist, and Johnny wanted him thinking about potential problems instead of thinking about what to say.

The polite Roberto Bautista drove their wagon the third day, and his equally courteous little brother Ramón took his turn on the fourth. After that, Ramón settled into the job. He had taken a shine to Annie, and she seemed to like that idea. Miriam had figured it out, too, and she got into the habit of sitting in the middle between the sparking couple. But having the friendly Ramón on one side and a brother riding next to them on the other seemed to do the trick, and the women finally began to perk up a little.

As the countryside changed from timbered coastland to rolling hills and then the open country of the delta, Johnny became nervous. If Henry was in California, San Francisco was a logical headquarters, and if he knew his hired guns had failed, this was a good place for an attack. But they made it through the flatlands without a problem. They were still a long way from home, though. Johnny wouldn’t be happy until they were through the veranda and inside the hacienda’s front door.

This trip had really gotten to him. The whole way south, Johnny kept thinking about all the mistakes he’d made on the last night in Little River. Spoiler had been right—he used to be smarter. He’d gotten out of practice. But the more he thought about it, the more he began to wonder if his time working for Henry and Junior had changed him somehow. It wasn’t the work. He didn’t do that much before he left. It happened after he took off. For some reason, he wanted a change of scenery. He’d drifted south to Mexico and started taking useless little jobs. He even turned down some real good money for an easy chore back in Texas. He gave some empty excuse about not wanting to come back north for a while and kept heading south.

It wasn’t just the drifting. He could see now that he’d started taking stupid chances. He’d go into situations totally outnumbered and outgunned, or he’d get into something with no plan for how to get out of it. He wasn’t just being careless. It was like he was trying to be as stupid as possible. He knew something was wrong with him, but he couldn’t figure it out. He’d been on his way to Monterrey to talk with Rafael about it when he took that little job with the péons that put him on the wrong end of the firing squad.

But even after he got to California, he kept doing reckless things. What kind of estúpido stands up to more armed killers than he has bullets in his gun? And what the hell had he been thinking when he tried to talk Day out of going after the ranch just by saying it was his? He knew Day better than most people. Day would’ve shot his own mother if she crossed him. It was like he was asking to get killed.

He hadn’t always been like that. He’d been smart. He knew how to slide through danger and come out on the other side to collect his pay. He thought living on the ranch had made him lose his edge. Seeing Spoiler again brought it all back. He could see now his carelessness started before he came to the ranch. It began after he left Recklenberg County, and he heard about all those people getting killed just because Henry wanted to see them dead. He still didn’t know what it meant. Except he was damned glad he didn’t have to live that life anymore.

 

Scott did what he could to cheer and entertain their reluctant travelers. He especially wanted to make Miriam feel like an honored new member of the family, but he needed to be subtle. She was a smart woman and a lot more observant than she let on, so he had to be careful and casual. Sometimes his best strategy was to do very little and simply follow her lead. He hoped he was making progress, but she was a hard woman to decipher. It didn’t help that Miriam was still stinging from the unfinished healing with Annie over the secret the daughter and father had kept from her. For all their sakes, he hoped they would resolve it before they arrived at Lancer.

The convoy was three days from the ranch when a steady rain kept them trapped in a little town for an extra day. Scott sat on the modest hotel’s front porch, thinking about the hands who had gone to the local cantina for some food and cards and regretting that he had volunteered for sentry duty.

He also began to reconsider their decision not to send Murdoch a telegram or letter with a report on what had happened. By this point, Henry had to know his men had failed. Just because they’d seen no indications of being followed offered no guarantee that they travelled unobserved. Henry’s ability to infiltrate the Pinkerton office made the possibility of a letter or telegram being intercepted all too real. He kept reassuring himself that he’d made the right decision to stay silent, even though it would make waiting harder for everyone at the ranch.

Someone came out onto the covered balcony above him. Scott heard Miriam complain about the rain and Annie commiserate, and their words were succeeded by the rustle of skirts and the creaking of chairs as they sat down almost directly above him. Polite chat lasted about a minute, followed by a long silence.

Scott heard the strain in Miriam’s voice: “When did you find out you were adopted?”

He felt awkward about eavesdropping, but he knew if he moved, they would hear him and probably abandon their attempt at reconciliation, so he stayed stuck in his chair as a reluctant witness.

“On my fifth birthday.”

With surprise, her mother asked, “How?”

“Papa came in first thing to wish me happy birthday like he always did, but I’d had a dream that made me sad. You know Papa and dreams. He asked me all about it. I told him in my dream I had met a beautiful lady, but she was crying, and when I asked her why she was sad, she said, ‘I know tomorrow is your birthday, and I’m sad because I can’t be there with you on your special day.’”

Scott held his breath. He heard the rustle of a skirt, and then he heard Miriam’s voice full of emotion: “What did your father say?”

“He told me I was a special little girl, because I had two mothers and two fathers, and even though my other father was in heaven, all four of them loved me very much.”

Miriam sniffled and blew her nose.

Scott recalled Teresa’s retelling of what María said happened when she gave birth at the convent. María hadn’t told the sisters Murdoch was dead. In fact, she’d told the priest that she wanted him to send Johnny back to his father. Maybe that flinty-hearted mother superior, like the priest, believed Maria wasn’t married, and she changed the story for the de Peraltas to soften any stigma for the baby. Perhaps the nun wasn’t entirely flinty after all.

“And then Papa said not to tell you about the dream, because ‘you know how sentimental your mother is.’”

Scott heard Miriam’s soggy laugh. “I remember when you used the word ‘sentimental’ that day! I thought you were the most precocious child ever.”

Annie laughed lightly, her own emotions coming forward. “And Papa told me if the sad lady ever came back, I should tell her that everything was all right, and to tell her thank you for what she did, and I had parents who really loved me, and to tell her that I loved her.”

“Did she ever come back?”

“No. Well, not yet.”

The women cried and laughed together, the mother saying that was just like her husband, and the daughter saying she was sorry that she had hurt her mother’s feelings, and the mother admitting that she was angry at the idea of her husband sharing that confidence without informing her.

Scott didn’t hear the rest of the conversation. He thought of María and her misery. Few things in life were as strong as a mother’s love. Time and distance were no match for it. The war had stripped him of any romantic illusions about death and the afterlife, aside from one or two unexplainable nighttime visions. However, he liked the notion that Katherine might have entered one of his dreams when he was a child. Of course, if by some divine blessing she had, it would have been for naught. He would have reported the dream to his grandparents and aunts, and undoubtedly those sensible people would have convinced him it was a foolish child’s make believe and he should forget it and never tell anyone about it. Being a good little boy, he would have done exactly as they instructed.

If only.... He had a dozen if-onlys in his life. He knew he was an ungrateful fool for his occasional blue devils, when he would indulge in counting his disappointments instead of his blessings. He’d had a good life. He’d had the best that money could buy. His grandparents and aunts doted on him. He came home from the war, when so many others didn’t. But listening to the women upstairs reconciling and healing their wounds, Scott felt every lack he had ever experienced, the empty parts of his life where politeness and good manners took the place of love and closeness. The Garretts were sensible, polite, correct, proper, and distant. Of course, they loved him, and it was ungenerous of him to want his family to be anything other than what they were.

After he came to California, he had embraced the lively give-and-take of his new family, but that couldn’t undo the past. When these moods visited him, he could feel like the loneliest man in the world. As if to underscore that thought, the women left the balcony and went inside, leaving him alone with the rain in a small town whose name he could not even recall.

Johnny came out of the hotel’s front door and spotted him. “What are you doing out here all by yourself?”

“Thinking about life.”

Johnny sat in the other chair. “Are you thinking about good things, or are you thinking about how pitiful it would be to be a Recklenberg?”

Scott smiled lightly. He took back all those blue thoughts. There was no loneliness here. His new life overflowed with goodness and love: a brother with honesty and courage who could always put things in perspective, a father who had one of the best hearts in the world, an almost-sister with the courage and heart to keep him honest, and now a sister who combined the best of all of her many families. The Henry Recklenbergs of the world couldn’t begin to dream of those kinds of riches. “I’m thinking about how lucky I am.”

Johnny patted him on the knee with an eager smile. “Then you should get in on that poker game at the cantina. Ortega was asking about you earlier. I think he wants to get a little payback for last time.”

Scott shrugged. “I’m on sentry duty until supper.”

“I got it. You go clean the guys out.”

Scott regarded his brother. Yes, he had riches of the best kind. He stood and patted his chest with satisfaction. He did feel lucky. “I just might do that.”

 

Chapter Eight

The afternoon clouds broke up by the time the caravan reached the Lancer Ranch property boundary, which was a few miles from the hacienda. Johnny agreed with Scott’s idea to send Danny Cook on ahead to tell Murdoch that they were finally arriving. The rider took off, and Johnny saw Ramón telling the women where they were. They both searched the tree-covered hills for the house, then gave each other confused looks. Scott said Annie had learned about the estancia’s acreage, but knowing the numbers and understanding what they meant were two different things.

As they ascended the road that led to the main valley, Johnny’s nervousness started turning into dread. Annie’s mother had been against them from the beginning. During the trip south, she’d been pleasant but a little cold. What was going to happen when she saw the house?

Scott came around from his spot next to the wagon and dropped in next to his brother. “Are you doing okay?”

“How do you think Mrs. de Peralta is going to take this? She’s getting kind of shifty.”

“I noticed that, too. At this point, all we can do is hope for the best.”

When they reached the crest of the hill, Ramón stopped the wagon. As they gazed down at the hacienda and outbuildings nestled comfortably into the lush green valley, Johnny watched their reluctant visitors. Annie gasped and clutched her mother’s arm with eager amazement. “Oh, Mama!”

Johnny noticed Scott grinning at him. Annie’s excitement was sweet, and kind of catching. For him, though, it was more complicated. Seeing her reaction brought back how he felt the first time he saw the place: the mixed-up mess of anger, curiosity, frustration, determination, and, he had to admit, a small hope that his old man wasn’t as bad as he thought.

Mrs. de Peralta’s stony silence told a different story. She looked at the place with dread. She had to be thinking Murdoch was like those two lumbermen who wanted to put her out of business, except he would be putting her out of business as a parent.

The trip down the hill and across the valley to the hacienda seemed to fly by, and soon they could hear the shouts of the lookout on top of the house alerting everyone to their approach. Just like on the day he and Scott arrived, by the time they reached the side road to the family houses, ranch hands and their families stood alongside the road. Back then, the ranch had less than twenty vaqueros and fewer families. This time, close to a hundred adults and children came out to see the newest member of the family. Three years ago, everyone had been friendly but quiet. After all, the ranch was pretty much at war with Day’s constant attacks. This time, the gathering acted like this was a festival day. Some even applauded. Annie smiled and looked a little embarrassed. Her mother was steely cold. Maybe she thought Murdoch had arranged this. Yeah, she was going to be a real challenge.

As they passed the road to the family houses, Johnny saw Francisco Toledano and his wife, Guadalupe, watching Annie. She had tears running down her cheeks, and he was almost as emotional.

When Annie saw them, she asked Johnny with concern, “Why are they crying?”

Now wasn’t the time to explain that Guadalupe was the one who figured out that Annie existed, and that had started everything that happened over the last two months. “I’ll tell you later. But it’s okay.”

Annie acknowledged his words, then gave them a friendly nod. Guadalupe wept, and her husband kept a comforting arm around her shoulder as he returned Annie’s nod.

 

Murdoch had almost paced a rut in the great room floor before he heard Campana call out that the expedition was in sight. He hurried out to the veranda, but he could only stay still for a few moments before he started pacing again. Teresa came out of the house, and after a sympathetic smile, she scolded him for being so anxious. “Everything’s going to be fine, Murdoch. The house is perfect, you look wonderful, and supper is going to be delicious. Relax.”

He ignored her reassurances. This wasn’t about his tie, or the curtains, or the meal. How do you greet a grown child who didn’t know anything about you until a couple weeks ago? How do you explain all the things that went wrong that led her to being a stranger to her own family? Would she hate him? How much did she look like María? Would she take one look at him and demand to leave? Things had worked out with the boys, but that was no guarantee that he would have similar success with her. ...And how could he protect her from a devil of a man so driven by hatred that he didn’t care how many lives he ruined to take out his revenge on someone he’d never even met?

It would be one thing if the boys could have let him know what was going on. But after their telegram with the code phrase that they would send no further messages, he had been ready to go up there himself and bring along half the hands to take over Little River. Knowing a group of hands was already on the way north kept him from crawling out of his skin. As he stepped out into the yard in the hazy afternoon sunshine, he could make out Scott and Johnny riding alongside a wagon, and he counted out not only a second wagon but all the riders he had sent up there. He breathed a sigh of relief. He feared something had happened, but at least everyone had come home.

He focused on the lead wagon. Ramón Bautista was at the reins, and two women sat next to him. There...the one on the outside, with the long, black hair. He squinted, then stared in amazement. In his mind, he had pictured her as María’s daughter. But by God, she was more than that—she was practically Johnny’s twin. No wonder the Pinkerton man said he’d know her when he saw her!

Scott and Johnny were all smiles as the wagon drew up next to the house. Annie gave him a shy, self-conscious smile, and, all of a sudden, he couldn’t talk. He stammered, but nothing came out, the knot in his throat throttling the words. Scott dismounted and helped Annie down to the ground, then helped down the other woman, who had to be his daughter’s adoptive mother. Murdoch glanced at her—she looked practically funereal—but he couldn’t keep his eyes away from the beautiful child who dutifully waited to take her mother’s hand before approaching him.

Scott performed the honors: “Mrs. Miriam de Peralta, Ana de Peralta, I would like to introduce you to my father, Murdoch Lancer.”

The two offered greetings—one pleasant, the other polite but reserved—and, after clearing his throat, he managed to find his voice for a simple, forgettable statement of welcome.

His daughter searched his face in a way he found both endearing and piercing. She finally said with a gentle shrug, “I don’t know what to call you.”

How strange to be having this conversation again. “Call me Murdoch.”

In her smile, he saw María, his mother, his older sister, even something of his grandmother. His emotions rose again. He needed to say something before he made a fool of himself. “I’m very happy to meet both of you. I’m grateful you decided to come down here.”

“Uh, Murdoch,” Scott said in an awkward tone, “they actually didn’t have much choice.”

So much for an idyllic reunion. He decided to wait until later to ask for the details. “Well, I’m sorry to hear that, but you’re both very welcome. I hope you’ll consider Lancer your home for as long as you wish.”

He saw Scott look down and Mrs. de Peralta frown. Well, it seemed he was navigating a thistle patch without realizing it. He would have to be extremely careful.

Teresa stepped up beside him and slipped her arm through his as she smiled at the women. “What about me?”

He chuckled and introduced her to the guests. Annie gave her a warm smile, and her mother seemed surprised—and perhaps to a small extent relieved—at seeing her. This was a very big thistle patch, indeed.

He invited everyone to come into the house, and, taking a cue from what he’d seen, he offered Mrs. de Peralta his arm. Surprised, she accepted. Scott gave him a nod of approval before offering Annie his arm. She laughed and accepted. Before Murdoch crossed the threshold, he saw Johnny fall in line, and Teresa gave him a hands-on-hips smile with a significant look. He acquiesced and offered her his arm with a teasing smirk. She accepted with a gleeful smile, and they followed the others inside.

Everyone found a seat by the blazing fire in the great room, Annie and her mother sitting on the chesterfield and the boys choosing chairs that flanked them. Murdoch glanced out the window as the ranch hands turned the wagons around and headed for the storage building. What on earth was in the back of the wagons? It looked like they’d brought an entire household of furniture. He’d wait to ask about that, too. He offered sherry, and everyone accepted. Only then did he notice that Scott’s right jacket sleeve was half-shredded. “What happened to you?”

Scott frowned at his ruined sleeve, and Johnny and Annie snickered. With a bit of exasperation, he replied, “Just a small gesture of thanks from a member of the party.”

Murdoch glanced at the mother and daughter, but neither gave away which one of them had been the perpetrator. He realized the private conversation with the boys would be longer and more interesting than he thought.

Before Murdoch could find a way to begin the conversation, he marveled at his daughter. “I’m sorry, I can’t get over how much you look like Johnny.”

Johnny smiled lightly, and Annie gave Murdoch a small shrug. “Of course, I’m much better looking than he is.”

Murdoch didn’t respond. Was this more of the thistle patch? But then he saw Scott’s smile.

“Well,” he said, not sure what to say, “people do tend to get better with practice.” Silence hung in the room. He’d meant it as a jest. Had he stumbled again? Then Scott and Johnny both snickered, with Annie joining in, and then all three laughed out loud.

Johnny taunted his brother, “What are you laughing about, First Try?” Annie and Teresa giggled as Scott gave him a not altogether believable scowl.

Murdoch reveled in their gentle teasing, happy they had started to become a family, and then he noticed Miriam’s sullen response. She was the odd woman out. He felt her isolation. “Mrs. de Peralta,” he said, “I understand you and your husband created a newspaper from the ground up. That must have been quite an undertaking.”

She perked up, apparently surprised to be addressed. “Yes. The Chronicle. It was small, but it was our life.” Her face flushed, and her eyes began to turn red. She pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed her eyes. Annie took her hand and gave it a comforting squeeze.

Murdoch blanched at another friendly attempt going horribly wrong, and Scott said in a somber voice, “Murdoch, I’m afraid the newspaper was destroyed in a fire.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. de Peralta. I didn’t mean to—”

“That’s all right,” she said stiffly. “You didn’t know.”

Ramón Bautista appeared in the doorway, a covered basket in his hands, looking back and forth between Annie and Murdoch. He asked her, “What do you want me to do with....” He indicated the basket. His statement was underscored by a feline yowl of protest coming from the container.

Murdoch and Teresa both reacted with surprise. Proceeding with great caution, Murdoch said slowly, “We have several barns to choose from....”

Annie’s gaze contained a fire that Murdoch had seen often enough in her mother’s eyes. “Luz is not a barn cat.”

That was that—Murdoch needed an immediate conference with his sons for a quick orientation before he did anything else wrong. “Teresa, why don’t you show the women to their rooms, and then she can get the poor animal out of that basket.” Only then did he recall that they’d anticipated one guest, not two, and a room for Annie had been prepared in the family section. He was so far into the thistle patch, he had no idea how to get out.

Teresa launched to her feet. She said to the women, “Can you please give me five minutes? I’d like to switch your accommodations around so you can have the two guest rooms with a linking door. That way Luz can go back and forth and not have to choose one or the other.” She gave them a sweet smile and hurried out of the room, signaling Ramón to follow her with the unexpected four-legged guest.

God bless the child, Murdoch thought. Now, if only the boys would rescue him and take over the conversation until Teresa returned.

Scott saved the day by asking about the supper menu. When Murdoch told them about the feast in their honor, and it met with their approval, he turned over the role of host to his sons and became an observer.

As Fred Weiler had said during his visit, he seemed to have every reason to be proud of Annie. She was attentive to her mother, supporting her through her awkwardness and making sure she wasn’t pushed to the side during this family gathering. At the same time, she showed an ease with her brothers that spoke of confidence and, under the circumstances, a surprising sense of who she was. Before he could wonder about that, Scott changed the topic again, telling Murdoch about the late Mr. de Peralta and how he had cleverly interrogated him and his brother without their realizing it. Always the diplomat, Scott told the story in a way that included his widow, keeping her centered in the tale, and looking at her as he praised her husband. For the length of the story, the woman slipped out from under her gray cloud and smiled with pride.

Even before the story ended, Teresa returned. She waited for Scott to conclude his tale, then graciously asked the women to follow her to their rooms so they could rest and freshen up after their long journey. As they followed her to the door, Teresa asked them what the cat would need to make her feel more comfortable.

When they reached the great room door, Annie stopped, looked back at all of them with a warm, hesitant smile, and then turned to go. She bumped into Ramón, who was heading out the front door, and Murdoch couldn’t help but notice the flurry of blushes and shy glances before they both went their separate ways. He caught himself scowling. He’d been the father of a daughter for less than fifteen minutes, and already he was sizing up potential suitors.

Scott and Johnny sighed and deflated after the stumble-filled introduction, but this was no time for relaxing. Murdoch summoned them to his private small office for a war council and report on what had happened. By the end of their lengthy and detailed account, Murdoch knew nearly all of his worst fears had come true. He summed up his thoughts with, “He’s going to try again, of course.”

Scott nodded. “And we should anticipate that this time he’ll go all out.”

Murdoch looked to his younger son for his opinion.

Johnny thought for a long moment. “Scott knows her better than I do, but I think Annie’s mother is going to be a problem. She’s been polite to me and all, but she has a real hard time looking at me. She doesn’t seem afraid, so I don’t think it’s from the shooting. I think I’m a reminder that her daughter belongs to another family.”

Scott agreed. “Annie said she’s all the family her mother has. She also said she won’t leave her.”

Murdoch said, “We don’t want her to leave her mother. But we have to protect her until this is over.”

Johnny said, “I’ve been thinking about that. I don’t know how Henry and his brother feel about each other these days. But keeping Henry away from her might not be enough. If Henry gets thrown in jail, or he gets himself killed, Junior might come after us.”

Murdoch had been worrying about that possibility. He knew his sons would protect each other to their last breath. If the Recklenbergs had that same loyalty, this might never end. He would have to have another talk with Ramón Bautista and the Burgess boys about the brothers.

In the meantime, he needed to get himself out of the thistle patch.

 

After a delicious supper, Murdoch kept the polite hearthside conversation short with a reminder that the boys had a lot of work waiting for them, and morning would arrive early. His statement prompted more enthusiastic groans than usual.

As predicted, breakfast came earlier than any of the recent travelers wanted, but it offered the compensation of hearty fare piled high on many serving platters to prepare everyone for a full day of hard work. The guests joined the family, somewhat bleary-eyed at the early hour. Teresa made sure to ask them how Luz had spent the evening, and the grateful women said the cat appreciated all the accommodations Teresa had made for her. She eventually emerged from her hiding place and, after exploring the unfamiliar space, settled in and took turns sleeping in their rooms.

Teresa was intrigued by Annie, who was so different from her brothers and yet in many ways like them with her intelligence, good humor, and ability to adapt to her change in circumstances.

Her mother was harder to understand. At supper, she had been polite and participated in the conversation when someone addressed her, but Teresa had the feeling that Mrs. de Peralta was studying them...and determined not to like them. After the guests retired, she had talked with Johnny about their journey, and he confirmed her suspicions about Annie’s mother. She hoped someone had a solution, because she didn’t.

As the men discussed the day’s long list of chores, Teresa watched Mrs. de Peralta as she ate her scrambled egg and toast, skipping the ham steak and tamales. Johnny and Scott had offered to show them around the ranch, but judging by the feast on her plate, apparently only Annie intended to take them up on their offer.

Finally, Mrs. de Peralta felt the need to speak up. “Mr. Lancer, would it be possible in the future to get something for breakfast that isn’t as substantial as your working meal?”

“Of course,” he said. “What do you have in mind?”

“Oatmeal would be very welcome.”

The brothers glanced at each other and Teresa gave them a knowing smile. Murdoch had been encouraging them to eat more of the humble grain from their third day on the ranch.

Murdoch replied, “I would be happy to oblige you. I’m afraid my sons don’t consider it real food.”

Mrs. de Peralta stated, “My father has eaten oatmeal every morning for at least forty years, and he hasn’t missed a day of work on the farm since he arrived in America.”

Murdoch gave her what Teresa called his “wee smile” and asked, “Mrs. de Peralta, may I ask, what is your maiden name?”

“MacKean.”

He nodded. “Caithness or Sunderland?”

Her mouth fell open with surprise. “My parents came from Caithness.”

Murdoch nodded again, then said something in a language Teresa had only heard him speak once before, when he was sick with fever after being shot by Day Pardee.

Mrs. de Peralta stared, then thought hard for a few moments. With uncertainty, she replied with something that sounded like it was the same language.

Scott and Johnny shared a glance that was both curious and skeptical.

Murdoch nodded, pleased. “I’ve given up hope of the boys having enough courage to try haggis, but I’m confident even they would be willing to sit down to supper if some evening, in your honor, I had María make neeps and tatties.”

Mrs. de Peralta did something Teresa never expected—she smiled.

Johnny frowned his question to Scott. He replied, “Her family’s Scottish.”

Teresa marveled. Annie’s other parents were Scottish and Mexican? She whispered to the brothers, “They really were her perfect parents.”

“What’s haggis?” Johnny asked Scott in a quiet voice.

“It’s sheep internal organs boiled with oatmeal and some sort of fat in a sheep’s stomach,” he said, his expression sour. “People from Scotland are very proud of it, for some perverse reason.”

“Is it any good?”

“I’ve never eaten anything like that. At least, not on purpose.”

“You’ve had barbacoa de cabeza.”

“Yes.”

“Do you want to know how it’s made?”

Scott frowned. “Apparently not.”

Annie snickered at them, and they stopped and returned to the main conversation about the glories of oatcakes, skirlie, and cock-o-leekie soup.

 

Chapter Nine

For the next week, the household fell into a cantilevered, false sense of normalcy. Annie and Miriam learned the rhythms of the ranch’s days. Teresa gave Annie riding lessons, despite her initial reluctance—“I haven’t worn dungarees since I was eleven!”—and she approached this new task with a determination that favorably impressed the ranch’s vaqueros and cowboys. Murdoch played the congenial host and showed the women around the property. Evenings were spent recounting the day’s events and enjoying cheerful conversations. All this happened with the quiet background activity of sentries posted at every route into the property and guards keeping watch outside the hacienda day and night, as if such vigilance were normal.

One morning, when all but Teresa and Miriam were out of the house, Luz the cat finally made her public debut. She escaped her bedroom sanctuary and slinked around the edges of the great room as the young woman was asking the guest to teach her how to make some special Scottish dish for Murdoch on his birthday. Inexperienced with cats and alarmed at the animal’s slouching track around the room as she explored the unfamiliar terrain, Teresa stood and took a few steps towards her as she offered reassuring words to the cat. The embarrassed Miriam watched her uninvited creature’s alarm at the stranger’s movement before the animal panicked and disappeared behind some furniture. Miriam apologized over and over, but Teresa assured her that they would make the cat welcome, once they learned what to do.

Teresa’s promise was put to the test two evenings later, when Luz escaped again and sauntered into the now-familiar great room as the family chatted. A mortified Miriam wanted to scoop the animal up and keep her from intruding further, but at Teresa’s reassuring hand on her arm, she relented.

At first wary of the strangers, Luz gave Scott a hiss—prompting an only somewhat-annoyed lecture from him about gratitude—and then scanned the watchful crowd. She wound her way through the chairs, then looked up at Murdoch significantly before launching up into his lap.

The startled man held up his uncertain hands as she turned several times and then curled up, purring. Johnny’s prickly “Hey, what happened to me?” earned laughs from his brother and sister.

With no small amount of hesitation, and glancing at the others, Murdoch lowered his hands and began to pet the animal, whose purrs gave him all the approval he needed. Luz became a fixture in his lap every evening from that day forward, to Johnny’s chagrin.

No one needed an expert’s eye to see that Annie was falling in love with the ranch, the rolling, open countryside, and the outdoor life so different from tending the printing press and recording the activities of others. She loved going, and doing, and learning; she loved having a dappled gray gelding to call her own; she loved having brothers whom she could tease and be teased by in return; she loved having an unofficial sister with whom she could team up against her brothers; she loved having a second chance at having a father, and listening to stories about his childhood far away and learning words of that crusty, poetic language of his home.

She in turn was loved by her family, including the whiskered substitute uncle Jelly Hoskins, who was charmed by her youthful grace and curiosity, and who couldn’t say no to her request to learn how to wield the bullwhip she had seen him use to encourage the unbroken horses in their first corral lessons. He acted annoyed and impatient when she couldn’t manage the wrist twist and the whip’s braided tail kept snapping back and biting her shins, but in truth he delighted in her eagerness and dedication, and he improvised a cowhide “skirt” to protect her until she could finally master the correct technique.

Everyone loved watching Annie blossom in this new home, except her mother. Miriam could see her greatest fear unfolding before her eyes, as the indulgence of her powerful new relatives lured her away from her old life. Miriam had tried to reconcile herself to this from the moment she saw the magnificent house presiding over its own valley, but while she stayed strong in this new reality, she worried what it would do to Annie. To Miriam, this was not a real life. This was a fantasy, a dream, not a real home. Every day she prayed to Saint Anne to help Annie keep that sensible head on her shoulders. She had nothing to offer her child beyond her love and support. How could that compete with all this?

Leaving her daughter in the hands of the saint who had brought the child to them, Miriam knew the only person she could help was herself. As pleasant as this place was, and as accommodating as the Lancers tried to be, this was not her home. She had nothing to do here. Murdoch had offered her his entire library and the assistance of any of the vaqueros or cowboys if she wished a tour of the ranch or simply needed to travel around the property for a change of scenery. The family members were all busy with the daily chores and emergency projects brought on by the especially wet winter, so everyone was busy all day...except her.

She felt keenly her position as an outsider. She had heard of “poor relations,” and now she understood that misery. Well, that role was not for her. She may have left her family when she married José, but her parents’ lessons had never left her. “Give charity freely,” her father would say, “but ask none for yourself.” Her mother would add, “But if your life has given you no choice, accept graciously that which is given to you with a good heart—and vow to repay it threefold.”

Miriam did have a choice, and after a fortnight of accepting charity, she needed to stand on her own again.

One morning, after a breakfast of oatmeal and good coffee, as she sat under the canopy of the house’s front veranda and watched the ranch hands departing for their day’s assignments, Miriam observed Roberto and Ramón Bautista talking with Scott. They had the buckboard ready for travel, and Scott was giving them a list of errands to run in town, including purchasing supplies. From what she was overhearing, their assignment would take most of the day in Morro Coyo, the largest of the towns around the ranch. After Scott returned to the house, giving her a friendly greeting as he went past, she got up and went to the young men. She liked the brothers, who had been especially kind to her on the trip south. Ramón’s growing interest in Annie stirred her protective instincts, however. Perhaps this would be a good opportunity to get to know him a little better without Annie around.

She chatted with the young men in Spanish, asking about the town, if it had a newspaper, and other casual inquiries. They answered her questions, and in particular Roberto stated that the town had no newspaper. Ramón added that it was large enough now that maybe it needed one. She said she had nothing to do on the ranch, and then she asked if she could ride along with them; after all, they knew she hadn’t had a chance to see any of the towns on their way in. When they seemed unsure—Señor Murdoch had made a point to the men that their guests were to be protected at all times—she countered that she could think of no better protection than the two of them. A little embarrassed by her flattery, they agreed, even though they assured her the trip would be boring. Stating that nothing could be more boring than sitting around this house all day, she happily wrote a quick note about her departure and left it on the veranda chair before they left.

After a friendly ride with the young men, who answered her many questions about the ranch and the family, she parted with them in Morro Coyo with a promise to be at the dry goods store in two hours when they would be done with their errands. On her own, she sized up the town. It showed signs of prosperity, although it had none of the building boom that had recently transformed Little River. She visited the stores, chatting with the owners and assessing their sense of community.

By the time her two hours were up, she had met many fine people, discovered a town with a future, and even found a perfect little storefront for rent with a second floor that could be turned into modest living quarters. The owner, the local greengrocer named Don Estaban Hoyos who had his own business next door, was very eager to rent the place—and particularly excited at the prospect of the town having a newspaper—and offered to let her use it for three months rent free in exchange for advertising. He introduced her to the gentleman who owned the dry goods store, who agreed to place orders for paper and ink in exchange for advertising. The grocer even introduced Miriam to the head friar at the local mission, who happened to be in town, and learned of the miracle that the mission had an antiquated flatbed printing press that they had used decades ago to print school books for the local children. He brought her to tears by telling her that if she could find a way to haul it into town, they would be happy to give it to her.

On the trip back to the ranch, she mapped out the next few weeks. All she had to do was convince Murdoch Lancer to let her borrow the wagons and several strong men to lug her type cabinets out of the ranch storage building and into town, and then haul the old press from the mission to the storefront. She could wait for a day when the hands weren’t needed...and perhaps her host would be just as anxious to get rid of her as she was to leave.

 

Murdoch wasn’t pleased to find out that Miriam had gone off to town without consulting anyone, and he was beside himself when he learned that she intended to leave the ranch and move to Morro Coyo. In a tense meeting with the entire family and his strong-willed adversary, he managed to keep his temper in check as he tried every argument to persuade her that she needed to stay on the ranch until Henry Recklenberg made his next move.

She listened to his lengthy speech with polite silence, but with her superior wordsmith skills, she won the argument with a single statement: “Either I’m a guest here and may leave whenever I wish, or I’m a prisoner. Which is it, Mr. Lancer?”

Marshalling all of his thinning patience, Murdoch arranged for Miriam to have her type cabinets delivered and set up and the mission’s printing press hauled in to town. He went further, however, and had Scott and Johnny scour the building for security problems and rectify them. Shutters were built to seal up the ground floor windows at night; heavy curtains blocked the upstairs windows; the back door’s rattling hinges were replaced, and a metal crossbar for the front door was installed. They even built a shed out back for storing the combustible chemicals needed for the printing process, and a stout lock protected the shed’s contents.

Murdoch tried to convince Miriam to come back to the ranch every night, but she declined, saying the time traveling back and forth would be better spent setting up the business and getting to know the town and its concerns. Wrangling and logic failed. So, after Murdoch and Scott secretly arranged for a rotating detail of ranch hands always being nearby as guards, the family escorted Miriam and Luz to their new home in the center of Morro Coyo three doors down from the hotel and almost directly across the street from the telegraph office.

No one in the family liked this development, but unhappiest of all was Annie. She grew restless over the following days, and when she talked with Murdoch about being able to go into town to see her mother, it was all he could do not to explode with helpless rage. But what could he do? In spite of all the sensible reasons for Annie and her mother to stay in the relative safety of the ranch, they weren’t prisoners. He acquiesced—but only if she went with an escort of at least six men and stayed inside the newspaper office so people in town wouldn’t see her. She agreed.

The first trip led to another two days later, and eventually Annie told her father of several weeks that the woman who had raised her needed her help to set up the newspaper office and get out the first edition. She requested his permission to go, but he knew that by asking she was merely being polite. He had no right to tell her what to do, and she would go even if he said no. Reluctant to admit his concerns, let alone his fears that he was losing his daughter, he agreed to her plan to spend a few days in Morro Coyo. His concession to his worries, unbeknownst to her, was his doubling the size of the secret security detail.

 

Scott and Johnny had become used to seeing Ramón Bautista heading off to Morro Coyo at every opportunity, and they knew his sudden fascination with the town had everything to do with its newest resident. For men who weeks earlier had worried that they were too old to learn how to have a sister, they developed the instincts with remarkable speed.

 One morning, as they were preparing to ride out to the high pastures, they noticed Ramón saddling up in front of the bunkhouse, but this time he was tucking a stout wrapped package into one of his saddle bags. With only an exchanged glance, they left their horses at the house hitching post and marched as one across the yard to the ranch hand.

Ramón looked up with some surprise from recinching his saddle to see the brothers eyeing him with focused, if slightly overdone, suspicion.

“I see you’re going into town again,” Scott said.

“Yes. Your father wanted—”

“—And you’re taking something with you,” Johnny added, nodding at the bulging saddle bag.

His own suspicion rising, Ramón replied with an opaque, “Yes.”

“I’m inclined to suspect it’s for our sister,” Scott stated.

He replied with an arch, “Possibly.”

Johnny said, “I don’t suppose you’d mind showing it to us.”

Ramón glanced back and forth between the brothers, almost completely hiding his smile. “And I suppose you would mind if I did mind.”

“That would be a correct supposition,” Scott replied.

Ramón regarded them again, then held out his hands with a theatrical gesture of surrender as he stepped back from the horse. “I have nothing to hide from you.” Johnny was closer to the saddle bag, so he took a step towards it. “Yet,” Ramón added pointedly.

The brothers frowned at each other. Johnny untied the saddle bag and pulled out the heavy parcel. “It’s not a loaf of bread.”

Ramón nodded slightly. “Neither is it a locomotive engine.”

Scott frowned at the formerly trusted ranch hand as Johnny began to peel the cover off the bundle. “You know, Ramón, I’m not sure I care for your attitude,” he said with just too much of an edge to be taken seriously.

Ramón put his hand over his chest with a sad smile. “My heart is bleeding.”

Johnny stared at the unwrapped object. It was a large book. He shot a quizzical gaze at Ramón. “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare?”

“I am loaning my copy to your sister and her mother. They wanted a quote for the first edition of the newspaper, but they lost their own copy in a fire. I’m certain you recall that disaster. Which you two did not prevent, I might add.”

Neither brother had a quick reply. If they’d had any sort of expectation of what the bundle contained, this wasn’t it. Johnny grumbled back at him, “Neither did you, after you took your own sweet time about getting north.”

“In truth,” Ramón countered with a small, nonchalant smile, “we made excellent time, considering we had a wagon and could not travel cross-country as you did.”

The ranch hand’s ability to defend himself was becoming rather annoying. Scott gathered himself as he gestured for Johnny to rewrap the book. “Well, very thoughtful of you. I hope you won’t mind too much if we continue to observe this relationship very closely.”

Johnny tucked the rewrapped book back into the saddle bag, and Ramón stepped up into the saddle. “I can assure you, gentlemen, I feel only your warmth and kind concern.” He took the reins to turn the horse, then paused. “And I’m certain you’ll be pleased to know that I had almost this exact conversation with her mother earlier this week.” His satisfied smile escaped as he turned his horse away from the bunkhouse and urged the animal into a slow canter.

The two watched him ride off. Johnny finally asked, “Have you ever talked about Shakespeare when you were courting a girl?”

“No.”

They watched him for another few moments.

Johnny said, “Maybe we’re missing something.”

“You may be right.”

 

Four days after the sign went up in Morro Coyo declaring the birth of the Morro Coyo Beacon, in the nearby town of Spanish Wells, the proprietor of The Greater Spanish Wells Land and Exploration Company, “Uncle Dan’l” Drew, received a most encouraging telegram. Someone expressed an interest in the Wolff Ranch on the other side of the hard scrabble settlement of Wolff Center. The property, which had been abandoned after beef prices collapsed with the end of the Civil War and the return of Southern cattle to Eastern markets, had quietly reverted to the scrubland the ambitious but inexperienced Mr. Wolff had destroyed by running more cattle than the land could support. The land was worthless, and everyone in the area knew it.

But Daniel Drew was not someone to spoil another man’s dreams. If an outside investor had plans to rehabilitate that 33,000 acres of useless dirt, he would help in any way he could. He replied to the telegram’s specific request about the house with a reassurance that it and the other buildings were intact and perfectly usable, which wasn’t far from the truth. He also added that the citizenry of little Wolff Center, which had been living on fading hopes and dreams ever since the ranch closed, was “immensely gratified” by his interest and would consider him their savior if he proceeded with a purchase. Drew received another telegram saying the interested party would be arriving by the end of the following week and would be bringing a down payment if the place met his needs.

 

Chapter Ten

The first issue of the Morro Coyo Beacon, despite its truncated form—two pages—and rough appearance due to the antiquated technology that printed it, was received with great enthusiasm by the population of the town. The people began to see themselves in a much more vaunted light. They no longer lived in just another little cow town. Morro Coyo was a place of note, a town other people would read about. What they did mattered! The first advertisers received many compliments for their foresight. The newspaper office found itself overwhelmed by visitors, the sprightly little bell hanging on the front door jingling all day long. Miriam de Peralta became a celebrity overnight.

However, the center of the town’s attention soon shifted to her daughter, who had been uncovered by the torrent of well-wishers. Her striking resemblance to Johnny Lancer led to waves of rumors: Miriam had secretly married Murdoch years ago; she and Murdoch had had a tryst in the distant past and now she had shown up to claim her daughter’s inheritance (or bedevil the man, depending on who was talking); or Miriam was the real María Lancer and the woman who had been seen in the autumn was just some passing fancy on the rancher’s part.

The gossip made all of the Lancers and de Peraltas miserable. Fooled by the distance of the hacienda from the town, Miriam didn’t understand just how much a part of the community the Lancers were, and she had not anticipated the wild enthusiasm triggered by her daughter’s presence. When the Lancer men showed up the day after the paper’s debut to run errands and pick up copies of the newspaper—and Murdoch secretly hoped to retrieve his daughter for a few days—they were so inundated by people wanting to hear about this mystery child that Murdoch cut his errands short to escape the gossip frenzy.

Scott and Johnny decided at least one of them should stick around so their quick departure didn’t seem so obvious, and Scott lost the coin toss. He paid a friendly visit to the chagrined Miriam in her crowded new office to make sure she was well, and to confer with her privately on what he intended to do for the rest of the afternoon, and then he settled into a chair at the family’s favorite restaurant so he could pretend to eat while fielding all the curious—and mostly well-meaning—questions from the townsfolk. As he sat with a soup chosen because it would still taste good cold, he gave the absolute bare bones of the story about thirty times over and acted as if everything about this debacle was good news.

Murdoch’s trip to town succeeded in one way. Annie was so embarrassed by all the attention that she was happy to leave with him and get away from the gossipmongers, at least for a few days. As they rode back together on the buckboard with Johnny riding alongside them, Annie gave Murdoch a melancholy apology. “Papa was right that my face would betray me down here. I grew up in a small town. I should’ve known what would happen. I just didn’t want to leave Mama in the lurch.”

“I understand,” Murdoch replied.

Annie hesitated, then added, “Unfortunately, I have to keep going back. That printing press is so old, Mama can’t put out the paper by herself. I have to help her.”

“Could one of the boys do the work instead?” He couldn’t help but smile slightly. “Since you left, one of the Bautista brothers has volunteered every single day to come to town to help.” Annie blushed with a shy smile. “In fact, yesterday he offered three times.”

She tried to hide her embarrassment. “It would take him at least twice as long to learn everything and do it at the same time.” Trying to sound casual, she added, “But if he wanted to come in when I’m there and learn what to do while I’m helping Mama, that would be okay.”

“That would be entirely up to your mother,” he said with practiced care.

She smiled with appreciation. She hesitated, then slipped her hand under his arm and leaned against him. He almost didn’t hear her words as a rush of emotions pushed up through his chest. She said, “I’m really grateful about how you and Scott and Johnny have been about this. You’ve been so kind to her. It would have been easy to forget about her, or push her to the side. I know it hasn’t been easy...and sometimes she makes it difficult. But she’s been so afraid that you’d sweep in and take me away from her.”

“We could never lock your mother out of your life. We can’t ignore your past.” Murdoch noticed Johnny watching him as he spoke. “Our pasts have helped make us who we are. We carry them with us every day. The good and the bad...shape us.” He glanced at his son. “Your brother told me you got a rough introduction to part of his history.” Her somber gaze settled on the wagon’s horses. “And you know a little about Scott’s life, too. Our pasts are what they are. We can’t change them. And the truth of it is, why would we want to hide yours? Of all of us, yours is the best one by far.” She smiled. “After all, how many children have four parents who love them?”

Her eyes glistened. “Papa told me that when I was five.” She glanced at him, then gave his arm a slight squeeze. “Everything could have gone so badly. I knew about you, so that was no surprise. But Papa was told you were dead. Thank goodness he met Scott and Johnny, and they turned out to be such babblers,” she said with a smirk at her brother, who didn’t dignify her remark with a response. “Because if he hadn’t told me in his letter that you didn’t know about me, it would have been easy to think of you as some sort of ogre for never trying to find me.”

Murdoch glanced at Johnny, who looked away.

He patted her hand. “I’ve been called a few things in my time, but never an ogre. There are very few of those in the world. And I have a feeling you can recognize them when you see them.” She smiled at him, then leaned against his shoulder again as he patted her hand. Murdoch could see so much of his youngest sister in this girl, a canniness about people as sublime as it was rare. What a blessing it was going to be to have her in his life.

Murdoch felt a pang he’d never known before. As much as he loved his sons, he knew they could take care of themselves. This girl was different. She was capable, intelligent, even courageous. But she had very little understanding of the ogre that did exist in her life. Murdoch had a sacred trust to protect this girl from Henry Recklenberg not just for himself, but for María, Miriam de Peralta and José de Peralta. He would defend her with everything he had, even if it cost him his life. Nothing was going to harm this child.

 

A day before his appointment with the prospective buyer, Daniel Drew arrived at the old Wolff Ranch with a squad of cleaning women and men with gardening tools to spruce up the place in hopes of boosting the price. If they worked hard enough, the stranger might not notice that the ranch had been abandoned for nearly a decade. The master salesman, who prided himself on being able to talk a widow out of her last dollar or a hungry farmer out of his seed money to make a sale, had also prepared a fine oratory on all the best aspects of the mismanaged and overtaxed ranch in order to make this sow’s ear resemble the silk purse he had made it out to be in his telegrams.

But even the loquacious fellow who made his living with his command of the language could barely put into words his horror at seeing a fine carriage with a four-horse hitch and a few saddle horses tied up out front of the ranch house as he traveled the overgrown path between the corral and the dilapidated bunkhouse. He glanced back at the day laborers sitting in the bed of the buckboard. They regarded the scene without emotion as they gathered their supplies in preparation to attack the house and yard. There were enough Mexicans among them that he couldn’t even pass them off as relatives out for a ride on a pleasant winter’s day. He cursed. Trapped.

As Drew stopped the wagon by the open front door and snarled at the workers to stay in the wagon, a well-dressed man with dark wavy hair appeared in the unpainted doorway. The man wore a gun holster that contained a glistening large pistol with a bluish sheen.

“Are you Mr. Drew, by chance?” he asked in an easygoing voice that sounded like the rolling hills of Virginia.

Putting his best face on a bad situation, Drew climbed out of the wagon’s seat with a confident smile. “Why, yes. You must be Mr. Beauregard.”

“I am, sir.”

Drew ascended the porch steps with an enthusiastic stride. “Let me welcome you to Wolff Ranch. I can see how eager you are to inspect the property, arriving a day early and all. But really, you didn’t give me a chance to—”

“Mr. Drew, I didn’t wish you to go to any extra effort on my behalf,” the man said with a self-effacing wave of his hand.

“Please,” Drew said with his most unctuous smile, “call me Uncle Dan’l.”

Twenty minutes later, Daniel Drew found himself agreeing to a deal that was not what he intended and would likely not be in his best interest. The smooth-talking and very insistent Mr. Beauregard had somehow taken charge of the conversation and turned it around to construct the entire agreement in his favor: He should be allowed to take the ranch on a trial basis for six months, paying $100 a month rent; at the end of six months, if the ranch did not grow into a successful venture, any improvements he and his men made would belong, at no cost, to the abandoned property’s manager.

Mr. Beauregard gave the land agent $150 cash on the spot, and he also gave him the opportunity to spread the news that the new rancher intended to pour prosperity into the area through any men who were willing to work hard and follow orders. He told Drew to get the word out that he would be hiring immediately at the staggering rate of $80 a month including board.

Drew found himself climbing numbly back into his wagon at the end of the conversation, bewildered at how he had been so easily maneuvered into exactly what Mr. Beauregard wanted. As he turned the wagon around and left the property, he glanced back at the well-dressed fellow as he gave orders to his hard-looking men who had been in the barn and wondered if this was how his customers felt after he had finished with them.

 

When the word of the Wolff Ranch bonanza reached Morro Coyo, the first reaction was disbelief, the second dismay, and the third dissatisfaction. With memories of Charles Warburton still bringing a chill to their souls, the ranchers wondered who on God’s green earth would pay those kinds of wages, especially on a ranch that had been run into the ground and would probably need years of work before it could make a profit. Then the area ranch hands making the usual $35 a month began agitating for raises. When the ranchers said they couldn’t come close to matching those “rumored” wages, more than a few turned their backs on their employers and beat a hopeful path to Wolff Center.

Miriam de Peralta paid close attention to the furor. However, being unfamiliar with ranch life and its economics, she did something no one else did—she asked questions. It turned out that most of the disaffected ranch hands who went to Wolff Center came home disappointed men and had to ask their former bosses to take them back. Most did, but a few ranchers were happy to be rid of the deserters and left the men to think about the price of their disloyalty.

Miriam found several of the newly-unemployed hands from the Bar JB cooling their heels outside the saloon. She offered them lunch if they’d tell her about their troubles. The men took her up on her offer, if only to get a hot meal for the small price of a conversation. The sight of the woman’s pretty daughter serving them soup and fresh bread encouraged them to talk at great length, and they told her the odd details of being asked all kinds of specific—and peculiar—questions about their previous work by a man named Beauregard who seemed to be in charge but didn’t act like he’d ranched a day in his life. The ranch hands noticed that those who got hired tended to be unskilled, tough-looking, and the restless kind of men who didn’t last long with the hard work that ranching demanded. Interested in the strangeness of the tale, and thinking that she could save other ranch hands from disappointment, she wrote up the story and put it on the second page of the Morro Coyo Beacon, which had enough advertising and news to expand to four pages.

Annie, who had been studying ranch life, had a lot of questions about the matter for Ramón Bautista, who had come with the usual contingent of escort riders for her regular trip back to the ranch after printing the week’s edition. He found the entire situation peculiar and mildly disturbing. He always brought copies of that week’s newspaper to the ranch when he brought Annie back, but this time he made sure to deliver the small newspaper to Murdoch personally and point out the article to him.

Murdoch read the article, then sent for Scott, Johnny, and Teresa so they could listen to Annie’s retelling of what the ranch hands told her and her mother. Murdoch asked Ramón to stay, just in case he could add something from what he’d seen in town. The others listened in silence as Annie filled in the particulars that had not found a place in the newspaper article. The pattern of details was odd, and, when assembled correctly, disturbing. The new resident of Wolff Ranch couldn’t have ranching on his mind.

Johnny asked, “Did they say the name of the man who was in charge?”

“Beauregard.”

“Did any of them describe him?”

She shook her head, then rethought. “One of them said he was from Virginia originally.”

Johnny’s expression turned grim. Scott asked, “What is it?”

Johnny asked Ramón, “When you were in Texas, did you hear about someone by that name, or see a man with dark hair who always dressed nice?”

Ramón shook his head.

Scott repeated, “What is it?”

“Henry and Junior had two fix-it men. Spoiler for the ugly work, and a man named Beauregard handled the above-board business. He had a different accent. It could’ve been Virginia.”

Silence hung in the room as they considered the implications. Henry had someone in the area, and he was hiring men who weren’t real ranch hands. That could only mean the next assault was taking shape.

Murdoch had kept the rotating teams of ranch hands watching over the newspaper office a secret from Miriam and Annie, but now he could no longer avoid confessing about giving them unknown bodyguards...and deciding to double their number again. He was grateful that Annie didn’t grumble, and he was pleased when she said she would make her mother understand that the guards were necessary. He asked her to consider having both of them stay at the ranch until this was over, but she demurred, ever so politely. With her guards, Annie assured him, her mother would be well protected, and she would be in a better position to hear of any developments. Annie did make one concession—she would start riding to town instead of being driven back and forth in a carriage or wagon. “If something does happen, I can run for cover a lot better on a horse than sitting in a slow wagon.”

Murdoch asked Teresa if Annie could ride well enough to justify the plan. “She will by the end of the week,” she promised.

Scott shook his head. “If anyone’s going to teach her evasive maneuvers,” he announced, “it should be me.”

Johnny stated, “This isn’t polite warfare with rules, and it isn’t jumping over nice little fences. She needs a teacher who can show her how to survive in the real world.”

Scott replied, “As you know, in the real world, sometimes fences need to be jumped.”

Annie grimaced. “Jumping fences?”

Scott announced, “By the time we’re done with you....”

“...Your britches are going to be a whole lot thinner,” Johnny continued.

“And your hide’s going to be a whole lot tougher,” Scott concluded.

Teresa offered, “I’ll get some extra pillows for your room, in case you need to sleep standing up.”

Annie regarded them with some alarm, uncertain if they were joking or not.

 

Four days later, a sore but quietly triumphant Annie rode into Morro Coyo dressed like a vaquero, surrounded by Johnny and a dozen Lancer riders. The ruse worked, as no one noticed her when the group arrived before the newspaper office and the green grocer’s. Most of the men went into the grocer’s, while Annie, Johnny, and two others went into the newspaper office.

Once they were inside, Miriam viewed her daughter’s appearance with disapproval, but when Johnny praised her hard work and explained how Annie’s disguise would increase her safety, Miriam stepped back from her unhappiness. Annie indicated the bulging saddlebags over her shoulder and explained that she would keep clothes here and change into them when she arrived with the hope that she would not give away when she was gone or how she got into town. Miriam didn’t seem favorably impressed with the plan, but at least she didn’t grumble.

Now once again dressed as a proper young newspaper woman, Annie took the list of customers from her mother and went out to collect payments and discuss what their clients wanted in their upcoming advertisements. Johnny walked along with her. The novelty of her appearance had begun to wear off, but seeing the two of them side-by-side reawakened the amazement of the citizenry. The new siblings worked together to make it all seem quite unremarkable, and most conversations about the marvel usually lasted only a minute or two before Annie got back to work selling advertising space and finding out what items the customers wanted to trumpet next week.

On the way back to the newspaper office, Johnny was waylaid by Roberto Bautista. Annie went on ahead as Roberto reported that two relatively new ranch hands had told him they were quitting and heading to Wolff Ranch to apply for jobs there. Alarmed, Johnny asked him if they had decided this on their own or if they had been sought out by Henry’s men; Roberto didn’t know for sure, but he had the impression from one of them that they had been recruited. Troubled but not surprised, Johnny wanted to get back to the ranch right away to discuss this with Murdoch and Scott. They couldn’t match the ridiculous wages Henry was promising, but maybe they could do something to keep more men from leaving. Lancer hands would be extra useful to Henry, as their familiarity with the ranch and the family would give him information he wouldn’t be able to get otherwise.

Roberto returned to his watch post, and Johnny followed his sister down the street. He was greeted by an unwelcome sight—Annie was chatting with Penny Putnam, the plump and bespectacled telegraph operator who stood in front of his office in a pose that looked less casual than his usual slouch. As Johnny approached, he heard Penny asking her friendly questions about the newspaper and its timetable...and her schedule. She asked what he meant, and he said he’d noticed that she seemed to be spending time out of town.

Before Annie could reply, Johnny joined them. Penny twitched with surprise. “What’s the latest, Penny?” Johnny asked with an exuberance he didn’t feel.

“Oh, Johnny, not much. The usual, you know?”

Johnny noticed Penny wasn’t quite looking him in the eye. Overdoing his energetic performance, he said, “Oh, come on, Penny, you know everything that’s going on around here. There must be something new.”

Penny hemmed and hawed with discomfort.

As the man tried to shrink away, Johnny made up the distance and pulled him back into the conversation, watching him squirm. “You know, Penny, you should get a job working for the newspaper. That’s how connected you are with everyone in the area. Although, I guess you probably couldn’t get a second job. There must be some kind of rule about that, huh?”

Penny sputtered a vague reply about being too busy to have another job, then cocked his ear as if he heard something from his office and excused himself.

Annie frowned at her brother. “What was that about?”

Instead of answering her, he asked, “Do you and your mother send telegrams?”

“A few. Maybe two or three a week.”

He took her arm and started across the street to the newspaper office. In a quiet voice, he said, “I think from now on you two should use the telegraph office in Green River.”

 

When Johnny returned to the ranch, he relayed to Murdoch and Scott that Henry Recklenberg might be trying to hire away Lancer ranch hands. Murdoch summoned Cipriano and relayed Johnny’s news. He asked the segundo about any unexpected changes in the ranch crew. Cipriano reported that four men had given notice and two had simply left after the last payday. None had mentioned going to Wolff Ranch.

Scott observed, “If they were sought out by Henry, it probably was with the proviso that they not mention where they were going in case one of us tried to talk them out of it.”

Johnny shook his head. “No. Knowing Henry, I bet he made it a threat. They probably told the hands if they said anything about where they were going, we’d go after them.”

Murdoch paced with frustration. “I feel like we’re trying to run a race in the pitch dark. We know something’s happening, but we can’t see it, and we can’t prepare for what to do next.”

Johnny gave him a grim nod. “That’s just the way Henry likes it.”

The men shared a look of dismay.

 

Chapter Eleven

Two days later, after a stretch of good weather dried the streets, a freight wagon rumbled into Morro Coyo with a bulky cargo covered by a large tarp. The driver studied a piece of paper as the crew of three men in back looked around at the main street’s storefronts. People stopped to look at the wagon, which had the name of a well-regarded San Francisco freight hauling company emblazoned on its sides. The town rarely received unannounced deliveries from the city, and something as large as what lay under the tarp generated a good deal of curiosity.

Miriam came outside at the sound of the large wagon, thinking this might be worth a small item in the next edition. On the plankway, she met up with Emmy Ferguson, who also enjoyed gathering and sharing information, albeit for strictly personal reasons. The women speculated on what could be under the cover and who might have ordered it as Don Estaban joined them.

No one was more surprised than Miriam when the wagon rolled to a slow stop in front of the Morro Coyo Beacon. The driver asked the women, “Is one of you ladies Mrs. José de Peralta?”

Miriam stepped forward, wiping her hands on her ink-stained apron to disguise her surprise. “I am.”

The man signaled to the men in the back of the wagon. “We have a delivery for you, ma’am.”

As the crew jumped to the ground and untied the lashings keeping the tarp in place, Emmy Ferguson watched with interest and Miriam frowned. “I’m sorry, there must be a mistake. I placed no order.”

The driver shrugged. “Ma’am, all I know is we were hired to deliver this to the Beacon. If that’s you, then this is yours.”

The workers pulled back the tarp, and Miriam gasped. In the wagon bed sat a practically brand-new letterpress machine and four type cabinets. The driver climbed down to the ground and gave to Miriam the piece of paper he had been consulting. She scanned the bill of lading. The jobber and cabinets of metal type had been purchased from a print shop in San Francisco. She guessed the shop must have gone out of business for some reason, since the equipment appeared to be in perfect condition. What a windfall! But this had to be a mistake.

She looked at the name of the purchaser on the bill of lading, and her joy curdled. This was no windfall. This merely confirmed her fears and the stories she’d been hearing for the last few days. She muttered some words that shocked Emmy Ferguson, but she would have to apologize later. She had to resolve this once and for all.

Miriam could not dissuade the men from bringing the press and cabinets into the office, but she told them to leave the equipment wherever they wanted and hurried them on their way. She dressed for travel, talking to herself and becoming more agitated by the minute.

She locked the office door and had barely reached the end of the block on her way to the livery to rent a buggy when Ramón Bautista crossed her path. Knowing about the Lancer watchdogs, she wasn’t surprised that one of them would interfere if she made an attempt to leave. The young man’s anxious gaze and gentle inquiries did little to dampen her ire. She announced her intentions, giving him no alternatives other than to stop her and cause a public scene or accompany her and act as her bodyguard. She didn’t like herself for putting the kind-hearted young man into the awkward situation, but she comforted herself by saying it was Murdoch Lancer who had placed him in this difficulty, not she. He signaled someone in an upper floor window across the street, and soon she had half a dozen young men accompanying her to the livery, where they would retrieve their horses and she would rent her buggy. She imagined the conference on the other end of her journey would not be so agreeable.

 

In the Lancer mansion’s great parlor, which was as large as the entire house she had shared with her husband and child, Miriam Annella MacKean de Peralta gave Murdoch Lancer a proud and detailed lecture worthy of her heritage, her profession, and her all-but-physical motherhood. The man sat at his desk, deep in thought, and his sons stood off to the side, as in starched tones she told him exactly what she thought of him and his high-handed ways of trying to lure her daughter away from her with his wealth, his power, and his clever ploys that took advantage of the girl’s kind nature. For the sake of her child, she hadn’t spoken up before, but now that she had settled into this new community—that had been forced on her, she added with high dudgeon—and especially with this new and grand effort to buy Annie’s gratitude and extra time with this efficient, modern printing press—she understood now how important it was for her to stand up to him before it was too late.

Annie was not present. She was out practicing her riding—or so they said—and it was just as well. She shouldn’t have to hear this truth about her father in such a heated lecture. She would learn about it all later, when Miriam would be able to speak with her in a calmer state of mind.

She finished her impromptu speech, surprised both by the heat of her outburst and the fact that none of these men tried to interrupt her. Perhaps she had shamed them into silence. She waited wrapped in pride, wondering what kind of argument he would attempt to throw back at her.

Murdoch cleared his throat, then said in a surprisingly gentle voice, “Mrs. de Peralta, it was never my intention to ‘buy’ your daughter away from you. The press is a gift, not a bribe. At three different times in my life, I lost my livelihood.  Twice in Scotland, and once here. I know that helpless feeling when something you’ve relied on disappears. And I felt even worse about what happened to you because we had unintentionally caused the loss of your business...and your old life.”

She didn’t reply, surprised at the mildness of his response. Perhaps he was subtler than Owens and Landgraf, who were uncomplicated men and straightforward when it came to getting what they wanted.

Murdoch continued, “Mrs. de Peralta, the reason I bought that printing press is an acquaintance of mine in San Francisco, who knows about you and your plight, informed me that a local print shop was closing because the owner had gotten into legal difficulties, and he thought it would be appropriate if you were the ones who ended up with the equipment.”

She fired back, “How would any acquaintance of yours in San Francisco or anywhere else know a thing about us, Mr. Lancer?”

“He’s the detective from the Pinkerton Agency who located the two of you. Ever since he found Annie, he’s taken a fond uncle’s interest in your daughter in addition to her brother.”

Miriam couldn’t decipher Johnny’s slight smile as he glanced down. “And why would he consider us the ‘appropriate’ beneficiaries of someone else’s legal problems?”

“Because the print shop owner was in league with the Pinkerton employee who reported the details of our case to the boss of the gunmen who burned down your home.”

She hadn’t expected such a convoluted answer. The best lies are kept simple. That he didn’t stumble over his reply gave it some credibility. “And why would you consider laying out such a considerable amount of money for something that you can’t use?”

“I thought of it...as a ‘welcome to the family’ present.”

As she studied him, with his kind, hesitant smile, and she looked at his sons regarding her without rancor, she felt the rising fire of shame smoldering deep in her throat. Oh, José, how you would laugh at me. Seeing what I wanted to see, ignoring the truth before my eyes. She could feel her cheeks burning. You were right about them, vida mía, and you were right about keeping the truth from me. She let her gaze drift to the rug at her feet and clenched her hands. What a fool she had been, a scared, blind fool.

She forced herself to own her folly. “Mr. Lancer, I am embarrassed over how I have treated you, and the unkind thoughts I’ve had about you, and your motives, and your family. You have offered us nothing but kindness and compassion, and I refused to see it.”

“I understand. You—”

“—Please let me finish.” She looked up at him, and she could finally see the benevolence in their faces. “I have been immensely stupid. I have listened to talk that I knew was untrue, but I wanted to believe it. Any reporter worth his salt knows the nature of rumors and the ‘truth’ of eyewitness accounts. If five people see the same event, they’ll have five different versions of what happened. Rumors are even greater Hydra’s heads. So, when you hear the exact same story from several groups of people, only a fool believes it’s a coincidence.”

“What are you talking about, Mama?”

Miriam started at the sound of Annie’s voice. Her daughter stood in the doorway, Teresa behind her, their hair disheveled under their hats and their oilskin coats dusty from their ride. The Lancers had told the truth about where Annie was—more shame to add to her guilt. She held out her hand to Annie, who removed her dusty hat and came to her without hesitation, taking her hand. Scanning the scene, Teresa quietly walked over to stand next to Scott as she took off her hat and coat.

Miriam had the courage to admit her mistake, although she was sorry to relate some of this in front of her daughter. Holding fast to Annie’s hand, she asked, “Mr. Lancer, may I assume that you and your family go to Morro Coyo more than you do the other towns in the area?”

His concern visible, he replied, “We try to frequent businesses in all the towns. But Morro Coyo is the largest and closest, so we do tend to go there more often.”

“Why?” Johnny asked with evident suspicion.

She said, “There’s an organized slander campaign being conducted against you. But it’s not coming from the town that knows all of you the best. Over the last several days, three different groups of ladies from Spanish Wells came to Morro Coyo to thank us for including small news articles about goings-on in their town. But then it became clear with each group that the real reason they’d made the journey was because they wanted to see me, and Annie, if they could, and to divine the ‘truth’ about what they’d been hearing.”

She related what the women had posited, insinuated, and out-and-out stated during their visits: that Annie was Murdoch’s daughter by some unknown Mexican woman who had not been his wife, that Miriam had been hired to take in the child and pretend she was her mother after the girl had been rescued from “scandalous” circumstances, and that Murdoch was methodically “removing” anyone who knew about his tawdry relationship with this unknown woman—including arranging the “mysterious death” of the woman herself.

Interlaced with this, Miriam continued, were two visits from Spanish Wells men, including a local land agent—she noticed the disparaging expressions from the Lancer men when she mentioned his name—who had different, but equally damning, stories. The gossip-seeking men talked about Murdoch’s high-handed behavior in “unidentified” towns towards various tradesmen, area farmers, and even other ranchers. The men wanted to know if she, as someone who had become familiar with the area and someone who had dealings with the man, could confirm these alarming stories.

“I knew all these stories were patently false,” she said, then added with some embarrassment, “but I did very little to dissuade them.” She frowned at her own stupidity. “I should’ve known better. They told the same stories. All the details matched. That’s not how rumors are. This was the work of someone intentionally spreading lies.”

Johnny said, “The starting point is Spanish Wells.”

Scott added, “Which is the closest town of any size to Wolff Ranch.”

Teresa mused, “I wonder if the Bautistas and the others have heard anything in Morro Coyo?”

Murdoch sent her to fetch the brothers. She returned with Ramón, who said his brother was still with the rest of the guards in town. When Murdoch asked Ramón about rumors he or the other sentries might have overheard, the ranch hand grew pensive. “There was one fellow at the cantina the other day. I didn’t know who he was, and he obviously didn’t know who I was, because he told Danny Cook and me that he was looking for a rancher who was hiring—but he knew the one place he didn’t want to work was Lancer, because he’d heard many stories about rats in the bunkhouse, and rotten food, and ranch hands being cheated out of their pay. Danny started to defend you, but I stopped him. I asked this fellow what other stories he’d heard, and who had told him, but he must have grown suspicious, because he said he had only heard these stories from others, and then he left.” He shrugged. “I’m sorry, Señor Murdoch. You always hear ranch hands complaining about something. ...I didn’t give him a second thought.”

Scott frowned. “So, we have women being told a story of a woman scorned, ranchers and businessmen being told about abused businessmen and landowners, and ranch hands being told about ill-treated ranch hands. You can’t get much more targeted than that.”

After Murdoch dismissed Ramón, the others discussed what they could do about this concerted attack. As Miriam watched the family, she could see that despite how different they all were from one another, these people brought together the strengths of their separate lives and formed something of a perfect union. Even Teresa, who was only Murdoch’s ward, was as much an equal partner in the discussion as any of the others. Miriam gazed at her daughter, who still firmly clasped her hand as she watched the conclave with concern.

It was time. With a moment of hesitation, she gave her daughter’s hand a gentle squeeze. The girl regarded her. Miriam hoped her emotions didn’t show. She nodded to the group. “You should be part of that. You have as much to say as any of them.”

Annie looked at the others, then back at her, her eyes glistening. “Thank you, Mama.” She gave Miriam a long, heartfelt hug, then slipped away, glancing back with a trembling smile, and joined the group.

Miriam watched Scott ask Annie a question as he helped her take off her coat. Miriam didn’t see the discussion or hear the words. She saw the sweet, tiny face wrapped in the humble convent blanket, the first steps, the first unsure day at school, her first proud note from her teacher, her first lesson from her father in setting type, her first short news story in the Chronicle about a school picnic, the first casual suppertime conversation about liking a boy at school, her confirmation, her graduation from the mission school, her decision to stay in Little River with them rather than leave to continue her education, her placing a small bouquet of flowers on her father’s casket.

As the family conferred, Miriam stepped silently to the doorway, then turned in the hall and unlatched the front door. She closed the door behind her and took in a long, deep breath. The cool air comforted her warm face. Perhaps by the time she reached town, she would look like she had simply been out enjoying an invigorating drive and not like her life as she had known it had come to an end.

As she unwrapped the buggy harness’s hitch line from the post, she heard the front door open behind her.

“Where are you going?”

She kept her back turned to Murdoch as she busied herself with tying the hitch line to the small loop on the harness’s breast strap. “Back to town. You have work to do.”

He stood next to her. Or, more accurately, over her. Losh, the man was tall!

“Exactly. So, I don’t understand why you’re leaving.”

She looked up at him. Why was he forcing her to put her pain into words? She’d given Caesar what belonged to him. Wasn’t that enough?

He said, “I know you want to set up and try out your new press, but that can wait. This can’t. We have to come up with a plan to fight this.”

She pondered his choice of words. “...We?”

“We need every member of the family if we’re going to succeed.” He gave her a playful smile. “And you may have been born in America, but I’ve never met a Caithness girl yet who couldn’t hold her own in a fight.”

She looked at the hitch line. She’d done everything in her power to alienate and infuriate these people, and yet he really seemed to mean it when he talked about welcoming her to the family. She knew this was no limp-footed proposal. From Annie, she understood that this man was as devoted to his absent wife as she was to the memory of her husband.

After a long moment of thought, she untied the hitch line from the breast strap and retied it to the rail. “I don’t know how I can help. Timber country people don’t have range wars like you ranch people do.”

He gestured to the house. “Scott and Johnny said you brought to heel the two most powerful men of timber country.”

She walked towards the open door. “I wouldn’t say I brought them to heel....”

 

Chapter Twelve

After the family examined the situation from every angle without coming up with a plan, Murdoch sent for Cipriano. The segundo reported hearing no rumors about the family and mentioned that only one of the cowboys who left for Wolff Ranch came back. Murdoch sent for him, a relatively new hand named Laurence, who hat-in-hand told the group that he’d gone in search of better wages—“my ma’s been sick lately”—but when he didn’t get a job, he came back to Lancer. Johnny didn’t really know the man, who didn’t shirk his chores but never much took part in the social activities of the men. “I’m really grateful you took me back, sir,” Laurence added. “A lot of other men wouldn’t have been so generous.”

With nothing else to do, Murdoch dispersed the group, sending Johnny, Scott, and a platoon of men back to Morro Coyo as an escort for Miriam. Annie begged to go, eager to see the new printing press and help her mother set up the equipment. Reluctantly, her father agreed, but he insisted that the escort stay in town for the night and return Annie to the ranch the next morning.

Before the group reached town, Johnny and Scott decided it would be safer if the women went straight to the newspaper office and one of the hands returned the rented carriage to the livery. As they rode down the main street, Johnny was glad to see Miriam being greeted by some of the townspeople. She’d already started to make friends.

But his happiness dimmed at the sight of Penny Putnam coming out of his office and sitting in one of two chairs on his storefront’s plank walkway. Since when did the telegraph office have chairs out front? It wasn’t a gathering place, like one of the stores or the hotel. He caught Scott’s eye and nodded to the telegraph operator, who watched the arrival with more than a passing interest. Scott studied him, then gave his brother a significant look. Yeah, Scott found this suspicious, too. He’d questioned Johnny about why they should use the telegraph office in Green River, since it was farther away from the ranch, but he’d gone along with the request. Maybe now Scott understood, and maybe Johnny wasn’t being overly skittish.

In the newspaper office, the deliverymen had placed the new metal press in the middle of the room right next to the old wooden one, and they left the type cabinets jammed up against the machinery. The women oohed and aahed over the nearly brand-new equipment. Johnny had laughed when Murdoch told him about Fred Weiler securing the printing machinery that belonged to the man who had helped the rotten apple in the Pinkerton Agency’s bureau. Seemed more like sweet revenge than poetic justice. He thought Pinkerton agents were supposed to be above that kind of thing. But he guessed even Pinkerton men were human.

It seemed everything had worked out just fine...right up until Miriam asked him and the others to lug the old press from the mission to the back room and then move the new press to the right spot a few feet away and bolt it to the floor. The old press was heavy and bulky, but Johnny felt sure that new metal monster weighed at least eight thousand pounds. A lot of lifting and pushing and grunting and swearing later, the ranch hands got the press exactly where Miriam wanted it over the floor joists and secured it with bolts bigger than any Johnny’d ever laid eyes on. By the time they finished, a dozen folks were standing outside the front window, admiring the mighty machine and probably laughing at how much work it took to get it moved four feet over.

As the newspaper women cleaned and oiled their new prize, and the ranch hands dragged themselves off to the cantina as a reward for their efforts, Scott announced they needed to check the building to make sure the windows and doors were secure. Scott had been gone for less than half a minute before he called to Johnny in a quiet voice. Johnny found him at the back door, where he was turning the lock. In a low tone, he said, “Someone’s been playing with this.” He opened the door a few inches and turned the lock. The lock handle mechanism turned, but the bolt stayed inside the door. “Anyone securing this for the night would be fooled into thinking the door was really locked.”

A thorough search of the building found several windows that showed signs of tampering. Johnny and Scott got everything resecured, and with regret they alarmed the women by telling them what they’d found. The brothers promised to spend the night in the office, being sure to make their presence known to deter any troublemakers.

 

After Miriam and Annie provided a pleasant supper for the men from the ranch, Scott and Johnny set up makeshift beds in the office while Ramón Bautista camped out in the narrow hallway by the back door. The rest joined the sentries in the second story room across the street. Scott felt fairly confident that no one would try an assault on the office with them around. It hadn’t taken much work to convince the women to return to Lancer in the morning.

Scott bedded down on the floor by the business counter, while Johnny had his bedroll beside the new printing press. Within minutes, Luz appeared in the hallway and found her way to Johnny, curling up next to him and resting her head against his chest as she purred. As he scratched the cat behind her ears, he said to his frowning brother, “At least she didn’t hiss at you this time.” Scott harrumphed and restively tried to settle into his bedroll, to Johnny’s amusement.

Despite their earlier Herculean labor of getting the presses moved, sleep beckoned neither of them. Johnny kept looking up at the new printing press, his hand resting against the large flywheel on the side of the machine and occasionally giving it a gentle tug. “Scott?”

“Hmm?”

“Do you ever think about what you’d be doing right now if Murdoch hadn’t sent for us? Annie has the newspaper, and I bet she’s good at it. What do you think you’d be doing now?”

“Probably nothing of importance.”

“Like what?”

“Going to the opera, going to the theatre, going to dinner parties.”

“That’s quite a life.”

“It was all right.”

“Do you miss it?”

Scott had thought about that more than once during his time in California. He did miss the opera and theatre. As for the dinner parties, the food was good, but the company usually wasn’t worth the effort. “Sometimes. But...it was all rather pointless.”

Johnny propped up on an elbow and looked at him. “What do you mean?”

“What mattered to everyone else didn’t matter to me anymore.” He surprised himself by admitting this. “The others would gossip about someone’s social standing, or some faux pas—silly mistake—they’d made. They acted like saying the wrong word was the end of the world.”

“Why would that matter?”

“Because in society, your worth as a person is determined not by what you do for a living or how many good deeds you’ve done, but by what other people think about you. And if they think you’re not worthy, you’re not. And that’s that.”

Johnny thought for a long moment. “That makes you kind of helpless. You can’t make people think what you want. I guess folks who are scared about that attack each other so they hope no one will look at them.”

Oh, wise Johnny, Scott mused. “You’re right. Most of them are afraid. They look like they have so much, but what they have doesn’t mean anything.” More than once after returning from the war, when he watched his neighbors and friends go through their social contortions, Scott would see them as if they were the Lilliputians jumping and crawling for their precious ribbons.

Of the Boston society members who had gone to the war and come back, some found a calling of importance, such as education or medicine or politics. But many had nothing to fill up the emptiness that the war had given them. Some came west, some traveled the world, and more than a few...merely disappeared. At the end of his first year in California, Scott realized he would not have lasted much longer in Boston. Where he would have ended up, he didn’t know. “What about you? What would you be doing now?”

“Me? Oh, I’d probably be working for somebody like Henry Recklenberg, rousting farmers or scaring townspeople.” He looked at the printing press again, and gave the flywheel a turn, watching the machine’s plates come together like hands in prayer. “Who knows? Maybe I would’ve gone to work for one of those timbermen, and I would’ve been told to shut down a pesky little newspaper that dared to print the truth.”

“That would have made for quite a surprise, when you went into the office to intimidate the women.”

Johnny laughed lightly. “Wouldn’t it? One look at those two, and who knows what would’ve happened.”

Soft footfalls came down the hallway, and Ramón’s shadowy outline appeared at the edge of the room. “I know what I would be doing if Señor Murdoch had not sent for you. I would be at the ranch, sleeping in my own bed, thanking God for the peace and quiet.”

The two chuckled and relented, and Ramón bid them a good night before turning to resume his post by the back door. “Have you noticed,” Scott said pointedly, “that Ramón is already acting like a brother-in-law?”

“Yeah,” Johnny replied, “annoying.”

An irritated response in Spanish filtered back from the hallway, and the two laughed.

 

Miriam and Annie returned to the ranch the next morning in the rented buggy escorted by Johnny, Scott, and ten of the men from the sentry post. Several Lancer ranch hands stayed behind to guard the newspaper office and precious new equipment and spend time with the disgruntled Luz.

They were within two miles of the hacienda when they spotted thick smoke coming from a hillside. Scott identified the location as one of the tented sentry outposts on a high cattle trail, and three of the hands dashed off to investigate as the rest continued on their way.

The three riders arrived at the hacienda as the main group was dismounting in front of the house. The riders reported that the oilcloth tent apparently had caught fire, probably from the camp stove inside being left unattended. No sentries had been around, so why the camp stove would have been in use was a mystery. Once the family members had entered the house and joined Murdoch in the great room, Scott speculated, “Perhaps someone wanted us to investigate and divide our forces.”

Murdoch replied simply, “If that was the intent, it didn’t do anything useful.”

“Either way,” Scott said, “I think we should post more guards around the house. And only tell the men we pick about it.” Murdoch agreed.

Three hours later, two riders came in to report that a fence had gone down in one of the northern pastures, and hundreds of cattle had wandered off the ranch. In front of the hands, Murdoch ordered Cipriano to take his best cattle workers to retrieve the animals. Before the segundo left, however, in private Murdoch gave him specific instructions: “You and Toledano take two groups of twenty. Give him men you absolutely trust. When you reach the outcropping, you go north to the fence breach, while his half takes the east trail, and then they double back to the house.”

“But, Señor Murdoch, twenty is not enough. There were at least five hundred animals up there.”

“It will be enough to get most of them,” the rancher replied. “Do your best. Whatever you can get will be enough.” Puzzled, the segundo left to pick his men.

When the forty men left, Murdoch watched from in front of the house, glancing at the surrounding hills in hopes of spotting the glint of a spyglass to betray an observer’s location. No flicker gave him a hint of where someone might be. He returned to the hacienda, trying to appear unconcerned.

 

Scott was about to retire for the night when a shout and the sound of thrashing feet echoed up outside his window. He dashed out into the hall and saw Johnny ahead of him as they ran down the stairs towards the sounds of a struggle at the side of the house.

They rounded the corner of the veranda, and in the light of the end lamp, he saw two guards holding a writhing figure cursing and demanding to be let loose. When the brothers reached the sentries, Scott noticed that the nearest window was the one for Annie’s bedroom. The struggling figure stopped and looked at the brothers. It was Tom Laurence.

The ranch hand gave the pair an awkward grin as if he were glad to see them. “Thank the Lord, someone with a little sense! Johnny, Scott, tell these buzzards to let me go!”

The brothers didn’t respond. Laurence hadn’t been selected as one of the house guards. He had no good reason to be there.

Finally, Scott nodded to the guards, and they let go of their captive. The man tried to scrape together some dignity as he straightened his jacket and scooped up his hat from the ground.

“What are you doing here?” Johnny asked.

“I saw some movement by the house,” he said with a smooth gesture as he returned his hat to his head. “I guess it was one of these fellas. But I didn’t know. I know how important the womenfolk are, so I figured I should do something. You know?”

Murdoch had joined them and was regarding the suspicious ranch hand with a serious gaze. “You were out in the pasture finding those stray cattle, weren’t you?”

“Uh, yes, sir, Mr. Lancer.”

Scott knew that wasn’t the truth.

“So, you must not have heard that we sent the women off the ranch for their own safety.”

Laurence looked baffled, but he quickly gathered himself. “Gosh, Mr. Lancer, I didn’t know that. When did that happen?”

Scott could tell the man knew he was in trouble. He was happy to let his father give Laurence enough rope to hang himself.

Murdoch replied, “Not long before sunset. We went looking for you, because we know you’re good with a gun and would be handy to have as a guard. Where were you?”

“Like you said, I was out chasing those strays.”

Murdoch replied, “But everyone was back before sunset.”

Caught, Laurence said, “Well, Danny and me, we stayed out longer. There was this momma cow and the most ornery little calf you ever did see, and it took us a long time to get that baby bull back with us.”

“Which Danny?” Scott asked. “Cook, Burgess, or Wasserman?”

“Wasserman. He and I usually ride togeth—”

With calculated ferocity, Johnny launched at him and grabbed him by his jacket, slamming him against the wall. “You son of a bitch! Danny left the day after you did, and he never came back!”

Scott pulled his brother off the frightened man, but with great slowness and not far enough away to keep him out of reach. Laurence’s glittering rat’s eyes darted back and forth between the father and two sons, apparently assessing which one would be most likely to help pull him out of the hole he’d dug himself into. “Come on, Scott, I meant Cook. So, I said the wrong name. Being tossed around by these fellas is enough to rattle anyone.”

With deep tones that made him sound like the Voice of Doom, Murdoch replied, “Danny Cook has been in town since yesterday morning.”

Laurence gave way to frantic thoughts for a few moments, but when no easy lie came to his rescue, he slumped in defeat. His eyes glanced around again, and he spun away to run for it. The two sentries were waiting, and they collared him and pinned him against the wall.

Laurence reminded Scott of Private Walker, the most troublesome soldier in the Army of the Potomac, who would tell everyone exactly what they wanted to hear, as long as it wasn’t the truth. Also, on several occasions, he’d heard Laurence spout off all kinds of hateful nonsense about the Mexicans. In particular, he resented answering to a Mexican foreman. For their own part, the vaqueros considered Laurence a mildly annoying loudmouth and ignored him whenever possible. But Scott imagined Laurence figured they hated him as much as he hated them.

He gave the skulking cowboy a calm, benign gaze. “All right, Tom. Tell us the whole story.”

“What story?”

Scott looked at Johnny with a mildly theatrical glint, then regarded the traitor again. “Okay. If you prefer, you can tell everything to the vaqueros.”

Even in the pale light of the distant lamp, Scott could see the color drain out of the man’s face. “Okay. No, not that. I’ll tell you.”

In a cascade of words, the frightened cowboy told how he had been hired by a man named Beauregard to return to Lancer and spy on the family. Danny Wasserman and a couple of outside thugs were up in the hills, ready to stir up trouble that would draw hands away from the house, like burning that sentry post, just to keep everyone on edge. He had already given Beauregard a detailed map of the estancia and a roster of everyone on the ranch and who had what duties. His mission that night was to determine who had the different bedrooms in the house.

“How are you reporting to him?” Scott asked. “Riders?”

“Sometimes. Telegrams when I can get to town.”

The brothers exchanged a significant gaze. Scott was once again favorably impressed by Johnny’s instincts.

Johnny had listened in silence as the trembling man betrayed his secret masters. He took a step forward and stood too close to the traitor. His eyes cold, his expression impassive, he gave Laurence a gaze that had terrified many a man who made the mistake of crossing Johnny Madrid. “Give me one reason why we should let you live.”

Laurence babbled a few incoherent sounds, and Murdoch put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “There’s no need for that. I’m sure he’s learned his lesson. A night in the guardhouse and a trip to Spanish Wells in the morning so he can catch the stage to Cross Creek ought to be enough.” He said to Laurence with a significant glare, “However, if you ever come back to the area, I’m afraid I can’t guarantee your safety.”

The man bobbed his head, his eyes darting back and forth between Murdoch and Johnny, eager to escape to the safe confines of the old guardhouse. Murdoch gave the cell key to one of the sentries, and the prisoner led the way.

The Lancer men stood in thoughtful silence at the shadowy edge of the house. Scott finally said, “Do you think we really should send Annie and her mother away from the ranch?”

Murdoch shook his head. “There are too many people looking for them. They’d eventually be found, and we wouldn’t be able to protect them.”

“I wouldn’t go, anyway.”

They turned and saw Annie standing under the lamp at the corner of the veranda.

Scott didn’t know what to say to her. Apparently, the others didn’t either, as no one spoke. Did she understand how much danger she faced?

It seemed she did. She looked at Johnny and said, “If you’re still offering, I’ll take that pistol lesson.”

 

The next morning, Tom Laurence was escorted by Johnny and Scott and a half-dozen riders to Spanish Wells, where he purchased passage to Cross Creek. The odd parade drew a lot of attention, including a handful of men who looked like they thought of themselves as expert troublemakers. Johnny recognized a couple of the ragged ones from Wolff Center, while the rest were strangers. None was a real professional, but they’d do for Henry’s purposes.

Johnny watched the townspeople scurry around the strangers or even avoid them altogether and return to where they’d come from. He’d seen it so many times before, he’d lost count. Strangers coming into towns and killing each other, unknown to the people they put in harm’s way and forgotten as soon as they rode on or were put in the ground. It was no way to live, and it was a useless way to die.

The Lancer riders waited for the stage to leave with Laurence on it, but a few minutes before the stagecoach was scheduled to depart, Johnny saw three of the would-be professionals get on their horses and head east out of town. Even if the Lancer ranch hands followed the stage all the way to Cross Creek and made sure he got on the next train, Laurence would eventually be collected and taken to Wolff Ranch. It wasn’t worth the effort to delay the gunmen’s rendezvous with their boy. The Lancer riders turned back for home.

 

Murdoch watched the riders return to the ranch a couple hours before sunset, but he saw no triumph over removing the spy from their midst. Scott and Johnny explained their hollow victory and settled into the great room with a gloom that even Murdoch’s prized brandy couldn’t lift.

The three women of the family had been doing handwork before the gentle fire, but after seeing her brothers’ dejection, Annie set down her work and joined them. “What’s the matter? Isn’t getting rid of that cowboy a good first step?”

Johnny shook his head. “It doesn’t mean anything. He already gave them the information they needed.”

She looked at Scott, but he was of Johnny’s opinion. “It’s not even a setback for them.”

Johnny said, “Henry’s turned enough people against us with his lies that this’ll turn into a range war. Henry’ll make sure of that. He knows how to start those, even if he’s not very good at running them. A lot of people are going to get killed.”

Murdoch hated to agree with his son’s dour assessment, but he knew the truth behind his words.

“But,” she asked, “if you know a range war is coming, can’t you stop it?”

“Well, you see, it’s like trying to stop a flood. You know it’s raining, and you know you need to do something. But the more it goes along, the bigger it gets, and then you just can’t do anything about it.”

Annie looked at him, then the others, thinking. Her gaze settled on Scott. “Okay, Mr. Cumberland and Potomac. What’s Henry Recklenberg’s biggest weapon?”

Scott didn’t need to think about his answer. “The money he’s throwing around like sand at the seashore.”

She pondered his words. “There’s nothing we can do about that, is there?”

Johnny smiled, then scoffed.

Annie looked at him. “What’s so funny?”

“The truth about all that money. He promises a lot more than he delivers.”

“What do you mean?”

Johnny related how Henry tried to shortchange the people he hired to terrorize the Texas farmers.

“Do you think he’d do that again?”

“If his ‘hired guns’ knew what he’s really like, and how he’s already figured out how not to pay them, they’d take off like rats out of a burning barn.”

A thoughtful smile grew on Annie’s face, and she got up and approached Murdoch. In a sweet voice, she asked, “Do you have a piece of paper and a pencil that I could use, please?”

Oh, that smile of hers, so like her mother’s. He realized it was just as well he hadn’t raised this girl, because he probably would have indulged her every whim and spoiled her beyond all hope of redemption. “Whatever you wish.” He led the way to his desk, where he found what she wanted.

She collected the writing materials and went to the dining table, signaling Johnny to follow her. As he sat, watching her with curiosity, she began to write. “One of Papa’s jokes was that the pen is mightier than the sword except in hand-to-hand combat, but if you wield the pen first and well, you can avoid the combat altogether. Tell me everything you know about Henry Recklenberg.”

“Everything?”

She nodded, writing.

“What are you gonna do?”

Annie glanced at Miriam. “I think the Morro Coyo Beacon needs to dedicate the next edition to the newest resident in the area.”

Miriam nodded, smiling.

Annie cast Murdoch a hopeful look. “And, if we can get a loan to pay for telegrams, we can get more information from people in Texas who aren’t afraid to speak up.” Murdoch nodded his assent. She said to her brother, “Let’s do everything we can to dam that flood.”

Johnny nodded with appreciation, if a little skepticism. “Do you really think it’s gonna work?”

“There’s only one way to find out. All right, start at the beginning. How did you first hear about Henry Recklenberg?”

As Johnny talked, and Annie took notes and asked him questions, Murdoch glanced around at the others. Scott and Teresa were smiling at the pair, and soon they joined them at the table. Miriam stood to view the conversation, her face glowing with pride. Watching the scene, and seeing his family knitting itself together like a fractured arm, Murdoch marveled again at how he could be so blessed to have this good fortune.

He saw something else as he watched Annie asking Johnny questions to prompt his memory. He stood next to Miriam and said quietly, “Mrs. de Peralta, I’m sorry I never had the chance to meet your husband like my sons did. But as I look at your daughter now, I believe I’m seeing him.”

Her eyes glistened as she watched Annie. “She is so like him.” She glanced up at Murdoch. “And if I really am going to be part of this family, would you please call me Miriam?”

He chuckled and put a friendly arm around her shoulder.

 

The next day, an unwelcome visitor at Wolff Ranch sent Henry Recklenberg into an angry funk. Donald Recklenberg, Jr. strolled through the dilapidated ranch house with a critical eye and upturned nose. He’d never expected much from his little brother, but this shabby excuse for a headquarters was a new low.

Junior found his sulking brother holed up in the north-facing parlor, the cold gray afternoon light draining the life out of the room and its contents. He studied the map on the table and the scattering of papers covered with scribbled notes that he guessed were supposed to be some sort of strategy. Henry glared at him from the only good chair in the house.

“So,” Junior said in a voice as cold as the winter light, “how goes the war?”

“Just fine. Why are you here? Checking up on me?”

“I’m looking out for the interests of our family, which is a hell of a lot more than you’re doing.”

“Go fuck yourself.”

The elder brother didn’t react to the insult he’d heard several thousand times before. He ambled around the room, looking at the peeled wallpaper and a framed Currier and Ives print of ice skaters that still hung on the wall, its glass cracked. “How much of Pa’s money did you put down on this palace?”

“A hundred and fifty. I’ll be out of here before the land agent figures out I’m going to re-nigger on the contract.”

Junior nodded. “Well, at least that’s one smart thing.” He examined his little brother. He didn’t have a lot of hope for this, but he’d promised to try. “Hen, I made a real good deal for the ranch. But I need your help to pull it off.”

Henry eyed him with suspicion. “What is it?”

“You know how much Old Man Howard has wanted that patch of bottom land. Pa never saw a reason to sell it to him, and I advised him against it just because the old man wanted it so bad and it wouldn’t look good to do something nice for the farmers. But I worked out a deal. In exchange for that piece of dirt, John Howard’s willing to hand over his granddaughter to you. You know, that pretty little blonde you’ve been wanting. Now you don’t have to worry about threatening your way out of your problems with the Mexicans. I figured this is a good solution all the way around.”

He could see his brother thinking. This might work after all.

Junior continued, “Howard’s signed a contract. She’s being ‘hired’ as a maid, so it’s a hundred percent legal. All I need is for you to come home and sign it. And stay put to lord it over him.” Betraying his eagerness, he urged, “We’ve got him by the balls, Hen. Everybody already knows what he agreed to. He thinks he’s won something, but he’s lost. All the farmers know the truth, that their head man is willing to sell his own kin. They’re disgusted. It’s taken the fight right out of them.

“It’s up to you, Hen. Come home, sign the contract, take the girl, and we win. And with it in writing, and all legal, Sheriff Adams is happy, because he won’t have to cover up for you. You can break the farmers once and for all. Come on. This is everything we’ve been working for ever since those sodbusters showed up. You get to be the hero, and you can concentrate on her and stop mixing with the Mexicans. You get to fuck that pretty little girl until you’re purple, and there won’t be a damned thing anyone can do about it.”

Henry chewed on the deal for a few moments, but then he shook his head. “No. Not until I finish this.”

Junior turned away to corral his exasperation. After he gathered himself, he faced his peevish little brother. “You got to do this now, Hen. Now, do you hear me? We’ve got them. We can break the farmers, once and for all. If we wait around a month or two, everyone’ll forget that Howard agreed to this. Strike while the iron is hot, the man said. The iron’s hot now. You need to do this now. Do it for the family.”

“I’m doing this for the family!” Henry shouted. “Don’t you know what that Mexican trollep almost did to us?”

Junior exploded. “You are such a shit-for-brains! What do you mean, ‘us’? This whole mess is your fault! Pa told me the only reason she caught his eye is because of her spirit in the way she turned you down. He never would’ve seen that if you hadn’t gotten all bitchy over the old has-been. And this Lancer girl is nothing!”

Henry launched to his feet. “This is for us! For our honor! She’s Johnny Madrid’s sister!”

Junior scowled. “Johnny Who? Nobody remembers him. I don’t give a damn if you think he didn’t treat you right. He’s a nothing, just like his mother. Just like all of them. Nobody cares about them except you. And you probably deserved whatever you think he did to you.”

Henry stormed around the room and began to rant about his pride, but Junior wasn’t interested and cut him off. “Hen, this is bigger than you. You’ve gone on too long. With your number one gunman gone, you don’t have anyone to hide behind anymore. The sheriff can’t protect you much longer. Even the attorney general’s been asking questions. And it’s started affecting the rest of us. Word’s gotten out about you and all the little señoritas you been helping yourself to. Ranchers are beginning to say they don’t want to do business with us anymore. Pa was at a meeting in Denver when someone turned him down flat on account of you. What’s going to happen when we get locked out all across the country because of you and your itchy little prick?”

Henry replied with an incoherent explosion of outrage.

Junior had had enough. “The world is not your whore, Hen! You can’t keep doing whatever you want. I know all about you getting kicked outa that ‘gentlemen’s club’ in San Francisco. What the hell is wrong with you? Get your prick out of your brain and close up your pants! Pa only knows about some of it, but he’s talking about cutting you loose. And he means it.”

Henry stopped his fuming and stared at his brother with dread.

Junior nodded. “Yeah. He told me if you didn’t come back with me, he’s having new paperwork drawn up.”

Henry stammered for a few moments. “Just let me have that Lancer girl.”

His brother glowered. “How long is this gonna take?”

He said, “A week.”

“No.”

Henry scrambled. He wasn’t going to give up so easily. “Look, it’ll take me at least a few days to close up around here. Give me five days?”

“One.”

After a juvenile amount of haggling, they settled on leaving in three days if the train schedule worked. Junior didn’t like the delay. He didn’t give two farts about the Lancer girl. All he worried about was what a slippery little ass-wipe his brother was, and how he could get into a lot of trouble in three days.

 

Chapter Thirteen

The small buckboard trundled down the road from the ranch country through a light rain. The driver had his oilcloth duster pulled up high around his neck, and the young woman beside him huddled under her wool coat, a small parasol doing its best to keep the raindrops off the shawl covering her head. The ten riders around the wagon kept an eye out for trouble.

At a narrow bend between two low hills, with clusters of oaks on either side of the road, a lone rider approached the group with his dark horse at a slow walk on the damp road. He had his hat pulled down. Rather than wearing the usual Western gear of a duster to protect himself from the rain, he had on a black coat that glistened with fine raindrops. The riders went on alert, but it was only one man, and he didn’t seem to notice them, so they stayed wary but made no challenge.

From fifty feet away, the rider looked up and saw the group. He reined his horse to the side and stopped to let the crowd have the road, and he gave them a friendly nod. He was unknown to the others, but again his actions presented no threat.

The lone rider watched the group approach, and when he saw the woman in the buckboard, he gave her a large, handsome smile. In a soft, gentlemanly Virginia accent, he said, “Why, I do believe I’m meeting the Miss Lancer whom I’ve heard so much about.”

The dark-haired young woman eyed him with suspicion. “I’m sorry, you’re mistaken.”

With layers of charm, he said, “Well, I don’t rightly see how that can be. I’ve been told she’s the prettiest girl in the county, and I can’t imagine anyone prettier than you are.”

Her gaze serious, she replied, “Thank you, but I’m not Miss Lancer.”

“But isn’t the Lancer ranch back yonder?”

“Yes. So is our ranch, the Sliding H.”

The man’s eyes scanned the riders, perhaps looking for specific faces. When he didn’t find what he searched for, he studied the horses. Every one bore the Sliding H brand. His charming smile faded slightly. “I do apologize. I confess, when I saw such a large group, I made an assumption. I’m told the Lancers always ride in a veritable detachment.”

“So do we, lately. There have been so many strangers in the area. There’s talk of trouble.”

He examined her again, coolly regarding her fierce blue eyes. “I apologize once more. I’m keeping you from your errand. It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss....”

“Himmelhoch.”

He frowned at the unfamiliar name. “Miss Himmel-hock. It has been my very great pleasure to have met you. I hope I shall have the pleasure of meeting you again in town.”

She nodded. “Yes, then we may be properly introduced.”

He removed his hat with a sly smile. “I didn’t know you Westerners observed such formal niceties. Robert Beauregard, at your service, miss.”

She acknowledged his courtesy. “Mr. Beauregard.” She nodded to her driver, who jostled the horses’ reins and chirruped to start the animals. The entourage rolled past the lone rider, who watched them for a few moments, then, once they had passed, returned his hat to his head and guided his horse across the road into the thicket of young oak trees.

Teresa’s hands shook, and she steadied herself on Danny Burgess’s forearm as he held the horse team’s reins. He patted her hands and gave her an encouraging nod. She had heard from Johnny that Beauregard worked for Henry Recklenberg, but why was he alone? ...Or was he? She signaled Danny to stop the wagon, and the riders halted with him. Out of sight, beyond the trees, came the soft, low, whispering sound of many horses heading away over wet grass. She and Danny followed the sound, and the riders turned towards the rustling noises, looking to Danny for instructions. He shook his head.

Teresa shuddered. Beauregard had been the lead man of an ambush. From the sound of the retreating horses, the twelve of them would have been greatly outnumbered, and they would have had little chance of escape. Scott had been right. God bless his insistence on subterfuge. She would never be able to thank the Himmelhochs enough for loaning them the horses. But while they had thwarted one attack, they had no way of knowing where the bushwhackers were heading, and if they would discover their trick. They needed to get to the safety of town fast.

 

New curtains may have blocked the view into the storefront of the Morro Coyo Beacon, but nothing could hide the comings and goings of riders every hour or so. Young men on Lancer horses would come into town at a hearty clip, then tie up at the newspaper office and go inside. Some stayed for a few minutes, others stayed for an hour or more. Neither of the Lancer brothers appeared, and the women who ran the paper never came out.

The people in town noticed the activity, but the only one who cared was Penny Putnam, who spent an inordinate amount of time in front of his business trying to figure out the meaning of the commotion. Twice he gave in to his curiosity and started across the street to pay a visit, but both times before he reached the other side of the street, Ramón Bautista came through the newspaper office door and stopped him with a request to send a telegram. Mrs. de Peralta was writing an important story on cattle prices, he explained, and she needed the latest figures from the Chicago Board of Trade. Annoyed but unable to turn away a customer, Penny returned to his office and sent the telegrams, frustrated that Ramón insisted on waiting for replies instead of letting Penny bring them over when they came in. Penny tried to chat up Ramón and get some information about this story, but Ramón said all he knew was what she was writing “would really shake things up around here” and might even mean trouble for some of the local ranchers. By the time Penny finally got rid of his pesky customer, the newspaper office appeared to be closed for the day, its ground floor shutters closed tight over the windows. He stewed on the matter and vowed to try again in the morning.

 

Penny’s plans to infiltrate the newspaper office fell apart when a brief sunrise clamor filled the street. Sheriff Tate led a posse out of town in the direction of the Lancer ranch. A body had been found outside the ranch’s main gate.

Bound hand and foot, his mouth gagged and his throat cut, what was left of Tom Laurence had returned to the Lancer ranch one last time. With little blood at the site and a cluster of horse tracks leading to and from the spot where the corpse had been dumped, the sheriff had no reason to suspect that the Lancers had anything to do with the murder, other than being the unwilling recipients of a grisly message. The sheriff talked with all the family members on the property and the ranch hands who found the corpse of their recent comrade. Sheriff Tate had already learned from Scott and Teresa about the thwarted kidnapping attempt of the day before, so he chocked this up as another effort to intimidate the family. After conferring with Murdoch about what little he could do and if anyone knew of Laurence’s next of kin (no one did, despite his statement about having a sick mother), Sheriff Tate had the body loaded up to be taken to town for burial.

The reaction in Morro Coyo to the arrival of the body was far less matter-of-fact. Word spread about the murder as the posse reached the doctor’s office behind the furniture maker’s workshop, and half of the town came out with a mixture of curiosity and alarm to see the corpse. Miriam followed the posse to talk with the sheriff, her notebook and pencil in hand, and behind her Scott emerged from the newspaper office and meandered across the street to where Penny Putnam was watching the procession with a grimace.

Scott gave him a casual greeting and a few empty words, watching the telegraph operator as much as the grisly show. “Makes you think, doesn’t it?”

The man eyed Scott with a deep frown. “What do you mean?”

“Well, the way things are going, who might be next?” He offered a fatalistic shrug as Penny blanched. Scott headed back to the newspaper office, closing the curtained door behind him.

 

The oil lamps burned late into the night behind the shuttered Morro Coyo Beacon windows. With all of the information gathered and the articles written by the mother and daughter, Annie set the type and put her brothers to work with preparing the paper and ink. The time had arrived for Scott and Johnny to learn a new trade. Annie demonstrated how to ink the press and place the paper, then showed them how to bring the elements together and create printed pages.

Scott recalled his childhood visit to the print shop and how eager he had been to play with the fascinating machines, but now that he had to roll up his sleeves and literally crank out hundreds of newspapers, his childlike enthusiasm seemed grossly underinformed. When Johnny expressed some reluctance, either from a lack of confidence or too much cowhand dignity, Annie easily won the argument through her casual comment that Ramón had predicted they wouldn’t be up to the challenge. They attacked the assignment with ruffled pride.

Several hours and more than a thousand printed pages later, Scott sat slumped at the table and Johnny lay on the floor, triumphant but exhausted. Annie had sorted the pages to dry and began the process of assembling the four-page edition, giving them heartfelt praise that they barely heard over their own groaning.

“Do you do this every week?” Scott grumbled.

“Usually not with such urgency, and not as many copies, but yes.”

Johnny’s moan was unintelligible but effectively summed up his attitude. 

She said, “But you can now add ‘printer’s devil’ to your list of accomplishments.”

Not bothering to open his eyes, Johnny muttered, “What’s that?”

“That’s the name for a printer’s assistant.”

Scott scowled at his sister, who stood behind the counter, folding a stack of papers. “If you have devils working for you, what does that make you?”

“Hey,” she retorted, “which one of us is named ‘Angel’?”

Johnny loosed a sloppy laugh and managed to sit up. “She’s got you there.”

She added, “You’re in excellent company. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson both were printer’s devils when they were young.”

Scott shrugged. “Well, we know how they turned out.”

“Yeah,” Johnny said, trying to decide if he should get off the floor. “They’re both dead.”

Scott and Annie laughed.

Johnny decided to get up and staggered to his feet. He plunked into the chair next to his brother. “Which one of us is going to tell the bad news to the guys that some of them have to ride all night to get these delivered by sunrise?”

Scott didn’t reply.

Annie said, “I will.”

“Oh, no, you won’t,” Scott pronounced. “You’re not leaving this building until this is over.”

She reached over and took the top copy of the newspaper off the pile, setting it on the table before them. “If this doesn’t end things, I’m afraid of what will.”

Scott had not had a chance to read the articles while they were printing, and he scoured the pages as Johnny looked over his shoulder. These women knew how to write. In clear, succinct prose free of hyperbole, they had created news stories that introduced the local residents to their newest neighbor. In standard newspaper articles rather than personal diatribes, they laid out the facts Johnny had told them supplemented by additional information from newspapermen of the counties that bordered the Recklenberg stronghold.

The back page contained a story detailing the Recklenberg brothers’ business practices, especially Henry’s tendency to avoid paying his debts. Johnny was particularly interested in the report about the Recklenberg County sheriff being investigated for helping to cover up some of Henry’s “crimes against women” in the county and how a boycott was quietly being formed around the family, with ranchers from the Rio Grande to Denver refusing to do business with them. It seemed that time had begun to run out for the Recklenbergs and their cohorts.

While an article mentioned that Henry had visited Morro Coyo in November, no reason was given. Also missing from the entire edition was any mention of the Lancer family. If Miriam and Annie had been tempted to sing the praises of the family being targeted by the ominous new area resident, they chose a more subtle approach. As they focused solely on Henry and his family, the women presented facts, quoted officials and newspaper editors who had known the family for years, and recounted histories that had beginnings, middles, and ends. In addition, no articles linked Henry with the current local tensions. The recent area events, which had begun shortly after his arrival, would speak for themselves in conversations between neighbors and friends. Scott concluded that the fact-based introduction to the terrible truth about Henry Recklenberg, the mysterious new neighbor who moved into a spent and useless ranch for no reason that involved ranching, could very well be a stroke of genius.

Most moving—and disturbing—of all were several articles gathered on the second page that covered multiple aspects of the Recklenberg County War, from its trumped-up beginning to its bloody and useless end. Scott found particularly affecting a small side article listing all the known names and ages of those killed on both sides. Had the Recklenberg brothers’ hired guns really killed two children under the age of three?

Scott set the edition on the table and gave his brother a morose gaze. “I’ve never doubted your ability to handle yourself. But reading all these details about the range war has made me grateful for your fit of pique that made you leave when you did.”

“What do you mean?” Johnny asked.

“I know you. You understand that, unfortunately, the threat of violence can serve a purpose. But all those murders only served Henry and his brother’s thirst for power over others. If you’d been there for that slaughter, you would have tried to stop it, or at least stop part of it. Spoiler, or Day, or anyone else like them, wouldn’t have thought twice about killing you for ‘interfering.’” Scott said to Annie, “When you get to know Johnny a little better, you’ll understand what a mother hen he is.” Johnny glared at him. “And how much he dislikes being called that.” Annie smiled. “No, he’s really a guard dog. He’s always trying to protect us.” He regarded his brother seriously. “You take on responsibilities that aren’t yours.” He hesitated, then admitted, “And I’ve seen you sink into the doldrums when you couldn’t solve problems that you thought you should.”

Johnny looked at the newspaper and busied himself with folding it up. Scott knew his brother understood what he was saying. He had seen soldiers with the same problem, and he knew the brutal toll the war took on them. He added in a quiet voice, “If Spoiler or Day didn’t kill you, and you survived the range war, I hate to think what kinds of punishment you would have put yourself through afterward.”

Johnny’s brow knitted. His gaze focused on the newspaper, but his attention seemed a thousand miles away. He folded the newspaper, then distractedly folded it on itself over and over as he became lost in his thoughts. “...Like what?”

Scott recalled Sergeant Berger, whose death still haunted him. “Like volunteering for dangerous missions, or going into bad situations unprepared.”

Johnny kept his eyes on the paper that he’d folded down into a cube. “Like taking on more men than you have bullets in your gun?”

Scott nodded, then studied his brother. That had been an oddly specific example.

Johnny continued to look at the cube of information about his former employer. “So, you’re saying that’s...what...a guilty conscience?”

“No. A guilty conscience belongs to someone who’s done something wrong. It would be regret at not being able to help someone.”

“Isn’t not helping doing something wrong?”

Scott examined his brother, who continued to look at the square of newspaper. He seemed to have stumbled onto something. He noticed Annie watching Johnny with concern as well.

This conversation would profit from a little privacy. He regarded their sister. “Don’t you need to check on your mother?”

Annie gave him a flinty gaze, but she didn’t challenge him beyond offering a starchy, “How long would you like me to check on her?”

He replied with a diplomatic, “Perhaps the two of you would like to have some tea.”

With a cool tilt of her head, she left.

When Scott returned his attention to his brother, Johnny was smiling lightly at the newspaper cube. “She didn’t like that.”

Scott had no intention of being distracted. He was beginning to glimpse the answer to a three-year-old mystery. He said with care, “Intentionally not helping people in trouble, yes, that’s doing something wrong. But not helping because you’re not there when something bad happens, no. That’s regret. Not guilt.”

“So,” Johnny said, picking up the newspaper cube and studying it, “if it’s only regret, why would someone do lots of stupid things?”

It was all Scott could do not to let loose an exclamation. He’d seen Johnny take calculated chances when circumstances warranted, but in the early days he’d seen his brother indulge in pointless reckless behavior. After the battle with Day and his men, Johnny didn’t have much of an explanation for why he’d been riding at a dead run towards the ranch with the land pirates on his heels, somehow eluding their hail of bullets until Day got him in the back. All he’d said was he’d tried to stop Pardee and it didn’t work. The day after the battle, one of the vaqueros had found the body of Pardee’s second in command up on a hillside in a perfect place to reconnoiter the house. He remembered Johnny’s cryptic response to the news: “Sometimes backshooters get what’s coming to them.”

Warfare Scott understood; the life of a professional gunman he did not. He would have to ease into this. “What would Rafael have to say about that?”

Johnny glanced at him, then returned his gaze to the newspaper cube. “I don’t know. I was on my way to see him when Fred Weiler found me.”

Scott knew very well where Johnny was when the Pinkerton agent located him, and it wasn’t on the road to the monastery where Johnny’s former mentor now resided. “Maybe you should write to Rafael and ask him. I’m sure he’d tell you.”

Johnny nodded, then smiled faintly. “I’m sure he would.”

“But while you’re waiting, I’ll tell you that whatever you did, and whatever you’ve felt about it, is proof that your heart’s in the right place. And it always has been.” He kept an earnest gaze on his brother until Johnny finally looked up.

Johnny regarded him. “So, you’re saying I’m a good man.”

“Yes.”

“It’s funny. The good men don’t feel good, and the bad men don’t feel bad. What does that mean?”

“It means, brother, that since you’ve figured that out, you’re smarter than ninety-nine percent of the people in this country.” He gave him a reassuring smile, and Johnny finally relented with a softened gaze.

Scott hesitated, then waded into the minefield. “Johnny, why did you come to the ranch when Murdoch sent for us?”

Johnny looked back at the newspaper cube. “The money.” He focused a discerning gaze on Scott. “Why did you?”

“I had nothing better to do.”

Johnny returned his attention to the cube. “Me, too, I guess.”

Scott pushed forward. “So, after he paid for that hour of your time...why did you stay?”

Johnny’s gaze drifted up to his brother. “Why did you?”

“I still had nothing better to do.”

Johnny chuckled.

Scott decided this might get better results if he presented his theory about Johnny as if he were talking about himself. “I’ve thought a lot about why I came...and decided to stay. I couldn’t live my old life anymore. I’d seen—and done—too much. Ugly things. Too much death. My life...wasn’t right anymore. I couldn’t keep doing what I’d been doing.” He shuddered lightly. Why did his theory about Johnny ring true for him as well?

Johnny studied him, his eyes intent but his expression unreadable.

Scott added, “And I confess, I wanted to see if my father was as terrible as I’d been led to believe.” He couldn’t help but smile. “And you can call me a misguided optimist, but I wanted to like him. I really did.”

“He didn’t make it easy.”

“No, he didn’t.”

Johnny twirled the cube in his hand, then let it go. “Toledano told me something, and you can’t repeat it.” Scott watched him think for a moment. “He did that on purpose, you know. He...he was testing us. He didn’t want us to feel like we owed him something, or feel sorry for him. It was like he wanted to see if we’d stay in spite of him.” Johnny shook his head with a light chuckle. “Francisco was so angry. He kept trying to talk Murdoch out of it.”

Scott smiled with him. “Who’s ever been able to talk Murdoch out of anything?” They reveled in the shared memory of their father’s irascible “welcome,” and then Scott knew it was time to push. “Why did you stay, Johnny?”

The former hired gun thought for a long moment, then gave him an inscrutable smile. “I guess we’re more alike than I thought.”

As Johnny picked up the cube again and smiled at a distant memory, Scott had the solution to his mystery. His brother had reached a crossroads. He could no longer keep being what he had been. But how could a professional simply walk away from that life? Rafael was the rare exception; most men who lived by the gun died at the hands of others. With a violent death all but guaranteed, what better way could Johnny have to atone for his past than by giving his life trying to help others? That péon rebellion, facing off against more men than he had bullets in his gun, leading Day Pardee and his men down to the ranch in a mad dash.

In silence, Scott watched his brother begin to unfold the newspaper cube and try to press out the creases. He realized Johnny hadn’t really expected to survive the war with the land pirates. What a surprise it must have been when he was carried off the field of battle a hired gunman and the next day woke up a rancher. As he watched the family guard dog work on his hopeless task of saving that crumpled paper, Scott felt the most profound sadness in his grief-rich existence. How empty his life would be without his brother at his side. He blinked a few times as Johnny joked about making a mess of the newspaper. Scott thanked God that he had failed in his larger, darker task three years ago.

The moment ended with a light, urgent rap on the door. The rhythm didn’t match the agreed-upon signal, and Scott gathered himself as he doublechecked that the bait was in place by the door.

Johnny’s thoughtfulness had vanished. A cool and aloof professional once again, he got up and opened the door a crack.

“Hi, Johnny,” came Penny’s voice. “You’re busy tonight!”

He let the man in, closing the door behind him but standing in a way that didn’t allow the inquisitive visitor to walk further into the room.

Penny gazed at the stacks of newspapers. “That’s something! What’s the occasion?”

Scott replied, “Big news, Penny, and probably bad news for a lot of people here. Cattle prices are projected to take a big tumble this year. With more cattle going east from Texas and Arkansas, some of the stockyards are making deals under the table to stop buying California cattle. We may have some hard times ahead. People need to prepare.”

Penny nodded as if he had any interest in cattle prices. Scott tilted his head down to look like he was proofing the pages before him, and Johnny turned to straighten up a stack of papers. In the corner of his vision, Scott saw Penny spot the freshly-printed edition on the counter by the door and, after a glance at the two, slip it under his coat. “So,” Penny said a little too brightly, “the womenfolk are all right?”

“Right as rain,” Johnny said, turning back to face the visitor. “Maybe you’ll see them when they take the paper around town in the afternoon.”

Penny nodded with eagerness, then gave them a coy shrug, holding his coat close to his chest. “Well, I just wanted to make sure everything was all right. I’ll see you boys later.”

“You can count on it,” Scott said.

Penny gave him a twee smile and edged backwards to the door, taking ahold of the doorknob behind him. “Good night, gentlemen.”

They nodded, and the visitor left.

The brothers regarded each other. Penny was going to be in for a very large surprise.

 

Every town in the vicinity, from Green River to Wolff Center and all the way to Silver Spring, awoke the next morning to find bundles of the Morro Coyo Beacon left at the most prominent locations in the municipalities. The delight of the citizens at receiving free issues soon turned to curiosity, followed by anger, and then outrage. People gathered in the streets to discuss the articles. Those who couldn’t read listened with rapt attention as volunteers read the issue from front to back, sometimes repeating the task two or three times to satisfy the curiosity and disbelief of their audiences. A few people claimed the stories had to be lies, but in its short life, the Beacon had proved itself a trustworthy news source, and the doubters were either convinced of the stories’ veracity or shamed into silence.

The most dramatic response occurred in Wolff Center, which in recent weeks had increased in size by nearly two hundred percent. By noon, the population growth had reversed. The newest residents, the motley collection of hard strangers who had been viewed with suspicion and fear by the humble folk of the hardscrabble community, had been some of the most vocal audience members of the impromptu town criers as they read aloud the stories about the man who had hired them. However, after many arguments and even a couple brief fistfights, most of the men seemed to melt away in the morning light, leaving behind a citizenry that had hoped to make a little money off the new arrivals but was just as glad to see them and their guns leave.

Spanish Wells also experienced a revolution. As it was the closest town to Wolff Ranch that had a stagecoach stop and a telegraph office, the residents had hoped to enjoy some prosperity with increased business from the new ranch occupant. The newspaper articles landed like bombs in the upward-looking town. When a wagon from the ranch came in for supplies, the shopkeepers refused to put any purchases on account and demanded payment in full for past orders. The startled men, who had been sent on a routine errand, had no cash to settle the accounts, and they hurried out of town with an empty wagon, aside from copies of the Beacon, amid suspicious glares and cold shoulders from the once-enthusiastic townsfolk.

“Uncle Dan’l” Drew lost his perpetual smile as he read between the articles’ lines and realized that he would soon be left in the lurch by his most profitable renter. As the caretaker of the abandoned Wolff Ranch on behalf of the state, he had seen a golden opportunity with this free-spending Texan and had gone so far as to buy the property outright so he wouldn’t have to share the profits with the state. Like so many others, he had wondered about Henry Recklenberg’s reasons for moving to the neighborhood. But combining the odd recent events with the stories in this issue of the Beacon, he understood that Recklenberg had come to California to wreak havoc on the Lancers, motivations unknown, and once the Texan had either satisfied his pride or abandoned his quest, he would fold up his proverbial tents in the night and disappear, leaving everyone else to count their losses. Uncle Dan’l had no intention of losing another cent in this misadventure. He hurried to Morro Coyo to tell what he knew and find out what else he could learn.

The people of Morro Coyo, having been somewhat removed from most of the recent goings-on, gathered in the streets to discuss the situation, and a number of people recalled the events of November, shocked to realize that the peevish fellow who had been outmaneuvered by the Lancers was the same devil incarnate of the newspaper articles. People felt lucky to have averted a disaster back then and wondered what danger might be waiting for them now.

The largest of the crowds lingered outside the Beacon office, where Miriam presided over the impromptu town meeting and displayed all the telegrams she had received from newspapers and civil offices in Texas, confirming the terrible details of the range war. More than a few people noticed that the messages had gone through the telegraph office in Green River, not the one across the street. When they asked about the odd detail, Miriam stated that “reliability mattered with such an important story.”

Someone commented that the usually curious Penny Putnam hadn’t put in an appearance yet this morning, so one of the hotel clerks went across the street to make sure he was okay. The clerk found Penny at his telegraph desk, reading a recent copy of Beadle’s Dime Novels. When the clerk asked him if he was well, Penny gave him a bright grin, saying he was waiting for the folks who might want to send telegrams to cattle brokers after they had a chance to read the latest edition of the newspaper when it came out. The confused hotel clerk told him that people had already read it and were outside discussing the matter, and a gleeful Penny told him to make sure to tell everyone that he was on the job and he’d be available to send out any messages as soon as they needed them sent.

Even more confused, the hotel clerk said he’d spread the word and returned to the group outside the newspaper office. He told the others about the strange conversation, concluding that maybe Penny wasn’t feeling well, or maybe he’d been drinking. Several people looked at him through his office window, and he gave them a jaunty wave. The crowd agreed alcohol was the likely culprit of the reliability issue.

 

By noon, the crowd outside the newspaper office had thinned slightly when an angry man dressed all in black rode silently into Morro Coyo. He stopped his dark horse outside the telegraph office, but he didn’t dismount. He undid a large canvas bag that had been lashed around his saddle’s horn and flung it hard against the telegraph office’s door. The force of the impact ripped the bag open, spilling its contents of raw, rotting cow organs across the plank walkway. A few moments later, Penny threw open the door to chew out the vandal, but his anger turned to astonishment as he looked up at the rider. “...What are you doing here?”

“I’ve come to deliver a message,” the man boomed, his Southern accent harsh with disdain.

The people outside the newspaper office turned to watch the show.

Penny grimaced at the stinking mess by his feet. “I don’t understand.” He looked as if he wanted to insult the man but lacked the courage.

“You are an all-fired fool. You have been paid to be eyes and ears, and instead you turned out to be as gummed a mess as ever lived.”

“What are you talking about!?” Penny shouted at him, then shot a look of concern at the interested onlookers.

The man threw to the ground a copy of the Morro Coyo Beacon. “This is the truth. Either you have been had and are worse than useless, or you take one man’s money and do another man’s bidding. Either way, you have been declared dead meat.”

Penny tiptoed over the scattered entrails to snatch up the newspaper. He glared at it, trying to solve the mystery, but then he read the headlines and blanched. “No, this can’t be....” He looked up at his accuser, pleading in his eyes.

The stranger said, “I see—a fool, not a traitor. But it makes no difference now. If you ever have the misfortune to be seen by my employer again, you will most certainly be dead.” The man reined his horse hard and cantered away.

Penny stared at the newspaper, then looked at the crowd. He saw curiosity, astonishment, and disbelief in the faces of his neighbors. He hesitated, then turned back to his door. He stopped at the sight of the rotting offal at his threshold. The bag was too ripped to carry away the scattered mess. He glanced around, gave up, stepped over the strewn intestines, and disappeared inside his storefront.

 

The column of smoke coming from Wolff Ranch that afternoon could be seen as far as twenty miles away. By the time the Spanish Wells deputies arrived at the ranch, the barns were smoldering piles of embers and the house was no more than a few burning beams and two barren chimneys. With no signs of human or animal remains in the rubble, the men concluded that Mr. Henry Recklenberg had left the area and would not be returning.

 

Life in Morro Coyo took a festive turn. Miriam and Annie were hailed as heroines for warning the area about the dangerous stranger in their midst and for finding a peaceful means of driving him away. Their subscriptions increased 572 percent within three days, and they had advertising booked for the next four months. Two reporters even came from San Francisco to get the story of the brave and ingenious women and promised to send the story across the country. The mother and daughter tried to talk them out of it and chose to answer few of their questions, but to no avail. The newspaper edition and sequence of events spoke for themselves. The reporters predicted that their story would be printed in dailies from coast to coast. After all, there’s nothing a journalist likes more than a story about heroic journalists.

No celebrations lit up the Lancer hacienda. No one wanted to risk jinxing their success. Besides, Johnny was not convinced Henry had given up. It was easy for him to talk Murdoch into sending the Burgess brothers to Texas again to confirm if Henry really had returned. The rainy season still had at least a month to go, and the two could be spared for a week or two. The brothers left on the next southbound train.

During his trip to Morro Coyo the following morning, Murdoch found himself greeted with more enthusiasm than usual. Folks congratulated him on his resourceful family and his own courage in facing Henry Recklenberg in November. He thanked them but denied any personal responsibility, which only made the happy citizens praise him all the more for his modesty.

But Murdoch hadn’t come to town merely to be commended by the townspeople or escort his daughter back for her half-week at the ranch. He needed to address the last of Henry’s burning embers.

He went to the door of the telegraph office, where some of the stench from Mr. Beauregard’s warning still lingered. He had heard from Miriam that Penny had stayed inside his office, aside from cleaning up the cow entrails. The time had arrived for the man to face the world again.

Murdoch opened the door and stepped into the quiet room. Penny looked up from his desk, where he had been reading a copy of Beadle’s. In an overly cheerful voice, he called out, “Hello, Murdoch. Beautiful day, isn’t it? You can almost smell the flowers beginning to bloom, can’t you?”

“Good morning, Penny. I heard about your visitor.”

The man tried to disguise his shudder by closing his magazine with an overdone gesture. “Oh, that. I figure it was a case of mistaking me for someone else. He was a stranger in town, you know.”

Murdoch had no interest in bantering with him. “You must be grateful that Henry Recklenberg seems to be gone.”

“Who? Never met the man.”

“You saw him in November.”

Penny blinked at him in numb silence.

“The only question is, did he approach you, or did you approach him?”

Penny stood, then said stiffly, “Oh, him, that fellow you had that talk with, out in the street that day. I guess I did see him. Me, and the rest of the town.”

“Penny, we know you worked for Recklenberg.”

“What do you mean?”

“You spied on my family and reported to him what they were doing.”

“Murdoch—”

“How else did he know we were going to the bank that day, so he knew to be here, waiting for us with his hired gun?”

Penny stared at Murdoch with adamant uncertainty.

“You’re the only one who could have told him about my hiring the Pinkertons. You probably reported to him all of our telegrams, along with the de Peraltas’ activities. We know you stole a copy of the Beacon for him.”

The man shook his head with a quizzical look.

“They printed up one false edition just for you, so Henry would have no warning of what was going to be in the paper.”

Penny must have realized that he couldn’t keep blustering his way around the truth, because he relaxed a little with a smirk. “A man has to take advantage of financial opportunities that come his way.”

“Your ‘financial opportunity’ didn’t work out very well.”

He gave Murdoch a cockeyed grin. “Well, you can’t win ‘em all.”

“No. But you can lose everything.”

Penny’s smile began to fade. “Well, no hard feelings, right? I mean, he would’ve found out anyway what your family was doing.”

“And what have the people in Morro Coyo found out about you, Penny? That you’ll betray a neighbor for a buck. That your profession’s code of conduct means nothing to you. That you can’t be trusted.”

Penny’s face soured into a scowl. “Now, you wouldn’t go around telling people stories like that, would you, Mr. Lancer?”

“I don’t have to, Penny. You already did.”

Penny stammered. “Hey, he only gave me ten dollars on account. It’s yours.” He went to his untidy desk and fumbled in his pocket for his keys. “I won’t accept another dime from what he promised me. Bygones be bygones, I always say.” He found his keys and reached down to unlock the bottom drawer.

Murdoch shook his head. “It’s too late, Penny. This isn’t losing a hand of poker. You’ve lost your reputation. When it comes right down to it, that’s all any man has.”

Penny stopped, chewing on Murdoch’s words, then looked up at him with venom in his gaze. “No. That’s not true. There’s money. And there’s friends. I got lots of friends in this town. Way more than you have.”

“I hope so, Penny. I’d hate for you to have nothing.” Murdoch left with a weary step.

Penny glared after him, then waited ten seconds by the door to make sure Murdoch was out on the street before he followed him outside. He went out and stood on the plank walkway, his arms crossed and an indignant grimace on his face as if he’d told off the most powerful rancher in the area and sent him packing. He stood in his triumphant pose until he caught a glimpse of Mrs. Ferguson coming up the string of plank walkways towards him. She was carrying what looked like a shopping list. Good. She and Don Baldomero were just the two he needed to spread his version of the truth. He gave her a sturdy nod as if to share in his glory. “What a day, Mrs. Ferguson,” he began.

Rather than giving him her usual respectful nod and stopping to inquire about the latest news, the town source of information glanced down at her note. She kept her gaze focused on her paper as she continued past him. “Good morning, Penny.”

“Yes, it’s quite a morning. You wouldn’t believe what just....”

She didn’t take the bait and hurried on her way.

Penny harrumphed. Maybe she’d had a fight with Mr. Ferguson. He twisted his mouth in thought and scanned the street. Across the way appeared Esteban Hoyos, a mop bucket in his hand. The greengrocer stepped to the edge of the plankway and started to pour the bucket’s muddy contents into the street. Penny called out, “Good morning, Don Estaban!”

The usually friendly man eyed him with suspicion as he emptied the bucket and then turned back into his shop.

Penny cast his gaze up and down the street. No one met his eyes, except for the sheriff, who was studying him, hard. Penny frowned. Lancer couldn’t have talked to all of them already. What was going on? He stood by his door for another minute or two, trying to ignore the last of the rotten meat stench—and what the stench meant—while giving several people the chance to greet him. No one took the opportunity. Attempting a carefree pose, he looked around one last time, then slipped back inside.

 

Chapter Fourteen

Slowly, the family found its new rhythm. Still accompanied by her bodyguards, Annie spent four days in town to help her mother with the newspaper and three at Lancer, resuming her ranch life lessons. With her mother’s tearful blessing, she began using her birth name, Ángela Lancer, although she used de Peralta as a middle name and still referred to herself as Annie. She and Teresa became sisters and coconspirators, teasing and bedeviling Scott and Johnny whenever possible, and Annie taught Teresa some of her favorite recipes while Teresa resumed Annie’s interrupted riding lessons. Annie also spent time on every ranch day with Jelly, who enjoyed her bullwhip lessons even more than she did. The old wrangler was helpless in the face of her charm and eagerness, and Scott and Johnny put a little too much energy into teasing the old fellow about his fondness for their sister, who was just about the right age to be his granddaughter. He fussed and fumed about what a couple of ignorant pups they were, which only encouraged them to keep going.

Also beyond any hope of rescue was Ramón Bautista, who still worked hard to find any excuse to be near Annie, and who always volunteered to be part of her escort to and from Morro Coyo. Annie stopped mentioning the young wrangler, who someday would make an excellent segundo or rancher in his own right, as her casual comments unleashed merciless teasing and endless questions from her brothers.

On different evenings, she asked Murdoch to tell her stories about Scotland, got Johnny to share a few tales of his life, and coaxed out of Scott details about his life in Boston. Much to Scott’s surprise, she even managed to get him to open up, just a little, about his war experiences. He never discussed any of that with the others, and he had been grateful that they never pressed him. However, one rainy afternoon when he found himself talking about the debacle that led to his capture and imprisonment, he understood just how much she had learned about being a good listener from her father José, and that this made her extremely dangerous.

One week stretched into the next, and Scott began to wonder if Johnny’s persistent concerns about Henry Recklenberg returning were unnecessary. A telegram from Dave Burgess, sent from a town outside Recklenberg County to the Green River telegraph office, reported that Henry had indeed returned home. Almost every day he was seen out riding around in his carriage with his splendid four-horse hitch like a swaggering prince overseeing his own little country. He was often accompanied by a slender, sullen blond girl who didn’t look much older than fifteen. Dave reported that the townspeople who saw the two of them together reacted with silent anger at the sight, and that seemed to suit Henry just fine.

No one was surprised when word came that Penny Putnam had “found another opportunity elsewhere” and left Morro Coyo. Until the telegraph company found another operator, the family would continue to use the office in Green River. None of the men complained, as the operator there had a very attractive daughter who was an excellent telegraph operator in her own right. Johnny even suggested that they should act as sponsors for the girl so the company would be encouraged to hire her for Penny’s post.

Word also began to filter back that the news story about the two heroic newspaper women stopping a range war had been published in newspapers across the country. Friends of Murdoch’s mailed to him the articles cut out of newspapers from San Francisco to Austin to Chicago and New York. A copy even arrived from one of Scott’s aunts in Boston. At least for a short while, Miriam de Peralta and Ángela Lancer were celebrities in the newspaper brotherhood.

 

On the Thursday before Palm Sunday, the ranch bustled with extra activity as the families prepared for the Friday of Sorrows commemoration at the small mission outside Morro Coyo. To be ready for the morning’s solemn procession, nearly all of the Catholic families left Thursday afternoon to spend the night on the mission’s grounds. Thanks to the many tents Scott had made by the Ladies’ Brigade—his fond nickname for the grandmothers and widows of ranch hands who had stayed on in the ranch community—no one would have to sleep outside. The weather had been clear for a week, but the sky hinted at rain, so he arranged for everyone to take the sentry post camp stoves along with the tents. The families’ comfort was one small ironic benefit of their dealings with Henry Recklenberg.

Annie planned to ride to the mission early the next morning. She tried in vain to convince Johnny to go with her. She had figured out he’d left the Church a long time ago, and while she encouraged him to go to mass with her and her mother, she never pressed. For once Johnny was glad to hand her over to Ramón Bautista, who promised to have at least six riders as an escort. Even Jelly offered to go. He had become friends with Miriam—“she’s a real nice lady,” he stated defensively in the face of stern inquiries from the brothers, “and makes the flakiest pie crusts west of the Pecos.” After a pre-dawn departure, the group would rendezvous with Miriam, who had already arrived at the mission to help with the preparations, just before the procession.

The caravan of families had already left by the middle of the afternoon, and, with the housekeeper gone, Annie and Teresa took on the task of making supper. After completing their day’s work, Murdoch, Scott, Johnny, and Jelly gathered in the great room at sunset, enjoying the fire and a celebratory bottle of port sent by a friend of Murdoch’s along with a clipped newspaper article about the averted range war. Murdoch picked up the book he had been reading the previous evenings, Jelly began rummaging on the bookshelf, and Johnny appeared ready for a nap.

Scott sat back in his chair with a sigh of satisfaction. “Grandfather calls smoking ‘a vile and common habit,’ but this would be a perfect time to enjoy a cigar.”

“There’s nothing wrong with a good quality smoke now and again,” Jelly stated as he pulled out the chess board and carved box of ivory pieces.

“Just you try it,” Johnny said with a smirk. “Teresa will be in here with a broom.”

Scott smiled and took a sip of the port, which was just about the best he’d ever had.

“It would be kind of fun to watch her swat you,” Johnny added. “Again.”

Jelly harrumphed. “That last time doesn’t count. She didn’t....”

An odd rustle of leaves outside one of the windows made them fall silent. In a flash, Scott and Johnny were up and after the sound, Johnny by the first French door and Scott through the front entrance. Scott went out into the still night and searched the gathering gloom. Clouds blocked out the last of the sunset, so he listened. No sound met his ears, aside from the occasional lowing of cattle in the pastures. He regretted keeping only a few guards around the house. He looked over at Micah Jones, who stood by the edge of the veranda with his rifle in his arms. The stocky former “buffalo soldier” gave Scott a small wave, and Scott acknowledged his greeting.

Johnny appeared from around the corner and joined him. “Anything?”

“No.”

They continued to look out into the darkness.

Scott sighed. “Are we going to spend the rest of our lives jumping at every little sound?”

“Probably.”

Scott hated to agree with him. He scoured the darkness, seeing nothing out of place, until he spotted the bullwhip from Annie’s afternoon lesson on a bench beyond the veranda. For the basic whip cracks, she no longer needed the leather “skirt” Jelly had made for her to protect her feet and legs from back-snaps, but it lay on the bench, rolled up and ready for the next session. She must be making progress to the more difficult maneuvers. He wasn’t sure he liked the idea of having a sister who could wield that weapon with proficiency. He might have to ease up on some of his teasing as a matter of self-preservation.

Johnny noticed what he had spotted. “Should we make Jelly go take care of that before, during, or after supper?”

Scott smirked lightly. “Your choice.”

Johnny thought for a moment. “During.”

“Somehow I knew you’d say that.”

They headed for the front door. “Or we could wait until it starts to rain.”

Back in the great room, the two reported finding nothing amiss, and Jelly put out a general challenge for a chess opponent. When no one else volunteered, Scott took pity on him and joined him by the fire.

A few minutes later, Annie came into the room as she dried her hands with a towel and asked the men if they preferred rice or potatoes.

Murdoch gave her a loving smile. “Whatever’s easier, sweetheart.”

She returned his smile. “Considering how hard it would be to get one of you to help peel potatoes, we’ll have rice.”

She left amid mild protests about how hard they had worked all day, and Murdoch returned to his book as the others resumed their pursuits.

A few moments later, the jarring crash of a large wooden bowl landing on the floor echoed from the kitchen. The brothers exchanged smirks as Johnny said, “This may be an interesting meal with those two in charge.”

Murdoch called, “Do you need help in there?”

Silence followed.

He called again. “Teresa? Annie? Is everything all right?”

Silence.

The men launched out of their chairs, the chess board and pieces flying onto the floor as the four dashed to the kitchen.

At first, Scott saw only the unattended room, with the overturned wooden bowl and spilled rice on the floor. Then he saw a skirt and feet under the table. They shoved the heavy table aside to reveal the unconscious Teresa, a red welt and rising bruise emerging on her jaw. Murdoch ordered Jelly to stay with her as Johnny dashed out the open door to the back portico, his gun in his hand. Murdoch and Scott raced back to the great room to collect their holsters and rifles.

With their weapons at the ready, Scott and Murdoch charged out the front door to stumble on a terrifying sight. Henry Recklenberg, his teeth clenched and eyes wild, stood in the yard, his left hand clamped around Annie’s wrist and his right hand holding a pistol at her head. Johnny stood a few feet away, his hands held out away from his body, his gun on the dry ground.

“Drop ‘em!” Henry shouted at Scott and Murdoch. When they hesitated, he wrenched Annie’s wrist, making her wince. “Drop ‘em now!”

With great slowness, Murdoch laid his rifle on the ground and Scott placed his gun in the dirt by his feet.

“Kick that over here!” Henry commanded.

Scott obeyed, using his foot to slide the weapon a few feet further away. As Murdoch obeyed Henry’s command and pushed his rifle out of reach, Scott glanced around. Micah the guard lay sprawled on the ground at the corner of the veranda. Scott couldn’t tell if he was alive or dead. No other ranch hands were in sight, and no lights shone from the bunkhouse windows.

Henry took a step forward, his eyes darting between the three men, and he kicked Scott’s gun out into the darkness. He glared at Johnny. “Same for you, Madrid.” Johnny glanced down at his pistol, and Henry barked, “Now, you shit!”

Johnny kicked the gun, sending it skittering away about ten feet.

Scott looked at Annie. She was afraid, but her eyes scanned the scene, looking for something useful. Good, he thought grimly, she hasn’t panicked. Not yet.

Henry’s triumphant smile faded into a glare of chilling intensity. “You shits. You had to rub it in, didn’t you? You couldn’t just win—you had to brag about it!”

“What are you talking about?” Murdoch asked.

“That damned newspaper story! Why did you have to write that damned newspaper story? People saw it in Texas. Our sheriff’s been arrested. The farmers tried to storm our house. That little cunt even tried to shoot me with my own damned gun!”

“We had nothing to do with that,” Murdoch said, trying to sound calm.

Henry aimed his gun at Annie’s heart. “I’m going to make you pay.” He trained an icy glare on her. “Say goodbye, perdita. You won’t be seeing them for a while. And they won’t want to look at you when you come back.”

Her fear-laced glance at her father and brothers was cut short as he spun her to face away from them, clamping his fist on her upturned right wrist and training his gun on her. He glanced back at the helpless men. “Make one move to stop us, and she’s dead.”

Scott blurted out, “Recklenberg, everything you’ve done here can be undone. Stop now, and you can walk away.”

Henry snorted as he took a couple steps. “Lancer, you’re so full of shit. You don’t know what those damned farmers want to do to me. As long as I’ve got a hostage, I’m a free man.”

In a cold voice, Johnny promised, “If you hurt her in any way, you’re dead.”

Henry took another step and gave Johnny a faint laugh. “Don’t worry, Madrid. I’m going to take real good care of her.”

“Let her go,” Murdoch commanded. “You can’t get away with this.”

Henry laughed and took another few steps. “Just keep begging, Lancer. Keep begging and praying.”

Scott scanned the darkness behind the departing monster and his hostage. No one. There had to be ranch hands somewhere. Jelly, damn it, get out here!

Then he noticed Annie looking at the bench about five feet in front of her. What was she going to do? Her step became unsteady, and instinctively the three men took a small step forward. Henry saw the movement and adjusted his gun to aim it at her head as he glared at the men. “Stop!”

Annie wobbled slightly, and she muttered something in a breathless voice. It sounded Spanish. Johnny’s gaze was fixed on her. She began to fade away despite Henry’s iron grip, her step increasingly unsteady as she murmured something again.

Henry shook her arm hard. “Don’t you faint on me, cherry!”

Scott saw Johnny tense. He was anticipating something. Wait—Scott thought he’d understood some of what she’d said. Had it been “get ready”?

As they approached the bench on their left, Annie’s left knee buckled, and she reached down as if to steady herself. Instead, she grabbed the handle of the whip and slung the plated leather low to the ground across their path. The swath coiled around Henry’s shins, and he stumbled with a surprised shout. His grip on her wrist never wavered, and Annie lurched forward with him. He yanked the gun’s trigger as he tumbled. The bullet sliced the air above Annie’s head.

In four strides, Johnny launched onto him, slamming him flat to the ground. Annie yanked her hand free of his grasp and scrambled to her feet as the men wrestled for control of the gun. Scott scooped up Johnny’s pistol as Murdoch seized his rifle. They both aimed, but Johnny blocked a clear shot. For a moment, Johnny had Henry on his back and pounded on his wrist to force the gun free, but the frenzied kidnapper kneed him and wrenched him off-balance. They rolled in a swirl of dust at the edge of the light.

Scott and Murdoch moved closer to the thrashing men, but the dust and tussle of battle blocked their lines of sight. Annie grabbed at the whip’s handle to pull the weapon free, but the length of braided leather remained snarled around Henry’s legs. She glanced around and saw the rolled leather apron on the bench and picked it up.

Henry jerked his hand, and the gun fired. A bullet flew off into the night. Annie turned back to the struggling men with the rolled leather, lifting it like a club. With a gasp, Scott sprung forward to get her away from the fight. What the hell—?

Henry’s gun roared again. Annie yelped with pain and tumbled back, her makeshift club thudding to the ground.

Scott ran and caught her under her arms, hauling her away from the struggle. Even as she hobbled along, he could feel her resisting, tugging against his grip to get back to the fight.

Scott eased her down behind the overturned bench. He couldn’t see a wound. He gave her a breathless, “Where?”

She patted her right leg with a shake of her head that told him not to worry. Like hell he wouldn’t.

He rose from his crouch and faced the combat. Before he could figure out how to jump in, Henry yanked his hand and the gun fired again.

Johnny coughed with surprise. Scott’s stomach knotted as his brother recoiled and Henry turned the gun on his opponent. But Johnny surged forward again and grabbed Henry’s arm, pounding his wrist and deflecting his aim. Henry punched his hand against Johnny’s stomach, shrieking with rage.

The muffled shot unleashed a searing scream. Johnny paused, then pushed back off the writhing figure, a streak of blood oozing through his shirt above his belly.

His arms and legs whirling, a torrent of blood gushing from his chest, Henry gasped out his ragged fury at the cloudy sky. He turned his dagger-sharp eyes on Johnny, aiming his pistol at him. He pulled the trigger. The hammer clicked on an empty cartridge. He pulled the trigger again, and again, futile clicks mocking his deadly intent. He screamed and kept pulling the trigger of the empty gun as Annie hobbled over to Johnny, a stream of blood on her stocking dripping over her ankle and foot. She slipped to the ground next to her brother and hugged him.

His face fixed in an eerie grimace as his fiery eyes began to glaze over, Henry tilted his wobbling pistol at her. He squeezed the trigger three times, resulting in echoing clicks. The two regarded him silently, and then Annie looked away. She tried to stand and help Johnny up, but she lost her balance and dropped next to him. Murdoch appeared over her and gestured for her to stay on the ground as he knelt next to her brother. Johnny winced as Murdoch pulled up to free the bloody shirttail and look at his wound. The bullet had traced across his belly and caused more bleeding than real damage.

Only then did Scott see the others. Ramón and several ranch hands stood at the edge of the shadows, their guns at the ready, and a few more tended to the fallen Micah. Jelly stood before the front door, a shotgun in his hands. Behind him, a dizzy Teresa rested against the door frame, trying to clear her head.

Then there were the three strangers. One was in his mid-thirties and well-dressed, and two armed cowboys stood behind him. The well-dressed man stepped up to loom over Henry, who locked his fading gaze on him. Henry found the strength to unleash a venom-laced blizzard of insults at the stranger. He tilted up his gun at the man, pulling the trigger four times before the gun dropped from his hand. Henry slipped into silence, his rage still etched on his face. The man continued to watch him with a sour frown, offering no acknowledgment that Henry was about to die.

Scott glanced at Johnny, who regarded the stranger with recognition. Scott looked at the man again, and now he could detect a family resemblance. Was this Henry’s brother, who helped him start the range war with the farmers? Scott shuddered. What would he do to them after seeing his brother die with all the dignity of a mad dog?

Henry’s body lay still on the dry ground. Scott had seen more than his share of dead men, and he could tell the hate-filled spirit had departed. Scott didn’t move, watching the man look down at the bleeding flesh that had once been his brother. A quick glance at the others showed they shared his concern.

The man nudged the body’s shoulder with his boot. When nothing happened, his face darkened. He turned his head and spat, then glared at the frozen face. “You stupid shit-for-brains.” His disgust rising, he turned and walked away, signaling his men to follow. The cowboys glanced at each other, looked at the Lancers in confusion, then obeyed and disappeared into the night.

 

Chapter Fifteen

Sheriff Tate and two deputies arrived with Doc Jenkins before midnight. The doctor tended to the injured Johnny, Annie, and Teresa, who had been moved to their bedrooms, and Micah, who had been taken to a hacienda guest room. The sheriff explained to Murdoch and Scott that he had just been told about the shooting by “three strangers” and was preparing to leave for the ranch when the Lancer ranch hands arrived to fetch him. Murdoch turned over his small office to the sheriff, who interviewed each of the uninjured witnesses about the evening’s events. After the doctor finished with his patients, the sheriff and his deputies visited the injured participants in their rooms to get their versions of what had happened.

Back in the great room, the doctor assured Murdoch that all of the young people would be fine with sufficient rest. Teresa and Micah both had headaches and bruises but no broken bones, Annie had a pass-through bullet wound in her calf, and Johnny had a superficial bullet trace across his stomach. After hearing from them what they had been through, he confided in Murdoch, “It could have been a whole lot worse. The Fates were smiling on you tonight.” Murdoch didn’t need to be told that.

When the visitors were ready to leave, Murdoch asked Sheriff Tate to take the body back to town and have it embalmed and placed in a nice casket. After seeing Henry’s brother’s callous behavior, he couldn’t be certain the man would do the right thing. If it came to it, Murdoch would have Henry shipped back home to Texas. “No matter what he’s done, he was somebody’s child, and I want him to have what I hope someone would do for me if the situation were reversed.” The sheriff promised to take care of the matter and left.

Murdoch and Scott visited the four patients. Micah would spend the week in the hacienda bedroom, where the worried women of his family—his wife-to-be, Remembrance Brown, and his sister, Frank Deering’s wife Judith—would take turns caring for him. Teresa didn’t like the idea of bed rest for a week, but she also wasn’t happy about anyone seeing the massive bruise on her jaw, especially when it would begin to turn green. Annie was asleep. Doc Jenkins confessed to Murdoch that the medicine he’d told her was a mild analgesic was actually a sleeping draught to keep her off her feet. “After I cleaned her wound and bandaged her leg, she kept trying to get up to see how the others were.” The doctor eyed Murdoch with a discerning gaze. “She’s got a mind of her own. I don’t care who raised her—she’s your daughter,” he pronounced with a hint of a smile.

Murdoch and Scott spent longer than the doctor would have liked in Johnny’s room, discussing what had happened and the contradictory actions of Donald Recklenberg, Jr.—treating Henry’s final moments with such disdain, but then immediately seeking out Sheriff Tate to report the confrontation. Scott wondered aloud just how accurate Junior’s story had been.

They spent most of the visit quizzing Johnny about what Junior might do next. Even though Henry’s final, nightmarish gesture gave weight to the stories of no love existing between the brothers, Johnny expressed his surprise at Junior’s callousness. “Henry wasn’t very good at listening to other people. If he was wrong, and somebody told him that, he pushed back hard. One of those newspaper articles talked about people not wanting to do business with the family anymore. I wonder if his father and brother turned on him.”

Scott sighed. “We can only hope. Because if Junior picks up where his brother left off, we’re never going to see the end of it.”

 

Early the next morning, putting aside all their private concerns, all the family members visited Annie, who chafed at the doctor’s orders to stay in bed until he returned in a couple days. She showed off the bandage around the middle of her calf, then begged to be allowed at least to go to the great room. Murdoch insisted she follow the medical orders, at least for a few days. He was happy to share the doctor’s assessment that she would be as good as new in a few weeks...if she behaved herself.

Scott couldn’t hide his relief at seeing Annie so energetic. She’d been through a lot, and she still had a journey across rocky emotional terrain ahead of her, but she seemed to be handling the trauma with a lot more strength than most of the women he knew. He pronounced, “She’s a Lancer, all right. While any sensible person would run that way,” he pointed to the left, “she ran that way,” he pointed to the right. The others chuckled. He gave her a smile. “‘Though she be but little, she is fierce.’” She beamed at that.

Johnny added, “And think of the stories she’s going to tell her grandchildren about that scar.”

She frowned, then looked at her bandage. “Scar?”

Johnny replied, “You gotta have something to prove what you did. It’s not every girl who tries to stop a gunman by throwing a piece of leather at him.”

She gave him a quick retort in Spanish, which made his eyes widen and drew a hearty laugh. Scott understood enough of it to know she wouldn’t say that in front of her mother. “Oh,” he said, suddenly realizing their oversight, “we should let Miriam know she’s all right.”

Murdoch nodded. “When Ramón left this morning for the mission, I told him to take the wagon so he could bring her back with him.”

Scott admitted, “I’m glad one of us is paying attention.” What he didn’t want to admit was that he had spent the better part of the night trying to figure out what they were going to do if the Recklenbergs continued Henry’s war.

 

After breakfast, Murdoch and Scott went to Morro Coyo to see Sheriff Tate and find out what they could about Henry’s family. The sheriff reported that the deceased’s brother visited him—before breakfast—and gave a very detailed account of the previous evening’s events that didn’t quite match what all the others had said. Predictably, his version portrayed Henry as the victim rather than the perpetrator. Junior also asked him about the judge situation and how long it would take to arrange for an inquest into Henry’s death. “He claims his brother was goaded into ‘a confrontation’ by the actions of your family, from your wife trying to marry their father to those ‘provocative and slanderous’ newspaper articles.” Scott sighed with disappointment. The sheriff regarded Murdoch. “Did your wife really try to marry someone else even though she’s still married to you?”

Murdoch replied, “I would describe the situation as a misunderstanding.”

The glint in the sheriff’s eyes showed he recognized Murdoch’s response as a diplomatic evasion, but he apparently decided to let it go. “Judge Bekassy will be in town on Tuesday. We’ll have the inquest when he arrives. Do you think Johnny will be able to come to town by then?”

“We’ll get him here.”

“Thanks, Murdoch.” He paused, then said, “I don’t figure you’ll have a lot to worry about legally. But I’ve heard of people who couldn’t get what they wanted in regular court who sued for damages. It’s a big city tactic mostly, but if they try, they could tie you up for years.”

Neither Murdoch nor Scott wanted to hear that. If the Recklenberg family business was suffering because of Henry’s misdeeds, his relatives might try to make up their losses by bleeding the Lancers dry.

 

The father and son were finishing up their other errands when word spread through town of the arrival of the two newspapermen from San Francisco who had written up the news story about Miriam and Annie thwarting Henry’s range war. Murdoch and Scott found them at the hotel’s front parlor. They hoped to have a word with the reporters; instead, they discovered the men sitting at a table with Junior Recklenberg. Murdoch and Scott sat in a nearby corner of the busy room as the newspapermen listened and took extensive notes while the Texas rancher went on at length about his family’s travails at the hands of the Lancer clan. Junior cited exorbitant financial losses caused by the Lancers’ “malicious acts” and lamented that his wife and children might lose the “modest family homestead” as a result.

Scott became increasingly frustrated at Junior’s truth-bending and downright lying. He stood and faced the door, debating whether to interrupt or leave, when the younger of the two reporters asked Junior, “Do you wish to make a statement about your brother’s being thrown out of that brothel in San Francisco?”

Scott turned in silent surprise and looked at Junior, whose face had turned a blotchy gray.

The older reporter said, “Do you intend to make restitution to Madame Blanche and the young lady in question?”

Junior stammered for a moment, then said with patched-together dignity, “It’s my understanding that the word ‘lady’ is inappropriate.” He looked like he wanted to say more but couldn’t come up with the right words.

The older reporter said, “That may be true, but Madame Blanche reported to the authorities that she’s suffered a net loss of nearly six hundred dollars. You may not approve of her chosen profession, but she is a taxpayer and a generous donor to local charities. A financial setback of that magnitude has ramifications throughout the city. How do you plan to address the matter?”

Junior stood awkwardly. “Gentlemen, I don’t like talking about this. Can we let my brother rest in peace and not mention it?”

The younger reporter commented, “Well, you have to admit that his behavior at the North Star Gentleman’s Club is inconsistent with the portrait you’ve painted of him. We understand from our colleagues in Texas that you’ve made claims of being treated unfairly by the press. It’s our intention to be thorough and cover all aspects of your brother’s life. We wish to prevent any future misunderstandings and assertions of inaccurate or incomplete reporting.”

If the entire situation hadn’t been so grim, Scott might have laughed. Junior may not have heard the younger newspaperman’s acerbic tones, but he certainly did.

Junior glared at them. “I have to admit nothing. Good day, ‘gentlemen.’” He stalked out of the room.

The newspapermen chuckled as they packed up their notes. “I don’t think we’ll have to worry about him anymore,” the older one said.

Scott approached the men and introduced himself. He asked how they managed to be in town so soon after Henry’s attack. The older reporter explained that the newspaper editor in Austin, Texas who helped with their story on the averted range war warned them that Junior had consulted lawyers about suing the San Francisco paper. When he wired them a few days later about the Recklenberg County sheriff being arrested and Henry disappearing three steps ahead of the law, they knew it was only a matter of time before he showed up here.

Scott invited them to come out to the ranch, where they could visit the two local members of the press and get more information for a possible new story. The younger reporter thanked him but said they wouldn’t have enough time before the northbound stage came through; as for whether or not a follow-up article would be required, that was entirely up to Mr. Recklenberg, Jr.

 

As they started to leave for home, Murdoch and Scott were flagged down by Sheriff Tate. “I just spoke with Mr. Recklenberg. He seems to have had a change of heart and is eager to close the matter as quickly as possible.” He squinted at the relieved men. “What did you two do?”

Scott replied, “We merely observed the power of an independent and truth-seeking press in action.” They nodded their farewells and headed home.

 

Three days later, the ranch had unexpected visitors. Mr. Donald P. Recklenberg, Sr. arrived in a fine, open-topped carriage with his remaining son, followed by about a dozen riders. The stately procession had been spotted by a crew of cowboys and vaqueros when it started to descend the hill from the valley lookout. Scott had been heading out with Walt and Danny Cook to the high pastures when Ysidro rode up with the news. After hearing his description of the procession, Scott sent the others on their way while he returned to the hacienda.

Scott sent María Martínez to alert the others as he fetched the spyglass from the great room and trained it on the carriage, recognizing Junior Recklenberg as he talked earnestly to a sad, dignified older man. When Johnny joined him, Scott handed the spyglass to his brother to make the confirmation of the other passenger. “That’s Old Man Recklenberg, all right. I saw a photograph of him in almost every store in that town of theirs.”

“Was it out of fear or respect?”

“Both. Fear of losing his business and respect for his money.” Johnny lowered the spyglass. “He looks about twenty years older, though.”

Since Johnny had worked for his sons only four years ago, it must have been a hard interval for the father of two such intemperate sons.

By the time the visitors reached the half-mile tree, the entire family and adjuncts had assembled on the veranda. Scott wasn’t in the least surprised when Annie refused to sit on the chair that had been brought out for her. However, after a few minutes, she had to relent, and Jelly even brought her the humble bench that had helped save her on that terrible night for her to rest her injured leg.

Annie had gone through some blue episodes in the previous days. Scott knew she was finally coming to terms with all the upheavals and dangers of the last few months. He had seen soldiers try to ignore less, and it had broken them. Her true healing had begun. He felt confident that she would eventually emerge from this even stronger than she had been before.

Scott noticed his brother looking at the spot in the yard where Henry spent the last angry minutes of his life. Murdoch had ordered the section of dirt cleaned out and the entire area raked over several times. In the hazy afternoon light, all signs of the struggle were now gone. Murdoch had ordered the work for his family’s peace of mind; little did he know how important his decision would be for the welfare of these unexpected visitors.

Miriam stood behind Annie with her hands in a gentle, protective pose on her daughter’s shoulders. “Are you sure you’re up to this, mija?”

“Yes,” she said with confidence, then added in a more subdued tone, “well, maybe. But I have to do it. I have to face them.”

Miriam kissed the top of her daughter’s head. In a low voice, she said, “Your father would be so proud of you.”

Annie put a hand on one of her mother’s hands, smiling up at her with blinking eyes.

Teresa put a protective arm around Murdoch as she watched the visitors’ progress. “I wonder why he’s coming?”

“I don’t know, honey. Maybe to apologize, maybe to offer explanations. But who knows? I can only say what I’d do if I were in his situation.”

She gave him a reassuring gaze. “You could never be in his situation.”

He gave her a small smile, but Scott could see a darkness lingering on his father’s face. “There but for the grace of God....” He looked at Johnny, then Scott. Scott understood, and Johnny’s thoughtful expression suggested that he did, too. In many ways, the Recklenbergs were their exact opposites, but in some ways, they were eerily similar. How had one family with so many breaks against it thrived, while the other with so many advantages slipped into Hell?

As if he had heard Scott’s thoughts, Murdoch let his gaze drift over his children, then said, “Some of the details would have been different, but that could have been me. By some Higher Power, all of you had someone looking out for you when you needed it most. I don’t know what I did to deserve....” Murdoch always tried to keep his deepest emotions private, but he was losing that battle today.

Annie took his hand. “It’s because you always loved us, no matter what, and no matter where we were.”

He looked at her, baffled. “But I didn’t know about you, sweetheart.”

“But you loved me just the same, because you love your wife.”

He gave her a wistful smile and a kiss on the top of her head as Miriam squeezed her daughter’s shoulders with pride.

Some ranch hands and several of the families responded to the sight of the Lancers waiting and came out to see the arrival of the guests. As their carriage traveled up the approach road, the Recklenbergs had been admiring the hacienda and surrounding buildings, but at the gathering of the workers and their families, they turned their attention to the curious crowd. Scott noticed that among the ranch hands were Ramón Bautista and the recently-returned Dave and Danny Burgess. When all this began, Danny said the Recklenbergs only had Anglos working for them. That might explain the aloof and mildly suspicious gazes from the two men as they rolled past the families, which included many Mexicans and some former slaves. When Junior spotted the Lancer family waiting for them, he tapped his father’s arm and indicated their presence. The old man gave them a solid nod, and they kept their attention on the family as if the workers no longer existed.

The carriage’s driver stopped the vehicle with the low door directly opposite Murdoch. The driver quickly jumped to the ground and unlatched the door. He lowered the step, then held out his arm to steady the father as the man, now old before his time, descended with an uncertain gait to the ground. Junior followed and gave the family a peremptory nod. Scott scanned the accompanying riders, looking for someone who matched the description Teresa gave of Henry’s henchman, Beauregard. He was not present. Perhaps he had decided to move on to greener pastures, or maybe the family had divested itself of Henry’s remaining “helpers.”

Junior did the honors of making the introductions. Scott observed that Junior chose to introduce Murdoch to his father and not the other way around, establishing that he considered his father the social superior despite the fact that Murdoch was the host.

Murdoch let the small slight pass and introduced the others to the father and son. Recklenberg’s attention settled on Annie, who stood to greet him even though her courtesy cost her some pain. The man winced at her discomfort, then said in a kindly tone, “You favor your mother.” Annie gave no real response, despite having been filled in on most of the background by Johnny.

Junior pointed out to his father, “Johnny here was hired by Henry to defend the ranch from the farmers.” The man gave him a nod and seemed about to thank him, but Junior quickly added, “But he quit before the real work was done.”

“Oh.” He passed Johnny by. Scott could tell that suited his brother just fine.

Recklenberg seemed confused by Miriam having a Spanish last name, but he made no effort to inquire. He also appeared saddened by Teresa’s impressive bruise, which covered half of her cheek and jaw, but he put none of his thoughts into words.

When the introductions were completed, Murdoch made a gracious offer of reconciliation by inviting the two into his home, but the elder Recklenberg shook his head with sadness. “Mr. Lancer,” he said in a gentle, old man’s voice, “I cannot accept your kind offer. We’re on our way into town to collect my other son and then take the train for home.  I have merely come to express my regrets. I can see you’re a good man.” He turned slightly, as if to look at the gathered workers and families, whose faces represented many colors of the human rainbow, but he didn’t quite move his head far enough to take them into his vision. “And you are a real American.” No one reacted. “This country needs more men like you and me to keep a firm hand on the land. I’m sorry we met this way. We might have been friends.”

Scott knew he wasn’t the only one who recognized the utter falseness of that last statement. Murdoch would never call such a casual bigot and inattentive father “friend.” Fortunately, everyone had the good manners to be silent on the matter.

Recklenberg gave the house and surrounding green hills a wistful smile. “I no longer wonder why María preferred you to me.”

A few of the party shifted with discomfort. Murdoch said with infinite kindness, “Well, she met me first.”

Recklenberg gestured to his son to get back into the carriage. As Junior climbed back in without acknowledging the others, the melancholy old man said, “I shall spend the rest of my days wondering if I could’ve prevented this. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to my family and less to my ranch.” Again, blessed silence came from the gathered family.

Recklenberg turned unsteadily, and the driver helped him climb back into the carriage. The driver resumed his seat and chirruped the horses, sending the carriage into a wide turn. The father and son did not offer gestures of farewell as their riders waited for the vehicle to pass on its way out so they could fall in line behind it.

Before the other horses began to move, they heard Junior say, “Pa, I got the nicest box available for Henry. I think you’ll like it.” The riders took their place behind the carriage, and the sound of the horses’ hooves on the dirt road drowned out the rest of their conversation.

Johnny scoffed. “Just like Junior to take credit for something good somebody else did. You made all the arrangements.”

“Let it rest, son,” Murdoch said, putting a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “His father has to hear that. He wants—no, he needs—to believe his son did the best he could. All he has left in this world are wishes and excuses.”

In spite of herself, Annie began to cry. Miriam comforted her, and Murdoch knelt by her side. “You were very brave.”

She shook her head, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief. “They’re so empty. They have nothing inside.” She took Murdoch’s hand. “I love all of you so much.”

He squeezed her hand, then he looked up at Miriam, who also had tears flowing down her cheeks. He stood and helped Annie stand. She leaned on his arm as they returned to the house, Miriam and Jelly following.

Teresa watched the Texas caravan continue on its way to Morro Coyo, to retrieve the last member of their broken family. “They really are empty inside, aren’t they?”

Johnny said, “A lot of people are. They just don’t know it.”

Scott added, “They can’t stand the emptiness, so they find the largest and noisiest distraction to quiet the echoes, and to tell them what to think and how to act. For most people, that distraction is fear, or hate.”

Teresa tucked her hands into her skirt’s pockets and shook her head with a sigh. She watched the carriage and riders for another few moments, then went into the house.

Scott regarded his brother, who seemed especially thoughtful. “I noticed you received another letter from your mother yesterday.”

Johnny nodded.

Scott looked at the departing visitors, then glanced back at the house. “I wish you had a way to get a letter back to her. I hate to think of her spending the rest of her life running away, when now the only thing that’s wrong is...she’s not here.”

Johnny nodded, not looking away from the departing visitors.

Scott put a hand on his shoulder and gave him a small, encouraging smile. “Someday, brother. Someday, it just might all work out.” He went to the door, then stopped at the threshold when he realized Johnny hadn’t followed him. He looked back and saw Johnny watching the Texans reach the half-mile tree.

 

Chapter Sixteen

Accompanied by his wife, Doc Jenkins paid an Easter visit to the hacienda to enjoy a holiday feast with the family and check on his many patients in the household. He declared Micah Jones had recovered sufficiently to return to work in another week. Teresa’s bruise had retreated to a green patch along her jawline. Johnny’s bullet crease was well on its way to healing, and only one section of an inch or two might result in a scar. Annie’s leg was well enough that the doctor cleared her to resume her riding again—if she promised to keep that foot out of the stirrup, go no faster than a walk, and limit herself to an hour a day. Scott was amused to watch her wrestle with that promise but finally give in.

Miriam had arrived at the ranch just after noon to join the family for the Easter feast. She and Annie would leave in the morning for town. Miriam had missed having her daughter’s help with putting together the newspaper, although Ramón and Roberto Bautista had made a valiant effort to assist in her absence. When he brought Miriam to the ranch, however, Ramón made Annie laugh by stating that he would rather tackle an angry bull than attempt to lay out another newspaper page. Oh, how Scott could sympathize, and all he and Johnny had done was the physically demanding but relatively uncomplicated printing part of the process.

After the doctor and his wife departed, the well-fed clan settled into the comfortable chairs in the great room. Johnny excused himself to change his shirt—he had suffered a slight wine incident just before dessert—as the others digested their feast and counted their blessings. Winter was yielding to spring, everyone was either healthy or mending, and, against all odds, they had the joy of two new members of the family.

Johnny returned wearing a clean shirt and sat in the chair between Scott and Annie. Scott noticed Johnny had been quiet all day. Perhaps he was thinking about how close the family had come to disaster. He might also have been thinking about his mother, alone somewhere on this holiday. He decided it was time for his little brother to rejoin the world. He slapped Johnny’s knee. “Are you ready to go back to work tomorrow?”

Johnny frowned with distraction. “I don’t remember Doc Jenkins saying I have to start working again.”

“Ah, but he didn’t say you couldn’t.”

Johnny nodded absently, watching Annie talking with Teresa and Miriam as they asked Teresa if she would like to try her hand at working on the newspaper. After all, with Annie still off her feet most of the time, Miriam could use the help. When Teresa said she could go into town with them to see how it was done, Johnny smiled lightly and shook his head, turning a distant gaze on his boots.

Murdoch looked at his younger son. “Well, Johnny, what do you have to say for yourself? You’ve been thoughtful all day.”

His attention still on his boots, the middle child said in a soft voice, “I’ve been thinking about that newspaper article those San Francisco reporters wrote about Annie and Miriam.” His gaze trailed up to Murdoch. “That changed a lot of things.”

Murdoch nodded. “Well, it certainly saved a lot of lives, both here and in Texas.”

Johnny added, “And I’ve also figured out I’m not my uncle.” He glanced at Annie with a faint nod. “Our uncle.” She smiled. He regarded his footwear again. “I guess that means I’m not a gentleman. Because I’m willing to break a promise if I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Not looking at the others, he stood slowly and walked with silent steps to the great room’s open doorway. The others regarded each other, the unasked questions in their eyes. Scott scowled at Teresa, who gave him a bewildered shrug.

Johnny disappeared through the doorway, and a moment later followed a woman’s indignant squawk of protest. Had he bumped into the housekeeper? A woman’s peppery outburst in Spanish poured out too fast for Scott to understand, but Johnny’s reply, spoken with stubborn emphasis, he could translate: “I’m not going to let you do to her what you did to me.” A rustle of petticoats followed, and a moment later appeared in the doorway—steered by Johnny’s firm hands on her shoulders—María Delgado Lancer.

Murdoch bolted to his feet in amazement.

Her eyes filled with dread, her feet shuffling in protest, the startled woman tried in vain to twist away from her shepherd as she scanned the faces of her astonished audience.

Scott marveled as he watched the pair approach. No wonder Johnny had been so quiet for the previous days! But how had he been able to reach her, when she only wrote to him when she was leaving where she had been? Of course, that San Francisco newspaper article. She must have read it and contacted him before she moved on to her next hiding place.

He looked at Murdoch. The man was transfixed, his face frozen with fearful, yet hopeful, anticipation. Scott glanced at Miriam next to him, her face calmer than he expected. She truly must have made peace with sharing her daughter.

Then he looked at Annie. His sister stared at her resisting mother being herded to the empty seat next to her. María tried not to look at her as Johnny pushed his mother to the chair and forced her to sit. He stood behind her, his hands resting on the chair back on either side of her, seemingly both supporting her and blocking her escape. Tears dropped from the mortified woman’s lowered eyes, and she busied herself with opening her small handbag and removing a handkerchief.

Scott studied his sister. To his amazement, she was gazing at her mother with recognition...and pure love. Scott had already found a hundred aspects of her to respect and admire, but this made his heart expand to fill his chest.

No longer able to resist looking upon her abandoned daughter, María let her eyes drift up to gaze at the child who represented the beginning of a terrible sequence of choices she had made that had thrown so many lives off their rails. The handkerchief forgotten, tears streamed down from those sparkling brown eyes that had seen too much. All her fiery dignity had faded. She stood before the altar of her mistakes, humbled and stripped of any last vestige of pride.

Annie smiled and took her mother by both hands. “Everything is all right, Sad Lady. Thank you for visiting me, and for your hard decision that meant I could have an excellent childhood with wonderful, loving parents.” A tear skittered down her cheek. “I love you.”

María stared at her. Miriam began to cry.

Scott knew those words. Where had he heard them? Yes, in that small, nameless town on the trip south from Little River, when he unintentionally overheard Annie and Miriam reconcile over the secret of Annie’s adoption that she and José had shared. Annie told Miriam about her dream...about being visited by the beautiful sad lady...and José had told her what to say if she ever saw her again. When Scott heard her strange tale, he’d concluded the dream had been merely a child’s fancy, but perhaps he should not have been so certain.

María did not understand, but she could not take her eyes away from her daughter. “I have not had a happy day since the moment they took you from my arms.”

Annie said, “You can be happy again,” and she drew her into a hug. The women clung to each other like orphans.

Through blurry eyes, Scott looked at Teresa, who was red-eyed and searching for a handkerchief of her own, and then at Miriam, who mixed tears and pride in her shared child. Even the ever-guarded Johnny was having trouble keeping his composure. Jelly had his face buried in his bandana. It was only a matter of time before he would have to blow his nose.

Scott regarded Murdoch, who still stood frozen before his chair. Scott could only guess what the man was thinking. Murdoch approached his wife and daughter as they finally let go and shared soggy, light laughs. He knelt before María, his eyes sad, tender, and somehow hopeful. In quiet tones, he said, “I’ve done a lot of thinking since November.”

María flinched, looking as if she was preparing for a public humiliation.

“There aren’t enough words in English, Spanish, and Gaelic for all of my apologies.”

She stared at him, then dried her eyes with her handkerchief.

He continued, “Twice, when you needed me most, you asked for my help in the only way you knew how. And I didn’t hear you.”

Her confusion deepened.

Barely above a whisper, he said, “When you left—both times—I should have gone after you. I don’t know why I didn’t. The first time, I think I was afraid that everything I felt, everything we had...was a lie. I didn’t want to believe that, and, somehow, not knowing was easier than facing it. The second time...maybe I just wanted to let you take the blame, and I could feel sorry for myself. But over these last months, I had to face the truth. You needed me...and I did nothing.”

She gave him a steady gaze. “You eshould think carefully about this. If you truly wish to claim this as your responsibility, I will allow you.”

He thought for a moment. “Well, perhaps we can share it.”

She shook her head, a spark of her old fire flickering in her eyes. “Oh, no. You have made a powerful argument against yourself. I cannot disagree with it.”

“We can settle that later.” Thoughtful and serious, he continued, “Johnny told me about your cousin.” She lowered her head with sadness. “I’m sorry it happened to her, and I’m sorry you thought it could happen to you.”

In a quiet voice, she admitted, “I eshould have told you.”

He nodded. “Yes.” With a tender, hopeful smile, he said, “Now, is there anything else you need to tell me?”

She took in a deep, shivering breath and let it out. “No. I am all out of esecrets.”

His smile was that of a young man in love. In a quiet voice, he said, “Then, let’s make some new ones.”

Her face bloomed into the mischievous smile of a young woman who had just met the love of her life. “Murdoch Lancer, you are a very dangerous man.” She embraced him, and he enveloped her with his arms.

Scott sat back and admired the soggy scene. Three years ago, when he had arrived in the west at Murdoch’s request, he had come on a lark with no real notion of what he might find. Only later would he realize that he had been on a modern-day quest, searching for meaning or a sense of purpose. The war had ripped from his life every ounce of complacence and comfort. Even his grandparents and aunts became strangers after all he had been through. Peace may have come to the nation, but it eluded him. He had gorged on everything his wealth and status had to offer, but he remained forever hungry, dissatisfied with the hollowness of his old life. Yes, he knew he had been empty, too, a façade with no substance.

Murdoch had been trying to fill the deep void in his own life when he called his sons home. What a shock it must have been when they both agreed to stay.

Johnny had made the greatest journey of all. He had been hungry, too, craving to fill his own vast emptiness, even though he never would admit it, then or now. Somehow, he had found the way to exchange his own restlessness that masqueraded as freedom for something strange and weighty and complicated. By letting go of the darkness in his past, he had gambled and won, leaving behind everything familiar and gaining something beyond his furthest hopes.

Once Scott would have argued that only people like the Recklenbergs and those shallow Boston society worthies were empty inside, but now he began to wonder if everyone was, and perhaps all that separated his family from the broken souls of the world was that they had filled their empty places with each other.

For the first time, in this wild, open land so far from his old life, Scott regarded his family, and he knew he had everything. They all did. Everyone had come home.

 

 

 

~ end ~

Continued in the Epilogue to That The Devil Drives----->

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