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MargaretP

 

The Ring

Part 18 of The Eliots series. Series Overview here.
(Thanks to my beta Terri Derr.)

“The gambler stared at Johnny. Then shaking his head, he chuckled and started collecting up the cards in front of him. The large gold ring on his right hand reflected light as he picked up the silver vesta case and slipped it into his breast pocket.”   (Hate, by Margaret P. 2016)

 

Chapter One

Johnny dropped down onto the frozen road, saddle bags in hand, and looked around as the other passengers disembarked behind him.  

The shutters and doors of the adobe buildings surrounding the plaza were closed to keep out the icy chill. A lawman rested against a porch post of the jailhouse across the way, watching the new arrivals. The badge on his buffalo hide coat glinted in the sun and his breath hung in the air as he cradled a rifle in his arms.

Murdoch strolled up beside Johnny, blowing warmth into his hands. “Changed much?”

Johnny shrugged. What was he supposed to say? It was winter and when he had last been in Santa Fe it was summer. The streets had been full of people; now they were almost deserted. Folks would be huddled around fires drinking coffee and playing cards if they didn’t have to venture outside. On the drive in the stagecoach had passed the hotel where his stepfather had stayed and the Silver Dollar saloon where he’d died. Both appeared to be doing good business so there was hope of finding what they were looking for. That was all that mattered.

Johnny shivered—or maybe shuddered—it was hard to tell. He’d never wanted to come back to this town, and already he was feeling more Madrid than Lancer. He flexed his right hand. The sooner they could leave the better.

Walking past Murdoch to the front of the coach, he looked up at the driver.

Red faced from the cold, the old codger scratched the whiskers on his chin and stared back.  After a few seconds he spat on the ground and fished out two Colts from where he’d stashed them under the seat when father and son had joined his stage in Albuquerque.

“Much obliged.” Johnny passed one gun to Murdoch and checked his own to make sure the bullets were still in it. “Rifles?”

The driver climbed back to where the man riding shotgun was handing down bags to the other passengers. He found the rifles and passed them over. “I wouldn’t wave them firearms around here too much, mister. The law yonder don’t take too kindly to your sort.” He nodded towards the jailhouse.

Clearly puzzled, Murdoch frowned, but Johnny smiled. “Bilson still in charge then?”

“Nope. Marshal Bilson retired last year, but don’t go getting any ideas.” The lawman Johnny had seen earlier came up behind him, closing the door of the stagecoach as he passed.

Johnny turned around. Here we go.

“Good afternoon, Deputy.” Murdoch offered his hand. “Lancer’s the name.”

The deputy eyed Murdoch’s hand, but didn’t shake it. “If you say so.”

Murdoch puffed up like an indignant bullfrog. “We’re ranchers from California.”

“You maybe, but I know a gunman when I see one.”

Murdoch bristled even more. His voice was sharp. “He’s my son, and I can assure you, deputy—I’m sorry I didn’t catch your name.”

“Tyler, and I can assure you, Mr Lancer, that if you and your ‘son’ are looking to cause trouble, think again. I’ll be watching.”

“We’re not…”

“We’ll keep that in mind, deputy.” Johnny clapped Murdoch on the shoulder. “Come on, Pa, let’s find ourselves a room.” He steered Murdoch away from further discussion. “No point in riling him unless we have to.”

“Riling him? That man has a bad attitude.”

Johnny ducked his head. All that stuff about wanting his turn had sounded real good back at the ranch, but if Murdoch couldn’t hold his tongue when faced with men like Tyler he could be more a hindrance than a help. “Just remember the Lancer name doesn’t mean two cents here.”

They headed for the hotel, but stopped at the telegraph office on the way. Murdoch wandered over to read the noticeboard while Johnny went up to the desk.

The clerk pushed a pencil and paper across the counter. “Fifty cents up to ten words.”

“Thanks. Tell me: is the new marshal as friendly as his deputy?” Johnny began writing.

“Depends, but he ain’t in town at the moment. He rode out first thing.”

Johnny pushed the paper back.

“’Arrived safe’. Is that it?”

“Yep.” Johnny fished out a couple of quarters.  He’d promised Emily he’d send a telegram when they got to Santa Fe, but he knew damn well even if he wrote a novel it wouldn’t bring her any peace. As she said, “I won’t be happy until you’re back in my arms.”

Hell, Johnny felt the same way. Marriage was doing strange things to him. He was even finding it hard to fall asleep at night without Emily in the bed.

As he and Murdoch approached the hotel, they could hear piano music coming from the Silver Dollar saloon across the street. The jaunty tune spoke of warm fires, warm beer and even warmer women, but Johnny still felt cold. There had been a piano player the day he’d shot Thurstan Cole.

The gambler had spent a lot of time between those four walls, fleecing the greedy and the gullible of Santa Fe and the neighbouring ranches. He’d play cards into the early hours, sleep at the hotel diagonally opposite, and then return to the saloon for a late breakfast ready for the lunch time trade.

Johnny had never been inside the hotel before. There hadn’t been any need, but back in those days, he’d always got the feeling his kind wouldn’t be welcome. Most of the Mexicans, Mestizos, and saddle tramps stayed in the doss houses and cantinas on the outskirts of town.

Murdoch asked for a twin room. As he signed the book, Johnny leaned against the wall and returned the desk clerk’s stare with a steady gaze. The man looked away and fumbled as he handed over the key. Murdoch didn’t seem to notice. He picked up a copy of the Daily New Mexican from the desk, dropped a nickel in the honesty box, and headed upstairs.

Johnny followed.

The room was clean with two narrow single beds and a window overlooking the main street. They dumped their saddle bags and Murdoch collapsed onto the bed on the right, springs creaking under his weight. He doubled over the pillow and rested his head on it as he stretched out to his full length, feet hanging over the bed-end. “I’d forgotten what it was like to be cramped into a moving box for a week.”

Johnny smiled. He didn’t much like being squashed up for so long either, but it couldn’t be half as bad for him as it was for Murdoch. His father had insisted on coming though. That and the fact that he’d made several similar journeys during the 1850s to search for his wife and son meant a great deal to Johnny, especially now he understood more about ranching.

With a single finger he pulled back the flimsy lace curtain on the window and gazed out onto the street. A woman in a green bonnet scurried from the bank to the general store, and a wagoner drove slowly past.

“Says here the stage goes through Santa Fe daily in each direction,” Murdoch said checking the back page of the newspaper. He unfolded it fully and returned to the front to read the headlines.

They’d made good time. It had taken a couple of days to reach Los Angeles, five to Albuquerque and six hours from there to Santa Fe. Johnny flexed his legs and arms. His muscles ached, but no more so than if he’d spent the same time in the saddle, and they’d never have made the trip as fast on horseback. The stage changed horses three or four times each day, taking no longer than the time it took to relieve themselves in some of the smaller places.

Now they’d arrived he was in no mood to waste time either.

He sat down on the edge of his bed.  “If we go over to the saloon now there might be some lunch left.”

Murdoch groaned, but he swung his legs around to sitting. “Lead the way.”

They clattered down the timber stairs and out onto the board walk. Johnny had the feeling of being watched as they crossed the road—Tyler most likely—but he couldn’t see anyone except a few townsfolk going about their business.

The saloon had had a lick of paint since his last visit. It was doing better trade too. A few more girls worked the floor, and the whole place looked cleaner. A group of Mexicans played dominos by one window and an office-type reading a dime novel ate his lunch next to the other. A mixed bag of cattlemen and farmers made up most of the customers. A group of cowhands were getting drunk and mouthy near the back wall, and a cardsharp held court over by the fireplace.

Damn. The one thing Johnny had really wanted to stay the same was different.

“Two beers.” He flicked a coin to the new barkeeper as Murdoch went to check on what remained of the free lunch at the other end of the bar. “Where’s the barkeep with the slicked back hair and the red handlebar moustache?”

The barkeeper shrugged and kept pouring beer from a keg on top of the bar. “Dunno.”

Johnny frowned and gazed around. It had been a slim hope, but it had been his best one. The barkeeper would have hauled Cole’s body over to the undertaker’s, and if he’d been quick he’d have pocketed anything the gambler had had on him. As soon as Johnny left, the other witnesses would have rushed to pick up the coins and banknotes. They’d scattered everywhere when Cole went down. Johnny had heard the beginnings of the scramble before he’d ridden away. The barkeeper would have been among the first to the body, and he’d have had an advantage over the rest. He’d have seen enough of Cole by then to know there were better pickings than cash.

“Howdy, stranger.” A painted lady, bosom bursting out over black lace, sidled up beside him, interrupting his thoughts. She was a bit long in the tooth for Johnny’s tastes, even if he wasn’t spoken for, but Murdoch might be interested. She wasn’t bad looking, and a little socializing might help his father unwind. Besides if they could get her talking they might find out something useful.

“Howdy.” Johnny picked up the beers and took them to the table where Murdoch was already eating.

As expected, the lady followed. “May I join you gentlemen?”

“Be our guest.” Murdoch stood up and pulled up a chair for her.

Looking amused and flattered by his gallantry, the woman sat down with a flourish. She raised her arm and clicked a finger, and the barkeeper sent over three rye whiskies on a tray. The girl who brought them attempted to nuzzle Johnny, but he pulled her arm away from his neck, paid her for the drinks and headed back to the bar for food. He was starving, and as he’d just paid for their free lunch, he intended to make the most of it. Grabbing a tin plate, he ladled lukewarm corn chili, boiled potatoes and rice onto it, then two buttered doorsteps of bread to sop up the gravy.

Between the potatoes and the bread, he saw Tyler saunter in through the back corridor. The deputy smirked at the sight of Johnny and then ambled around the outskirts of the room until he found a seat with a good view of everything going on. The barkeeper saw him sit down and sent a saloon girl with beer and some personal attention. The deputy didn’t seem to object, but Johnny knew where the man’s real interest lay.

Tasting the corn chili, he added a spoonful or three of green pepper sauce to his plate and returned to the table. Their guest was leaning forward showing off her wares as she talked. Murdoch laughed and smiled. He definitely liked what he saw.

“Johnny, this is Miss May Belle, the proprietor of the Silver Dollar. Miss Belle, this is my younger son, Johnny.”

“Your son?”

“Ma’am.” Johnny tipped his hat and sat down.

Miss Belle sipped her drink. She appeared puzzled. “What brings two fine Californian gentlemen to New Mexico?”

“We’re looking for something.” Johnny shovelled chili into his mouth with the flat of his knife.

“The man who took it was killed here.”

“Must be something mighty important to bring you all this way.”

“Yup.” Johnny washed the first few mouthfuls down with his beer and felt less hollow inside.

“A lot of men have lost their lives in Santa Fe. There was a range war in these parts a few years ago—a fight turned nasty almost every second week.”

“The man we’re interested in was a gambler.” Murdoch’s eyes flickered towards Johnny.

“The only cardsharp in town for months is Rousseau over there.”

“French?” Johnny had an idea he might have seen him before.

“From New Orleans. He tells me he’s just passing through, but he’s been here two weeks already.”

Murdoch mopped his plate clean with a slice of bread. “Our gambler spent time in New Orleans too, but he was an Englishman. He was killed in a shootout in this saloon about nine years ago. His name was Cole, Thurstan Cole. Were you around then?”

Miss Belle lowered her glass. She looked at Murdoch and then stared at Johnny. “I knew I’d seen you before.”

Johnny grinned as he chewed. “This chili tastes mighty fine with a little sauce mixed in.”

“I’ll tell the cook. Look here, I don’t want no trouble.” She flounced back in her chair.

“Why does everyone keep saying that?” Murdoch threw down his napkin.  “We’re not looking for trouble.”

Miss Belle didn’t seem convinced. “I run a peaceful establishment.”

Johnny smiled. “All we want, ma’am, is what’s ours.”

“You weren’t interested in anything Cole had at the time. What is it you’re after now?”

“A ring.” Murdoch knocked back his rye whiskey and looked grim.

“Cole was wearing it on his pinkie when I shot him. I didn’t know it was important at the time. Now we want it back.”

“A ring.” Miss Belle suddenly looked coy. “Worth a lot of money, is it?”

“Nope.” Johnny lied quick before Murdoch had time to be honest.

His father cleared his throat. “It’s a family heirloom, more sentimental value than monetary.”

“It belonged to my half-brother’s ma. Scott wants it back, and it’s up to me to get it.”

“I don’t understand. If you weren’t looking for this ring nine years ago, why’d you shoot Cole?”

“That’s my business, ma’am.”

“If you want my help, it’s my business too.”

Johnny scooped chili and rice into his mouth. He couldn’t really argue with that; if the shoe was on the other foot he’d say the same thing. Did it matter anymore if others knew? “Thurstan Cole was my stepfather. The bastard killed my mother.”

“Oh.” Miss Belle blinked. Clearly she hadn’t expected quite such a juicy piece of gossip, and it took her a minute or two to mull it over. “All you want now is the ring?”

“All we want now is the ring.” Murdoch placed his hand on hers. “Will you help us?”

“I don’t have it.” She drew her hand back. “I don’t remember it.”

Johnny eyed the saloon owner, trying to work out if she was telling the truth. “You were there though. When the fight happened, I mean?”

“I was just one of the girls then. I was up on the balcony when you shot him.”

“What happened to the barkeeper, the guy with red hair? Where’s he now?”

“Herb Curtis? He left Santa Fe years ago.”

“Do you know where he went?”

“Not a clue.”

“Who would know? Is there anyone else in town who witnessed the killing?”

Miss Belle’s eyes strayed to the balding piano player. He was flicking through sheets of music, looking for what to play next. Two of the saloon girls with nothing better to do were helping him choose.

“Call him over.”

The old guy didn’t seem too keen to join them. He pretended not to hear.

“Charlie, there’s a drink in it for you.” Miss Belle cocked her head at Johnny and he ordered a bottle of rye to help steady the fella’s nerves.

Charlie trundled over bringing a glass with him.

“We won’t bite if you answer our questions straight.” Johnny topped the glass up to the brim.

“It’s all right, Charlie, they only want to know about Herb Curtis and the day that gambler Cole got shot back in ’64.”

Charlie took a swig with a trembling hand and licked his lips. “Johnny Madrid done it. Before anyone had heard his name. Sure did hear it often enough after that. He shot up a few other fellas that day too. He’d been gun-hawking out at Oakridge.  Moses Lloyd was top gun there at the time. He reckoned the kid was only fifteen, barely out of diapers, but hellfire he was fast.” Charlie paused to savour the memory and another mouthful of rye. “Speed didn’t save him in the end though. I heard tell Madrid got himself shot by Rurales down in Mexico.”

“You heard wrong, Charlie.” Miss Belle glanced in Johnny’s direction.
 
Johnny smiled and bit into his last potato.

“Well, dang!” Charlie pushed his chair back. “I didn’t mean no disrespect. It was only what I heard.”

“It don’t matter.” Johnny leaned over and topped up Charlie’s glass again. “I go by Lancer now. Do you know where Curtis went?”

“Why do you want to know?” Charlie’s eyes narrowed, but he still reached for his glass.

“Cole had a lot of trinkets. We’re after one of them. I figure Curtis is the person most likely to have got his hands on it.”

“Maybe. Him and me got to the body first, but Marshal Bilson made us give up what we took.” Charlie sounded bitter. “Three whole months he held onto Cole’s gear. As if cardsharps have kin to claim their belongings. Then instead of giving the stuff back to us, he auctioned it off to the highest bidder.”

“Bilson was only doing his job, Charlie.”

“Yeah, you would say that.”

Johnny and Murdoch looked at Miss Belle and she blushed under her powder.

“When he retired Marshal Bilson helped me buy this place. He’s a silent partner. But it wasn’t with the money from the auction.  After expenses that went into government’s coffers. Horace Bilson is an honest man.”

Well now, that explained a few things. Not many wagtails ended up owning the saloon they worked in.

“Do you remember the gambler’s signet ring?” Murdoch asked.

“Gold with the letter C etched into it.” Charlie blew his nose loudly into a spotted handkerchief and then shoved it back into his pocket. “I tried to get it off, but it was too tight on. I took his tie pin and cufflinks instead.”

“What about Curtis?” Johnny still thought the barkeeper was their best bet.

“I dunno. He dragged Cole into the back room out of the way. I figure he pocketed most things, but then Bilson turned up and confiscated the lot.”

Johnny rubbed his chin and glanced towards Deputy Tyler. He didn’t fancy asking the law for help if he could avoid it. “What happened to the body?”

“Bilson made us haul it over to the barrelmaker.”

Murdoch frowned. “The barrelmaker?”

“He does the undertaking around here.”

Johnny vaguely recalled the cooper, or at least he remembered the owner of Oakridge complaining about him. Apparently the tight fisted Mex bastard never did anything for a white man unless he was paid up front in hard money. “I bet he didn’t wait three months to get paid.”

“Nope, not him. Bilson let him sell the gambler’s clothes to cover the burial.”

“The same man still trading?”

Charlie nodded.

Johnny fingered the rim of his beer glass. “Do you remember who got what from the auction?”

Charlie lowered his hands below the table and exchanged a look with Miss Belle. She pulled out a silver cigar case from a pocket in her skirt, took out a cigarillo and offered them one. “I paid good money for this case. It’s mine.”

“Fair enough.” Johnny accepted a cigarillo and grabbed Charlie’s wrist. He forced the pianist’s arm down on the table—cufflinks. “As we said before, we’re only interested in the ring.”

“I don’t have the ring.”

“Yeah? We’d pay twice what you bought it for.” He looked between Charlie and Miss Belle. Not a flicker. Nope, they didn’t have it, and they didn’t know where it was either.

Folding his handkerchief and using the clean side to mop his forehead, Charlie took a swig of rye. “I don’t remember what happened to the ring,” he grouched. “I don’t even remember it being auctioned. Must have gone up after I left.”

Johnny leaned forward. “Why’d you leave?”

“These cufflinks were all I could afford. No point sticking around.”

“What was sold before you left?” Johnny was trying to remember what Cole had worth auctioning: guns, knife, cigar case, match safe, several sets of cufflinks, tie pins, snuff box, a watch, grooming gear, and probably a few other things that he’d acquired since he and Johnny parted company in ’61. The ring was only one of many items of jewellery.

“The tie pin and cigar case. A silver match safe—half the territory bid for that cos of the pictures on it. That pearl handled Colt of his sold for a pretty penny too.”

“They auctioned the small stuff and the things he had at the hotel last—more cufflinks and pins mostly. Curtis and some of the other girls stayed to bid, but Charlie and I went back to the saloon.”

“Do you know what Curtis got?”

“A pair of cufflinks like these and a couple of pins from memory. Curtis liked his doodads, and there weren’t a lot of folks with spare cash so these went cheap.”

Johnny sipped his beer. “When did Curtis leave town?”

“A few days after the auction.”

Well, that was interesting. Johnny didn’t believe in coincidences. “Where did he go?”

“Mesilla. Still there last I heard.”

Mesilla, that was at least two days south.

“I’ll fucking kill you!” One of the drunken cowhands lunged at another one across the table, his chair falling backwards with a crash.

Charlie and Miss Belle jumped to their feet. Tyler too. Johnny’s hand went to his gun, but he stayed seated and put an arm out to stop Murdoch from joining the fray. Charlie snatched a shotgun out from between his upright piano and a stack of beer barrels. Keeping his distance, he aimed the gun at the troublemakers as Miss Belle and Tyler broke up the fight. Then the cowhand that started it took a swing at Tyler. The deputy ducked, rammed his rifle butt in the guy’s gut, and had him face down on the floor with the muzzle of rifle barrel pressing into his neck before any of the others had time to react. Johnny was impressed.

Tyler pointed his revolver at the other men. “Drop ‘em.”

The cowhands did as they were told, and Tyler herded them outside. As the door closed, Miss Belle and one of her girls picked up the guns and straightened the table and chairs. Charlie went back to his piano and began playing like nothing had happened.

“If you gentlemen have asked all your questions, I’ve got bookkeeping to do,” Miss Belle said as she carried glasses to the bar.

“Thank you for your help. Is there anything we can do?” Murdoch waved in the direction of the table she had just cleared.

“No, the excitement is over. ZekeTyler will see them on their way.” Miss Belle delivered the dirty glasses to the barkeeper and then disappeared through a door under the balcony.

“What next?” Murdoch asked, turning back around in his chair to face Johnny. “Perhaps we should make a move while Tyler is busy.”

Johnny nodded. “We could check out the guy who boxed Cole up. Maybe he got the ring off his finger.”

“Maybe the ring was buried with Cole.”

Johnny barked a laugh. “Not in this town.”

“No, I suppose not.” Murdoch got to his feet. “Whoever took it off though, it sounds like the marshal would have got it in the end.”

“Maybe. Bilson sure was a lawman not to be messed with.” Johnny chuckled. “Mind you Miss Belle must have messed with him a little. This place wouldn’t have come cheap.”

“I’m sure it was a respectable business transaction, John. She seems a pleasant, trustworthy woman.”

“So she does.” Johnny smiled and looked away. He’d learned a long time ago not to argue with Murdoch when he gave folks the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes he was right.

On the other hand—Johnny glanced towards the office—shawl around her shoulders, Miss May Belle was slipping through the door like someone who didn’t want to be seen. She checked in their direction. Murdoch had his back to her, and Johnny quickly dropped his head, pretending to tighten his gun belt. She edged along the wall and scuttled out the back way.

 

Chapter Two

The shop just off the plaza was not far from the stagecoach depot. The sign above the door had ‘cooper’ and ‘cobre’ painted in large letters with J Sanchez, proprietor, written underneath. A smaller sign to one side of the door listed barrels, buckets and sundry other wares, including coffins.

Johnny glanced sideways to see if Tyler was watching them from the jailhouse. He was nowhere in sight, but a horse, still steaming from being freshly ridden, was hitched to the rail outside. “Looks like the marshal might be back in town.”

“We’ll hope he has better manners than his deputy.”  Murdoch pushed the door open to a clean swept timber floor and Johnny followed him inside. Only a little light made it through the shutters and fogged up windows, but oil lamps hung from the ceiling.  Sawdust and shavings littered the dirt floor of a workshop behind the counter, and a pot belly stove blasted out heat about halfway down its length. The cooper was hard at work trussing a barrel.

“With you in a minute, señores.” He finished hammering one of the bilge hoops in place and came up to his counter. “How can I help you?”

Murdoch gestured towards a long wooden box propped up against the workshop wall. “We hear you do the undertaking for this town. “

Si, señor.”

“Do you remember a gambler about nine years ago? He was shot in the Silver Dollar.”

Si, el jugador was a big man.” The cooper chuckled. “Though maybe not as big as you, señor.”

“We’re looking for a ring the gambler was wearing. He stole it from me.”

“I remember he wore a ring.”

“Do you still have it?” Murdoch sounded excited, but Johnny knew it was too good to be true.

“No, señor. I never saw the ring, only the mark on his little finger where it had been. Bodies are not often brought to me with anything of value left on them. I was surprised he still had his boots on.”

“You sold them.”

Si, señor. It was agreed that I should sell his clothes to cover my bill. He was buried in his underwear. His shirt and waistcoat were ruined by the bullet and the blood, but I sold everything else.”

Johnny savoured the thought. He got a grim sense of satisfaction in knowing Cole was buried in nothing but his drawers. He was damn sure no one mourned him. It served the bastard right.

“What do you think happened to the ring?”

“I don’t know, señor. The marshal might know.” The cooper pointed with a hammer towards the door.

The marshal had somehow come into the shop behind them without them hearing. He was leaning on the door listening to the conversation, his Stetson pulled down low over his face so only his bushy black beard was visible. Johnny could see what the marshal was wearing on his hips though, a gun on each side, one a Colt and the other a LeMat.

 “Holy Moses.” Johnny voiced the thought without meaning to.

“You always were a cheeky son of a bitch, Madrid.” The marshal pushed his hat back and scowled. “It’s Marshal Lloyd to you now, and don’t you forget it.”

“No, sir, I won’t.” Johnny ducked his head, not sure whether Lloyd was serious or not. “Long time, Marshal Lloyd.”

“Aye, boyo, it is. Time enough for a cocky kid shootist to turn into an expensive gun.”

“I don’t hire out any more.”

“So May Belle tells me, but I ain’t sure I believe that story.”

“It’s true.” Murdoch stepped forward and offered his hand. “I’m Johnny’s father, Murdoch Lancer. Are you Moses Lloyd, who used to be the top gun at Oakridge?”

 “Aye, that’s right.” Lloyd shook hands like a man unsure whether he should or not.

“Johnny says you’re a fair man.”

“He told me you were a stinking bastard.”

“Ah, well, that was before we got to know each other.” Murdoch glanced over at Johnny. “I’m hopeful I’ve grown in his estimation.”

Johnny smiled. “We’re looking for a ring that was taken off the gambler I killed.”

“Your stepfather—or so May tells me.”

“Yeah, and he was a stinking bastard,” Johnny snapped back, and Lloyd’s eyes narrowed.

Murdoch cleared his throat. “The past is the past. All we want now is the ring.”

Johnny scuffed his boot on the floor, slightly embarrassed. His hatred for Cole still burned, especially here, and he’d let it show too easily. “Charlie at the saloon says he couldn’t get the ring off the body, but Señor Sanchez says it was gone by the time Cole was brought to him.  I figure the barkeep or Bilson must have got it off.”

“Sounds likely.”

“Bilson confiscated all Cole’s belongings. The ring must have gone to auction, but no one Johnny and I have spoken to remembers who won it.”

“We’re turning up dust. Any ideas?”

“I reckon the jailhouse files might tell us something.”

“Of course, Marshal Bilson would have kept a record. Johnny, we should have thought of that before.”

To be fair Johnny had thought of it before, but he hadn’t fancied another run in with Deputy Tyler unless there was no other choice. They’d exhausted the options now though, and hot damn, Moses Lloyd was marshal. “We’d be obliged, marshal, if you would take a look.”

Lloyd eyed Johnny for a long second. “Call me Moses.” He cuffed Johnny around the head and drew him into a half hug. “God damn it, boyo, I’m mighty glad you’re not dead.”

“I’m not sorry myself.” Johnny grinned with relief as the older man let go.

“But you made it through, and things turned out for you?”

“Yep, I’ve got a proper family. Even a wife.”

“Married? Now that definitely don’t fit the reputation.”

“Well, Johnny Lancer got married. Johnny Madrid retired three years ago. What about you?”

“As it happens, I’ve got me a missus too.”

Moses Lloyd had got hitched to the widow woman he’d started courting when he was at Oakridge in Johnny’s day. She owned a farm two miles north of Santa Fe. When the range war fizzled out and Moses had to think about moving on, he pressed her to make a decision. She refused to give up her son’s inheritance, but she agreed to marry the gunman if he swapped his firearms for a plough.

“Until her son was old enough to take over the farm. The lad turned twenty-one the fall of ’69, and I can tell you I was just about stir crazy by then. I ain’t no farmer. I nearly bit Bilson’s hand off when he offered me a job as his deputy. Then he retired, and I took over as US marshal and sheriff of this town.”

“I reckon that suits you down to the ground.”

“No complaints so far. Martha and I still live on the farm.  We’ll move into Santa Fe when Vic finds a wife, but until then his ma wants to stay close.”

Moses invited Johnny and Murdoch out to the farm for supper. They hired a couple of horses from the livery, and had a much pleasanter, homely evening than they’d anticipated. Johnny and Moses caught up on each other’s lives and the events of the area, and they agreed to check out the jailhouse files in the morning.
 
After breakfast at a local café Johnny and Murdoch strolled over to the jailhouse about nine o’clock. Moses had said he’d be there by then, but there was no sign of him when they entered. They helped themselves to coffee from the pot on the stove and looked around for something to pass the time. Murdoch scanned the front pages of a stack of newspapers on Lloyd’s desk, and Johnny flicked through a pile of wanted posters. There was everything from forgers to cattle rustlers, outlaws to Indians; a few names he recognised, but thankfully no one he actually knew.

Then the door banged open.

Johnny dropped the posters and drew by instinct.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Deputy Tyler glared at them, Colt in hand.

Raising his arms, Murdoch stepped between Johnny and Tyler, standing side on, blocking a shot from either direction. “Put the guns down, both of you.”

Eyes riveted on Tyler, Johnny holstered his Colt.

“Deputy?” Murdoch raised an eyebrow.

Tyler’s lip curled. “What are you doing here?”

“Waiting for me, I should think.” Moses came through the open doorway behind him. “What’s going on?”

“I caught these two snooping around the office.”

“We weren’t ‘snooping around’,” Murdoch snapped. “We helped ourselves to coffee and read the newspapers and the wanted posters while we waited.”

Moses sighed. “Zeke, put your gun away.”

“You can’t trust them, Moses. Charlie at the saloon says the half-breed is the gunfighter, Johnny Madrid. I knew as soon as I clapped eyes on him he was trouble.”

“I know who he is, and there ain’t no trouble—‘cepting you getting trigger happy.” Moses took off his hat. “Now put it away.”

With a huff, Tyler holstered his gun.

“That’s better. I’ll explain later, but for now the Lancers and I have business to attend to.”

“I’m telling you, Moses, that’s Johnny Madrid.”

“Yep, it is, and be thankful he’s also a friend. As fast as you are, Zeke, if he was looking for trouble, you’d be dead by now.”

Tyler gaped at Moses. “You can’t—“

“Hellfire and damnation, Deputy Tyler, shut your trap and take care of the morning rounds.”

Tyler glared at Moses. Snatching his hat from the hook by the door, he did as he was told, slamming the door behind him.

“Sorry about that. Zeke Tyler’s a good man, but he’s got a real chip on his shoulder about gun hawks.”

Murdoch chuckled. “Doesn’t he know you used to be one?”

“He knows it. Wasn’t too pleased when he first found out, mind, but he stuck around.” Wiping condensation from the glass, Moses checked out the window and seemed satisfied with what he saw. He turned back to face them. “Bilson hired him a few months before retiring. Figured I needed an off-sider who’d been trained up in the law. We get on all right most days, but in Zeke’s book I’m the exception that proves the rule. It’ll be a cold night in hell before he accepts shootists are a mixed bag like most folks.”

Murdoch scratched his head. “I wonder why he feels so strongly.”

“That’s no secret.” Moses hung his hat and coat on the hooks by the door.  “His pa was shot by one. He became a lawman to clean up towns like this.”

“Santa Fe doesn’t seem so bad now.” Johnny hunkered down to pick up the posters scattered over the floor. He kind of understood Tyler’s point of view.

“When Zeke’s not behaving like a damn fool, we make a good team. Believe me the streets wouldn’t be quiet for long if we weren’t around.”

Johnny nodded. From what he could remember of Lloyd and from what he’d seen of Tyler, Marshall Bilson had chosen his successors well.

“Files?” Murdoch looked towards the cabinet.

“Right you are.” Moses strode over to the oak filing cabinet behind his desk. He pulled open the middle drawer and rummaged inside. A minute later, he slapped a brown cardboard folder down on the desk. “See if this tells you anything.”

Murdoch sat down and began sorting through the documents.

Johnny rested on the corner of the desk. “Anything?”

“This looks interesting.” Murdoch extracted one sheet from the rest. “It seems to be a list of items sold at the auction. Yes, look: it gives a brief description, what they sold for, and the name of the buyer.” He ran his finger down the list.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

Johnny licked his lips and waited. Murdoch was a rotten liar.

His father hesitated and then sighed. “If you must know, Miss Belle won the bid on an item she didn’t tell us about.”

Johnny stretched his neck to see what it was. “Hmm, I’m not surprised she wanted that.” Cole’s Deringer was gold plated, etched with curly cues. Just the sort of peashooter a woman in her line would like. “She got it for a good price.” Still not cheap though. That was interesting in itself, especially since Miss Belle had bought the cigar case too. She sure as hell wasn’t no ordinary wagtail, even in those days. “What about the ring?”

“I can’t find it.” Murdoch got to the end of the list. He turned the page over and started checking from the top again. “No, the ring isn’t on here.”

“Damn.”

Murdoch leaned back in the chair. “We’ve hit a dead end.”

Johnny frowned. Had they come all this way for nothing?

“We may as well head home.”

“Not so fast, Murdoch. Curtis is still the most likely person to have got the ring off Cole’s finger, and Charlie, the piano man, says he’s in Mesilla.”

“He said he thought he was there. He wasn’t certain.”

“It’s only a couple of days south.”

“A long way when we’re not sure. Scott won’t be angry if we can’t get the ring back. Let’s go home.”

“I’m not giving up; not when there is still a trail to follow. You go back if you want.”

“Where you go, I go.” Murdoch closed the folder. “But what about Bilson? Maybe he took it.”

“No chance.” Moses pushed off the wall he’d been leaning against, sipping coffee and listening in. “Bilson did things by the book.”

“Yeah, then where did he get the cash to put into the Silver Dollar?” Johnny remembered the ring before Cole disguised it as a signet ring. There had been eight small diamonds around a larger central stone, all set deep into the gold. If Bilson had discovered how to release the gold cap…well, even an honest man could be tempted by that kind of treasure.

Moses was having none of it though. “Kid, now you’re respectable, you’ve got to stop thinking the worst of folks. Bilson inherited his money from an uncle in Baltimore.”

Johnny frowned. He was damned if his father didn’t smile, but he couldn’t be sure because Murdoch had a hand up to his face.

“Where did Bilson go?” Murdoch passed the folder across the desk to Moses. “Maybe he could tell us something.”

“He retired to Denver.”

Well, that did it. They were between a rock and a hard place. Denver was more than two days north by stage and Mesilla was about the same going south. Johnny started to pace as Moses returned the folder to the filing cabinet.

Murdoch stood up. “We need to be back at Lancer by mid-February so Scott and Katie can go to Boston.”

“I know.” It was already the second week of January. If they went north now to speak to Bilson they could write off four days at least by the time they’d spoken with him, and he probably wouldn’t be able to tell them a damn thing. It could take the best part of a week from Denver to get to Mesilla, maybe longer depending on the stagecoach schedule. Johnny picked up the newspaper and checked the timetable on the back. “There’s a stage going south due through here at noon. I vote we’re on it.”

Murdoch nodded. “Mesilla, it is.”

 

Chapter Three
In the two hours they had before the stage left, they checked out of the hotel and quizzed Charlie again. They found him bleary eyed, breakfasting on oatmeal and coffee at a table by the kitchen door of the saloon. “Curtis lived a while at a boarding house on the Calle de Guadalupe. It was run by an Irish woman who’d married a Mex.”

“How do you know that?” Johnny asked as he paid a saloon girl for a glass of rye, the hair of the dog Charlie had demanded in exchange for answering more questions.

“Cos he left stuff behind and sent for it later.” Charlie scraped his bowl clean and swallowed a mouthful of coffee. “He wrote me a letter.”

Murdoch topped Charlie’s mug up from the enamel coffee pot on the table. “Do you still have it?”

“Nope.” Ignoring the coffee, Charlie downed the shot of whiskey in one swallow and gave a satisfied belch.

“Any others?”

“Nope.”

“Then what makes you think he’s still in Mesilla?”

Charlie didn’t answer.  He stared down and started tapping the fingers of one hand on the table as though he was playing a tune. Then he stopped, frowned, and started again to a different rhythm.

Murdoch gave an irritated huff. “Well?”
 
Johnny touched his father’s hand and gave a slight shake of his head to stop him from badgering. A drunkard’s brain was like a train engine. It started up slow and gathered steam, but only when it was regularly stoked.

He clicked his fingers in the air, and the saloon girl delivered another rye.

Charlie reached for the second glass as soon as she put it down, but Murdoch stopped him getting it to his lips.

“Get off.” Charlie shoved him away. Again he downed the whiskey in one gulp and then shut his eyes, nursing the empty glass. “A wrangler from the Bar T saw him about a year ago.”

“Where?”

“Working behind a bar in No Man’s Land.”  Charlie let the light get to his eyeballs bit by bit as though he was expecting a sudden flash of pain. Evidently it didn’t come. He blinked a few times and sighed. The world was the right way up, and he seemed more ready to face the day. “I ain’t heard anything of him since, but once Herb Curtis got comfortable in a place he usually stayed until there was reason to leave.”

Rubbing the back of his neck in frustration, Murdoch glanced at Johnny. “Does ‘No Man’s Land’ mean anything to you?”

“It’s an area in Mesilla.” Johnny snapped his gold pocket watch shut and stood up. “Time to go.”

Leaving Charlie to get ready for the lunchtime trade, Johnny and Murdoch made their way across the plaza towards the Wells Fargo depot. The stage drove in at speed before they got there and ten minutes later, after a change of horses, they were on their way to Albuquerque. As before the driver demanded their guns.

The next day, however, when they boarded the stage for Mesilla, the driver took a different view. “Keep those irons handy.”

“Indians?” Johnny fingered splintered wood on the coach’s veneer.

“Two weeks ago. Them savages might still be around.”

After the first few hours Johnny almost wished they were around; the journey might have been more interesting. With Murdoch on one side passing comment occasionally as he read a collection of Emerson essays that Scott had loaned him and a fella with bony elbows on the other, Johnny couldn’t concentrate. Emily’s parting gift was a good story, but he gave up on the Jules Verne novel and travelled most of the way with his eyes shut.

Their route followed the Rio Grande south. Even packed in like sardines and sharing body heat, he was glad of the woollen vest under his shirt for most of the way, but by the time they reached Mesilla he was roasting. He couldn’t wait to take the thing off. The sooner they found a room for the night the better.

“Let’s see if we can find the boarding house where Curtis stayed.” Murdoch gazed around the plaza where they’d been dropped off. It was nearly six o’clock and the shopkeepers were sweeping up and bringing in their wares, preparing to close.

Johnny led the way to the Calle de Guadalupe, a long street that headed south. “Howdy.”

The barber on the corner turned from locking his door.

“We’re looking for a boarding house on this street run by an Irish lady. Do you know it?”

“The Lopez place.  They say Molly Lopez makes the best Irish stew in New Mexico.”

“I wouldn’t say no to that.” Murdoch smiled. “Do you think she’d have a room available?”

“Maybe, but mister, fair warning, she ain’t bothered who she serves. If you don’t like sitting next to a chink or a nigger, don’t go there.”

“Thanks.” Johnny tipped his hat. “If the grub is good and the beds are clean, we ain’t particular.”

“Suit yourself. It’s about half a mile down in No Man’s Land. The house with the blue door and window boxes.”

They headed south. The boardwalks came and went and they took care at the crossroads.

“Looks like they’ve had rain.” Johnny led the way around a great gouge in the road. “Watch your step.”

The streets had been ploughed when wet by wagon wheels, and although the furrows were dry now they were deep and easy to trip on in the fading light.

“You never told me the origin of the name ‘No Man’s Land’,” Murdoch said, regaining the boardwalk.

“It’s the district where whites, Mexicans and anything else about at the time mix in together. We’re on the edge of it now.”

“And there are the window boxes.” Murdoch pointed far ahead, about halfway down the next block. The adobe house was hard to the street with timber shutters and red geraniums growing in its window gardens.

Johnny knocked on the door and a brown-haired woman of about forty answered.

“Señora Lopez?” Johnny lifted his hat.

“Aye, that it is.”

“We’re looking for a man called Curtis, ma’am. We believe he might be staying here.”

“He’s a barkeeper and he has red hair.” Murdoch touched his hat too.

“To be sure, I remember him, but he isn’t here now.” Señora Lopez wiped her hands on the pinafore she wore over her white cotton blouse and dark skirt. She must have been baking because she had a smudge of flour on her cheek.

“Do you know where he went, Señora?”

“No business of mine. He stayed two years and then got a job somewhere with room and board thrown in. Now if you gentlemen will excuse me I need to get back to me kitchen.” She went to close the door, but Johnny put out his hand.

“Do you have a couple of spare beds, ma’am? My father and I have just arrived in town, and we need a place to stay.”

Señora Lopez looked them up and down. “Rent is four dollars each per week in advance.”

“Very reasonable, especially since we hear you are an excellent cook.” Murdoch smiled. “We don’t expect to stay more than a few days though. Do you by chance rent by the day?”

“Well now, I might be persuaded.”

“We’d be much obliged if you would, Señora. I’m a Scotsman, and I’ve been dreaming about your stews ever since I heard about them.”

“Have ye indeed. Well, I’d hate to disappoint such a sweet talking man. You’d best be coming in.” Señora Lopez showed them to a room at the back of the house. It had two single beds, two plain wooden chairs at the end of the beds, and a washstand with a towel each and a shaving mirror. There was also a chamber pot that they were required to empty themselves, and a rag rug on the floor “to make the room feel like a home”. Basic but clean, and from Johnny’s memory a definite step up from some of the places in this town.

“Supper’s at seven.” Señora Lopez sniffed the air. “Wash up before you come to me table.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Johnny paid for two nights in advance, and she left them to get cleaned up.

“Phew. I might let those air overnight.” Johnny tossed his shirt and vest onto the chair at the end of his bed and started soaping his arm pits. Then he scooped water to rinse off, enjoying the coolness trickling over his skin.

Murdoch dug his spare shirt and socks out of his saddlebags. “You know this town. Where do we start?”

“Most of the saloons are on a street going east towards the warehouses.” Johnny grabbed one of the towels hanging under the washstand. He put on his spare shirt and a clean pair of socks, and waited for Murdoch. Then they found their way to the dining room.

Supper was every bit as good as promised. Not Irish stew, but a tasty beef stew with corn, black beans, carrots and spices, served with tortilla and soda bread.  Señor Lopez, a butcher by trade and testimony to the quality of his wife’s cooking, sat at one end of the long oak table, his belly stretching his braces, and his laughter filling the room. Señora Lopez sat at the other end of the table, nearest the door to the kitchen, keeping three sons and a daughter under a watchful eye. There were six guests besides Johnny and Murdoch: two Mexicans, three white men and one Mulatto called Isaiah. Not one of them knew the whereabouts of the redheaded gringo with the handle bar moustache named Curtis. Señor Lopez didn’t drink nearby. He preferred the cantinas in the Mexican part of town where they served the best tequila. The other men had not been in Mesilla long enough to take much notice of who served behind the bar.

“Once you’ve seen one barkeeper, you’ve seen them all.” Isaiah grinned with a twinkle in his eye and reached for another slice of soda bread.

“Looks like we’ll have to search one place at a time.” Johnny led the way up the street to a large saloon.  It was the only one on the Calle de Guadalupe. The rest were on the Calle Feliz, the street facing it, that Johnny had told Murdoch about earlier.

Now night had fallen, the saloons, cantinas, eating houses, opium dens, and brothels were livening up. Piano and guitar music filled the air, and the Calle Feliz was full of women in skimpy, colourful dresses and hard drinking men. Some emerged from the shadows doing up buttons and went straight back into the saloons. As Johnny and Murdoch made their way along the street a yahoo fired bullets into the air, did a jig and the collapsed in a giggling heap. Other folks just stepped over him and went about their business. It was like the old days—not a lawman in sight.

“Whoa.” Johnny spun on his heels. A herd of street kids stampeded past, dodging in and out of the revellers ahead of them. An angry cook panted up waving a cleaver and swearing in Spanish, but the little thieves were already out of sight.

“Pequeños ladrones!” The cook stomped back to where he’d come from.

Johnny and Murdoch continued on. They found it almost impossible to ask questions. The bars were too busy. After struggling in the first couple of saloons they made do with getting a good look at the barkeepers and then moving on. They soon lost count of how many bars they’d visited.

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.” Johnny knew it was a lie as soon as he said it. Shoot, these border towns were getting under his skin in a way he’d never expected.

“You keep walking wide of the alleys.”

“Do I?” Johnny laughed, trying to sound unconcerned, and he was careful to pass the next one as though it didn’t matter. After all, it didn’t; not anymore—not for a long time.

Murdoch gave him a look.

Johnny pretended not to see it, and they visited another three cantinas and a saloon.

“I’m tired, John. Let’s call it quits. We can make a fresh start in the morning.”

Johnny nodded. The journey from Santa Fe was taking its toll on him too. He wouldn’t have any trouble dozing off tonight.

Turning back, they skirted a brawl spilling out onto the street.

One fella nearly fell on his face, but Johnny caught him and pushed him back towards his friends. “Some folks are…”

Ahead of him the street kids from earlier were tearing hell for leather out of an alley. A boy about ten or eleven, stopped at the entrance, bouncing on the balls of his bare feet, as his companions ran past. Seconds after the last disappeared, he was still there. He shouted into the alley and took a step back in.

“Vamos!” Another boy yelled from the boardwalk two doors down.

The first boy’s head swivelled between the alley and his friend. Then he turned frightened eyes towards Johnny and Murdoch, saw he was being watched, and took off.

Johnny pushed through the crowd to the entrance of the alley. It was one of those that went all the way through to the street running parallel. He could see a lamp attached to the side of a building at the far end. Splashes of light dotted its length, but most of the alley was in darkness.

“What is it?” Murdoch came up beside him.

Johnny squinted into the gloom. “Wait here.”

He drew his Colt and edged along the wall of the cantina at the street corner. The noise and light from the street faded with every yard. When he reached a rainwater barrel, he paused and listened. The alley had sounds of its own.

As silently as a cat, he jogged into blackness until his boot squelched on scraps from the edge of the cantina’s garbage heap. The boys must have been scavenging. Bones, fresh peelings and half-eaten steak littered the ground in the warm light coming through an open gate. Johnny went wide and entered the shadows again, stopping where the side wall of the cantina’s yard ended. He peered around the corner.  Weak moonlight made it just possible to see.  Open stables with four stalls were recessed into the alley between the cantina and the building on the next street over.

Johnny glanced back and swallowed. For a second, the silhouette of a big man blocked his view of the crowds and then it was gone. Murdoch had entered the alley.

A muffled squawk and Johnny hooked around.

“Stay still you little bastard.”

Horses in the stables snorted restlessly.

There was a thud and a whimper, and shadows moved in a horseless stall.

Johnny crossed the ground to the stable, gun at the ready.

A dark mass loomed at the far end of the third stall.

The man was too intent on his business to hear Johnny approach, but he jerked at the touch of cold steel.

“Let go.”

There was a strangled squeak. Pinned between the shadow-man and the back wall of the stables, a boy squirmed to get free, but the man still had the boy’s face smashed into the adobe.

“Now.” Johnny pressed the muzzle of his Colt into the nape of the man’s neck. Reaching down, he took the bastard’s gun, a Remington, from its holster, screwing up his nose at the stench of cheap stogies, piss and rye.

Shifting his weight, the man let go of the boy’s head and straightened.

The kid wriggled free, stumbling over pants down around his ankles. He pulled them up fast, spat a bandana out of his mouth and backed away, nose bloody, eyes wide and wet.

“Are you hurt?”

The boy stared back.

“Did he hurt you?”

The boy gave one shake of his head, then turned tail and ran.

Johnny closed his eyes. For once, he had been in time.

“What now?” The man growled. “Shoot me and you’ll be hung for sure.”

Johnny didn’t answer. He hadn’t thought that far ahead, but the bastard was right, he couldn’t shoot him, not when he had Emily and the rest of his family to consider. “Strip.”

“What?”

“You heard me.” Johnny aimed his gun and stepped back to the entrance of the stall. The man turned around slowly. He looked for a way out, but there was none. “Strip.”

“All right, I’m doing it.” The man pulled off his boots and threw them forward. Then he shucked his jacket, unclipped his braces and hauled his shirt over his head.

“Satisfied?”

“Keep going.”

Scowling, the man took off his gun belt. His already unbuttoned trousers slipped to the straw. “Now?”

“Nope.” Johnny stared him down.

“Damn you.” The man stepped out of his trousers, kicked them away and then stood in his union suit, hands over the gaping opening at his crotch. He didn’t really need both hands; his cock had gone down some.

“Hello.” Murdoch’s voice came from out in the alley behind them.

“Help! Help me, mister.”

Johnny sighed inwardly, but he didn’t let it show. He waited until Murdoch came up to the stall.

“What’s going on?”

“This bastard is robbing me. Stop him. Call the sheriff.”

“A boy raced out of the alley like a frightened jackrabbit. I thought I should come and find you.”

“Fair enough.” Johnny kept his eyes and his gun on the man in front of him.

“If you know him, tell him to mind his own business.”

Murdoch came around to Johnny’s side. He stared at him and then at the man at the wall end of the stall.

Johnny waited, unsure what his father would do. Trust me, Murdoch. Don’t interfere.

“No one gives a shit about little vermin like that.” The man spat on the ground. “Give me my boots back at least.” He pointed to where they lay in the straw.

Murdoch hunkered down and picked them up. “Good leather. They must have cost you a penny or two.”

“Sure did.”

His eyes fixed on the man, Murdoch stood up. He tossed one of the boots up in the air and caught it again. Then he strolled back out into the alley.

“Hey, where you going?”

Murdoch didn’t reply. Instead he hurled one boot up onto the roof of the lean-to kitchen at the back of the cantina and the other over the parapet of the building opposite.

“What did you do that for?” The man shouted.

Still without speaking, Murdoch walked back past Johnny. He went right up close to the man, grabbed him around the throat, and rammed him into the adobe.

Hell, Johnny didn’t know whether to laugh or cry; his father was joining in.

Murdoch was a good six inches taller than the other man. His size was intimidating even when he wasn’t trying, but now he towered over his victim using his height and weight to full advantage. The man gagged and whimpered, and then just as Johnny started to wonder if he should say something Murdoch let go.

The man staggered into the corner. “You’re both fucking crazy.”

Murdoch scooped up the man’s clothes and walked outside. He returned a few minutes later empty handed.

Johnny tried not to let his Madrid smile slip into a smile of another kind. He jerked his Colt sideways. “Out.”

The man edged past him into the alley. “What have you done with my clothes?”

Murdoch didn’t answer.

“Get going. That way.” Johnny pointed towards the lantern on the corner of the next street.

The stinking bastard had a choice. He could walk out into the open now to slink back to whatever hole he’d crawled out of or he could wait in the shadows by the corner until he was sure they’d gone. Either way, Johnny had an idea he’d have a time finding his pants.

Standing in the thin light from the open gate so they could be seen, Johnny and Murdoch waited until they saw the man’s shadow in the lantern light. Then they left the alley in the other direction. As a final gesture, Johnny dropped the Remington into the rainwater tank.

“Thanks for your help.” He kept his eyes straight ahead as they navigated the crowds on their way back to the boarding house. He didn’t want a conversation, but Murdoch had surprised him—in a good way.

“Men like that deserve worse.”

Johnny glanced sideways, even more surprised than before, but this time it was Murdoch’s turn to keep his eyes on the road ahead.

Not a lot more was said; nothing more about the events in the alley. They went to bed as soon as they got back to their room. Johnny was bone weary. His head hit the pillow, and he fell instantly into darkness.
*****

“Johnny, wake up. Wake up, son.”

A great weight seemed to roll off Johnny as he woke, face down and gasping into his pillow, his arms and legs at odd angles, tangled in sheets and blankets. Murdoch’s hand was on his shoulder, but Johnny hadn’t been shaken out of hell. It was his father’s voice that had saved him.

Slowly, he pushed up onto his side. He was in their room at the boarding house. The oil lamp on the bedside table was turned down low, painting shadows on the walls. His heart was galloping and his throat was dry. He gulped air, his stomach lurched, and he emptied what was left of his supper onto the bare boards beside his bed.

Murdoch grabbed the chamber pot and Johnny retched again. Dios!

Clamping his mouth shut, he closed his eyes and fought to bring the churning under control.

“Better?”

“I think so.” Johnny eased up to sitting. He reached forward and untangled his legs from the top sheet. Then he planted his feet firmly on the floor and breathed deeply, trying to bring his heartbeat back to a normal rhythm.

Murdoch went to the ewer on the washstand and poured a glass of water. “I wasn’t sure if I should wake you.”

“I’m glad you did.” Johnny accepted the glass and took a sip. The water was cool and soothing. It helped settle his stomach.

Murdoch cleaned up the mess on the floor using a towel and the chamber pot. Then he sat down on the bed opposite.

“Thanks.” Johnny grasped his glass of water with both hands to stop them shaking. With elbows resting on his knees, he kept his head bowed, but he knew Murdoch was watching him.

A gentle breeze coming through the window lifted the hairs on his arms. He was hot, but the breeze was cooling him down. He was going to be all right. He was Johnny Madrid. No, he was Johnny Lancer. This was 1873 and he was Johnny Lancer.

He breathed, in and out, long and slow. He wasn’t in danger of puking anymore, but his gut was tight.

He didn’t dare look up. Murdoch’s concern hung heavy in the air. Johnny could almost taste it, but he hated talking about his past. He hated it. Breathe.

But it was no good. He couldn’t dodge this. He and Murdoch could be travelling together for weeks. He needed to say something.

Johnny cleared his throat. “Guess last night shook up a few memories.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”  Murdoch spoke quietly.

Johnny glanced up. His father’s head was bent.

In the flickering lamp light Murdoch looked grey and sad. There’d been no urging in his tone. He expected Johnny to say no. Murdoch had accepted the answer, even before asking the question. Johnny always found a way to avoid the topics he didn’t want to talk about, and Murdoch wouldn’t argue with him this time any more than he’d tried to force information from him before. He never held silence against him or Scott. He simply made excuses for it and hid the hurt of being shut out deep inside. Emily was right. Murdoch and Johnny had a lot more in common than most people recognized.

 Johnny moistened his lips. He could do this. For the first time, he wanted to do this. “I had a few close calls.”

“Oh.”

The surprise and hope in that one word made Johnny smile. He took another sip of water. Well, here goes nothing.

“I used to run with the street kids.”

Murdoch growled like a bear. “Your mother shouldn’t have let you to do that.”

Johnny shrugged. “Mama and Cole were always busy in the saloons. I was as free as an alley cat most of the time. Only the bigger towns had street kids, but it was fun to run with them—and safer.”

“Safer?”

“Men like the guy last night: they hide in alleys and prey on street kids. It’s cheaper than a whore and besides, some prefer boys. You’re easy pickings if you’re on your own. Even in a gang you’re not completely safe.”

“Is that why you walk wide of the alleys?”

“I guess so.” Johnny dragged his fingers back through his hair. His gut was loosening up. Now he needed to piss.

He stood up and put the chamber pot on the chair so its contents wouldn’t spray everywhere when he pissed. It was getting pretty full.

Murdoch looked down at the floor until he’d finished. “Did…did you ever get caught?”

The bed springs creaked as Johnny sat down again. “No, not when I ran with other boys.” Damn! Why did he say the last part?

Murdoch stared at him. He was no fool. He was no gunfighter either; what he was thinking was written all over his face.

“Shoot, Murdoch, don’t go jumping to conclusions.” Life was simpler when Johnny wanted to hurt his father. Caring about him was a lot harder, and in ways he could never have imagined when he was Madrid. He couldn’t leave it like this. “I had two…close calls. They used to give me nightmares, but this is the first one I’ve had in years. It’s being in the border towns again, I think. I’ll be all right when we’re back home.”

“Will you tell me about those close calls?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“No, but if you don’t tell me what actually happened, I might imagine something worse.”

If only that were possible.  Johnny looked up at the ceiling and blinked. The white wash was peeling. It was time Señor Lopez earned his supper and got on the end of a paint brush. Oh, to hell with it, if Murdoch really wanted to know, Johnny would tell him. Enough to be sure he wouldn’t ask again at any rate. “The first time I was caught we were in Nogales. Cole had me watching for cheats at the card table. I was bursting by the time he let me go. A fella followed me outside and grabbed me from behind. If it wasn’t for Mama, he’d have...Well, he didn’t. She fought him off.”

Murdoch gasped. “Were either of you hurt?”

“Not much. A few bruises. He hit Mama, but Cole turned up before he could do any real damage. That’s when I learned Cole hated some things even more than me.”

“Dear God.”

Johnny bowed his head again. He wasn’t sure God had much to do with it, and there was a lot more to the story, but Murdoch didn’t need to hear it.

“It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but I suppose I’m in Thurstan Cole’s debt.”

Johnny’s head snapped up.

“You owe that cabrón nothing.” He glared at Murdoch. Why the hell did his father always have to be so noble?

“But if he saved you and your mother. I should give him credit for that.”

“No you shouldn’t. Hell, Murdoch, Cole was a bastard. He played with the man like a cat with a mouse, and he used me to do it.”

“I don’t understand.”

“The fella offered to pay him for my time. Cole considered the idea—or at least he pretended to. I was fucking terrified.”  

“No wonder you have nightmares.” Murdoch was horrified. He started to get up.

“Stay there. If you want me to keep going, stay where you are.” Johnny didn’t want to be touched. He wouldn’t be able to get the words out if he was touched.

Murdoch backed down and waited. They could hear snoring from the room next door, and a dog howled outside.

Johnny gritted his teeth and stared at the rag rug on the floor. It was all in knots like his innards. “My second close call was in the army.”

“The army? When were you in the army?”

Johnny cocked his head to one side. Well, shoot, fancy the Pinkerton agents not finding out something like that. Maybe he should read those reports and see what else they’d missed. “Soon after I killed Cole. I got into a fight south of the border. The judge was going to give me three months in the Chihuahua state prison, but I had a guardian angel. The Republican army was desperate for soldiers, so I got three months in the infantry instead.”

Murdoch paled. Now he looked like he was going to puke. “The state prison?”

“Yeah, but I didn’t end up going there. Like I said, the Mexican army needed cannon fodder.”

“But you were only fifteen. You were too young for the army or prison.”

Johnny shrugged. “They didn’t know that, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to tell them.”

Murdoch shook his head in disbelief. “The close call: what happened?”

“What do you think?” Johnny forced a laugh. “I was young meat. No women around for weeks. Another soldier thought I’d do.” He tried to make light of it, but it had been much worse than in the alley. Much worse. He swallowed a mouthful of water. The white maggots of his dream were twisting and turning inside him. He had told Murdoch the truth, but there was truth and there was truth. Some things Johnny would never share. “My friend, Manuel, saved me that time.”

“Thank, God.”

“Yep—and Manuel.”

“I wish...”

“No point. We can’t change the past. You told me and Scott that the first day we met, and you remind me every time I get wound up inside about the bad things I’ve done.” Johnny met his father’s gaze.  “Take your own advice, Murdoch. Stop beating yourself up. I can only dream, because I’m alive. I wouldn’t be if it wasn’t for you. I’m lucky.”

Eyes moist, Murdoch smiled at Johnny across the rag rug. He got up and changed sides so they were sitting next to each other, and put a hand on Johnny’s knee. “Thank you, son; I’m lucky too.”

 

Chapter Four

They didn’t talk much more. Murdoch visited the outhouse, emptying the chamber pot at the same time, and they settled down to sleep, thankfully with no more dreams.

In the morning there was a new security between father and son. They set out at about ten o’clock to start off where they’d finished looking for Curtis the night before. Maybe Murdoch would never fully shake his sense of responsibility for Johnny’s early trials, but now he knew his son didn’t blame him, not anymore. It came as a revelation to them both. The hate that had burned inside Johnny for so many years had been entirely replaced by something else.

Johnny was sure he wouldn’t have another nightmare this trip. Even though he hadn’t told Murdoch everything, talking had eased a burden he’d carried locked deep inside him for a long time. Ghosts might rise up again from time to time, stirred up by events like the night before, but talking about those times of sheer terror in his life had helped. Maybe, just maybe, he would talk through the darkest moments with someone one day, maybe Emily or Scott, someone who cared about him but who wouldn’t blame themselves for a history that could never change.

“Looks like he got his clothes.”

Johnny blinked out of his thoughts and looked to his left. They were level with the alley from the night before. It looked different, unthreatening. The garbage pile was a mess. Someone had dug into it not caring where the debris ended up.

“Did you bury his gear in the garbage?”

“I dumped it in a hollow on the side of the pile and pulled some of the top stuff down. There was no need to go at it like a fox in a chicken coop.”

“I reckon he was angry and in a hurry. He wouldn’t want too many folks seeing him in his drawers.” Johnny chuckled and went to investigate the rainwater tank. “Gun’s gone.”

“And his boots.” Murdoch pointed to the lean-to roof. Chances were the man had got the one Murdoch had flung over the parapet as well. Now it was light they could see stairs going up to the roof of the building only a few yards ahead of them.

Hoping they wouldn’t meet up with him again, they went back to their search for Curtis. The cantinas and saloons were quiet now, but there were still plenty of people about. Girls in a state of undress sat around tables and fireplaces, smoking and sharing gossip over breakfast as the barkeepers set up their bars for the day ahead. It was easier to ask questions, but no easier to get answers.

“I’m beginning to think we’ll never find him,” Murdoch said as they came out of the fifth saloon of the morning. “Half of them aren’t interested in anything beyond their own doorway, and the other half look at us as though we’re trying to trick them.”

“Border towns—folks close ranks. They’d protect the devil unless there was something in it for them.” Johnny looked around for the next place to visit. The brothel across the road could have a bar; there was a crate full of empty bottles by the door.

“Offering to pay didn’t seem to make any difference.” Murdoch glanced at Johnny and frowned. “You knew no one would admit to knowing him.”

“Not right off, but I can usually tell if they’re lying.” Johnny tipped his hat to a couple of whispering saloon girls, leaning against a hitching post. They giggled and threw him an invitation with their eyes as they sashayed inside. He wasn’t going to accept of course but—

“Ahem.”

“No harm in looking, Murdoch.” Johnny gave Murdoch a cheeky grin, and his father laughed.

“No, I suppose not.”

“Hey, Lancers!”

Johnny and Murdoch turned at the call of their name. It was Isaiah from the boarding house, trundling down the road in a wagon laden with fat hessian sacks.

Isaiah pulled on the brake as a strong smell of coffee greeted their nostrils. “I reckon I seen your barkeep.”

“You did? Where?” Murdoch stepped off the boardwalk and came up close to the wagon.

“He was sweeping out the Wet Your Whistle saloon, across from my warehouse. I said to myself, Isaiah, that there fella with the curly cue moustache could be the barkeep them Lancers are after, and damned if five minutes later I don’t see you two. Now ain’t that somethin’?”

Thanking him, Johnny and Murdoch hurried down the street towards the warehouses, dodging the carts and the horses.

“Get out of here, you dirty mongrel.” Ten yards in front of them Herb Curtis whacked a scrawny old dog off the saloon porch with the flat of his broom. Then he marched inside.

“Is it him?” Murdoch looked sideways at Johnny.

“Yep, I think so.”

They crossed the street and pushed through the swing doors. The cook was setting out the free lunch at the end of the bar.

“Want a drink?” Curtis finished drying a glass and threw the damp tea towel down on top of others draining next to a tin basin.

“Two beers.” Johnny came up to the bar and checked over his shoulder to see who else was in the room. It was virtually empty. A dealer was preparing the Faro table, but it was too early for most of the workmen hereabouts. Another ten minutes though and they’d start coming through the doors for their lunch.

“No ring,” Murdoch muttered under his breath.

He was right. As Curtis poured the beer from the keg Johnny could see the barkeeper’s fingers were bare, not even the shadow of where one had been.

Still it was their only lead; Johnny had to ask. “Remember me?”

Curtis placed the drinks down on the bar and held out his hand for payment.

“Should I?”

“Santa Fe, about nine years ago. I killed a gambler in the Silver Dollar.” Johnny dropped two dimes into the open palm. “You were the barkeeper at the time.”

Curtis blanched. “You’re dead.”

“So I’ve been told. Guess I came back to life.”

Curtis’s eyes darted down and up again.

Johnny’s hand rested on his Colt. He smiled. “We’re looking for the gambler’s ring.”

Curtis licked his lips. He pushed his fingers nervously through his Macassar oiled hair, and then wiped them on his apron, one finger at a time. “I’ve got no beef with you, Madrid.”

“Nope, and I’d like to keep it that way. We just want the ring.”

Curtis pulled at his starched collar. “I don’t know anything about a ring.” He couldn’t look Johnny in the eye. He was lying. Johnny was sure of it.

“You took it off Cole’s finger.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Marshall Bilson confiscated all the gambler’s belongings and auctioned them to the highest bidder.”

“Not everything. Not the ring. Charlie, the piano player, couldn’t get it off Cole’s finger, but you did. You found a way before the sheriff got there, and you didn’t hand it over.” Johnny pulled his Colt from its holster and pointed it lazily at Curtis. “Now’s your chance.”

“Okay, okay, no need for that.”

Johnny raised an eyebrow. “No?”

“Put that gun away and I’ll tell you.”

Johnny smiled, tasted his beer just to draw out the suspense a little, and then re-holstered his gun. “Well?”

“I got it off with hair oil, and why shouldn’t I keep it? I did all the cleaning up.” He looked at Murdoch for support.

Murdoch got out his pocket book. “I’ll pay you for it.”

Curtis opened his eyes wide with surprise. “How much?”

“I’ll give you fifty dollars. It’s a family heirloom, and I want it back.”

Curtis looked like he’d swigged some whisky and found it was rot gut. “I don’t have it anymore.”

“Where is it?” Johnny glanced over his shoulder. The lunchtime trade was beginning to come in through the door. They let Curtis serve and helped themselves to food while they waited for the next opportunity to talk to him.

“Well, what happened to the ring?” Johnny asked, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. There were no napkins.

“What’s it worth?”

“Ten.” Murdoch removed a ten dollar note from his wallet, but he was careless. Curtis got a good look at what was still left inside.

“Twenty five.”

Before Murdoch could answer Johnny put out his hand. “Put it away. He can’t tell us anything.”

“I can—for a price. I figure the information must be worth half. You’re stuck without it.”

“Ten up front. Five more if we think you’re telling the truth and the information is worth it.”

Curtis glowered at Johnny.

“Up to you. There are cheaper ways I could make you talk.” Johnny looked back at Curtis with a steady gaze.

“Bastard.” Curtis snatched the ten dollar note out of Murdoch’s hand. “A Mexican fella wanted the ring. Came in here for his lunch about four years ago. Saw the ring on my finger and asked me to sell it to him.”

“You were wearing it?” Murdoch said in surprise. “You never did in Santa Fe.”

“Couldn’t, could I, not with Bilson poking around. He’d have known it was the gambler’s and taken it off me.” Curtis poured another beer for a customer. “I’m no fool, mister. I kept it hidden. I waited for the auction, bought a few more doodads at a good price.” He showed off his cufflinks and tie pin. “And then I came down here where I could wear them or sell them on at a better price, no questions asked.”

That made sense. Johnny couldn’t fault Curtis’s logic. The signet ring had his initial on it so it was one of the items he’d kept until the Mexican made him a good offer. “Do you know the guy’s name or where he came from?”

“He said he came from El Paso way, but I dunno his name. Wagoner, I reckon, from what he was wearing. Probably a small trader cos he had money. We get a lot around here. They bring goods into the warehouses and go back where they came from with a fresh load.”

“What did he look like?”

“Like a Mex. Hell, I don’t know. They all look the same to me: black hair and a moustache. About his age.” Curtis pointed at Murdoch. “Your height, but with more meat on his bones.”

“And you’re sure he didn’t give a name?”

“All I know is he showed me a leather pocket book with the initials E.F. on it. Said it was a present from his son, and he wanted to buy something similar in return. He reckoned my signet ring with the letter C would be just the thing. Offered me twenty bucks at first and then upped it to forty, but I wouldn’t sell.”

Murdoch stopped drinking his beer mid-swallow. “I thought you said you did sell.”

“No, sir, I didn’t sell. I swapped it for something he had that I wanted.”

“Yeah, what was that?” Johnny pushed his hat back. Was Curtis dragging this story out for a reason?

“I’ll show you in a minute.” The barkeeper left to serve again, this time a pair of office types had come in. When he came back he had a tea towel in his hands. It looked odd, but Johnny was in the middle of eating tamales when he noticed. The next thing they knew, they were facing the muzzle of a twin barrel revolver—a LeMat.

Raising their hands, Johnny and Murdoch backed off a little as Curtis brandished the revolver with more bravado than skill.

“I ain’t answering any more questions, Madrid. I’ve told you what I know anyway. You owe me another fifteen dollars, mister.”

“Our agreement was five.” Murdoch lowered his hands slowly.

“When you two held all the cards it was five. Now I have them, the price has gone back up.” Curtis smirked and pointed the LeMat at Johnny’s head. “Keep them hands high, Madrid.”

Murdoch looked between Curtis and Johnny and reached for his pocket book again.

“Don’t get any ideas, old man. Madrid knows.” Curtis swept the gun back and forth between Johnny and Murdoch. “With this French beauty I can take you both down at the same time.”

“Where’d you get it?” Johnny kept his eyes on the gun as Murdoch paid Curtis the extra money.

“Where do you think? I swapped it for the ring.” Curtis snatched up the extra fifteen dollars from the bar.  “Knew as soon as I saw it stuck in that greaser’s belt what it was.”

“The sight is missing.” Bells were ringing in Johnny’s head.

“It makes no difference for what I want it for.” Curtis laughed. “Hell, to think the first year I knew Moses Lloyd, I thought he got the name ‘Holy Moses’ cos he was brought up Methodist and sang hymns in the choir. Boy was I wrong.”

“What do you mean?”

Murdoch had asked Johnny how Lloyd had got his nickname in Santa Fe, but Johnny had changed the subject.  He’d thought he’d gotten away with it.

“Murdoch, let’s get out of here. We’ve got the information we need.”

“No, wait a minute. I’m interested. How did Lloyd get the name?”

“I’ll tell you later. Come on.” Johnny clapped his father on the arm and thumbed towards the door. He didn’t like the way Curtis was swinging his gun from side to side. The lever was up and even if the barkeep couldn’t shoot straight, a LeMat could do a lot of damage if it went off.

“I saw Holy Moses use his LeMat with my own eyes,” Curtis crowed, stuffing his talking money into his waistcoat pocket. “I hear he’s marshal of Santa Fe now, but back then he was head gun at the Oakridge ranch, and there was a range war on.”

“I know. I was there. Remember?” Johnny frowned. “Curtis, stop waving that gun around. It’s not a toy.”

“I can handle it.” Curtis glared at Johnny, but he held the gun steady. “I lived in Santa Fe long before you joined the fracas, Madrid. I’m talking before your time.”  

“Well, tell us what happened then,” a customer serving himself with free lunch thumped the bar. Johnny looked around. Several men seemed to be eavesdropping on the conversation.

Curtis puffed up like a bullfrog and began playing to his audience. “Well now, one day—a Sunday, it was cos Lloyd had come into town to hear a preacher who was passing through. Anyway, a pack of yahoos from the Bar T cornered him after the meeting. There weren’t no doubt what they were aiming to do, but half them good pious folks from the meeting stayed around to watch. Holy Moses warned them gunhawks to stay back. He told them he didn’t get to be head gun cos he was slow to the draw, but they wouldn’t listen. They were aiming to make a reputation for themselves. They kept backing him towards the granary until there weren’t no more room for him to back. Hell, there were six of them and no law, just a whole heap of witnesses who’d be struck deaf and dumb if anyone asked who drew first. That was the way it was there in them days. I couldn’t rightly blame those young ‘uns for thinking they had the upper hand.”

“But they didn’t?” One of the clerks near the door leered across the bar.

“Well, it sure looked like they did until one of them bit the bullet and went for his gun. The kid dived, but he didn’t reckon on Lloyd’s Frenchie gun. None of them did.” Curtis held his LeMat up high so everyone in the saloon could see it. “No word of a lie, Holy Moses sent all six of them to Jesus with only one pull of the trigger. Them fellas were so full of holes you could have used their bloody carcasses as sieves.”

A slight exaggeration but at close range a LeMat could make quite a mess.  

Lloyd had taught Johnny what a LeMat could do on a stand of aspens one day when the Welshman was taking Johnny’s measure and teaching him the boundaries of the job. Johnny had been at Oakridge a week, and he’d already heard both versions of how Lloyd had got his nickname. After that day on the mountain, he knew which he believed, but he only ever saw Lloyd use the lower barrel of the gun once against men. Holy Moses had unseated two riders at distance and given his gun hawks enough time to scatter. Johnny could imagine the scene Curtis described though. Hell, he didn’t have to imagine too hard. He’d once used a LeMat himself in a similar situation.

“A LeMat can shoot grapeshot as well as bullets, you see, fellas. Even Johnny Madrid here ain’t comfortable being at the wrong end of one these beauties.”

Johnny was too busy watching the gun to notice if the other men reacted to his name. Curtis had started waving the LeMat around again and his finger was mighty close to the trigger. “Murdoch, let’s go.”

“In a minute, I…”

“Duck!” Johnny dived across the bar, knocking Curtis’s arm up and sideways.  Murdoch and the others at the bar hit the deck as a shower of adobe chips fell from the ceiling into the meals of the men dining at tables in the middle of the room. One guy lost his hat, the man next to him wiped a streak of blood from his cheek as a glass shattered on the table behind him, and a saloon girl yelped. She’d been hit in the bustle. It was a miracle no one got killed.

“You damn fool!” Johnny grabbed the LeMat out of Curtis’s hand.

“It, it went off.” Curtis was shaking like a leaf.

“That’s what happens when you press the trigger.” Johnny spun the barrel and emptied it to be sure there weren’t any more accidents. He pocketed the bullets. They were hard to come by, and with luck that fool Curtis didn’t have any more, though there was nothing Johnny could do to stop him getting more grapeshot and that was where the real danger lay.

Johnny stuck the LeMat under Curtis’s nose. “If you want to own a gun like this, learn how to use it. Sheesh, you could have killed the lot of us.” He slammed the empty gun down on the bar and marched outside.

Dios, that had been close.

Eyes shut and heart pounding he gritted his teeth and breathed deep.

Murdoch followed him out. “Johnny, I…”

Johnny whirled around. “Fucking hell, Murdoch, when I say let’s go, let’s go!”

Murdoch stared back at him. He must have known the muzzle had been pointing straight at his head before Johnny knocked it skywards. He must have known that if Johnny had been a split second slower, he wouldn’t be alive now and neither would the two fellas standing next to him. Shit, it had been a close call.

Grim-faced, Murdoch looked up and away.

Johnny looked down at his boots, hands on hips, the jumble of emotions inside him making his chest hurt. Damn it, Murdoch, you nearly got yourself killed.

Father and son stood in silence, ignoring everything and everyone around them, until they glanced sideways at the same time and their eyes met.

The corner of Murdoch’s mouth twitched.

“It’s not funny,” Johnny growled, but he couldn’t help himself.

They both burst out laughing.

“Holy hell, when I saw Curtis’s finger squeeze down on that trigger…” Johnny doubled over.

Murdoch was just as bad. Passers-by stared at them as though they were loco, and maybe they were.

When they finally pulled themselves together there were tears in their eyes.

Murdoch squeezed Johnny’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, son.  I should have listened to you.”

“No shit.” Johnny took a big breath in and then grinned.  “I call the tune from now on, old man. Do you hear me?”

“Agreed, but only in the border towns.” Murdoch grinned back. “I reclaim my throne when we get home.”

That was fine by Johnny. As long as they both got home.

Rattled but reading from the same page again, they headed for the boarding house.

Murdoch stopped at the corner with the Calle de Guadalupe. “We should check at the depot to see what time the next stage leaves for Tucson.”

“Tucson? That’s west of here. We need to go south. We haven’t found the ring yet.”

“It doesn’t look like we’re going to find it. A Mexican my age with a moustache; there must be hundreds of men like that in and around El Paso. It’s not even worth going there.”

Johnny bit his bottom lip. How was he going to explain this? “I think I know who the man is.”

“You do?”

“His name is Flores, Emilio Flores.” Johnny rubbed the back of his neck.  “He’s married to Mama’s cousin.”

“Luisa in El Paso del Norte?”

“You know about her?” Shoot, Johnny really did need to read those Pinkerton reports. He’d always meant to. Murdoch showed him where they were, but he’d only got half way through the first one and given up on the idea. The past was better left in the past—or at least he’d thought so at the time.

“I visited her a few times, but she always said she didn’t know where you and your mother were.”

Johnny felt like he’d been punched in the stomach. “You visited Luisa?” He stared at Murdoch. “You went there, not your Pinks?”

“Both. I visited almost every winter until 1860. Luisa was the only relative your mother had as far as I knew.”

“You’re kidding me.”  Johnny looked this way and that, and then started walking, turning the corner and heading for the stagecoach office in the plaza. He couldn’t believe this.

“Johnny, slow down.”

Johnny stopped to let a dray loaded with barrels go by and Murdoch caught up.

“What’s wrong?” Murdoch took hold of Johnny’s arm. “You knew I’d searched for you.”

Johnny felt sick inside. All that time—he’d thought Luisa and Emilio Flores had cared something about him.  “I didn’t know you’d spoken with Luisa. It doesn’t make any sense. Why didn’t she tell me?”

“Well, that’s easy. Luisa thought I was some kind of ogre. She wouldn’t listen to a word I had to say. The last time I saw her, her husband threatened to shoot me if I ever came back into his shop.”

“I wasn’t exactly in Emilio’s good books when we last saw each other either.” Johnny sighed and dropped down onto the street. Even so, they’d made a truce. Not telling him about Murdoch’s visits still didn’t sit right.

Johnny and Murdoch crossed diagonally and continued on towards the plaza at a slower pace.

Maybe Luisa and Emilio had kept Mama’s secrets for a good reason. If they’d believed Murdoch had thrown Johnny and Mama out…But Murdoch went back several times. Surely later…they couldn’t possibly have thought Murdoch would be worse than Cole later. When Mama was alive he could maybe understand it, but after her death? Why hadn’t they told him then? They’d had the chance.

Murdoch had said they wouldn’t listen to him though. Maybe they really were afraid for his safety. It was possible. Damn it, it was better than not caring, but, as with the ring, he’d only find out for sure if they went to El Paso del Norte.

They swung wide to dodge three men whitewashing the outside of a building. The men seemed to be getting more paint on themselves than on the walls.

“Jelly’s cousins,” Murdoch joked.

Johnny couldn’t even muster a smile, but he made an effort to appear less distracted. “Emilio used to be in the army. He’s a good shot. You were wise not to go back.”

“His threat wasn’t the reason.”

Johnny stopped walking. “What then?”

Murdoch shrugged. “I lost heart. After…I couldn’t face another fruitless journey, but I couldn’t give up either. I didn’t know what to do until Aggie’s first husband, Henry, suggested I use the Pinkertons.”

They were standing outside a gunsmith’s shop. Johnny didn’t know what to say so he pretended to be interested in the weapons in the window. There was the usual array of Remington and Winchester rifles, and Colt, Remington and Smith and Weston revolvers. There was a Colt like the one he’d owned the last time he spoke with Emilio. “I don’t know if I ever told you this, but after I killed Cole, I thought about doing the same to you.”

“It doesn’t surprise me.” Murdoch gave him the flicker of a smile and this time Johnny returned it. The night before had made a difference.

They started walking again.

“When Emilio sent me packing, he made me promise to hear you out before deciding whether to shoot you or not.”

“Good to know.” Murdoch savoured the information as they approached the plaza. “Am I allowed to be grateful to him?”

Johnny chuckled. “I guess so. I am.”

“What makes you think he has the ring?”

“The gun. I gave Emilio a LeMat as payment for supplies and for looking after my horse while I was in the army.”  Johnny halted outside the stagecoach depot. Two large chalkboards were nailed either side of the door with arrivals and departures. The stage to El Paso left daily at eight o’clock in the morning. The westward stage to Tucson left in forty minutes.

“A LeMat isn’t a gun you see a lot of in the United States. How did you come by it?”

“The wages of war.” Johnny locked eyes with Murdoch, and then turned away to gaze out over the plaza. His father could work out for himself what it had taken to earn. It hadn’t been pretty; that was for sure.

Murdoch came up and stood beside him. It was market day and barrows and stalls lined three sides of the square. A water carrier parked by the well at the centre of the square was filling large terracotta pots on his cart. “Why would Emilio want the ring?”

“There’s only one reason I can think of.”

“He knows about the diamonds.”

“He must. There was no love lost between Emilio and Cole. He wouldn’t have wanted the ring as a keepsake.”

“Do you think he would have kept it or sold it on?” Murdoch pushed his hat back and raised his face to the sun. There was gentle warmth to it at this time of year. The sky was a pale turquoise and dotted with white fluffy clouds.

“I don’t know, but one thing’s for sure, if it is still a ring and not sold off one diamond at a time, we’ll have to pay a lot more than fifty dollars to get it back.” Johnny had hoped to buy the ring back without Murdoch’s help. If whoever had it didn’t know about the diamonds, they’d have been talking less than a hundred and he could have done it, but now they were talking a lot, lot more. Johnny probably wouldn’t be able to do it alone, and even if he could, Murdoch wouldn’t let him.

“Well, only time will tell. It looks like we won’t know what the story is until we go to El Paso del Norte.” Murdoch turned on his heels. “Come on, let’s buy tickets for tomorrow morning’s stage, and then send a telegram home so they know where we’re going.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Johnny hit the porch post to relieve some of the tension inside him and followed Murdoch into the Wells Fargo office.

If Santa Fe hadn’t been bad enough, now he had living demons to face.

 

Chapter 5

“Ready?”

“Let’s wait until the vaquero leaves.” Johnny took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He wasn’t sure how this was going to go down.

They’d arrived in El Paso del Norte an hour ago after taking the early morning stage from Mesilla to El Paso, and walking across the bridge into Mexico. Johnny had been sixteen and not long out of the Mexican army when last here. Emilio Flores had helped him on his way, but at the same time he had made it very clear that a pistolero was a liability to a respectable family. A pistolero with Johnny Madrid’s reputation could never be made welcome or even acknowledged as one of their own.

Johnny snapped a stick into ever smaller pieces as they waited. Would he get credit for respecting Emilio’s wishes? He’d passed through El Paso after that, but he hadn’t set foot again in El Paso del Norte. Would he be made welcome now? The Flores family would know he’d done a lot of bad things between sixteen and twenty-one. Would three decent years and a new name be enough to make a difference?

“There he goes.” Murdoch nodded towards the shop as the customer came out, shutting the door behind him. The vaquero paused to roll a cigarette, stashed the rest of his newly bought tobacco into his top pocket, and then sauntered along the boardwalk towards the centre of town. Murdoch swept a hand out in invitation. “After you.”

Johnny stepped down onto the dirt road, fingers and toes crossed.

The general store was surprisingly open and airy inside, not at all like the gloom Johnny remembered. The shop floor had been made larger by knocking through to a back room, or maybe extra space had been built on. There was a skylight in the ceiling overhead. Barrels and baskets of apples, beans, and other fresh produce stood to their left like a regiment of soldiers on parade with a stack of flour sacks at the end closest to them. A display of foodstuffs and household items was arranged on the wide sill of the window, and three aisles of shelves stacked with cans, bottles and other containers stretched back to a hardware section at the very rear of the cavernous room. Johnny could see brooms, pick axes, buckets and butter churns in the distance. “This has changed some.”

“So it has.” Murdoch gazed up at the rectangular panes of glass in the skylight. The ones at the side were sloping.

The shop was more like one of those fancy emporiums now than a simple general store. Through an arch to their right Johnny could see racks of clothes in a room that had once been a completely separate stop. Emilio and Luisa had bought the basket maker’s not long before his last visit, adding a warehouse to the other side of it. In the time Johnny and Murdoch had waited outside a farmer and two carters had come and gone from the warehouse; it seemed to be doing good business.

The counter was about the only thing in the shop that looked the same as it always had. The broad length of scrubbed timber extended from near the front window on the right of the door all the way back to the arch.

A young woman stood behind it at the arch-end, using iron and brass scales to measure sugar from a large sack into one pound brown paper bags. “Can I help you, señores?” She smiled and came to their end of the counter to serve. Her belly was rounded under her apron—seven months gone at least.

“Hola, señora. Is Señor Flores here? Lancer’s the name. My father and I would like a word.”

“Which Señ…”

“Excuse me, señora.” Murdoch cut in before she could finish her sentence. “Was there a child attached to those reins?” He pointed to a leather harness lying on the floor next to blue, red and yellow wooden blocks. The reins of the harness were attached to the leg of a display table.

“Oh, madre María.” The señora rushed out from behind the counter. “Mi hijo, where are you?”

 “Don’t panic. We’ll find him.” Murdoch headed down the aisle furthest away from the counter.

The young woman went down the one closest to it, and Johnny took the middle. They found the runaway at the very end of all of them behind crates of crockery.

He couldn’t have been more than eighteen months old. He howled loudly when he saw two strange men towering above him, but a second later he was happy again in his mother’s arms. “Javier Alberto Flores, look at this mess.” Kitchen utensils and clothes pegs were strewn everywhere.

The boy wrapped chubby arms around his mother’s neck and kissed her on the cheek. Then he stared solemnly at Murdoch and Johnny with big, brown eyes.

Murdoch laughed. “No harm done. He isn’t the first bairn to escape his reins. I know a little boy who went a lot further and made a lot more mess than this.” He winked at Johnny and hunkered down to tidy up.

“Gracias, señor.” The young mother smiled. “Now, is it my husband or my father-in-law you wish to speak with?”

Recalling the child’s name, Johnny grinned. “Are you Alberto’s wife?”

“Si, señor, and this is our son, Javier.”

“Hola, Javier.” Johnny offered the little boy a finger and he grabbed hold. “I’m your daddy’s cousin, Johnny.”

“Alberto’s cousin? How wonderful. Wait, I will get him for you. He is in the warehouse.” Peeling her son’s fingers away from Johnny’s, she hurried away. Johnny and Murdoch headed back to the counter.

“Are you sure he’ll want to see you?” Murdoch asked after a few minutes with so sign of anybody.

Johnny rubbed the back of his neck and frowned. He hadn’t given Alberto much thought before; it had been his cousin’s parents he’d been worried about. Alberto had always been on his side, even when Emilio and Luisa had decided against him, but as Alberto now had a wife and child maybe he wouldn’t want anything to do with him either.

Voices in the distance interrupted this sobering thought. Johnny couldn’t make out what was being said, but when the talking stopped he heard footsteps crossing the timber floor of the next room.

Alberto appeared in the arch pointing a shot gun. The eighteen year old Johnny remembered had turned into a man, stocky like his father but still clean shaven and with the finer features of his mother. His eyes were wary as they fell on Murdoch, but his face stretched into a huge grin when he saw Johnny.

“Mi amigo. It is you.” Alberto put the gun down on the counter and pulled Johnny into a hug. “I am glad you are alive.”

Johnny laughed. “What were the odds?”

“Not high, mi primo; not high. We heard you were shot by Rurales and then we heard maybe it was not true, but we heard nothing from you. For years we have heard nothing of Johnny Madrid. We did not know what to think. Why did you not let us know you were alive?”

Johnny didn’t know how to answer that. He hadn’t even thought about it at first, and then when he had he wasn’t sure it was the right time. Somehow it had never been the right time. “I’m sorry. I should have written. A lot has changed since I last saw you. I don’t hire out any more and…Alberto, I’d like you to meet my father, Murdoch Lancer—my real father.”

Alberto stared at Johnny, then at Murdoch and then at Johnny again. “You mean it?”

Johnny nodded.

Alberto’s grin got even bigger. He slapped his hand into Murdoch’s. “Welcome, señor, welcome.”

He turned towards the arch from where his wife was watching, still holding their child. He waved her forward. “Johnny, Señor Lancer, I’d like you to meet my wife, Isabella, and our son, Javier.”

The next ten minutes were spent exchanging news and congratulations. Alberto got very excited when Johnny told him about Emily. “Mama will be over the moon that you are married.”

“How is she?” Johnny ducked his head.

“She is well. We share the house with her and my father. Where are you staying? You must cancel your room and come to us.”

“We haven’t got a room yet,” Murdoch replied. “They’re hard to come by because of the auction.”

As luck would have it, there was a cattle auction in town. They couldn’t spare the time, but Johnny had seen the longing in Murdoch’s eyes when he’d translated the poster outside the hotel: ‘The best bulls in Mexico.’

What the poster didn’t say, but what they soon found out was that every room in El Paso del Norte was taken. They had decided to worry about it after making contact with Emilio, but they would have to go back across the bridge to El Paso or bed down out in the open somewhere.

“Alberto, we’re searching for something. Your father has a lot of contacts. We thought he might be able to help us.” Murdoch took care not to give too much away. They’d agreed on the journey from Mesilla to tell no one about the ring until they’d spoken with Emilio. “Is he home?”

“He is on a buying trip, but he will be back tonight. I am sure he will help if he can. If you stay with us, you can talk to him after supper.”

“Murdoch, what do you think? Luisa is a good cook, and it sure beats sleeping on the ground.”

“You go, son. Luisa won’t want me under her roof. I’ll find a place across the river.”

“You know my mother, Señor Lancer?”

“Call me Murdoch, and yes, your parents and I met many years ago. My wife and your mother were very close. When Maria ran off with Johnny, Luisa naturally took her side against me. I don’t expect that has changed, and I don’t want to spoil a family reunion. You go, Johnny. I’ll be fine. We can talk to Señor Flores in the morning.”

“I’m not staying if you’re not.” Johnny looked down, scuffing his boot on the floor. He wanted see Luisa again—she had been more of a mother to him at times than Mama—but there was no future for them if she held onto her grudge against Murdoch.

“Wait here.” Alberto headed for the door. “I will go and talk to her.”

“Please don’t upset her.” Murdoch pushed his hat back. “If she doesn’t want me in her house, don’t force the matter.”

“She will want to see Johnny. He has accepted you, so how can she do otherwise?”

Murdoch shook his head. “It may not be that simple.”

“Let me try. Wait here.”

As Alberto left, a farmer and his wife entered, and Isabella went behind the counter.

Johnny and Murdoch browsed the shelves without talking. Johnny wanted to know more about Murdoch’s visits to El Paso del Norte, but he sensed it wasn’t the time to ask. This border town and this shop had memories for his father as well as for him.

The customers left with their purchases. A labourer came and went too, then children wanting to spend a coin they’d found in the street. They took a long time deciding which candy to buy. Isabella strapped Javier back into his harness and put him down on the floor to play with his building blocks while she served them.

Finally, sometime after the niños had left, Alberto came back, and Luisa came with him. He turned the sign on the door and locked it.

For a moment Luisa stood without saying a word, her eyes on Johnny. He felt awkward, like he was a little boy again. He couldn’t think of what to say to her so he shrugged and smiled.

“Oh, Juanito.” Luisa opened her arms to him, and he stooped to hug her. When he broke free, she took his face in her hands and searched his eyes. “You are well? Is it true what Alberto says? You no longer do bad things.”

“I am well, Luisa, and thanks to Murdoch, I no longer do bad things. I’m a rancher now, not a pistolero.” Johnny led her by hand to his father.

“Señora Flores.” Murdoch touched his hat.

“Señor Lancer.” Luisa stared at him and then looked up at Johnny. “Juanito?”

“It’s all right, Luisa. Murdoch is all right. He didn’t throw me and Mama out. I know the truth now.”

“Truth.” Luisa’s eyes went black, her voice stiff and cold. “Whose truth?”

Mama’s eyes used to change colour like that.

Johnny swallowed, panicking inside, knowing the storm clouds were gathering. “I’ve talked to people. Not just Murdoch.”

“People. Pfft!  His people. And you believe them.”

Johnny bowed his head. “Yes, Luisa, I believe them. They’re good people. They tell the truth.”

“They tell their truth, Juanito. They tell what they saw from the outside.” Luisa swung around to face Murdoch. “Maria told me her truth.”

“I know and I’m sorry.” Murdoch met her gazed. “I hurt Maria. I didn’t mean to, but—“

Luisa blinked up at the ceiling. She was trembling.

“Señora—“

She held up a hand to silence him.

“I just wanted—“

“I don’t care what you wanted,” she hissed. “Gringos want too much.”

“But if you’ll let me—“

“You took what didn’t belong to you.” Luisa cried out like a wounded animal.  “You caged a beautiful, free spirit and then you drove her into the arms of that monster. You destroyed her.”   

“Luisa, please.” Johnny didn’t know what to do. He looked around desperately for help. “Alberto.”

But his cousin seemed equally shocked and unable to act.

Murdoch shut his eyes as though he’d been slapped.

When he opened them again he met Luisa’s anger and despair with an unusual calmness. “Maria and I both made mistakes, señora. We got married because we loved each other. I didn’t throw her out, but you are right, I failed her in many ways. I don’t blame you for taking her side. I didn’t come here to distress you. I will leave now.”

He sidestepped and headed towards the door, but stopped before he got there. Turning back to face her, his voice broke under the strain of emotion. “Thank you for being there for Johnny. He has told me how you and your family supported him over the years. I will always be in your debt.”

Luisa gave an unearthly moan and buckled, wrapping her arms around her middle as if in pain.

“Mama.” Alberto went to her side, but she pushed him away.

Standing straight again, she clutched at her rosary beads. “We did not do so well last time Juanito came to us. I have felt the guilt of it in my heart ever since.”

“It’s over, Luisa.” Johnny reached out and squeezed her hand. Didn’t she know how much her menfolk had done to help him? It had been complicated. He didn’t blame any of them for the choices they made. “The past is behind us.”

“No, Juanito, the past is in here.” She placed a hand over his heart.  “It makes us what we are. Good and bad, right or wrong, the past lives in our souls forever.”

She turned away and walked to the window.

Javier whimpered and Isabella picked him up. She untied his harness and took him into the other room.

The three men stood in silence until Luisa sighed and returned to them, her eyes now brown and moist.

She stood before Murdoch with a quiet dignity. “Señor Lancer, I owe you an apology. God has taught me a hard lesson. In His eyes you were Maria’s husband. She forsook her oath, and I let her. Juanito paid the price. Maria was my failure as much as yours.”

“I think Johnny and God will forgive us both if we forgive each other.”  

Luisa nodded. “I pray you are right, but I must make amends.” She offered her hand to Murdoch. “There is a bed in my house if you want it.”

Murdoch smiled and cupped her hand between his. “I am honoured, señora. Will you call me Murdoch?”  

“Si, it is time. And you will call me Luisa.” She looked away. It was too soon for her to return his smile. “Come, I will show you to your room.”

She led the way out of the shop and into the clapboard house next door. It was an oddity in El Paso del Norte. Emilio had paid an American carpenter to build it for him soon after Alberto was born, or so the story went. It was the first of many signs that Emilio Flores and his family were going up in the world. It had served them well, and for short periods it had been Johnny’s place of safety.

Luisa took Johnny and Murdoch through the front door, into the wide hallway where Johnny and his cousins had wrestled and played games in the evenings, up the staircase with the broad bannister that they’d slid down, and into a double bedroom with two single beds.

“Is this Alberto and Tomás’s room? Didn’t I used to sleep between the dresser and the wardrobe?”

“Si, but you are a little big for a cot on the floor now. You may have a bed.” Luisa gave him the flicker of a smile. “Alberto and Isabella have Estefania’s old room where your mamá used to sleep. Alejandro’s room is the nursery.” She went over to the window and lifted the sash. “The beds are fresh made. Now give me those shirts and anything else that needs washing. I will take care of them while you freshen up.”

Johnny and Murdoch pulled their soiled shirts, socks and vests out of their saddle bags.

“Thank you, Luisa.” Murdoch handed over his dirty washing. “We’ll have to keep what we’re wearing. We’ve nothing else clean.”

“I will lend you some shirts and socks. I cannot have you sitting at my table smelling more strongly than the food.”

Johnny laughed. “Have you got a shirt big enough for Murdoch?”

“Si, I think so. Tomás brought his corporal with him last time he came. Manuel was a strapping young man, and he left a shirt behind.”

Well, if that didn’t beat all.

“Manuel Ruiz? I know him. One of his shirts will do fine.” Johnny began to undo buttons and Luisa turned her back. So Manuel was a corporal now. Johnny wasn’t sure how that was possible as Manuel was a little slow, but he was pleased for him. Manuel was a good and loyal friend. Johnny smiled. Maybe he had just answered his own question; if Tomás had wanted someone trustworthy to watch his back there could be none better than Manuel. “Where is Tomás stationed now?”

“Chihuahua. He is Teniente Coronel Flores now. He has hand-picked his own entourage and guard, more than just Manuel.” Luisa sounded understandably proud. Without turning around she accepted Johnny and Murdoch’s shirts and socks and left the room.

“No mention of Thurstan Cole.” Murdoch remarked, pouring water into the basin on the washstand.

“He never stayed here. Only Mama and me.” Johnny sat on the edge of the bed, looking down at the serape mat on the floor. “The Flores family attend mass every Sunday. Mama used to tell folks she’d been a widow for a year before she married Cole, but Luisa and Emilio knew different.”

“How often did you stay here?”

“I don’t know for sure. Once or twice a year maybe. Only for a week or two, longer if Cole went to New Orleans. Never as long as I wanted to.”

“How often did you go with him to New Orleans?”

The question sounded casual, but Johnny suspected it wasn’t. When he’d let slip how much he knew about his stepfather’s sexual habits the previous year Murdoch had been shocked. Johnny had never thought much about it before. In the world he’d grown up in violence and depravities were the norm. It was the Flores household that stood out as unusual. New Orleans, Mesilla, Nogales: they were all pretty much the same.

“Mama and I only went to New Orleans a couple of times.” It was a lie to save his father’s feelings; they’d gone at least four times after Johnny had hidden in the plum tree.

As he’d walked from the store to the house he’d been glad to see the plum tree still growing in the back yard, its branches hanging heavy with bud over the fence along the alley. It must have been summer when he’d hidden in it, because the tree had been a mass of green leaves, excellent cover for a boy who didn’t want to be found.

Cole had visited New Orleans leaving Johnny and Mama behind in El Paso del Norte, but as always when he came back, he was eager to move on right away. Johnny didn’t want to go. They’d stayed longer than usual and he’d had a really good time with his cousins. He hid in the tree until the stagecoach left. He was only eight or nine, and to his mind, it was worth a whupping to stay another night. It wasn’t worth the price he ultimately paid though.

After that visit Cole refused to leave him and Mama with the Flores family when he went to New Orleans. Instead, for a week or more each year he forced Mama to reside in the same town as his whore. Mama had dulled the shame of it with wine. Worse still, she’d blamed Johnny, not Cole, for her misery. For a very long time Johnny had done the same.

He bit his lip as he remembered the guilt he’d felt until he’d reached the age when hate for Cole took over. That bastard had a lot to answer for, and God help him, Johnny was still glad he’d put a bullet in his chest.

There was a tap at the door.

Getting to his feet, Johnny opened it to find clean socks and two white shirts, neatly folded, on the floor. He handed the larger set to Murdoch and took his place at the washstand.

“I wonder if Scott has heard from the Pinkertons?” Murdoch undid the top buttons on the shirt and pulled it over his head. It just made the grade.

The ring wasn’t the only piece of jewellery Cole had stolen. There had been a brooch and a necklace with matching earrings as well. Murdoch had got the brooch back, and Scott had given it to Katie when they got married—it sure was pretty—but the necklace was gone for good. Murdoch knew for sure Cole had broken it up and sold the gems off one by one to fund his escape with Mama. Hell, if Harlan Garrett’s estimate was right, they must have lived high on the hog for months, and that’s a fact.

Johnny gritted his teeth as he shaved. He felt bad about the necklace, but he couldn’t do anything about it. He could do something about the ring and the earrings though. The gambler hadn’t sold them. He’d kept the ring as his insurance, and he’d given the earbobs to his fancy woman in New Orleans. Johnny and Murdoch were on the trail of the ring, and before they’d left they’d set the Pinkertons looking for the earbobs. It had been Scott’s idea, and a good one. As they knew for sure who had the earbobs, getting them back should be fairly straightforward, and New Orleans was another town Johnny had no desire to go back to.

He tucked his shirt into his pants and rummaged in his saddlebags for a comb. “I hope they found her.”

“I hope she was willing to sell the earrings back.”

“There isn’t much Mademoiselle Jacqueline won’t do for money.”

“Fingers crossed then. With luck there’ll be no need for us to go to New Orleans next winter. We get the ring back and the hunt is over.”

If they got the ring back. Johnny rubbed a knot in his chest with his fist; he still wasn’t sure what Emilio would say.

Washed and changed, they left their gun belts on the dresser and went downstairs. Luisa was making the evening meal. They sat at the kitchen table and talked to her as she worked. She wouldn’t let them help, but as she prepared vegetables and cut meat she asked them questions. They tried to answer honestly. Murdoch told her his version of how it all began, saying as little as he could against Mama, and together they told her how Johnny came to return to Lancer—and why he’d stayed. Johnny even told her how Maria, the housekeeper, provided him with a clean shirt when he first arrived at the ranch.

He found he could talk about his ups and downs with Murdoch and Scott with ease. Their early awkwardness was now a shared source of amusement, and he and Murdoch took turns making jokes at each other’s expense. Johnny told Luisa that Teresa was like a sister right from the start, and Scott—well, Scott was a little of each Flores brother rolled into one but with a Boston accent.

“I wouldn’t know what to do without him now.”

“He sounds like a very sensible young man. I approve of his choice of wife. It is one thing to live in a new land, but a man needs a woman who understands him.”

“Katie does that.” Johnny chuckled. He’d never seen Scott happier than he’d been since marrying her in October, but if common background was desirable for a good marriage, he wondered what Luisa would say about Emily.

“Did Alberto tell you I got married last spring?”

Luisa nearly knocked a pot off the bench, she spun around so fast.

“Her name is Emily.”

“Oh, Juanito, that is wonderful! Why did you not tell me sooner? Emily, such a pretty name. Is she pretty? Is she Catholic? How did you meet her?” Luisa’s questions came in a flood, but when they were finally exhausted she smiled and patted his hand. “You and Emily come from very different worlds. I am sorry she isn’t Catholic, but God has clearly seen the kindness and need in your souls. I think he has given you to each other to help you grow into the best that you can be. Now I know you have truly turned your life around.”

“Our lives have all changed for the better, Luisa, especially mine. We are a family. God has given me my sons back, and Teresa, Emily and Katie are like daughters to me.” Murdoch radiated the satisfaction of a man who had everything he wanted and Luisa’s eyes, so much like Mama’s, looked softly upon him.

The strain between them had lessened gradually as they’d talked. It was going to be all right, and now Luisa had accepted Murdoch as well as Johnny, there was much more hope of Emilio doing the same.

But Emilio had the ring.

As the conversation progressed, Johnny became more and more certain Luisa didn’t know anything about it. Mama hadn’t wanted Scott’s mother’s jewellery. Luisa would share that feeling. Not only for Mama’s sake, but because she was an honest, God-fearing and slightly superstitious woman—and because she despised Thurstan Cole. That was something they all had in common. She would never knowingly keep or benefit from anything belonging to el jugador.

The same could not be said of Emilio though. He loved and supported his wife. He probably wouldn’t have given Mama and Johnny house-room if not for Luisa. He was a businessman, a retired soldier ambitious for his family. He would have bought the ring from Curtis, because he knew its true worth. Maybe he’d sold it and invested the money, or maybe he’d kept it as insurance like Cole had done. Johnny hoped he had kept it, but they would have to go carefully when they asked him. That damn ring could turn the joys of this family reunion into something very sour very quickly.

 

Chapter Six

“Papa Emilio is back,” Isabella called from the hall as she headed upstairs, her crying son in her arms. “Alberto is helping him unload.”

Mi nieto is hungry.” Luisa smiled and got up from the table. She went to the sideboard for cutlery and napkins. “He has good lungs like his papi.”

Murdoch stood up. “We should help unload the wagon, Johnny.”

“No, you should not. Sit down.” Luisa started setting the table around them. “This is their time. They would not thank you for interrupting them.”

Johnny could appreciate that thought. He often found it easier to talk to Murdoch when they were working together and alone. Doing something took the pressure off, and if Scott was around, it seemed easier just to listen and let him and Murdoch do the talking.

The clock on the mantelpiece ticked slowly. Isabella joined them. She put Javier into his highchair and went to finish setting the table with plates, water jug, wine and glasses. As the women wouldn’t let Johnny and Murdoch help, they played with Javier until the little boy reached out and shouted, “Abuelo!”

Emilio stood in the doorway leading into the back hall. Murdoch and Johnny got to their feet.

Emilio nodded. “Johnny. Lancer.”

He exchanged a look with Luisa as he kissed her, and then turned to take off his sombrero and jacket. He hung them up on the hook just inside the hall.

Johnny’s heart sank to his boots. He glanced at Murdoch and could tell he had seen the same thing.

Emilio was wearing a gun belt. He untied it and hung it on a separate hook. The gun was a LeMat.

Damn! Johnny had been so sure. They had come to El Paso del Norte because he was so sure. The Mexican who traded a LeMat for the ring had to be Emilio. But it wasn’t. It couldn’t be; Emilio still had his LeMat. It was sitting in its holster in full view.

“You kept your promise, amigo.” Emilio smiled and offered his hand. “I am glad.”

Johnny ducked his head. “You were right. It was worth hearing him out.”

“Flores.” Murdoch smiled and the two fathers shook hands.

“Welcome. Alberto has told me the story, and you are welcome.”

On cue Alberto came in through the front door. He transferred his son to his lap as soon as he sat down at the table. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m hungry. Where’s my dinner, esposa?”

Isabella gave him an affectionate cuff over the ear, and everyone took a seat as Luisa put the food on the table. Emilio said grace and for the next hour they chatted with relative ease, enjoying good Mexican home cooking.

When they’d finished their coffee, the women began to bustle around again.

Emilio leaned back in his chair. “Alberto tells me you want my help.”

Johnny raised an eyebrow at Murdoch. Was there any point now that they knew Emilio couldn’t be the man they were looking for?

“Things have changed a little since we arrived, but it may still be worth a chat.”

“It’s a private matter,” Johnny added, afraid Murdoch would mention the ring and Thurstan Cole within Luisa’s hearing.

Emilio stared at Johnny thoughtfully. Then he got to his feet and took down one of the oil lamps from the mantelpiece. “We can talk in the parlour.”

He led the way along the hall to a room at the front of the house filled with good furniture and knickknacks. Johnny couldn’t remember ever being inside it before. Maybe the parlour had always been a safe haven for adults. There was a faint smell of flowers in the air reminiscent of the bowls of dried petals Katie liked to put everywhere.

Emilio placed the oil lamp he was carrying down on a coffee table. “Shut the door. No one can hear us in here.” 

He picked up a taper from the mantelpiece and used it to light a large cast iron lamp hanging from the centre of the ceiling. A soft glow filled the room, lighting up photographs of family and Benito Juarez on the walls. “Please, take a seat.”

Emilio lit the fire, and then went to the sideboard to pour each of them a glass of tequila.

Johnny and Murdoch sat down on the horsehair sofa, their boots sinking into a Persian rug on the floor. They accepted their drinks and waited for Emilio to get comfortable in an armchair by the fireplace.

“Now, amigos, how can I help you?”

Glancing at Johnny, Murdoch cleared his throat. “We’re looking for a ring.”

“A ring?”

“The one Cole wore on his little finger.” Johnny locked eyes with Emilio. “Do you remember it?”

Si, I remember.”

“It didn’t start out as a signet ring. Did you know that?” Johnny wasn’t sure now. Yesterday he couldn’t think of any other reason why Emilio would want it. Now they knew Emilio couldn’t be the man they were looking for maybe it didn’t matter, but he was interested to find out.

Emilio savoured a mouthful of tequila. It was nothing like the cactus juice served in most cantinas; this tequila slid down your throat smoothly and then exploded like fireworks inside your stomach.

“I knew.”

Johnny looked up. Emilio never gave much away without a nudge.  “What did you know?”

“I knew there were diamonds under the gold.”

Johnny let out the breath he’d been holding. This was a good sign. Emilio was being straight with them. He could have easily lied.

“The ring belonged to my first wife, Catherine. It was a family heirloom. I was keeping it for our son, Scott, Johnny’s older brother.”

“Mama wasn’t the only thing Cole stole,” Johnny said bitterly.

Murdoch put out a hand. “When Maria left with Johnny, she also took Johnny’s baptism certificate. Cole must have been there, because the ring and other jewellery were taken from the same chest.”

Emilio’s eyes narrowed. “Maria could have taken them.”

“No.”

“Why not? Why don’t you blame your wife?” Emilio sounded intrigued. “You don’t owe her anything. She abandoned you and stole your son.”

“Maria didn’t want anything to do with Catherine.” Murdoch leaned forward, resting his arms on his legs. His voice was sad, not angry. “She was jealous of Catherine’s memory, and Catherine’s memory was something I found hard to let go.”

Emilio nodded. “You must have loved your first wife very much.”

“I did, but I loved Maria too. I hope you and Luisa believe that.”

“I believe you are an honourable man. What passed between you and Maria is none of my business.”

Murdoch sighed. “For a long time I thought the ring was lost for good, but last year Scott’s grandfather came to the ranch for Scott and Katie’s wedding.”

“Garrett found out Murdoch hadn’t given Scott all his mother’s jewels and he kicked up a ruckus. He had drawings done, and I recognized the ring.”

“I see.” Emilio sipped his tequila and studied Johnny. “Why isn’t your brother here?”

“It’s my responsibility.”

“It’s our responsibility,” Murdoch said firmly.

“No, the rest maybe, but the ring is my responsibility. Cole was wearing it when I shot him in Santa Fe. I knew it was worth something, but I let hate mess up my thinking.” Like mother like son. Johnny hadn’t thought of it that way before, but it explained a lot. Just like him, the value of the jewels probably hadn’t entered Mama’s head. It was what they stood for that mattered at the time. “I should have taken it from him when I had the chance. I was a fool.”

Emilio opened a carved wooden box on the side table beside him and offered cigars. Murdoch took one, but Johnny shook his head. He was too churned up inside.

Trimming and lighting a cigar, Emilio watched him get up and pace.  “A working man would have to labour many years to buy a ring like that.”

Johnny dragged fingers through his hair. Emilio wasn’t helping. Johnny had been a stupid hot-headed kid, but what if he had taken the ring then? He would have only sold it the first chance he’d got, probably for a fraction of what it was worth. He didn’t know he had a brother then. He didn’t know where Cole got the ring from. All he knew was that the gambler flew into a fury when he thought he’d lost it in a fracas, and he and Mama celebrated long into the night after she found it by the spittoon. Then a few days later, the bastard had tried it on his finger. Johnny couldn’t remember why Cole had backhanded him, but the ring had cut deep and he still had a small scar under his jaw. “We started the search in Santa Fe and followed Curtis to Mesilla.”

“Curtis?”

“He was the barkeeper at the Silver Dollar, the saloon where I shot Cole. Curtis got the ring off Cole’s finger.” Johnny took a mouthful of tequila. “He didn’t know what was under the gold though. He just thought it was an ordinary signet ring.”

“Curtis had a LeMat. He told us he got it from a Mexican in exchange for the ring.”

“Ah, now talking to me makes sense.”

Johnny sat down on the arm of the sofa. “I thought the Mexican was you. The gun was even missing its sight, and you’d said when I gave it to you that you’d take the sight off.”

“You have an impressive memory.”

“Pfft, little good it did me. You still have your LeMat. I should have known you wouldn’t be the only guy to get rid of the sight.”

“Well, the mistake got us here.” Murdoch smiled over at Johnny. “I think we agree it was worth coming for other reasons.”

Johnny nodded, but it didn’t make him feel much better.

Murdoch turned back to Emilio. “The barkeeper described the man as Mexican, about my age, with a moustache. He’d just delivered a wagonload of goods to a local warehouse.”

“He said he came from down El Paso way and he had a wallet with the initials E.F. on it. I was so sure…” Johnny shook his head. “I was wrong.”

“El Paso, not El Paso del Norte?” Emilio blew smoke in the air. He leaned back in his armchair, his thoughts unreadable. “That widens your search.”

“I wouldn’t guarantee Curtis remembered too well.” Johnny sighed. “It was four years ago.”

“According to Curtis, the man wanted the ring as a gift for his son. Does any of this ring a bell, Emilio?”

“Many bells, Murdoch, but there are old men with moustaches driving wagons all over Texas and Mexico.”

“There can’t be many with LeMats.”

“More than you might think—since the war ended. Dead Frenchmen have no use for their weapons.”

Murdoch looked momentarily confused and then seemed to realize which war Emilio was talking about. Johnny smiled despite himself. When war was mentioned, most folks north of the border thought of the American Civil War, but those living south of it thought of the French Intervention. French and Austrian troops had fought in support of the Emperor Maximilian until Juarez and the Republicans had driven them out of Mexico for good. Johnny was proud of the small part he’d played. One day he might tell Murdoch and Scott about it. He would have to tell Emily if he brought her back here to visit as Luisa suggested. He had served under his cousin, Tomás, and things were bound to come out about the Battle of San Pedro.

Murdoch exhaled cigar smoke. “The man said the ring would make a good gift for his son, because of the ‘C’ etched into the top.”

“And yet Johnny immediately thought of me. Last time I looked, I didn’t have a son called Carlos or Cesar.”

“I figured you’d lied, because you knew about the diamonds, but maybe the fella we’re looking for was telling the truth. If he doesn’t know the ring’s secret, he might sell it back to us for a fair price.”

“Whereas I would not.”

Johnny shrugged. “I would have paid whatever you asked.”

Murdoch cleared his throat. “We aren’t aiming to steal the ring back. If it was acquired through genuine trade or purchase, we’ll find a way to pay for it. What we’re most afraid of is not finding it at all or not finding it intact. Cole broke up Catherine’s necklace and sold the gems off one at a time.”

“Think, Emilio. Do you have any idea who the man could be?”

“I don’t know anyone who would fit with all you have told me.”

“Anyone who fits some of it then. Maybe someone who has come unexpectedly into money?”

“Not that I can think of.”

“What about the initials? There can’t be many men with the same initials as you.”

“I can think of three off the top of my head in this town alone, but none of them seem likely. I know a lot of men, Johnny. I travel widely. How far afield would you like me to consider?”

Johnny hung his head and worried a button on his calzoneras. “I guess that’s the end of the string then.”

“What will happen if you go back empty handed?”

“Scott won’t be angry if that is what you’re asking.” Murdoch knocked ash from his cigar into the china ash tray on the coffee table. “He didn’t want us to go to Santa Fe in the first place.”

“It was never about what he wanted.”

“We tried, Johnny.”

“It’s not enough.” Johnny got up again and faced the window his back to the others, racking his brains for ideas. The ring would haunt him forever if he didn’t get it back. Even if he could persuade Scott to accept payment for it, the slate wouldn’t be wiped clean. It was a family heirloom. Scott’s grandfather would keep going on about it, and Scott would spend his time trying to protect Johnny from the old man’s venom. “There’s got to be a way.”

“Face it, Johnny, there isn’t. If Emilio doesn’t know where to start searching again, it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

“I didn’t say I couldn’t help you.” Emilio blew more smoke into the air.

Johnny and Murdoch stared at him.

“What are you thinking, Emilio?” Murdoch stubbed out his cigar and looked hopeful.

“I am thinking that you and Johnny have grown very fond of this other son of yours, Murdoch.”

Murdoch frowned as if he was unsure how he should take Emilio’s statement. “I love both my sons.”

“Oh, I believe you.”

“But?”

“But you are prepared to go to a lot of trouble for your Boston son. The ring was yours. It belonged to your wife so it became your property. He has no right to it beyond what you give him, and Johnny has no debt to pay except what he chooses to shoulder. Maria used to claim that you favoured your first born over Johnny. This situation could be interpreted that way.”

“Well, it shouldn’t be.” Murdoch glared at Emilio. Johnny felt the same way. How dare Emilio twist things like this?

“Words are easy, especially after so many years. Deeds are what matter. I did not always want Maria under my roof, but I believe she spoke the truth as she saw it. She told us you were consumed by a need to bring Scott back to the ranch. Any spare money and time was spent on that purpose.  She feared it would happen eventually, and when it did she feared she would be demoted to the status of a nanny. More than that, she feared for her son. She was afraid that Johnny would become second best to your fair-skinned heir.”

“That would never have happened.”

“Do you deny the local townspeople called Maria a whore and Johnny a half-breed? Why didn’t you stand up for your wife and son?”

The pain of Emilio’s words raked Murdoch’s face. His hands were fisted and his knuckles white. “I didn’t know. Not until it was too late. I should have taken more notice. I should have done more for Maria, but I was too busy with the ranch to see how it was for her. I didn’t mean to drive her away. But she was wrong about Scott. I love my sons equally. I always have.”

“I own a third of the ranch, Emilio. Murdoch gave Scott and me one third each. We run the ranch together, the three of us.” Johnny smiled at his father and then turned his eyes back in earnest to Emilio. “I promise you I wouldn’t stay if I thought I was being unfairly treated.”

Emilio didn’t answer. He just sat considering them as though he was weighing the evidence and the consequences of whatever decision he was trying to make.

Johnny took the chance to turn the tables a little. “Growing up I thought Murdoch had chucked us out, but that wasn’t true, was it?”

Emilio swallowed more tequila. “When your mamá first brought you here, she was very upset. El jugador claimed she had been thrown out and he had come to her rescue. She didn’t contradict him, but when he wanted to move on and she insisted on going with him, some of the truth came out.”

 “Why did Mama say she left Murdoch?”

“To escape mistreatment. We learned more of the story with every visit.” Emilio turned his eyes on Murdoch. “The first time you came here, we thought you had been beating her.”

“I never once raised a hand to her.”

“So we discovered when we told her of your visit. We asked why a man would come so far in search of a woman he’d abused and a son he didn’t want. She admitted then that the mistreatment she spoke of was the neglect of a loveless marriage and her fears for Johnny.

Murdoch paled. “It wasn’t a loveless marriage.”

The heartache in his father’s voice tore Johnny up inside. He should stop asking questions about this, but now he’d started he needed to be clear about what had happened for his own peace of mind. “Mama fell out of love with Murdoch and in love with Cole.”

Emilio grunted agreement and disapproval. “Your mamá was a beautiful woman. She could have attracted a man of wealth and importance in Mexico, but she had an unfortunate taste for tall gringos, pretty things, and excitement.”

Johnny hung his head, fingering the beads on his wrist, the sorrow and shame building up inside him. Emilio was right. Mama adored being the centre of things. Life on the ranch with a husband too absorbed in his work must have seemed like a prison sentence to her. Even worse than it had been for Johnny at first, because being a woman she’d have had little power and even less freedom. Being a mother to him hadn’t been enough for her at any time, and unless he’d changed a lot, Murdoch would never have spent much on fripperies or outings. Cole on the other hand—Shoot, now Johnny came to think on it, Cole used to buy Mama a new dress or trinket in almost every town they visited. He was dangerous and exciting, and she’d loved him for it. She would forgive him almost anything.

“I think Cole used to say Murdoch had shown us the road just to make me feel bad. I don’t understand why Mama never told me the truth.”

“Shame perhaps, but more likely to keep the peace. She knew el jugador was a jealous man. He didn’t like to share her with anyone, not even you.” Emilio got up and poured himself more tequila. Then he topped up their glasses and sat down again, this time bringing the bottle with him. “He treated you worse as you got older. The day you hid in the plum tree he wanted to leave you here. Luisa and I agreed you could stay with us for a month or two, but your mamá would not go without you.”

Johnny stared at Emilio. Every time they talked Emilio threw a new twist in the rope. He and Luisa had cared about him; they must have. “Why wouldn’t Mama let me stay? Was she afraid Murdoch would come while she was gone?”

“She did not say, but the arrangement was that they would come back for you before winter; that was when your father normally appeared. I think she simply did not trust Cole to keep his word.”

“What did you think?”

“Once Cole had your mamá to himself, he would not bring her back.” Emilio looked grim. “She was a prize. He lusted for her. He stalked her, enticed her away from your father, and basked in the envy of other men once he had her. You were an inconvenience.”

“I’d have been an inconvenience for you too. Why offer to keep me, if you thought they wouldn’t come back?”

“It was Luisa’s idea.” Emilio avoided Johnny’s eye as though he did not want to be thanked.  “El jugador and I did not get on. I did not envy or fear him, and I would not allow him under my roof. If he stayed in town he took lodgings. You and your mamá were housed, but even Luisa agreed her cousin could not live in sin in full view of our niños. It would have made my life easier if they did not come back, even with another mouth to feed.”

Johnny gazed blindly at the fire. His early life seemed to have been one where everyone’s interest was served, except his. Murdoch had made the mistake of being too absorbed in the ranch. Cole had started the lie about being thrown out, but Mama had allowed Johnny to believe it—for years. Cole’s story kept Johnny loyal to her instead of longing for the father he had lost. But she had refused to leave him. Surely that meant she loved him. Maybe, or maybe keeping Johnny by her side was her revenge on Murdoch, and her crutch when things went wrong between her and that bastard, Cole.

“Your mother loved you, Johnny.” Murdoch put a hand on Johnny’s knee. He seemed to guess what Johnny was thinking, but even the new strength between them couldn’t wipe this pain away. Mama’s love for him reminded Johnny too much of Harlan Garrett’s love for Scott. It had been all about her; what was best for Johnny hadn’t come into her decisions too often.

Johnny swallowed hard, forcing his black thoughts into a place deep inside him where they could fester but do no immediate harm. He wasn’t going to dwell on this—not now. “Why didn’t you ever tell me Murdoch had come here?”

“You know why. Luisa and Maria grew up together. They were like sisters. Your mama didn’t want you to know, Luisa bowed to her wishes, and I stood by my wife.”

“But after Mama died. Why not then?”

“Maria seemed terrified of being found.” Emilio gazed at the opposite wall and exhaled cigar smoke slowly. “When she was alive, we told ourselves it was not our place to interfere. When you came here after her death there was too much going on and we didn’t know what kind of man your father really was.”

“But the night in the stables.” Johnny would always be grateful to Emilio for giving him his baptism certificate. He might not have known Murdoch’s name for years without it. “Why not tell me then?”

“What good would it have done?”

“I might have found Murdoch sooner.”

“You were sixteen and full of hate. If you’d found him sooner, there might have been bloodshed, and some of it might have been yours.”

“But if I’d known he’d tried to find me, I...”

“There were too many unknowns. Murdoch hadn’t been to El Paso del Norte for years. He could have recovered his first born. Maybe he no longer wanted reminding of his second marriage, and if your brother was a jealous man…Well, who knows. If you only had the certificate to go on, I hoped you would take your time and find out how things stood before making yourself known. It was a hard choice. Luisa was afraid you would try to kill your father as soon as you knew his name.”

Murdoch looked up in surprise. “I didn’t think Luisa cared about my life.”

“She didn’t. She cared about Johnny’s soul.”

Murdoch nodded understanding, but Johnny stared at Emilio, guilt and gratitude making it hard for him to speak. Luisa had been worried about his soul when he’d shot Cole, a man she despised from personal experience. How much worse it would have been in her eyes if Johnny had killed Murdoch, his real father. “But you gave me the certificate.”

“A man must take responsibility for his own soul, and he has a right to know his father’s name. You had proven yourself a man. I took the risk that you were an honourable one and would keep your word.”

“I could have heard him out and still shot him.”

Si, but there are some things in life even I leave in God’s hands.”  Emilio got to his feet. He flipped open a sewing box sitting next to the armchair on the other side of the fireplace, took something out of it, and went to a writing cabinet on the far side of the room. He unlocked the cabinet and moved papers to get to a drawer near the back. When he found what he was looking for he returned to Johnny. “Here.” 

Emilio stretched out his hand. By reflex Johnny did the same. Something unusually heavy for its small size was placed in the palm of his hand. It glinted in the light of the oil lamps.

The ring.

“It was you,” Johnny said softly as soon as he recovered his voice. He held the ring up so Murdoch could see, and then turned back to Emilio. “But how? The Le Mat.”

“A useful weapon. I bought another.”

Johnny laughed, rubbing the back of his neck. Why hadn’t he or Murdoch thought of something so simple?

Emilio held up a pin. He must have taken it from Luisa’s sewing box when he got the key to the writing cabinet. “Here, you’d better check everything is in order.”

Johnny accepted the pin and sat down. “I trust you, but I would like to show Murdoch.” He pointed at a tiny hole at the base of the bezel. Then he pressed the pin head into the hole. He felt the catch give way and the gold cap sprang loose. He lifted it off to reveal the diamonds underneath, nine of them, eight small ones set deeply into the gold around a larger central stone. The middle diamond must have been the one to give him the scar; it sat slightly proud of the gold.

Finishing his tequila in one swallow, Johnny stood up again. “How much do I owe you, Emilio?”

“I paid thirty pesos for the gun.”

“But the ring is worth a lot more than that,” Murdoch said in surprise. “As we said before, we are willing to pay a fair price.”

“By your own account, it is worth more than dollars or pesos can buy, Murdoch. I don’t want more dinero than it cost me.”

Johnny threw the ring up in the air and caught it. “Why did you buy it then?”

“I knew its secret. I didn’t think much beyond that at first.”

“And later?”

“Later I thought one day Johnny Madrid might come back to El Paso del Norte, and he might deserve the choices it could give him. I had heard many things, some bad but some good as well. I had decided by then to wait until I could judge for myself what kind of man you’d become. I never dreamed your life would change so much for the better without the help the ring could give you, but I’m glad it has. Now you can return the ring to your brother, and put Thurstan Cole and its past behind you.”

“Gracias, Emilio. I will never forget what you have done for me.”

“You will do me a favour in return.”

“Anything.”

“You will not tell Luisa. She would not be happy to know one of el jugador’s trinkets has lived in this house for so long. I could be sleeping on that sofa for a month, and I am getting too old for such punishment.”

They laughed at Emilio’s joke and then joined the others to share many more during the evening. In their absence Alberto had visited his older brother and sister to tell them Johnny was there. They came back with him. The catching up and reminiscing lasted until midnight.

In the morning Johnny and Murdoch resisted the temptation to attend the last day of the cattle auction and caught the stage for the first leg of their journey back to California.

“I won’t stay away so long this time.” Johnny smiled as he shook Alberto’s hand in farewell.

“Bring Emily to see us. Come for the cattle auction next year. You can buy one of those prize Mexican bulls and meet our new son or daughter.” Alberto hugged Isabella’s shoulder. “Alejandro wants to introduce you to his father-in-law.”

Johnny laughed. Well, didn’t that take all?

In ’64 Emilio and Luisa had been afraid the mighty ranchero, Don Ricardo Ortega, would call off the wedding if he found out his future son-in-law was related to the gunfighter, Johnny Madrid. Now, Johnny Lancer, part owner of one of the largest ranches in California, was considered a relative to be proud of.

So much had changed in the last three years since Johnny had returned home to Lancer, and it had all been for the better. At one time he hadn’t thought he’d see thirty. Now he had a present to be proud of and a future to look forward to.

Even the long journey back to California couldn’t dampen his spirits. He and Murdoch walked into Greenspans’ in San Francisco, tired and dusty, but in a buoyant mood.

Johnny placed the ring on the counter and opened it for the jeweller. “Can you remove the extra gold without damaging the original ring underneath?”

The jeweller picked the ring up and examined it closely with an eyeglass. “It will need care, but yes, I believe I can do it.”

It was all arranged and three days after that father and son arrived home. They came into Morro Coyo on the late stage without wiring ahead and hired horses from the livery to ride out to the ranch. The family was at supper when they walked in the door. There were cries of joy and Emily flew into Johnny’s arms.

He spun her around and then kissed her long and slow. Whooee, it was good to be home.

After supper, Teresa, Emily and Katie cleared the table, and Scott took a small cardboard box from the bookshelf. He placed it open on the table for all to see. “One pair of aquamarine earrings. The lady finally let them go for twice their value.”

“I will pay you back,” Murdoch said.

“No, you won’t, but in the interest of keeping everyone happy, I suggest the cost of recovering the earrings and the ring comes out of ranch expenses. That way we all take a share. Agreed?”

“Agreed.” Murdoch clapped Scott on the shoulder, and Johnny nodded. He could live with that, and he knew Scott needed a compromise. Johnny and Murdoch saw the search for the ring and earbobs as a matter of honour, but Scott felt that they had put themselves at risk for his sake. Trying to argue him out of that way of thinking was as pointless as him trying to persuade them not to go looking for the ring in the first place. The Lancer men were as stubborn and as proud as each other.

Johnny reached into his pocket and drew out a small velvet bag. “Greenspans did a good job. They’ve removed Cole’s gold and brought it back to the way it was. Your grandfather won’t know the difference.” He tipped the ring out onto the middle of the table.

“Impressive.” Scott picked up the ring and showed it to Katie.

“What will you do with it?” Murdoch asked.

Scott looked at Katie.

“Never.”

“Well, in that case I’ll give it back to Grandfather with the earrings.” Scott smiled, and Johnny and Murdoch smiled with him.

Murdoch poured drinks for a toast and handed the glasses around. “Johnny, after everything we’ve been through, I think you should make this toast.”

Johnny swirled the tequila in his glass. He recalled the drink he’d been offered in this room when he, Scott and Murdoch first met. The atmosphere hadn’t been as friendly then or the words. Ah, the words. Well now, things had changed since then.

Johnny raised his glass with a grin. “To Lancer: to its three beautiful women and to knowing the men I’m drinking with.”

 

 

~ end ~

Notes:

    • This story follows on from Twelve Days, the 17th in the Eliot Series.
    • This story has links to Murdoch’s back story, From Highlands to Homecoming, and the core stories of the Johnny Madrid Series: The Beginning, Hate, and Intervention.
    • Marshal Bilson was a character first introduced in Hate.
    • Moses Lloyd was a character first introduced in Hate.
    • For a detailed account of Johnny’s time in the Mexican army and the second close call read Intervention.
    • Luisa and Emilio Flores first appeared in From Highlands to Homecoming and later in Intervention with other members of their family.
    • For an account of what happened when Johnny escaped his reins read Chapter 30 of From Highlands to Homecoming, 2015.

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