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MargaretP

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Acknowledgements

 

Section Five : Chapters 44 - 52

Chapter 44 : Robbery and Reports
Chapter 45 : Human and Mother Nature
Chapter 46 : Loss
Chapter 47 : Longwei
Chapter 48 : 1865
Chapter 49 : Coming of Age
Chapter 50 : Worsening Times
Chapter 51 : Highriders
Chapter 52 : To Homecoming

Chapter Notes


Bibliography and Timeline
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Chapter 44: Robbery and Reports

The hurt diminished with time as hurt does, but Murdoch had lost heart. He no longer had the inner strength needed to leave Lancer to physically search. If hope had not died, it had been severely beaten. Despite this however, the determination to find his son refused to stay down. As Nate said, he was a stubborn Scotchman—Scotsman; though maybe given the amount of whisky Murdoch was drinking in the evenings, Nate's version was not that far off. He would have to do something about that. He needed help, ideas how to search in a different way. He needed someone to talk to. Not Paul. He could not talk to Paul about this more than he had already—it was too close to Paul's own situation with Angel. The Johnsons and Frederigo Caldera, Murdoch's old confidantes, were gone. The Conways filled the void.

These days when Murdoch was not out of town on ranch business, he dined with the Conways every Tuesday. Aggie always cooked a roast with all the trimmings—sometimes pork, sometimes beef, always delicious and always followed by a proper pudding. Henry liked his puddings, especially puddings steamed in a cloth. When he and Aggie got married, the one thing Henry insisted Aggie learn how to cook was a plum pudding like his mother used to make. Murdoch always laughed and pretended to be in sympathy with Aggie when she complained tongue-in-cheek about this chore, but in truth he was rather fond of these puddings too. They reminded him of Scotland.

Henry Conway was a businessman in the larger sense, both before and after buying his ranch. He was now semi-retired, but he retained business and political contacts throughout the United States and further afield. Murdoch was confident that if anyone would know a way forward it would be Henry. He broached the subject just as his friend was preparing to travel east on a business trip.

“My attempts to find my wife and son have not been successful.” Murdoch hesitated, unsure how to continue. Not really certain what he wanted to say. “I can't afford to leave Lancer again for so long. To be honest with you, I can't face it.”

Aggie Conway put out a hand in sympathy as Murdoch stared at the carpet beneath his feet. “I need to find another way, a better way—some way of searching that allows me to stay on the ranch where I'm needed, where my efforts have some value.”

Henry pressed tobacco into the bowl of his pipe and struck a match. The tobacco fibre glowed as he sat back in the leather wing-back Aggie had given him for their third wedding anniversary. Henry always sat in his ‘judgement seat' when decisions had to be made. He shook the vesta out before it scorched his fingers and tossed the charred remains into the crystal ashtray on the side table next to him. Being a cool spring evening, a fire crackled in the grate as the friends savoured their after-dinner drinks. “Have you thought of using a private investigator?”

“Are there such people here? I have no experience of them.”

“Doesn't the Illinois Central Railroad employ an agency, Henry?” Aggie topped up her husband's brandy and settled back down on the sofa to enjoy her own. Murdoch still held his glass untouched in both hands.

“They do.” Henry was a director of the Chicago-based railroad company. “The Pinkerton Agency—they started up in the mid-50s. We use them mostly for investigating employees and security. There is no better agency of its type, but they don't have a branch this far west. I will be seeing a representative while I'm in Washington though. If you write a letter, I'll deliver it to him. Provide as much information as you have and state clearly what you want from them. I'd suggest you enclose a bank draft for $100as a deposit and indicate how much you wish to spend. I'll vouch for you.”

“Would they deal with a search for a missing boy, do you think?” Murdoch looked up hopefully. Why had he never thought of consulting Henry before?

“Pinkerton has expanded his business to meet demand. I should imagine if you're willing to pay for the service, he'll happily provide it. They're even acting as security for the President these days. There could be quite a market for finding people, now I come to think of it. I might suggest a little investment to Pinkerton. I haven't invested in anything new for a while.”

“You're supposed to be retired, Henry.” Aggie raised her eyebrows at her husband over her brandy glass.

“Semi—but money never retires. It should always be kept productively occupied.” Henry exhaled his pipe smoke. With one chesty cough he inadvertently changed the subject to the state of his health.

Henry took Murdoch's letter with him and before his return, Murdoch received a response. The Pinkerton Agency accepted the commission and promised an initial report by the end of October or upon locating John Tomàs Lancer, whichever came first. There speaks the optimism of ignorance Murdoch thought. All the same he felt more hopeful than he had done in a long, long time. Murdoch turned his attention to the demands of his ranch with a more settled mind.

Rustling was still an issue, but what was becoming more of a worry for Murdoch and his neighbours was an increasing number of stagecoach robberies. Two gold shipments and a bank currency consignment were successfully held up within the first six months of 1860.

“What I can't understand is how the rogues seem to know when there is something worth stealing.” Dr Owens put down the beers he was carrying. The men congregated round the table helped themselves. Don Baldermero brought over the rest and took his seat again.

Dr Owens had invited Doc Jenkins, leading townsfolk and ranchers in the vicinity of Morro Coyo to the saloon to meet a new doctor. Green River and Morro Coyo had both grown substantially since gold was discovered. Sam Jenkins had taken some of the strain off George Owens in the early fifties when he had set up in the new town of Spanish Wells. They helped each other out, making it possible for each of them to have the occasional week away, but Owens, based in Green River, had been finding it increasingly difficult to care for both Green River and Morro Coyo. He had put the word out through medical circles that another doctor was desperately needed and finally, Elijah Mort, a widower from Virginia had answered the call. Morro Coyo would now have a doctor actually residing in the town.

Dr Mort had sipped at his beer and happily answered all the impertinent questions his new neighbours considered necessary. “When Nellie died, I felt in need of a fresh start. My children are all grown and settled. They no longer need me. I want to feel needed again.”

“Well, you came to the right place.” Murdoch had clapped the physician on the shoulder and downed his beer ready to leave, but the others insisted on one more round and the conversation strayed to the recent stage robberies.

“The stage has only been held up on the routes in or out of Green River. Is that right?” Don Baldermero gazed around the assembled men and several nodded. “The transports between Morro Coyo and Spanish Wells have never been waylaid. The bandidos must be hiding near Green River.”

Dr Owens scratched his chin, thoughtfully. “Well, if they are, they're doing it very well. The stagecoach company hired some men to track them down, but they could find neither hide nor hair of them. I heard a U.S. Marshal is being sent to investigate.”

Bert Otis burped loudly, and while he had everyone's attention proffered the idea that the robbers probably high-tailed it elsewhere after each job.

“Well, they're not spending their ill-gotten gains around here or Spanish Wells. Someone would have noticed.” Doc Jenkins pulled a fob watch from his vest pocket and checked the time. “And that idea would suggest someone is telling them which stagecoaches to rob.”

“What does Dolph Cramer say?”Carly Johnson, one of the newer ranchers on what was once Caldera land, looked towards Owens.

“He's at a loss like the rest of us. He's taking a lot of abuse from his bosses and their customers for the thefts. I feel sorry for the man.” Owens finished drinking his second beer and pushed back his chair to accompany Murdoch. He was going to visit the ranch on his way back to Green River to check on one of the women, whom he had delivered breach the week before. After this the Lancer families would probably use Dr Mort rather than travel the extra distance to see Owens in Green River. Murdoch knew Doc Owens was a little sad about that, having grown rather fond of the small ranch community. Still, you never could tell with the women, at least when it came to having babies. Murdoch suspected many of them would stick with the doctor they knew.

“Apart from Cramer who else knows what's on each stagecoach?” Murdoch was beginning to have nasty thoughts. He had seen Dolph Cramer when he was in Stockton two weeks ago buying some fancy furniture for the big farmhouse he lived in. Dolph's dream of a large family had not come to pass. He and his wife Elizabeth only had the one daughter, but they still resided in the farmhouse on the outskirts of town and seemed to be filling it with some very good pieces of furniture—surprisingly good pieces. Being manager of the stagecoach office at Green River was a responsible job, particularly these days, now that the banks and mines used their services, but even so that dining room suite was very fine. Even Murdoch during the boom would have thought twice before buying it. He certainly couldn't afford such a luxury at the moment, and he had been surprised that Cramer could. But no, what was he thinking? His time as deputy had made him suspicious of everyone. Cramer was a good man, and Elizabeth Cramer was as respectable as they come.

There were several people who would have known what some of the stagecoaches were carrying, but few that would have known about all of those affected. The owners of each shipment would know about their particular consignment. The stagecoach guards would know shortly before, but were they always the same men? Murdoch did not think so. Undoubtedly some other stage company employees would know about all of the transports and well in advance; possibly one of them was feeding details to a band of outlaws. Everyone agreed Dolph would have the information, but they were talking about Dolph Cramer here, a respectable resident of the community for some years. No one seriously thought Dolph could be involved.

The appearance of a U.S. Marshal in Green River may have scared whoever was responsible. There were no more hold-ups while he was about. The marshal made enquiries in Green River and throughout the surrounding area. He recognised Murdoch was holding back and questioned him until he reluctantly told him about Stockton. “There is probably a perfectly logical explanation. I've no reason to suspect Cramer of dishonesty.”

The marshal sat back in his saddle and watched one of Murdoch's vaqueros re-mount the palomino he was attempting to break. “There are all sorts of theories floating about, Lancer. Don't worry, I won't go accusing the man on the basis of this one oddity, but the more information I can gather the more chance I have of working out what's really going on. Mind if I talk with your men?”

Murdoch left the marshal to do his job. By September when he caught the stage to San Francisco to attend a cattle sale however, no one had been arrested or even accused. As Murdoch watched guards load a substantial shipment of gold, he feared his stagecoach could be the next one attacked, but thankfully there was no trouble on the way.

Since the opening of the Sacramento Valley Railroad in 1852 Lancer cattle drives took only four or five days to the nearest rail stop. Murdoch no longer needed to go to San Francisco regularly, but the city was still the central point for any significant event in northern California. The Stock Agents Association intended their cattle sale to become a major annual occasion. They had sent out letters to the Cattle Growers Association and every large landowner in the state. They advertised the event widely in the newspapers. From the catalogue there would be a fine collection of bulls and other breeding stock. Murdoch had been persuaded to put some of his own young bulls up for sale, and he had his eyes on some Charolais heifers brought in from out of state.

Cleve Harper from San Jos é and another old acquaintance, Donald Murphy from Millerton greeted him as he arrived at his hotel. They introduced him to three other ranchers: Harper's newest neighbour, a Dutchman called Jan Willems; Tim Phillips from Elk Grove; and Clem Carven from Fairfield. The six men explored the sale together and shared a few drinks in the evening during the three day event.

On the first evening Murphy asked for a private word. Leaving the others to their cards, he and Murdoch stretched their legs with a stroll around Portsmouth Square.

“This is where they held the first San Francisco Ball in ‘49. I came with my wife and friends. It was quite an event. We'd never seen anything like it in California before. People came from all over the state.” Murdoch stopped and gazed out over the square picturing the tables and lanterns, the bandstand and crowds of excited people all dressed in their finery—happier times. Now the square was purely business, the financial hub of the ever-growing metropolis.

“I wish I'd been here, but at that stage I'd not even heard of California. I was buried in my father's ironworks thinking I'd never smell fresh air again.”Murphy had come to California in 1851, finally escaping bookwork, tedium and the caustic air of his father's factory after one glorious bust up with the industrialist sent him on adventure with an old school chum who had caught gold fever. Murphy never really did—catch gold fever that is. Instead he earned enough on the fields to buy a bit of land when titles were particularly uncertain and comparatively cheap, and had been making slow but steady progress building up a decent ranch ever since. Murdoch could not remember when they had first met, but as with many of his acquaintances he was sure Alfred Burke came into it somewhere. Murphy rested his back against the marble pillar outside one of the larger banks. “I need a favour, Murdoch. The Land Commission has rejected my claim and demands more surveying be done. I haven't the cash to pay for it, and I can't afford to support the ransom those thieves want for a loan.” Murphy thumbed his disgust at the impressive timber and metal double doors behind him. “What I do have is a quit claim separate from my main holding. It's in a place called Cabot Springs. I won't lie to you, it's not brilliant land, but it's leased to a farmer and the rent covers the taxes. It may come good in the long term. The Land Commission has settled your main holding. I thought perhaps you might have the ready cash to take it off my hands.”

“Why don't you just get Burke to sell it for you on the open market? You'd get more for it than I could afford to pay.”

“Perhaps, though Burke would take his cut. The main problem is time. The commission has set a deadline for resubmission by the end of next month. The surveyors are very busy at the moment and from what I hear one or two have been burnt by non-payers as well. My local surveyor insists on cash up front before he'll make a start.”

Murdoch did not really need or want the land, but his friend seemed desperate and he did have a little money he could spare. They talked some more and eventually came to an agreement. As long as the rent covered the taxes, the property need not be of any consequence to him. He had ridden through the area a couple of times on his way to Mexico; it was about two hundred miles south of Lancer. It might be good for something one day or the farmer who leased the land might eventually be in a position to buy it. If not the population of California was still growing even though the rush for gold was over. The land would likely be worth more in a few years' time. He could sell it on then.

Murphy left San Francisco after the legal papers were signed and money transferred. He had nothing spare for buying bloodstock. He had only come with one purpose in mind. Harper and Willems rode back to San Jos é on the last afternoon, preferring to get home rather than wait to see lots they had no interest in. The other three would set off in the morning after seeing their purchases loaded aboard the train.

“A few drinks and a hand or two of poker to celebrate a successful sale?” Carven rose from the dining table and rocked back on his heels, patting his stomach.

“This is getting to be a habit.” Murdoch was enjoying himself. Phillips and Carven were good company and good cattlemen. “We'll have to meet up next year and do it all again.”

“I was thinking the same thing.” Phillips struck a match on his boot and lit the cigars he had just handed round. “By that time I'll be able to demonstrate what a good buy that bull was.”

“You hope.” Murdoch led the way through to the bar and commandeered a card table near the entrance. “I still say you paid too much.”

When Murdoch returned to Lancer, he sent some of his vaqueros to the railhead to collect the dozen Charolais heifers he had purchased. He would put them with one of his best bulls and see what resulted. They were said to be fast growing and easy to calve as well as producing excellent meat. He hoped they would add real value to his bloodstock.

Something else added real value soon after, though nothing to do with the ranch. Murdoch received the Pinkerton Agency's first report. Although the agency had not recovered Johnny for him, they had found out a lot more information than Murdoch dared dream was possible. Not all of it was information he enjoyed reading, but at least it was information.

October 4 th , 1860

Dear Mr Lancer

I am pleased to report some progress, albeit not ultimate success. I am confident further investigation will locate your son and return him to you. A summary of results thus far:

•  February, 1860 Amarillo, Texas: Confirmed sighting of Thurstan Cole. Anecdotal evidence that the boy and his mother may have been residing in one of the outlying villages.

•  April, 1860 El Paso, Texas: Confirmed sighting of Thurstan Cole and Maria Lancer (Cole).

•  April 4 th -26th, 1860 Mission of Maria Magdalena, El Pas del Norte, Chihuahua, Mexico: John Lancer appears on school register. Further investigation of the records shows the name appearing at least once each year since 1856 for periods of four days to nine weeks. Mission priest unable or unwilling to provide further information.

•  Mid-July, 1860 Santa Fe, New Mexico: Confirmed sighting of Thurstan Cole and Maria Lancer (Cole).

•  July 11 th -16 th , 1860 Santa Fe, New Mexico John Lancer appears on school register.

•  July18th, 1860 Santa Fe, New Mexico: Unconfirmed sighting of John Lancer. Doctor Albert Holt reset a dislocated shoulder for a boy of mixed blood, aged about 10 years of age. No name given. Cause of injury unknown.

•  Early September, 1860 Nogales, Sonora: Unconfirmed sighting of Thurstan Cole and Maria Lancer (Cole). A shootist, Rufus Bayne, told our operative in El Paso on September 23rd that he had played cards with a gambler possessing an erotically-etched match safe about three weeks before. The gambler's wife entertained during the evening. The physical descriptions match that of Thurstan Cole and Maria Lancer (Cole).

Full details of each item above are attached. The Pinkerton Agency regrets it has been unable to locate the subject, John Lancer, at this time, but currently has operatives in New Mexico, Texas, New Orleans and St Louis. As instructed they will continue to make enquiries in conjunction with other duties.

Yours sincerely

P.G. Baldwin

Murdoch sent more money and a promissory note with instructions to explore and pursue any sighting less than two weeks' old. He wished there were operatives in all of the American territories, California, and the northern states of Mexico. He just could not afford to pay for a man solely designated to his search for more than a week or two. Until a definite recent sighting was made, he would have to be patient and be satisfied with the small snippets of out-dated information about Johnny that could be relayed back to him.

A similar situation existed with Scott. By not leaving Lancer in search of Johnny during the winter, Murdoch was able to read the 1860 annual report from Harlan as soon as it arrived, but what it offered up was if anything less informative than the Pinkerton report.

Scott is now fifteen.

Yes, I knew that.

He has grown rapidly this last year. He is now 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighs 130 pounds.

I grew fast at that age too. Perhaps he has inherited my height.

He is doing well in all subjects, and continues to excel at horsemanship. He is receiving lessons in fencing from a master recently arrived from Europe and is making good progress.

Not sure what use fencing will be to him in this day and age, but if it interests him I suppose there is no harm in it.

Scott takes an active interest in the current economic and political situation.

What does that mean? Is he an abolitionist or just the opposite, or does he hold his grandfather's view of things and see everything in terms of profit and loss? Damn you Garrett. How did you become so good at appearing to cooperate with the requirement to report when in fact you tell me virtually nothing of real importance?

Murdoch read the report through a couple of times and then added it to the pile in the strongbox. Picking up the newspaper he began to read about a conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln. A Pinkerton agent had saved him—well done. The agency was clearly good at what it did, and Murdoch was becoming more and more confident that it would eventually catch up with Johnny and bring him home. He sipped at the single dram he now allowed himself each evening. Here's hoping the current political situation does not upset things. The last thing we need is a war between the states. Thank God Scott is too young to enlist if the worst does happen.

 

 

Chapter 45: Human and Mother Nature

On April 12, 1861 the American Civil War began and Dolph Cramer was arrested. In the lives of Murdoch and his neighbours, the latter was of more immediate importance. Stagecoach hold ups had begun again in November, 1860soon after the marshal had been seen returning to Sacramento. He did go back to California's capital briefly, but he did not stay there. Instead he visited Stockton and Modesto and San Francisco, all places Cramer had been sighted during the past year spending beyond his means. Murdoch had not been the only person to witness isolated oddities in Cramer's behaviour and lifestyle. Cramer had free transport on any of the company's stagecoaches and he oversaw a much larger area than just Green River. His job required him to check on way stations and audit the ticketing in the smaller towns. At a way station at Oak Flat about 20 miles south west of Green River on the Monterey line, the marshal had watched Cramer meet with a group of men. Money changed hands. The marshal observed the same men ride east the day before bank funds were transferred between Green River and Morro Coyo. The shipment was intercepted by road agents.

All this came out at Cramer's trial in Sacramento. Murdoch was required to testify along with other witnesses to small pieces of the puzzle. Once the marshal was sure of his ground, he had spoken with the stagecoach company officials. They purposely set up Dolph Cramer and his gang of thieves. The next time road agents waylaid the stage and aimed their rifles at the terrified driver, they discovered the passengers were even better armed than they were and a posse of gun-toting deputies surrounded them. Following the arrest of the outlaws, the marshal returned to Green River and relieved Dolph Cramer of his duties.

Murdoch could not feel sorry for Cramer; he had brought it on himself. He did feel sorry for Cramer's wife and child though. The good people of Green River proved once again their Christian kindness did not extend to anyone in genuine need of it. Isabel Owens took care of Jenny Cramer while her mother attended court, but apart from Murdoch no other neighbour offered assistance or a kind word, not even when the bailiffs arrived to recover the furniture.

“Can I give you a lift out to your house, Elizabeth?” Murdoch helped the pale but calm woman from the stagecoach that had brought them from the court in Sacramento.

“Thank you, Murdoch. I would appreciate it. I'll leave Jenny at the Owens's tonight. I need to think what to do.” Elizabeth Cramer gazed about her. Murdoch looked too. Curtains twitched. Eyes were watching, but not those out in the open where she could see them. The eyes of townsfolk in the street were turned to the ground or skyward or anywhere except where they would meet with hers. In a matter of seconds Murdoch and Mrs Elizabeth Cramer were left in no doubt where the good citizens of Green River stood with regards the family of a now convicted felon.

Retrieving his buckboard from the livery, Murdoch loaded their luggage and drove the short distance to the Cramer's farmhouse. A large wagon was already out front half-filled with furniture. Two men were backing out the doorway carrying the dining table. Murdoch dismounted and blocked their path. “What's going on here?”

Lowering the table to the ground, one of the men removed a paper from inside his waistcoat pocket and handed it to Murdoch. He read it and handed it to Elizabeth. It was a court order to confiscate anything and everything of value from the property so that it could be auctioned to recoup some of the stolen money.

The bailiff wiped his brow with his handkerchief until Elizabeth had finished reading. “We'll leave you the bed, ma'am, until the morning. We can't get everything on the wagon anyhow. The order excludes anything of yours of a personal nature that can be proven to pre-date the first robbery so I suggest you pack those items up tonight. Anything left in the house goes on the wagon tomorrow.”

“What about the house itself?” Murdoch asked. The order had made no mention of it.

“If it was purchased before the first robbery and is not just in her husband's name, the lady might have a chance of keeping it. She'll need to consult a lawyer, but it isn't part of this order.” The bailiff picked up his end of the table once again and began loading it onto the wagon.

Murdoch stayed to help Elizabeth with the packing. He offered to take her out to Lancer or into Green River to the hotel, but she wanted to spend one last night in her own home. “I'll be all right Murdoch. I have a few pieces of jewellery I can sell and a little cash left. Jenny and I will go to Stockton. I'll find work and talk with a lawyer. We'll be all right.”

Elizabeth Cramer was a strong and resilient woman. Murdoch had always liked her, now he admired her. He put aside any doubts about whether she knew of her husband's dishonesty. She declared she did not and he would believe her; she had suffered enough. The following day he saw her and her eight-year-old daughter onto the stage to Stockton. He watched as they disappeared around the bend heading towards a new life.

Then Murdoch got on with his own life, cursing the disruptions to it caused by events beyond his control. The war between the states had some unexpected repercussions, among them the suspension of Land Commission activities. In June it was announced that everything would be on hold until the war was over and government funds and resources could be redirected to routine matters once again. Murdoch was better off than many, but he had heard that the patents for his remaining land had been only days from being issued. A delay when surety was so close was infuriating and he devoted a whole page of a letter to his brother expressing his frustration.

In contrast, the report Murdoch received from the Pinkerton Agency in November was excitingly hopeful. He had half-expected to hear from them before, but at least when it came the report left him feeling optimistic. In some respects, it read more like the life and loves of Thurstan Cole than a report about his son. The first entries dating from the previous October had sightings, confirmed and unconfirmed, of Maria and Johnny with Cole in and around the borderlands of Mexico, New Mexico Arizona and Texas, but then from May there had been nothing until mid-August. From then on, the sightings were all of Cole on his own in New Orleans—or at least, not on his own; he was apparently reunited with Mademoiselle Jacqueline. That made no sense to Murdoch unless there had finally been some kind of rift between the gambler and Maria, and they had parted company. The Pinkerton Agency had reached the same conclusion. They were making further enquiries and would pursue a more concentrated search for Johnny and Maria should it be confirmed that Cole and Maria were no longer a couple. Although Cole was by far the most recognisable of the three, separated from him Maria and Johnny were likely to remain in one place longer. In fact, there was an excellent chance that they would head for Maria's cousin, Luisa Flores, in El Paso del Norte, or back to Matamoros—or even back to Lancer. No, he must not entertain that thought. They would be at the ranch already if that were the case, but the other locations were real possibilities.

Murdoch was buoyed by the idea. He allowed himself a mid-day dram to celebrate. His vaqueros had brought in a herd of wild horses the previous week, including a sorrel colt just perfect for a thirteen year old. He would talk to Gaspar about training him up for Johnny; the horse could help break the ice between….

“Ahem.” Cipriano stood in the archway from the kitchen, sombrero clasped in front of him. “O'Brien and the men are moving the cattle by the river and lake to higher ground, Patrón. I'm ready to check the bridges, if you still want to come with me?”

Murdoch put the Pinkerton report away in the top drawer of his desk. He wanted to read it again before stowing it in the strongbox with the others. “I'm coming. We're probably being over cautious, but I've never known such strange weather. First early snow in the hills, and now mild temperatures and more rain than we usually see all winter.”

Mother Nature was proving she was a woman. Since the beginning of November, the weather had changed tack every few days. Sunshine and showers dogged December causing the snows to melt. Murdoch had not long marked his sons' sixteenth and thirteenth birthdays, when the heavens opened and it began to rain non-stop.

He and his foremen checked the bridges and the banks of the waterways every day from Christmas Eve. The rivers and streams were rising perilously high. The fords were impossible to cross. On January 10thMurdoch and Cipriano remounted their horses after inspecting the only bridge into the Lancer valley. They watched as a crew of vaqueros drove a herd across, taking the beasts to higher ground away from the saturated fields that surrounded the hacienda. If the bridge gave way the small ranch community would be cut off from the rest of the world.

“It's holding, Patrón, but if this keeps up… not much longer.” Cipriano wiped the rain out of his eyes with the back of his hand. A steady drizzle fell and a brisk breeze gusted it into their faces. Still, that was better than the sheets of water that had descended the night before.

Soaked to the skin, Murdoch looked back across his land in dismay. Every low point was now a pond growing to a pool. The river was lapping at its banks in several places. The lake appeared to be twice its normal size. “We'd better get back and help with the sandbagging. If the—“

A high-pitched whistle broke through the drum of wind and rain. Looking towards the hillside, they spied one of the vaqueros who had crossed the bridge. He was standing up in his stirrups waving his arms vigorously, pointing further up the river. There was something odd—

“Maldita sea!”

“Ride!” Murdoch tore at the reins. The two men rode hell for leather away from the bridge.

They reached the rise in time to see a wall of mud, water, branches and dead animals slam into the bridge. The crash reverberated around the valley and the bridge splintered like kindling. One half swung loose still attached to the bank. Timbers groaned as the river swirled and surged around it. Then with an excruciating snap the section ripped free and was washed away with the rest.

The angry, boiling cauldron swelled over its banks obliterating the ground where Murdoch and Cipriano had been only minutes before. After the initial deluge, the water calmed a little, but it did not recede. The cottonwoods lining the submerged riverbanks were all that marked the channel. They stood bedraggled and windswept, only half their height visible above the waterline. The vaqueros on the opposite hillside could not return home.

Murdoch and Cipriano rode back to the hacienda to deliver the bad news. The vaqueros would have to beg shelter in Morro Coyo or elsewhere until the rain stopped. Other hands were transferring feed from the granary to the barn loft, sloshing through inch deep water and stepping awkwardly over sandbags as they hefted cumbersome sacks of grain. Dampness had permeated the adobe walls of the grain store, turning the floor to mud. Before anyone had realised, the bottom tier of grain sacks had been ruined. Closer to the hacienda on higher ground, a second crew was hauling and positioning sandbags as fast as the women and children could fill them. The yard was awash.

Paul greeted Murdoch as he dismounted. “Come have a look at the worker's cottages.”

Murdoch ducked as he entered Pedro's cabaña. All the smaller furniture had been stacked up on the table and bed. Linen, clothing and bedding were piled high in the rafters. Muddy water leaked through the sandbags and dribbled over the threshold, making the recently boarded floors slippery. A wooden bowl rocked at Murdoch's feet as the water began to reach floating depth. “They can't stay here. Start moving the families into the hacienda.”

The rain fell continuously for forty-five days. Murdoch felt like Noah. The Lancer families crammed into the upper rooms of the hacienda. By the time the sun shone they were living on beef and animal feed. It took a month for the water to recede back to the natural water courses. Thanks to the culverts dug during the previous winters most roads drained clear quickly, but it was five weeks before a new bridge could be constructed. Supplies had to be poled across the river by raft until then. No human lives were lost, but dead cattle and wildlife littered the drying land. Murdoch and his men spent most of the following weeks clearing streams and burning carcasses to avoid disease from contaminated water supplies.

Eventually Lancer's land and its people dried out. Full recovery would take years. The newspapers told Murdoch that the Great Flood of 1862 extended throughout California, Oregon, Nevada and well beyond. “Please God, we never see another like it.”

 

 

Chapter 46: Loss

We offer our sincere condolences…

“Patrón, are you all right?” Estella placed a plate of stew in front of Murdoch and stood back startled by his ashen face. He gazed blindly down the table. The letter crumpling in his hand was one of the first to reach him after the flood waters subsided.

Murdoch swallowed and turned mechanically towards his housekeeper. “Maria has … Señora Lancer … she's dead.”

“Dios mio!” Estella crossed herself and collapsed down into the chair beside him.“How, Patrón? When? Where is Juanito?”

“I don't know.”Murdoch choked on the words, his voice barely a whisper. “I don't know.”

Cradling his right hand in hers, Estella murmured a prayer. Murdoch squeezed her fingers, grateful for the human contact. The letter in his left hand told him little about the circumstances of Maria's death and nothing about his son. Even so, his eyes were drawn back to it. Escaping his housekeeper's clasp, he rose unsteadily to his feet. “Go home, Estella. I don't need you anymore tonight. Ve a casa.”

She left him to his thoughts. Murdoch knew Estella would spread the word. He settled against the mantelpiece and read the letter again. Maria was dead, categorically, absolutely no doubt. His beautiful, vibrant Maria had been lying cold and dead in the graveyard of a small mission in Sonora since May of the previous year. That was why Thurstan Cole had returned to New Orleans and the attentions of Mademoiselle Jacqueline—not because he and Maria had broken up, but because Maria was no more.

Worse than Maria's death with no details to explain it, was the fact that Johnny had disappeared. He was not with Cole. Thankfully he was not buried at the Misión San Andres. Johnny was alive as far as anyone knew, but the Pinkerton Agency had no idea where he was.

Using the information previously gathered, our New Orleans agent sat down to a game of cards with Thurstan Cole; pretending to have played with him once before some years ago. The agent asked Cole where his beautiful companion was that evening and by this simple means discovered she had died. Cole was less forthcoming about where and how she died, but after patient enquiry throughout the evening our agent determined it must have been in Sonora near the border with Arizona and that Cole had paid a priest called Padre Marcos to dispose of her body and the boy. This information was promptly relayed to our nearest agent, who was in New Mexico.

Agent Webster judged you would want us to pursue this lead as the only means of locating your son, and undertook a dedicated investigation on your behalf. On December 1st he identified the mission south east of Nogales. The parish register records the burial of Maria Lancer, aged 34, on May 30 th , 1861. She is interred in the mission cemetery.

John Lancer could not be located, but his name appears on the school register from April 25 th to May 28th. Padre Marcos was away from the mission on Church business. Padre Benito, the monk left in charge, recalled the boy had attended his mother's funeral. He believed Padre Marcos had made arrangements of some kind for your son's welfare, but he did not know any details. Padre Marcos is expected back in the latter half of 1862. Padre Benito, therefore, suggested our agent return later.

But there could be no ‘later'. No immediate ‘later', anyway. All the Pinkerton Agency operatives had been retained by the presidency for war reconnaissance. Webster was recalled east. No further private investigations could be undertaken for the foreseeable future.

The Pinkerton account was enclosed. Even in his grief, Murdoch winced at the cost of a month's concentrated search. He had already instructed his bank to sell most of his non-land investments to fund the flood recovery; now he would need to sacrifice the rest. Ironic that he would have to part with his shares in the telegraph companies so soon after the transcontinental link had been made, but there was no way around it. He desperately needed cash and they at least would sell for a good price. He would sell his smaller parcels of land as well, except he doubted anyone would pay a useful amount for them.

Sure enough, even with the acceptance by government that no taxes could be paid that year, the land was almost worthless. In March the tenant on the quit claim near Cabot Springs notified him he could not pay his rent. Murdoch did not have the heart to evict the man. He would allow him to subsist on the farm. Not just out of kindness, but because it would cost Murdoch money he did not have to remove him. What would be the point anyway when he would only be left with land that no one else currently wanted? He knew he could never abandon Lancer as others were abandoning their land, but he also knew he was doomed to be indebted to the bank more heavily than he had ever been since first arriving in California. At least the banks were prepared to lend to him; a reputation built up over the past twenty years earned him that much. He would have to start again, and count himself lucky that he could.

Mother Nature was not going to make it easy. Murdoch did not buy into the cant of the Bible bashers—God was not exercising his wrath against the sins of man—but Murdoch could see the resemblance to the plagues of Egypt. Never had he sympathised so much with Ramesses. Rich, luxuriant pasturage emerged from the flooded land to fatten and increase the remaining herds rapidly, but the demand for beef had diminished along with the easy access to gold and a glut of animals pushed prices down. The cash received was insufficient to cover expenses. Then two years of drought followed the flood and California's cattle industry was shaken to its core. Prices plummeted to as little as $8 a head as ranchers tried to rid themselves of animals they could not feed. Half-starved cattle became easy prey to coyote, mountain lions and bears, and tension grew to boiling point over anything that threatened water supplies.

A mine, opened in the ‘50s on public land across the stream on Lancer's eastern boundary, started blasting to extract the last of its gold. Murdoch was down on the owner like a ton of bricks. “The cliff, man! Can't you see it's unstable? If you want to kill yourself, do it in a way that doesn't endanger my livelihood.”

Fortunately the mine owner was a reasonable man. He agreed to stop blasting and to use drill, pick axe or other means less likely to bring the hillside down upon them. Not every mine owner was as cooperative; pollution and landslips blocking streams added to the woes of cattlemen throughout California. Many ranchers faced bankruptcy and sold their land for a pittance or simply abandoned it to the banks or the government.

When the Cattle Grower's Association met after the first decent rain in1864 Murdoch was relieved to see Javier Ramos for the first time since the flood. His ranch had survived only because his father had never spent the bonus money Murdoch had paid him all those years ago. The old man's injection of cash had proved as valuable as his experience.

“And that was a godsend.”Javier raised his beer in a silent toast to his father. “The rancho would never have survived after the flood without Papa. His savings and his efforts have made all the difference. I could not spare the time to attend meetings before now. Hopefully in future I will be able to give my father the easier life he hoped for when he left the Estancia Lancer, because he certainly hasn't had it yet.”

In the midst of Lancer's economic suffering, Murdoch received an unexpected letter from Harlan Garrett and was thrown into an anguish of a different kind. When the Civil War began Murdoch told himself it would be all over within a year and Scott would be in no danger. The longer it continued the more anxious he became. Officially the Union army would not take recruits before they turned eighteen, but there were frequent stories of younger men becoming soldiers. In his report dated December 31st, 1862 Harlan had admitted Scott was impatient to join up, but he had assured Murdoch he would not allow him to do so before eighteen. Murdoch and Garrett both assumed Scott would ask and obey his grandfather, but with the excitement of war surrounding him, apparently Scott was not inclined to do either. Clearly beside himself with worry and frustration, Harlan wrote in April,1863 that Scott had lied about his age and enlisted.

The school was on Easter break when I was called away to attend some business in New York. I returned to find Scotty gone and a letter telling me he had enlisted. I thought I had put paid to his obsession with the Union army when I agreed to him joining the First Corps of Cadets six months ago. Why could the boy not be satisfied with serving part-time in the militia while he finished his studies? I promised to allow him to enlist in the Union cavalry when he turned eighteen if we were still at war. I would have kept my word. I was arranging a safe assignment for him. Unfortunately a recruitment officer visited Boston in my absence. Scotty somehow made the officer believe he was eighteen not seventeen, and the man permitted him to enlist without my authorisation. By the time I returned Scotty had reported for duty and was already on his way south. His skill as a rider has earned him a place in a cavalry unit under a Col. Grierson. It seems hardly possible, but the shortage of officers is such that he has been brevetted to Second Lieutenant based on his experience in the militia. I have tried my best to get him recalled due to his real age, but my complaints have been ignored. I have lost the battle to keep him safe. May God help us all, Murdoch. Our boy has gone to war.

Henry Conway attempted to console Murdoch over a glass of brandy the next evening. “The cavalry are used mainly for reconnaissance, Murdoch. He is still safer than he would be in an infantry unit.”

“I feel so helpless.”

“The war cannot last much longer surely.” Aggie Conway looked to her husband for confirmation, but he would not lie to spare Murdoch worry.

“I'm afraid there is no immediate end in sight.”

Murdoch knew it was true, and there was nothing to do but wait. Again he threw himself into the needs of the ranch, now as much to block out fear for his sons as for the recovery of Lancer. In June his anxiety grew when he read the accounts of Grierson's raids and the Vicksburg Campaign in Harper's Weekly . He was frantic for news and telegraphed his father-in-law more than once imploring him for more information, but ultimately he had to wait for the 1863 annual report to be told that after Vicksburg, Scott had been transferred to the Massachusetts 83 rd serving under Major General Philip Sheridan. His rank as Second Lieutenant was confirmed as a result of having been cited for bravery in the field during the Vicksburg Campaign.

For a short while Murdoch felt more optimistic. The drought had broken and Harlan had described Scott's posting with the 83 rd as being part of Sheridan's entourage and therefore less likely to be part of the actual fighting. When the news of Sheridan's success at Yellow Tavern on May 11th, 1864 was first reported, he celebrated naively believing victory meant Scott was safe. Two months later he received word from Garrett to the contrary.

I have been advised that on May 14thScotty and others from the 83 rd were ambushed and captured by Confederate forces. The 83 rd was on routine reconnaissance; and no one can tell me how they could have ridden into such a trap. The captured soldiers have since been incarcerated in Belle Isle Prison near Richmond, Virginia. The system of parole and exchange is no longer operating so unless they escape they are expected to remain there until the war ends. I was initially relieved to learn Scotty was no longer on the field of battle, but politicians of my acquaintance have told me Belle Isle is notorious for neglect of prisoners. Consequently, I am exploring every avenue and hope to find some way to get him released.

Murdoch wrote back immediately offering money he did not have and any other assistance needed, but by the end of 1864 there had been no further word from Garrett. Murdoch was forced to accept that his father-in-law's influence had failed again when it was most needed.

On the ranch, however, the drought had finally broken and the grass was growing again. With careful management of his herds and pasture, Murdoch was confident the cattle would soon be back to prime condition. Prices had revived to a profitable level, and the railroad had been extended to within thirty miles of Lancer. Murdoch had asked his friend, the governor, to use his influence to get a spur even closer to Lancer, but Acme Railroad had refused to alter its plans. Thirty miles was still an easier distance to drive herds than before. Murdoch began to think again of improving his bloodstock and for the first time since the flood he felt able to leave Lancer to the care of his foremen. He wrote to his old friend Juan Contanado and agreed an exchange of bulls, one of the Estancia Lancer's best for one of the Estancia Contanado's. Both ranches would benefit and Murdoch could handle one animal on his own. He could move more quickly and not be away for so long. This was important, because it would give him time for a brief detour—to a mission a day's ride south of Nogales.

Murdoch was not looking for Johnny. He knew he would not be there. In a strange way this certainty made the visit possible. He would say good bye to Maria and learn as much as he could from Padre Marcos so that when the war did end he could set the Pinkerton agents searching once again. It saddened him to realise that Johnny was nearly sixteen and even if he did track him down his son might not want to know him. There were boys not much older doing a man's work at Lancer. They did not take kindly to the men who had raised them interfering in their lives so what chance was there for him and Johnny to build a father and son relationship? But still he was driven to find him, and at least give the boy the choice of a life at Lancer.

The Misión San Andres was less than two days ride from the Estancia Contanado. Murdoch delivered the bull he had brought from Lancer and promised to return within the week. The sun sat low on the horizon as Murdoch rode into the sleepy little town surrounding the mission precinct. Some vaqueros and farm labourers, talking about their day's work, passed him on their way to the cantina. They told him the cantina had a few rooms to rent so Murdoch followed them. He paid for one night and a meal. He would visit the mission in the morning.

The barkeeper delivered a beer and a bowl of chilli to Murdoch's table. “You are not from these parts, Señor?”

“No—from the San Joaquin near San Francisco.”

“And what brings you to San Andres? Once we were on a main cattle trail north, but no longer. We do not see so many gringos now.”

“I came to pay my respects to a woman I once knew. To find out what happened to her son. You may remember her. She might have come in here with el jugador named Thurstan Cole.”

“El ingl é s. Si, I remember.” The tabernero's voice was sombre. He gazed towards the centre of the room as if picturing a memory. “La Señoraera muy hermosa. Her singing used to make my heart melt. It was very sad what happened to her.”

Murdoch could not believe his luck. He had never dreamed the barkeeper would remember Maria after so long. It was not too busy yet; perhaps he could persuade the man to talk. “What did happen to her?”

“Ah, Señor, no one is exactly sure. She fell and hit her head on the hearth. Señor Cole said it was an accident. He seemed genuinely upset so maybe…. He is dead now too of course—that was no accident.”

“Cole is dead. Are you sure?”

“Si, Señor, one of our local ranchero was in Santa Fe when a pistolero called Johnny Madrid shot el ingl é s down. Madrid must be one fast hombre, Señor, because I have seen Cole draw—he was rapido.”

“Was the fight over money?”

“What else, Señor? If not on his own account, on behalf of some hombre with money to pay for the service. A gambler makes a lot of enemies.”The tabernero nodded at a customer entering the cantina and returned to his bar.

Murdoch drank his beer with grim satisfaction. Cole was dead. Whoever Madrid was and whatever his reason for putting a bullet in Thurstan Cole, he had done Murdoch and the world at large a favour.

Taking his glass back up to the bar when he was ready to retire for the evening, Murdoch chanced his luck once more. “Do you remember the Señora's son? He would have been twelve when the accident happened.”

“Me and the old cook, we would give Juanito work, feed him and let him sleep under the bar—keep him out of the way of his stepfather.” The barkeeper spat on the floor with disgust.

Again Murdoch was surprised by how freely the man expressed his opinions, but then Cole was dead and who else would object? Likely the barkeeper would have been less forthcoming if Cole was still alive. “Did they not get on?”

“Señor Cole had a bad temper. I think he was jealous of la Señora's affection for el ni ñ o. When it came to the boy, he was—un sádico . ”

The barkeeper turned to serve some customers. That was all right. Murdoch did not want to hear the details. After all, he had heard similar accounts before. He was glad the bastard was dead. He hoped the pistolero did not get a clean shot. He would like to think Cole died slowly.

With this unchristian thought still bringing pleasure to his mind Murdoch visited the mission the following morning. Padre Marcos was in the central courtyard, wandering and muttering amid the trees.

“May I disturb you, Padre?” Murdoch stood hesitantly in the archway of the cloister.

The old priest beckoned him forward. “My sermon for the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle will wait. How can I help you, my son?”

“My name is Lancer. I have come to pay my respects…to my wife. You buried her three and a half years ago. I was told you could tell me what happened to her—and my son.”

“Your informant was a Pinkerton agent? Si, as I thought. Padre Benito mentioned his visit. I am sorry you have come so far, Señor Lancer, when I have so little to tell.”

“Anything, Padre. I'll be grateful for any small piece of information you can remember.”

“I did not know your wife, Señor. She did not attend mass. I saw her only when she enrolled Juanito in school and then after her accident when her soul was already in God's keeping.”

“The tabernero said she fell and hit her head. There was some doubt about whether it was an accident.”

“I choose to believe it was an accident that she was killed, but there had been a fight. The boy was badly bruised.”

“Cole!”

“As you say, Señor, but it is a long time ago and you will do your son no good by pursuing revenge. I presume you would rather pursue your son?”

“Do you know where he is?”

“The gambler left the boy with me to find him work. A drover of my acquaintance—a man named Wainwright—came through a few days later so I arranged for Juanito to go with him. They crossed the border into Arizona heading for a ranch somewhere north of Tucson. That is all I know.”

Murdoch asked more questions, but the padre truly did not know anymore. Eventually Murdoch asked to see Maria's grave. The barren strip of earth was marked by a small pile of stones and a weather-worn white cross with no name upon it. The padre left Murdoch to his thoughts. He stood hat in hand, head bent, oblivious to the sun for more than an hour. Maria did not answer his questions, but somehow it gave him some peace to ask them knowing that she was close by. After all that had happened, after all he had heard and thought he knew of her life since she had left him, he still loved the Maria he had married, the mother of his son. He could not condemn her now fate had taken her from this earth—only regret the mistakes that they had both made.

Before leaving he stooped to take a better look at the pile of stones and found it was in fact a roughly constructed cairn. Some stones had fallen out of place and when he put them back he uncovered a narrow shelf and a small hand-painted icon of the Virgin Mary—Maria. There was only one person Murdoch could imagine would have constructed such a thing. The knowledge that his son had stood where he stood now and had had his own conversation with Maria touched Murdoch's heart.

When he returned to the coolness of the cloister tears still glistened on his cheeks. The padre was too considerate to comment and Murdoch was too absorbed in his sorrow to care. Murdoch drew a small leather bag from his coat pocket and pressed it into the priest's hands. “Please do not disturb the cairn, but this is for a headstone, Padre—Maria Lancer, 1826-1861. If you would arrange it, I'd be grateful.”

Padre Marcos accepted the money with a nod and the sign of the cross. “May God go with you, my son.”

 

 

Chapter 47: Longwei

“Let's cut it off.”

“Would you like that chink? Shall we give you a haircut?” Murdoch watched from the ridge as the larger of the two cowboys shoved a pint-sized Oriental to the ground. His companion ripped the conical hat off their victim's head and hurled it into the waterhole where it floated upside down like a miniature coracle.

Murdoch had been heading homeward, taking the Contanado bull the shorter route through the badlands east of San Diego and Los Angeles. He had been less than a mile from one of the more reliable waterholes when he had found a mule, heavily laden with mining equipment and an ancient shotgun rolled up in a blanket. Nibbling forlorn tufts of coarse grass by the side of the main trail, the mule had looked up and brayed mournfully as Murdoch approached. A rope tied around its neck dragged in the dirt. Murdoch stood up in his stirrups and searched the surrounding desert, but there was no sign of anyone. The beast looked like it had been running; its load askew. Tying the mule behind the bull, Murdoch rode cautiously on. When he neared the waterhole, he secured the animals to a desert fan palm and approached the shallow basin on foot with his rifle at the ready. He had anticipated trouble, but this was a strange sight.

The little man, dressed in baggy tunic and pants and miner's boots, did not fight back or cry out. He scrambled to his feet and bowed low to his tormentors. Murdoch could not hear what he said, but the scrawnier cowpuncher just guffawed and grabbed the long black queue hanging down the Chinaman's back as he withdrew a knife from his boot. The other man rammed their struggling victim against a boulder. The blade was within an inch of the thick plait of hair when Murdoch's bullet hit the ground just shy of the knifeman's foot.

“Drop it!” Murdoch aimed the rifle at Scrawny's head. The cowboy cast his weapon aside. The bigger man released their captive and the Oriental scampered to safety, picking up the knife on the way. “Now drop those gun belts. Get on your horses and ride out. And don't think of coming back—I'll be watching.”

Scrawny squinted up at Murdoch. “What's your problem, mister? We're only having a bit of fun with the coolie. You a chink lover?”

“Let's just say I don't consider two against one to be fun. Now get going.”

Before they could move though, the Oriental approached the bigger man, pointing the knife at his throat. The wrangler raised his arms and shook his head, protesting innocence and ignorance. Murdoch was not so easily fooled. “Give him back what you've taken.”

Snarling abuse under his breath, the cowboy put one hand slowly into his pocket. He tossed a pouch into the dust and backed towards the horses, tethered nearby. Scrawny followed.

As the Chinese man retrieved his purse, Murdoch watched the two cowboys mount and ride up the slope from the waterhole. He kept his rifle pointed in their direction and shadowed them as far as where he had left the animals. The cowboys looked towards the bull with interest.

“Keep moving.” Murdoch adjusted his aim, and the men urged their horses to a canter. They were soon out of sight. Murdoch mounted his own horse and followed. He watched until the cowboys were a good mile down the trail where it twisted and fell out of view.

By the time he returned to the waterhole with the mule and bull in tow, the Chinese miner had built a fire and rescued his hat from the water. He bowed low to Murdoch and then went straight to the mule to unpack a cooking pot and supplies. He proceeded to make them a meal while Murdoch saw to the animals and spread out his bedroll. Accepting a mug of steaming tea, Murdoch made himself comfortable, his back against the boulder that had earlier served another purpose. “My name's Lancer, Murdoch Lancer. You?”

“Zhang Longwei.” The Oriental again bowed so low that his head almost touched the ground. “Very grateful to honourable gentleman. Please to call me Longwei.”

Murdoch just grunted and sipped his milk-less tea. He had not had much experience with Orientals. He had seen them about of course, but he had never really had much opportunity to get to know any. They were certainly strange little men. He had ventured into the area known as Chinatown in San Francisco once with Ben Telford and had been astounded by the sights and sounds. Ben employed a few in his factory; he reckoned they were hardworking and harmless, and was vehement in his opposition to some of the city by-laws, which discriminated against them. Murdoch could understand why the white population was suspicious of them; they looked and sounded so very different, but as far as he was concerned one man was as good as any other until he proved himself otherwise. He reckoned there was room enough in California for some diligent Chinese. “Where are you headed?”

“North.”

“We can travel together for a way if you like. I've a ranch in the San Joaquin.”

Zhang Longwei accepted Murdoch's offer of protection. Both men knew that was what it was, but neither explicitly acknowledged it. Prejudice against the Chinese was rife, unprovoked attacks not infrequent. A lone Chinese traveller would be a target for any low-life bully encountered during Longwei's journey.

Murdoch climbed up to the ridge before settling down for the night and first thing in the morning as well to ensure the two cowboys had not double-backed. He had not liked the look on the big one's face as he rode past the bull, and his companion had been a bit too fond of tormenting Longwei. There was no sign of them, however, so he and Longwei rode north zigzagging from waterhole to waterhole and cursing more vehemently each time they found one completely dry or gone bad. By late afternoon, Murdoch was worried. They still had a little water left in their canteens, but the animals were thirsty. Perhaps he would have noticed the horsemen approach if the bull had not been bellowing in protest as he struggled to pull it wide of yet another contaminated oasis. The rifle shot came from rocks high above to their right. Murdoch was knocked from his horse.

A boot to his stomach brought him back to consciousness. It was the scrawnier of the two cowboys from the day before. They had double-backed and followed Murdoch and Longwei. That would teach Murdoch not to relieve his enemy of every weapon. He had seen the rifle strapped to the horse; he should have taken it from them.

“Leave him. Why risk a hanging when the sun will do the job for us?” The bigger man's voice resounded in Murdoch's head.

Rolling his face out of the sandy soil, Murdoch blinked the grit from his eyes to see the thickset man bind the bull and Murdoch's horse to their mounts. He retrieved the gun belts from Murdoch's saddle bags and tossed one to his friend. Where were Longwei and the mule?

Having buckled his gun belt around his waist, Scrawny could not resist a final goodbye. Grabbing Murdoch by the hair, he pulled his spinning head up from the ground and made him roll onto his side. Scrawny circled a couple of times before kicking Murdoch over onto his back. He leaned down close. The stench of rotting teeth wafted into Murdoch's face. “Shouldn't poke your nose in where it ain't wanted, mister.” With a vicious slap he forced Murdoch to open his eyes. Then spat in his face. “That's for being a chink lover.”

Murdoch was not sure how long he lay there. The sun burned his skin until a shadow fell upon him; he could not master his wits to make himself move. Strong arms dragged him to the partial shade of a Joshua tree; he managed to open his eyes just long enough to recognise the bayonet-shaped leaves above him, but the glare of the sunlight and the pounding in his head made him shut them again. He kept them shut as fingers probed his ribs and abdomen, and only risked daylight once more when a canteen was place in his hands. He gulped at the lukewarm water, but the canteen was taken away quickly before he could get a second mouthful.

“They go north so we follow. Maybe get honourable gentleman's horse and bull back.” Longwei tied a bandana over Murdoch's head—the wranglers must have taken his hat. Longwei sat back against the trunk so his own head was also in the shade while he used his hat as a fan. “Honourable gentleman rest first, then when sun lower, we follow.”

Murdoch laughed, clutching at his aching ribs. “Call me Murdoch. I don't feel too ‘honourable' or a ‘gentleman' at the moment. I think the bastard has cracked one of my ribs. We'll be lucky to get out of the badlands alive, let alone worry about the animals.”

“Not cracked, just bruised. Still have mule. Not give up hope yet.”

When the two bushwhackers attacked, the mule had taken fright with Longwei clinging to its saddle for dear life, but as it turned out, that almost certainly saved all their lives. As soon as the beast had calmed down enough for Longwei to get it under control, he had made his way back, circling wide into the rocks so that the men would not see him. He had watched and waited, and once he had been sure it was safe he had led the mule down through the rocks to where Murdoch lay immobile and baking in the sun. “I not sure you alive or dead. Very glad find you breathing.”

After about an hour Murdoch staggered to his feet and with Longwei's help heaved himself up onto the mule. “I hate mules.”The mule hee-hawed to confirm the feeling was mutual, but allowed Longwei to lead it forward.

Riding a mule was like the first day at sea; Murdoch always felt sick. He promptly retched, but his stomach was so empty and dry nothing came out. Longwei kept tramping long after they would normally have made camp. At one point he discarded his sluice box to lighten the weary mule's load, but he would not let Murdoch walk. Despite Murdoch's assurances that he would gladly sacrifice the bull and horse if they could but stay alive, Longwei seemed determined to catch up with the robbers. In his humble opinion, their best chance of doing so was if the injured man rode. Eventually, when they could no longer see their way clearly and the mule was beginning to stumble, they made camp.

After taking turns to guard against coyote and other night-time predators, they trudged bleary-eyed throughout the next morning with even the mule now unsteady on its feet. Shortly before noon they took refuge in a shallow cave and waited for the ferocity of the sun to wane. They shared the last mouthful of water before beginning again. Murdoch looked hopefully at the occasional cactus, but he saw none that would render anything drinkable. They were still seeing signs of the bushwhackers, but Murdoch held no hope of catching up with them so he was surprised when he heard the plaintiff bellow of a bull in the distance.

The sole of Murdoch's boot flapped as they crept up to the bull. It was tethered with Murdoch's horse to a scraggy juniper in the minimal shade of a stand of rocks. Both beasts looked ready to drop, but Murdoch realised the terrain was slowly becoming a little more hospitable. There appeared to be more thorny shrubs on the slope ahead, perhaps there was an oasis. The mule strained impatiently to move in that direction. “Stay here with the animals, I'll take a look.”

Unsheathing Longwei's shotgun Murdoch stumbled as cautiously forward as his strength allowed. The plateau fell away to an almost dried up pool. Murdoch veered from the trail. Crouching behind a rock, he surveyed the murky puddle at its centre and the cracking earth around it. The air shimmered silently. Where were they? Where were the bushwhackers? He edged around the rim of the basin, noting for the first time that the plants nearest the pool had shrivelled up and died. His boot slipped on a dead lizard as he neared what had been the water's edge. The noise sent a hawk flapping into the sky and he saw in horror what the bird had been feeding upon. Behind a low pile of boulders he found the two cowboys lying dead, Scrawny's eyes a bloody mess. Swinging round he spotted mounds a short way off that must have been their horses. Ironic, they had taken care to tether Murdoch's horse and bull until they could check the safety of the water but had then been in too much haste to take note of the visible signs about them. They must have drunk the poisoned water and allowed their own horses to drink alongside them. Murdoch knelt by the water's edge and cupped a handful of water. It smelled good. He would not risk tasting it, because he could see that it was bad, but if he had not learned the signs, he knew he too could have fallen into the same trap. He and Longwei had escaped that fate, but as the sun sank low on the horizon, Murdoch wondered if they would not face a much slower and more agonising end. He retrieved his hat from the big man's head and his wallet and Colt from a saddlebag. He would have taken the boots from one of the dead men, but their feet were too small. Instead he lashed the loose sole on his own boot with reins he had cut from one of the dead horses. Then he returned to Longwei. Leading the animals that were still alive, they staggered on.

In the morning, Murdoch's horse was dead. It collapsed where it stood over night. Murdoch sliced its belly open and the two men got what moisture they could from its blood. You know you are near death when sucking on raw horse flesh tastes good.

A butterfly settled on Murdoch's shoulder as they paused for a breather an hour later. It flitted to come to rest on a bright yellow flower. There were more weed-like flowers ahead of them, and a bush with resinous, dark green leaves.

“Water.” The two friends croaked out the word together and stumbled onward. Longwei let go of the mule not caring now if it died drinking bad water as long as it found water. They followed where it led up a slight slope, through a rock fall and there trickling from a rocky crevice into a pool not much bigger than a bird bath was the most beautiful substance on earth. It sparkled invitingly in a hollow in the sandstone and then flowed over its rim and evaporated on the hot, gravelly soil. Murdoch and Longwei were past caring whether the water was safe or not, but the visible signs were good. Men and beasts lapped thirstily side by side; water had never tasted so wonderful.

*****

Murdoch and Longwei arrived at Lancer less than three weeks later no worse for their ordeal. After discovering the spring, the waterholes had been frequent and sweet and they had escaped the desert completely after two more days. As they travelled north, they talked and by the time they reached the ranch their friendship was one of genuine respect and liking, well beyond what could be expected from their shared ordeal. Longwei had been heading to the railroad near Sacramento to find work, but his dream when gold had first attracted him to California had been to eventually start his own market garden. In China his family had been farmers and he had brought seeds with him to plant. He spoke with enthusiasm about the fertility of the San Joaquin Valley and Murdoch pressed him to stay. “There is land near Green River, which I don't need, but I think would be perfect for what you have in mind.”

They inspected it together and soon agreed that Longwei would lease the land from Murdoch for the cost of the taxes payable until such time as he could afford to purchase. Murdoch escorted his friend into Green River and introduced him to the local businessmen and dignitaries, making it very clear that Longwei was a friend as well as a tenant. Learning from mistakes made with Maria, Murdoch left the good citizens in no doubt that Longwei was under his protection. He enlisted the assistance of the more tolerant to help his friend settle in. Thankfully even the most xenophobic townsfolk were law-abiding; or did not have the courage to cause trouble when they knew Murdoch Lancer would come looking for them. They contented themselves with malicious gossip behind closed doors and snubbing Longwei in the street. Ultimately after a flurry of interest the residents of Green River accepted Longwei's presence and Murdoch was able to return his thoughts to his ranch and his sons.

 

 

Chapter 48: 1865

The war was over. Murdoch's relief was indescribable.

Harlan Garrett had sent a report of sorts for the end of 1864; his efforts to obtain Scott's release had been futile. Thick ink and broken script spoke of a heavy heart. Murdoch had written back urging his father-in-law to continue his efforts, offering sympathy and more tangible support if needed. The irony had not escaped him; he and Harlan never seemed to be closer than when they shared worry or grief.

Murdoch had also written to Scott care of the army at the same time, but he had received no response.

Perhaps he would get one now the war was over—but was it? Only a week after the news of Lee's surrender to Grant at the Appomattox Court House, the Sacramento Daily Union reported the assassination of President Lincoln.

No living man ever dreamed that it was possible that the intense joy of the nation over the recent happy deliverance from war could be or would be so soon turned to grief more intense and bitter than ever before the nation had known.

Murdoch had great sympathy with the sentiment. He had lived that kind of tumult since 1851. Soon after the official declaration of peace in May, he felt like the turbulence was beginning again. He had telegraphed Garrett late April, impatient for news of Scott. When his father-in-law did not respond, he presumed there was still nothing to report. He cursed the man for not having at least the decency to confirm that, but he excused him too, believing Garrett's lack of consideration was due to anxiety for his grandson. Then Murdoch received a letter from Garrett dated June 2nd, and the brief détente between father and grandfather came to an abrupt end.

Scotty is weak from his ordeal, but recovering well. He was officially liberated from Belle Isle Prison on April 3 rd when Union troops captured Richmond, but there was no means of transporting men home immediately. Communications have been abysmal. I was not informed until he was transferred to Massachusetts General Hospital two weeks ago. He was released to my care yesterday.

The army has forwarded letters they were holding for him. I remind you that he is still a minor under my guardianship. I will report at the end of the year. Please do not breach our agreement by writing to him direct again.

Garrett had known Scott was alive for two weeks when he wrote nearly four weeks ago. Why had he waited? Why had he not telegraphed? Clearly Scott had been in very poor health when he left prison—a man was not kept in hospital for two weeks for nothing—but equally clearly, Garrett's silence had nothing to do with sparing Murdoch worry. “Bastard!”

“Señor Lancer?” Maria Ramirez stood with her mother, Estella, by the dining room table.

“I'm sorry I didn't see you there.” Murdoch pulled himself together as best he could, and plastered what he hoped was a smile on his face.“I have good news. Scott is back in Boston. He is not fully fit, but he is on the mend.”

Murdoch put Garrett's letter away in the top drawer of his desk to read again later as the two women offered their congratulations. “To what do I owe the honour of your visit, Maria?”

“We want to talk to you about a change, Patrón. Mama feels she is ready to retire as housekeeper. My youngest has started school and I would like to earn some money. We were thinking—if you wouldn't mind—I could take over from Mama.”

Murdoch was happy to agree. Estella would help run her daughter's house, and Maria would become the hacienda's housekeeper, supplementing Cipriano's income to help pay for those little luxuries that a family with six children rarely saw. Catarina was now sixteen and had ideas of becoming a teacher. Ethan Walsh, the schoolmaster in Morro Coyo, was confident she would be accepted into the teacher training college in San Francisco, starting September 1866. Murdoch knew Cipriano was worried about how he could afford her accommodation even if she earned a scholarship to cover tuition. Murdoch had been thinking of offering financial help, but this was a better way as it preserved her parents' pride. In another year Eduardo would leave home too to take up an apprenticeship with the carpenter in Spanish Wells. That would leave only the four younger ones, ranging in age from six to thirteen, old enough to help around the house themselves and at school most of the day so not overly taxing on their grandmother. Changing roles was the perfect solution for the family, and if he had to lose Estella, Maria would most certainly be his first choice as replacement.

As soon as the two women left, Murdoch re-read Harlan Garrett's report and then put pen to paper to Robert and Beth Eliot. Garrett had said Scott had been in Boston's leading hospital. With luck he could get more information about his son's health out of Robert, who was now head of surgery there. Murdoch asked for news of Bob Eliot too. He had joined the navy in '64 soon after turning eighteen. From the day he visited the U.S.S. Constitution with his grandfather back in 1850, his love for the sea had never left him. Robert and Beth had long accepted the navy and a naval career as Bobby's destiny, but there is a difference between your son joining up in peacetime and doing it during a war. Beth's heartache had shown through the exaggerated optimism of her last letter.

After writing to Robert and Beth, Murdoch wrote another letter outlining what he knew about Johnny. Murdoch recounted the story of Cole's death so that the Pinkerton agents would not waste time tracking him. The gambler could not lead them to Johnny anymore. They would need to work with the sparse information gleaned from Padre Marcos at the Misión San Andres: a twelve year old boy—now sixteen—of mixed blood with blue eyes called Johnny; probably not using his rightful surname; travelled into Arizona from Sonora over four years ago with a crew of drovers led by a man called Wainwright; and possibly heading for a ranch north of Tucson. It was not much to go on, but the war was over, and when Murdoch had consulted Henry Conway the evening before, Henry had agreed the Pinkerton Agency would now very likely be free to take on private assignments. Murdoch had given the situation a lot of thought; he had been setting money aside ever since the ranch had begun to turn a profit again. Now he specified the sum he could afford to spend annually on the search and asked the agency to investigate as efficiently as it could within that budget. The Pinkerton Agency was to report annually or whenever a significant lead was uncovered, whichever came first.

In the meantime there were concerns closer to home. Murdoch was worried about Henry. His friend did not look well. At their regular dinners, Henry barely touched his roast let alone his favourite pudding, and the cracks were beginning to show on Aggie's brave face. Henry's coughing was getting worse. His big heart was said to be weak. Dr Owens visited the Conway place daily throughout June. Murdoch was saddened but not surprised when he was called to Henry's bedside early in July.

“Promise me you'll look after her, Murdoch.” Henry gasped out the words, clutching Murdoch's hand.“Help Aggie make the right decisions for her and the ranch.”

“I promise, Henry. Rest easy, you have my word.”

Murdoch sat beside Henry's bed until his friend fell asleep. Henry died that night. Two days later standing beside the open grave supporting Aggie as she dropped a sunflower on her husband's coffin, Murdoch steeled himself for the job of helping her through her grief.

He called at the Conway spread almost every day for the first month. His visits became less frequent after that, but he never failed to join her for dinner once a week. His advice was not always needed—Henry had employed an able ranch manager—but his friendship was indispensable. Perhaps inevitably, local tongues began to wag.

“You're spending rather a lot of time at the Conway ranch, Murdoch.” Seth Brewster, the grain merchant, tallied up what Murdoch had ordered and presented him with the total. “Anything we should know about?”

“No, and I'll thank you to spread that around. I'm simply helping Aggie get to grips with running the ranch. Making sure sharks like you don't cheat her. For goodness sake, Henry only died a short time ago. Haven't people got better things to do than to try match-making a grieving woman?” Murdoch scowled as they loaded the horse feed he had purchased onto the back of the wagon. Seth was not the first person to suggest Murdoch and Aggie were, or could be, an item. It might not irk so much if he had not thought of the possibility himself, but it was too soon—for both of them. He was sure of that because Aggie had brought the subject up at their last dinner. The gossip had reached her ears too, and never one to shy away from an issue, she had made her feelings known, gently for fear of hurting Murdoch's. It was a great relief to both of them that neither had any immediate intentions. Murdoch liked Aggie a lot, but he had always pictured her as Henry's wife. When the gossips forced him to consider a different arrangement, he admitted the idea was not totally far-fetched, but his feelings at the moment were still very firmly within the realms of a good friend. Aggie clearly was only in the early stages of her grief. The bond between her and Henry had run deep. Much as her neighbours might like to imagine romance for her before the end of the official two year mourning period, Murdoch doubted that she would be ready to move on even then. For the time being, they were both content to be just close friends.

Before the year was over Murdoch welcomed two other friends to Lancer. The first, in November, was his San Francisco lawyer, Will McIntyre. Murdoch had started using a new local lawyer in Morro Coyo, Franklin Randolph, for routine matters, but McIntyre and Associates would always have his bigger business. Will had never been to Lancer, but he had taken the opportunity of the Land Commission issuing Murdoch's final patents to pay his client and friend a visit. He also hoped to come to some mutually beneficial working relationship with Randolph and the other lawyers who had set up in the San Joaquin Valley.

“Well, here they are. The last of your patents delivered to our office last week.” Will accepted the pre-dinner drink Murdoch offered and settled down in front of the fire.

Murdoch examined the documents and smiled his satisfaction. “A long time in coming. Thank you for all your help.”

“It's what you pay me for Murdoch.”

“You and Alfred have done a lot more to push these through than I could ever pay you for, Will and you know it. Accept my thanks if not more of my money. I'll always be grateful.”

Will shrugged his shoulders. “As it happens Burke and I feel as grateful to you for your business and friendship. That's why I'm here actually. I wanted to deliver the patents personally along with a little gift from McIntyre's and G.W. Burke and Sons to mark the occasion.” Getting to his feet, he headed towards the front door. “Stay there, I asked your man to leave it out in the hall.”

Curious, Murdoch waited patiently and sipped his whisky. McIntyre came back in with a large flat rectangular package all tied up in brown paper and string. “We got this made in '61. It's been cluttering up my storeroom ever since, but it didn't seem right to give it to you earlier.”

His imagination captured now, Murdoch felt like a little boy at Christmas as he rested the gift on his desk and began to unwrap it, all the time Will grinning like the cat that caught the mouse.

“You're very sure I'm going to like this, aren't you?” Chuckling, Murdoch glanced up at his friend, and then reached into a middle drawer of his desk for some scissors. “Who tied the knots? I'm going to have to cut the string.”

When Murdoch finally got the paper off, he uncovered a framed map of the Lancer ranch as it now was, legally recognised under American law. “Thank you, Will. It's marvellous—absolutely perfect to mark the occasion. My thanks to everyone concerned.”

Murdoch hung the map on the wall of the great room between the fireplace and the side door. It was an artist's drawing not a topographer's map. It showed the main boundaries and rivers with lines to indicate hills but without the detail that would have spoiled it as a piece of artwork. The name Lancer was written boldly in the right hand corner. Murdoch was immensely pleased and over the next few weeks he often found himself drawn to just standing and staring at the map with pride. He had worked a lifetime to build his ranch and there it was depicted for all to see.

He showed the map proudly off to the second friend to visit him, Godfrey Evans. He, his wife Annabel, and their daughter Penny Rose arrived in Green River along with their troupe of players the week before Christmas to perform a Christmas pageant for the respectable folks and some slightly more bawdy entertainment for the saloon crowd.

“You must come out to the ranch and spend Christmas with me.”

“I thought you'd never ask, Murdoch. Do you by chance have a Christmas stocking we can hang up on your fireplace for Penny Rose? She's a bit worried that Father Christmas will not be able to find her as we haven't got our own fireplace and we left her last stocking in Virginia City by accident.” Godfrey winked at Murdoch as his four year old daughter gazed saucer-eyed up at her new uncle.

Crouching down so he was on the same level as the little girl, Murdoch took her hand. “Do you know, Penny Rose, I definitely have a fireplace and I think I still have my son Johnny's stocking somewhere. Father Christmas always left him presents. Johnny's too big for stockings now so I'm sure he wouldn't mind if you used it.”

Funny how the silliest thing could make him choke up inside. When Murdoch got back to the hacienda, he dug out Johnny's old stocking, kept with the few reminders he had left of his son's childhood in the strongbox behind his desk. He let Penny Rose use it—of course he did and with pleasure—but he could not let her take it away. He made up some story that satisfied her, something about Father Christmas knowing it belonged to the hacienda, and that it would be waiting for her to use again when she came back.

In reality though, waiting for the child who was fast becoming a man to come back.

 

 

Chapter 49: Coming of Age

Harlan Garrett's annual report for 1865 arrived near the end of January, 1866. Scott was recovered in body if not totally in mind. With unusual openness, Garrett cursed the war for the fits of despondency and restlessness his grandson still suffered even after six months back home in Boston. They had prevented the boy from returning to his studies until just recently, but Garrett had re-employed Jeremiah Kingsley, a tutor Scott had had before starting at Boston Latin School and of whom he had been particularly fond. Kingsley had succeeded in resurrecting Scott's love of learning and they were now both talking of Scott studying law and business at Harvard University in the fall.

Murdoch was pleased to hear the boy was on the mend, and not at all surprised to learn it had taken him more than a month or two to return to some kind of normalcy. Robert and Beth Eliot had responded promptly to his enquiries the year before. Young Bobby was reported to be well and about to start at the United States Naval Academy, and Robert had taken the trouble to write personally about Scott.

I was not aware at the time that Scott was among the patients brought in from Richmond as he was not one of those needing surgery. The ex-prisoners were hospitalised due to extreme malnutrition and associated illnesses. I am not at liberty to divulge specifics of Scott's case, but I can tell you from looking at his notes he was fairly typical of the Belle Isle evacuees, who came to the hospital emaciated with a variety of conditions caused by starvation, exposure and neglect such as chronic diarrhoea, phthisis pulmonalis, scurvy, frost bites and general debility . I do not wish to alarm you, however; Scott did not suffer any complaint to the degree of severity that would result in permanent damage. He was released to his grandfather's care with the expectation of a full recovery after a further period of convalescence.

Evidently the Belle Isle prisoners were poorly fed throughout, but in the final months even the citizens of Richmond were starving so prisoners were the last to receive rations. From what men I treated told me, they lived on weevil-riddled bread and rat meat for much of the last few weeks. Even after liberation most were not fit to seek better fare for themselves, and relief was slow to come through official channels.

Murdoch had been expecting something of the kind. There had been articles in newspapers deploring the conditions of some prison camps. Belle Isle had not been mentioned specifically, but Murdoch was mentally prepared to read Robert's account. Knowing the truth no matter how awful was still a relief. Horrible as it was, Scott had survived and he would fully recover.

No recovery was expected for many of the cattlemen of California however. A large number had been forced off their land by legislation, flood, drought and debt. In their place came small farmers and big corporations, which employed managers to run the ranches or abandoned cattle and subdivided land to be used for other purposes. Many of the larger corporations—Acme Land, Great Western Enterprises, Pacific Investments—were heavily involved with the railroad or mining. Miller and Lux, one of the most active corporations in the San Joaquin, was prominent in the meatpacking industry. It was buying up ranches to ensure a constant supply of beef in the hope of dominating the San Francisco marketplace. Representatives from several corporations wishing to buy land visited Murdoch throughout 1866 and the years that followed. Land with patent was more valuable than all the rest and Lancer land could be put to a variety of uses. In addition to range ideal for cattle there were areas that could easily be turned to agriculture or raising sheep, fine stands of timber, hill country where horses roamed wild and geology that hinted at potential wealth.

Murdoch rejected all offers. He had not worked so hard to build his ranch to sell it off as soon as title was secure. Profits were not those of the gold rush years, but all going well they were enough to make him a wealthy man again in time. Besides he was a rancher, raising cattle was in his blood, and he could not envisage his life doing anything else. He would like to have built his ranch with his sons at his side, but if that was not to be, he would build it so that he had something to leave them and something to show for his life.

“I'll not be driven off by rustlers, Mother Nature, corporations or any man or institution. Lancer is my land and my life as long as it lasts.”

“A fine speech, Murdoch. I would not have you sell either and I will not sell. This ranch was Henry's dream and now thanks to your help, it's mine.” Aggie smiled over the remains of roast pork and apple sauce, and offered Murdoch more roast potatoes. “But I am in the mood for things less serious. You have heard of the writer Mark Twain of course. He is coming to Green River next month as part of a lecture tour and you, my bearish friend, will abandon your ranch and brave the gossips for one evening to escort me.”

Murdoch laughingly accepted his fate. Aggie was good for him. She kept him from getting too serious. Periodically they would bid against each other at local horse auctions just for the fun of doing so. Of course he and Aggie denied it when Paul O'Brien once accused them, but they both knew it was true.

The prospect of hearing Mr Twain speak was something to look forward to, but before that happy event took place Murdoch received the first report from the Pinkerton Agency. It was later than expected. He had been on the point of contacting them to ask where it was, but as the agent explained, they had been following up a hopeful lead and that had taken time.

Our agents have discovered that the drover Abe Wainwright took your son to the ranch of Josef Heinemann sometime in 1861. Wainwright moved on with his gang a month or two later, but the boy stayed at the ranch until the following year. The foreman could not remember what name he went by other than ‘Johnny', but he did recall that he became friendly with a gunhawk called Mac Dawson. When Dawson left to take up a sheriff's job in southern California, a number of men went with him, including the boy, Johnny.

Our agent based in Los Angeles has been provided with this information. The next step will be to locate the whereabouts of Sheriff Dawson and hopefully through him we will find your son.

The news was worth waiting for and Murdoch's spirits were raised because of it. Four years ago Johnny had been in the company of a lawman, not the black sheep the gambler had associated with. Sure the Pinkerton man described Dawson initially as a gunhawk, but Murdoch knew there were differences amongst such men and if the man had taken on a job as a sheriff he must have had some sense of right and wrong and a desire to live on the right side of the law. If Dawson had kept Johnny from crossing to the wrong side of the tracks, Murdoch would be eternally grateful.

He shared the news about Johnny with Paul O'Brien when he and Teresa dined with Murdoch the next evening, something they now did once or twice a week. Ever since returning to Lancer, the O'Briens had included Murdoch in a family life that he would not have had otherwise. While it could never be the same as having his wife and sons living with him, Murdoch had shared the joy of watching Teresa grow up. Now an attractive girl of fourteen, she was beginning to catch the attention of the youths in the area. Murdoch turned a blind eye to Paul's quiet little chats with young wranglers, who made the mistake of whistling or looking in her direction in his presence. It made Murdoch laugh to note that his foreman now always arranged for the oldest and most docile of escorts for Teresa and any of the other young women from the ranch. A few years ago he had not been conscious of the issue, but these days he was obsessed with keeping his daughter safe from the sweet talk of handsome young men.

“You know you have to let Teresa grow up, Paul. She's a sensible girl, and besides, she doesn't seem that interested in lads at the moment. I don't think she's sweet on anyone in particular at any rate. Don't you think you're going a bit overboard?” Murdoch waited for Paul to turn around from saddling his horse. Murdoch had found Teresa in the kitchen garden in tears, because her father had refused to let her go to the pre-Christmas dance being held in Morro Coyo. “She'll be with the Ramirez girls and Cipriano and Maria will keep a good eye on them. You know that. Go to the dance and keep an eye on her yourself if you're that worried.”

“She's not your daughter. You don't understand.” Paul scowled at Murdoch and pushed passed him. Collecting some ammunition from the tack room cabinet, he began to load his rifle and then stashed what was left in his saddle bag. “She's too young for dancing with boys and grown men.”

“She's nearly fifteen and she wants to have fun with her friends. Catarina is only back from college for the holidays, and Francesca is younger than Teresa and she's going. How do you think that makes Teresa feel?”

Paul grumbled about Cipriano being too lax as a father and making it difficult for others. Murdoch did his best to keep a straight face; Cipriano had not long ago said much the same thing about Paul. Francesca had wanted to go riding in trousers like Teresa. Murdoch had never seen Cipriano turn red in the face before. His foreman had looked fit to explode, and Francesca had made a hasty retreat. In that case Murdoch had not gotten involved, but in this he supported his goddaughter; and he eventually talked her father round. Much as Paul hated any place with crowds, he would escort Teresa to the dance himself. Murdoch earned a peck on the cheek and a smile for his trouble.

He did not feel so well rewarded for his efforts on behalf of his own child, but then of course Scott probably did not know what those efforts had been. On December 19 th Murdoch sent a telegram to Scott wishing him a happy twenty-first birthday and inviting him to write or even come to see him at Lancer at Murdoch's expense. The only address he had to send it to was Louisburg Square, but he could not imagine Harlan intercepting communication between him and Scott now the boy was of age. Whether or not his son wanted anything to do with him after so many years with no contact was the big question.

By the New Year Murdoch believed the lack of response had given him his answer. The final report from Boston seemed to confirm it; Garrett declared Scott had no interest in establishing contact. Clutching to a slim hope that his father-in-law might still be attempting to prevent contact, Murdoch wrote to Beth Eliot, and she enlisted the help of her son. Pretending casualness, Bob Eliot asked Scott how he felt about his father. Murdoch was disappointed but not surprised by the answer.

He threw himself into the concerns of the ranch. The year 1867 progressed much like any other. Cattle had to be reared, bought and sold. Rough ground needed to be reclaimed for feed crops or pasture. Surveying was on-going. Fencing with the new barbed wire began. The last of the bridges washed away by the 1862 floods was replaced. Meetings with politicians and stock agents, lawyers and land agents continued, and rustling and lawlessness was again on the increase.

In addition to more culverts, work began on the construction of a new road direct to Spanish Wells. The 1862 flood had proven the ranch community needed a way out of the valley that did not cross the river. The existing road bridged the river before winding south over the hills to Morro Coyo or northwest towards the more distant Green River. A narrow pass a couple of miles east of the hacienda offered a possible route, and conveniently it would link with the public road between Morro Coyo and Spanish Wells only a mile west of the mining town. When finished, Morro Coyo would still be closer to the hacienda but not by much.

Before Murdoch knew it the year was halfway through and he was due to pay his taxes. The tax collector had set up in a saloon in Morro Coyo. Murdoch followed Darne Rodgers through the swing doors and they both joined the small queue of landowners.

“Good day for it,” Murdoch joked, but Rodgers was not paying attention. He had buried his nose in a dime novel. “I didn't realise you liked dime novels, Darne.”

“What? Oh, this—no I don't really. Tom likes them though and Mary is worried he might get corrupted so I have to read them all before he does. Load of rubbish mostly. Look at this one, all about some shootist called Johnny Madrid.”

“Madrid is real.”

“So it says in the introduction, but I bet he didn't gun down half as many men as it says in here.” Rodgers passed the paperback to Murdoch to have a look at while he took his turn parting with his hard-earned cash to the government.

Murdoch could see what Rodgers meant. According to the writer, Madrid was challenged by a would-be pistolero almost everywhere he went. He didn't actually get any paying jobs in the few pages Murdoch read—must have lived on thin air and his reputation. Murdoch wondered if the picture and description of the man were any more accurate. He was supposedly in his mid-twenties, over six feet tall, with a moustache and a scar down one cheek, quick to the draw and a favourite with the ladies. Murdoch handed the novel back to Rodgers. “So will you let Tom read it?”

“Well, it's not great literature, but I doubt it'll do the boy much harm.” Rodgers stuffed the small book into his jacket pocket and went to the bar for a drink as Murdoch opened his pocket book. With a sigh, he threw a wad of bills down on the table in front of the tax collector, and waited patiently for his receipt.

*****

The Pinkerton report arrived two weeks later. Walt brought it back from town with barrels from the cooper and other mail. Eager to read what more the agency had found out, Murdoch settled into one of the blue wing-back chairs he had recently purchased. Praying for good news, he slit the envelope open with a paperknife.

Mac Dawson was sheriff of Henderson, a cattle town north east of San Diego, from April 1862 to March 18 th , 1863 when he was killed by outlaws. His deputy, Ike Simmonds, is now sheriff. He remembers the boy as a gunhawk on a local estancia, who used to visit with Dawson regularly. When a posse was formed to pursue some bank robbers, your son volunteered. He witnessed Dawson's killing and apparently shot and killed the outlaw responsible.

Murdoch stopped at that point. He read the last sentence again with horror. Johnny would have been what? Fourteen—younger than Teresa was now. Only fourteen and he had killed a man. Murdoch remembered how hard it had been when he had first killed a man, and he had been well into his twenties. He shuddered to think what it must have been like for a mere boy not even old enough to shave.

The youth did not return to Henderson with the posse, but Simmonds has occasionally seen him since. Several men on the Estancia Vargas where he worked as a hired gun also remember him. If you wish us to continue the search, we will start our enquiries from the saloon in Santa Fe where Thurstan Cole was gunned down. I am obliged to inform you that your son, John Lancer, is better known in the border territories as the gunfighter, Johnny Madrid.

 

 

Chapter 50: Worsening Times

Murdoch heaved. Standing up quickly he escaped through the French doors and emptied the remains of his lunch into a bush. He had never dreamed… my God, how old would Johnny have been…fifteen? It was bad enough he had been part of a posse and had shot a man in self-defence at fourteen, but to deliberately seek Cole out and gun him down in a one-on-one stand-off…fifteen!

Murdoch had heard the name Madrid a few times since discovering the gunfighter had killed Thurstan Cole in Santa Fe. Lancer had always employed some men more for their skill with a gun than anything else, and evidently their kind kept close track of the reputation of other pistoleros. The fact that Mr Beadle published dime novels about Madrid spoke of a degree of notoriety. Even though Murdoch was still quite certain the stories were exaggerated and full of inaccuracies, he knew there must be some basis in fact.

Fifteen!

When his stomach settled and his brain recovered from the shock enough to function again, he took a pen and paper and wrote back to the Pinkerton Agency. They were to find out as much as possible about Johnny Madrid. Track him down if they could within the set budget, but the agent was not to approach him without first contacting Murdoch.

“What am I to do, Aggie? My son kills men for a living.”

“He's still your son and he is a free man so presumably he has never murdered anyone. Any killing must have been in a fight where he could claim self-defence.”

“Or where there were no witnesses or law to say otherwise. You forget I've travelled through the border towns. Killing without consequence was common place. He was fifteen when he killed Cole. He is only eighteen now, but that was three years ago. What kind of man must he be?”

“You're imagining the worst, Murdoch. You know there are good and bad amongst gunmen just like any other group, and you know killing, or even shooting people, is only a very small part of what they do. We both employ men who are good with a gun to guard our herds; that doesn't mean we expect them to shoot anyone.” Aggie took hold of his hands and looked him in the eye. “I know you'll never be satisfied until you meet him and draw your own conclusions.”

Aggie was right of course; although a shootist with Johnny Madrid's reputation was somewhat different from the wrangler-gunhawks he and Aggie employed to protect cattle. What she did not say, probably out of consideration for his feelings, was what kind of life drives a boy to become a shootist? Murdoch's emotions were confused, but he felt partly to blame for Johnny's childhood so guilt underwrote every other sensation. Guilt and anger underwrote everything to do with both his sons.

His anger was not now only directed at those who had taken Scott and Johnny away from him, or at himself, but increasingly it was directed at the boys too. Murdoch had tried to bring Scott home and he had tried to keep in touch with him. He had searched for Johnny ever since his mother had taken him away. He had failed, but at least he had tried. His sons, however, had made no attempt to contact or find him. Both were now of an age to seek him out had they wanted to. They must know his name and where he lived. Murdoch was hurt more than he would admit by their lack of interest.

To take his mind off his sons Murdoch focused on the ranch and his extended family and friends, but they brought both happiness and sadness. In March, 1868 Godfrey Evans wrote to say his wife, Annabel, had died of scarlet fever. He and Penny Rose would continue on the road as entertainers, but it would never be the same. A month later, Murdoch received a letter from his brother. It included a tintype photograph of his family: Jock, his wife Elspeth, and their children Cam, Bella, Nell, Angus and Jinny, and Jock and Murdoch's mother, Ellen Lancer. The envelope also included a funeral card for Ellen Lancer. She had died in her sleep after a short illness. Murdoch had known when he had left Inverness that he was unlikely to see his mother again, but that knowledge did not alleviate the pain of losing her. Murdoch sat alone in the great room and wept.

Letters from the Johnsons and Eliots were more cheerful. Catherine Johnson was working as a nurse and her brother, Christopher, now commonly known as Kit, was doing well at the school for the deaf. The Eliot brood were also happy and busy. Bob was soon to graduate from the naval academy. Katie and her mother were both active in the women's suffrage movement, and Jamie, who had decided to follow in his father's footsteps, would join the school of medicine at Harvard in the fall. Their younger siblings were all enjoying life and working hard at their studies. Beth reported she had bumped into Scott briefly at Harvard when they had visited the campus with Jamie. They did not have much time to chat as he was on his way to class, but he looked happy and well.

Amongst the letters that arrived in September was another report from the Pinkerton Agency. This time Murdoch did not open it with hopeful anticipation.

Our investigations confirm that Thurstan Cole was gambling in the Silver Dollar saloon in Santa Fe on August 3 rd , 1864. A pistolero identifying himself as Johnny Madrid challenged Cole to a gunfight. No one our agent spoke to knew what was between the two men, but witnesses reported that Cole seemed to recognise Madrid. He initially laughed at the young man and told him to come back when he was older, but as Cole made to gather up his winnings, he went for his gun. By all accounts, Thurstan Cole was fast, but Johnny Madrid was faster.

Madrid had been working for a cattle baron ten miles west of Santa Fe. A few days before the shooting, he had disappeared. He reappeared in Sonora two months later, then New Mexico, then Chihuahua, Texas, Arizona, southern California and elsewhere, moving about the border territories working as a hired gun. He was known to have guarded herds being driven up the Chisholm Trail to the railhead, but more usually he hired out to cattle barons involved in range wars. His reputation was such that at least two wealthy men had sought him out in the last year for more specialist extortion and intimidation work, paying top dollar for the privilege. Some of the range wars involved more than just rustling and damage to property. Some involved killings and rape. There was no absolute proof that Madrid was involved personally in any of the worst atrocities, but he was part of the pack of wolves that were operating in the area at the time. There was also the occasional incident—the type of occurrence that built a pistolero's reputation. Men would draw on the gunfighter in a saloon or openly where others would see—sometimes more than one man at a time. So far only Madrid had walked away.

As if to make the news more palatable, the Pinkerton agent wrote that Johnny Madrid was popular in Mexico.

He has reached almost Robin Hood status as a result of a few instances where he is rumoured to have protected villagers from outlaws or corrupt Rurales. Mostly he hires out north of the border and once a job is done he disappears into Mexico for a few weeks to lie low before reappearing hundreds of miles away. We do not know his current location, but our agents will continue to track him within the agreed budget.

What was he to think? Murdoch prayed that his son was not involved with rapes and torture, but he forced himself to accept that he must have played an active part in almost everything else. Should he continue the search? Was there any point, if his son had gone so far down that road? Nate Benedict believed that with support young men could turn their lives around. George Cameron had liked the Johnny he had taught. He had seen potential, a desire to please, to learn. He had told Murdoch that the boy had a moral compass; he was not a bully, but in the schoolyard at least, a defender of the weak and innocent. Maybe the Mexican view of Johnny Madrid was more accurate than the American view. Maybe the child he remembered was still alive deep inside a young man, who had been dealt a poor hand in life. Maybe Murdoch would go mad thinking about maybes.

Closer to home, there were worrying signs that rustling was turning to land piracy. Most of the corporations seeking to buy land accepted no for an answer, at least for a year or two and then many would ask again. Some, however, were more persistent and their tactics less ethical. Several businessmen, who were major shareholders in the corporations, also served on the boards of finance companies and banks. Loans could be denied for no obvious reason or called in before the agreed term was up, forcing landholders to sell quickly for less than the true value or risk foreclosure. Rustling was one thing, but not since the days of Jud Haney had line shacks been burnt down, streams dammed, crops destroyed and lawmen intimidated. Not one town within fifty miles of Lancer now boasted a sheriff. No one wanted the job. Murdoch could not prove the connection between any of the corporations seeking land and the gangs causing mayhem throughout the Central Valley, but he suspected there was one.

In the New Year, one name began to predominate amongst the highriders. Day Pardee was a shootist reputed to have brains as well as skill with a gun. Attacks on ranches became more organised. The land pirates began targeting ranches one or two at a time. The estancias near Modesto and San Jos é were the first affected. Two lawmen were killed. Fences were pulled down and fires were set. Cattle were stampeded and both animals and men were shot where there were no witnesses.

By the spring of 1869 the San Joaquin Valley had clearly become Pardee's playground of choice. It was only a matter of time before Lancer became his main target. Wranglers fearful for their lives collected their wages and left—it was just a trickle at the moment, but Murdoch knew from experience that if nothing was done it would soon become a flood. The Cattle Growers Association sent telegrams asking for a U.S. marshal to be sent, but there was apparently none to spare. This time it was the American government that told the ranchers of the San Joaquin, they would need to fend for themselves.

Murdoch reluctantly came to the conclusion he would need to offer more than wages to attract men equally good with a gun to fight for Lancer. As his sons were not interested, he decided to offer his old friend, Joe Barker, a share of the ranch if he would come and fight to protect it. Barker was now a sheriff further south in California. He had no family so the choice would be solely his own, and with luck other gunmen known to Barker on the right side of the law would follow. Writing the letter that promised to give away some of his ranch was one of the hardest things Murdoch had ever done, but as it turned out, Barker never replied.

“Still no word?” Paul stood in front of Murdoch's desk as his boss sorted through the mail just collected from Morro Coyo.

“No, but we aren't beaten yet. How's the stallion coming along?”

“Saddle broke, but still a bit skittish. Come and see for yourself.” Paul led the way outside to the yard. The buckskin stallion had been caught in the hills two weeks before and was already sold subject to being fully broken in.

Teresa was perched on the corral top rail watching Gaspar put the animal through its paces. “Isn't he beautiful? What a pity we can't keep him.”

“Sorry, darling, but a stallion's no good as a ranch horse and you wouldn't want us to geld a magnificent animal like that.” Murdoch helped Teresa down and he and Paul climbed into the corral for a closer look.

A week later Murdoch was heading for bed when the guard on the rooftop shouted the alarm. Murdoch grabbed his rifle and ran out through the French doors in time to see two men on horseback galloping away with the stallion between them. Murdoch got a couple of shots off, but the rustlers were already out of range.

Cursing, Murdoch rushed to saddle up.“Paul!” He ran passed his foreman's living quarters as Paul dashed out, Teresa hot on his heels, barefoot and dressed in her nightgown. Murdoch scarcely glanced at them as he ran to the barn. There was no time to lose. “Horse thieves—they've got the stallion. Come on.”

“Teresa, get back in the house!” Paul hurried after Murdoch.

Murdoch and Paul tracked the thieves to Morro Coyo and entered the town guns at the ready. The first rays of sunlight painted shadows on dust and adobe. Doors and shutters were closed; curtains drawn tight. It was too early for the sun to emit much heat, but Murdoch's hand felt slick on the cold metal of his gun. He and Paul rode slowly down deserted streets, the clopping of their horse's hooves magnified by the emptiness. When they reached the general store they paused, an unnatural quietness surrounding them. The amiable, bustling proprietor was nowhere to be seen. Murdoch turned in his saddle. “Don Baldermero! Anybody!”

He sensed eyes upon them, but no one appeared. Pulling their horses around, they rode further on towards the livery. Frightened neighing broke the silence. Dismounting, Murdoch opened the double doors, wary of a panicked beast and perhaps a gunman inside. Untethered, the stallion backed nervously, snorting and stamping its hooves. “Easy boy. We've come to take you—“

Crack!

The rifle bullet knocked Paul from his horse.

Murdoch swung round. A shadow in the chapel tower fired again. Murdoch shot back. The church bell clanged as his bullet ricocheted off, and the rifle blasted for a third time. The bullet smacked into Murdoch's lower ribs. Strange, he felt only winded and numb as he buckled. Then another ball of lead seared through the muscles of his leg and his whole body exploded with pain. His surroundings spun. Falling forward into dirt and straw, Murdoch felt a flurry of air as the terrified stallion escaped into the street and he knew no more.

The sun was a little higher in the sky when he blinked grit from his lashes and tried to find a way through muddled thoughts. Every heartbeat sent blood pounding. The torn tissue on his left side was on fire. Paul? His friend lay beside him, a greyish tinge to his lips. Not breathing—dead. What happened? The stallion. Pardee—or one of his men. With each second a puzzle piece slipped back into place. Sick at heart, Murdoch tried to crawl forward. Spasms, hot shards of glass, sliced through his leg and side. The world around him kaleidoscoped and was gone.

When a bayonet-like pain woke him a second time, Doc Mort was removing the lead from his leg. The bone had shattered and so had the bullet. The first lump clinked against the enamel bowl at the doctor's elbow. Then Murdoch jerked violently as the knife went in to retrieve the rest.

“Hold him down, damn you!” Doc Mort's voice echoed in Murdoch's head and strong arms pressed him to a smooth-scrubbed table. “The bullet in your side was not too deep, but this one has done some damage. It will be awhile before you're up and about.”Did that mean he would live? Good. He would like to live. He needed to live—for Teresa's sake—and to…. Blackness overcame him again.

Although it was dark, Murdoch felt the sun burn and his mouth craved moisture. Then in the distance he saw Maria, dancing and laughing, holding out a colourful skirt, swaying in time to music he could not hear. “Maria!”

Did she look his way? He ached to feel her arms around him. Melting brown eyes welcomed him. His ear lobe tingled where she used to nip and lick and his body rose to meet hers. Then a shadow passed between them. Her eyes turned black. Her image dimmed. Maria sashayed out of reach, merging with faceless crowds. Where was she? Murdoch was desperate to find her again, to hear her voice; just once before she left him—just once. “Maria, don't go—please—answer me. Maria!”

Sights and sounds swirled, then ebbed and flowed. He heard child-like laughter. “Giddy up, Papa!” “Catch me!” Two small boys—building blocks and bloomers. Time was timeless, but in the background a quiet ticking, steady and sustaining, guiding him home.

And then the faint scent of wild cherry blossom brought him peace. A soft touch from long slim fingers, the sparkle of grey-blue eyes, and he knew for an instant Catherine held him in her arms. He slept.

A cool breeze played on Murdoch's skin. It skipped across the hairs on his chin and tickled his nose with the faint smell of grass and manure. He sensed sunlight, warm and inviting. Crisp linen lay beneath his fingers. He flexed them, feeling the embroidered edge of the top sheet. Eventually the familiar lowing of cattle tempted his eyes open. Teresa was watching him with tears in her eyes, her knitting set aside as she leaned forward. She smiled. Murdoch smiled back. He was in his own bed. He had been unconscious for three days.

*****

Paul had been buried in the small ranch cemetery on the hill next to Angel's grave the day before Murdoch awoke. His will named Murdoch as Teresa's guardian, and there were some savings and investments for Murdoch to manage until she came of age. The seventeen year old moved into the hacienda properly soon after Murdoch was declared out of danger. They were a comfort to each other in their grief; losing Paul left a gigantic hole in both their lives.

As Murdoch had feared Lancer now became Pardee's main target. With his segundo dead and him crippled, perhaps for months, the highriders ramped up their activities: fences were cut and crops were burned, cattle stampeded or stolen. Everyday more hands asked for their wages. The situation was dire. Murdoch re-read the latest Pinkerton report. Johnny had been part of a range war for most of the year, but had disappeared into Mexico once again in early August. By September, however, his name was heard in connection with a peasant revolt in Sonora and the Pinkerton agency asked for instruction.

“I've made up my mind.” Murdoch eased himself back onto the mattress and allowed Aggie to pull the covers over him. Her visit was unexpected. She had caught him out of bed against the doctor's orders, trying to exercise his injured leg. “If Lancer is to survive, if my sons want their birthright, they need to fight to protect it.”

Aggie settled herself in the armchair beside the bed. “But how will you get them here? They haven't come of their own accord. What makes you think they will come now just because you ask them—assuming you can locate them?”

“I've thought of that. I've written to the Pinkerton Agency.” Murdoch stretched across the patchwork quilt and pulled his writing box closer. Removing a letter from the side drawer, he passed it to Aggie for her to read.

“Can you afford this? It's a lot of money, and even then there is no guarantee that they will stay for the promise of an inheritance when you die.”

“Perhaps not, but now I not only want them by my side, I need them here. Pardee will think twice if he is facing younger men with an interest in the land rather than just an old cripple. My own men will feel more confident. I am going to offer Scott and Johnny a share of Lancer immediately if they stay and fight for it.”

Aggie appeared dubious, but she agreed to post Murdoch's letter in Green River on her way back home. He had instructed the Pinkerton Agency to find his sons as quickly as possible—forget about the budget; just find them both and offer them each all expenses paid to Lancer and $1000 for an hour of their time. The money that had come to him after his mother's death would be used in a final attempt to get Scott and Johnny home. As he looked at the last photograph of Ellen Lancer, Murdoch knew she would approve. Nothing was more important to his mother than family. Nothing. She had mentioned her grandsons in some small way in every letter she had written to him since their birth. Now with luck she would be the means of bringing them back to Lancer. As the transcontinental railroad link was finally made, the letter would reach the agency in less than a week. Murdoch waited impatiently for a response.

The first came in January. As requested, Murdoch's message had been hand-delivered to Scott away from his grandfather's house. He had a few things to attend to before leaving Boston, but Scott would come. Murdoch closed his eyes and said a small prayer of thanks. Even though his son's letter was purely business, containing no expression of pleasure or hopeful anticipation of their expected reunion, Murdoch was optimistic. After nearly twenty years he would meet his first born again.

He had just about given up hope of his second son when the Pinkerton Agency wrote in February that after much effort they had tracked Johnny down and given him the message.

Our agent rescued John Lancer alias Johnny Madrid from a Rurales firing squad. He had been taken prisoner the month before, and it took some time to locate where he was incarcerated. There was some doubt whether he had already been shot and his body burned on the funeral pyre in the prison yard, but fortunately he was among those taken that day to be executed on the hillside. Our agent reached him just in time.

Johnny was coming. With white knuckles, Murdoch clung to the letter and tried to focus on that crucial point instead of the image of guns and death infecting his mind. Why had he not responded to the Pinkerton's last report immediately? Dear God, the boy had been in that hell-hole for how long? Murdoch had once ridden past a Mexican prison. The stench had reached his nostrils long before he had laid eyes on the high adobe walls with the wicked spikes set into the top. Some of the inmates were being herded towards the main gate after a day working in the fields. Rags and skin-and-bone held together by shackles. And what if the Pinkerton agent had arrived a few minutes later? His son would have been one of the anonymous corpses incinerated without ceremony, without anyone present to mourn his death. For weeks Murdoch had argued with himself over what he should do about his gunfighter son. Only now after he had come so close to losing him forever did the answer seem crystal clear. At this moment, he knew whatever Johnny may have done in the past, he was still his son. Johnny would always be his son, and Murdoch wanted him home. The agency was not quite sure when Johnny would arrive at Lancer, but he had told the Pinkerton agent he would come.

At last both Murdoch's sons were coming home.

 

Chapter 51: Highriders

Today was the day.

Supported by a cane, Murdoch stood in the great room gazing blindly out the picture window, his thoughts far away in Carterville, in Boston. Scott had never been to Lancer. What would an Easterner raised in the affluence of the Athens of America make of a Californian ranch? Well, he would soon find out. Teresa and some of the hands had gone to meet the stage in Morro Coyo. They should be back soon, and then he would learn what kind of man this grown-up son of his had become.

“Muchachos! Muchachos!” the vaquero keeping watch called out from the rooftop.

Muchachos?

Startled out of his reverie, Murdoch strained his eyes to see the still distant buckboard as the road took it past the window before turning into the grounds of the hacienda. There were two young men with Teresa. Both his sons—together? Murdoch had not known when to expect Johnny. What were the chances? He must have come in on the same stage as Scott.

Butterflies filled his stomach. Murdoch had not felt this nervous since he was seven years old; when he braved the wrath of Mr Carmichael, the local minister, and owned up to accidentally breaking the stain glass window in the vestry. Not the same kind of situation at all, but his butterflies had been having a full-on fracas then too. He was not prepared to meet both his sons at once. He had thought out what he could say to Scott, but he had no idea what to expect or say to Johnny. Relieved though he was that the boy had actually come—he had entertained a few doubts on that score—he had hoped to establish some kind of relationship with Scott first and then meet his brothertogether.

Murdoch limped back to his chair feeling shaky; he hoped it did not show. Picking up the photographs of Catherine and Maria lying on the desk, he prayed they would give him the strength for what lay ahead. He had been looking at them earlier that morning, wondering if he would see their likeness in his sons. Would these young men still resemble the children he remembered?

There was a knock at the door.

“It's open.” With the help of his walking stick, Murdoch rose to his feet as a tall young man fair-headed and in eastern dress opened wide the double doors from the entrance hall. Another young man in calzoneras, red shirt and cowboy hat followed him.

For several seconds the three men stared at each other, two against one. Scott still reminded Murdoch of his Grandfather MacKinnon. He was pleased about that. Johnny, it was hard to tell. Apart from the blue eyes, he had Maria's colouring, but there were other influences as well. They were both fine looking young men; very definitely men, however, and not the little boys he remembered. The knot in his throat got bigger with the thought and his butterflies were still battling inside him. Murdoch knew he needed to make the first move while he still could. “Drink?”

“No, thank you.”Scott stepped towards him and stood his ground. His Boston son was wary. It was to be expected.

“You drink, don't you?” Murdoch pointed his cane at Johnny.

“When I know the man I'm drinking with, yeah.”

Murdoch controlled the small smile that threatened to escape him. “You've got your mother's temper—” Then to Scott he said, “You've got your mother's eyes…I want a drink.”

Willing his hands not to tremble, Murdoch went to the decanters on the side table. He was about to pour himself a whisky when his pistolero son spoke again with venom. “If you've got something to say old man, say it.”

As if bitten by a snake Murdoch rounded on his son. So that was how it was going to be. He had offered the shootist money for an hour of his time and the clock was ticking. No doubt Johnny Madrid would want payment up front. Murdoch marched over to his desk. Opening a leather folder, he removed two envelopes and slapped them down on the desk. “A thousand dollars apiece.”

Johnny was quick to pick up the envelope. Murdoch circled the desk and sat back down in his chair, appraising his son's reaction, disappointed he had been so right. Where was the child he remembered? All he could see was hardness and cynicism. “Maybe you better count it.”

“I plan to.”

Murdoch looked over at Scott. “Come and get your money.”

“I'll settle for this drink.” Scott moved towards the decanters, all suave sophistication as though the money was of little consequence, a diversion—like his father.

“You'll do as you're told,” Murdoch snapped. Their suspicion of him was only natural, but the hostile demeanour of one son and patronising, superior tone of the other rasped his already over-wrought nerves.

“Will I?” Scott's voice suddenly sounded as cold and angry as his brother's.

Murdoch was handling this all wrong. He knew it and yet he could not stop himself from making it worse. The animosity and censure he saw reflected in glacial shades of blue had unleashed an intense, confused feeling of guilt for crimes he still did not know how he could have avoided. He was shocked by how much he resented these young men who in arrogance or ignorance had clearly come to judge him. The mental tempest was making him unapologetic and curt. He snarled at his sons. “The air needs clearing. Let's clear it.” Rising to his feet and limping around the desk, he confronted Scott. “Your mother's family thought she was daft to marry me not a year off the boat from Inverness. And maybe they were right. You were born. She died. I left you in their hands. Period.”He turned and faced Johnny. “A couple of years later I met your mother down at Matamoros. She…We got married. Two years after that I awoke one morning found her gone—you along with her.”

“That ain't the way I heard it.”

“I don't care what you heard. It's past. Bad or good, right or wrong, it's past and gone.” Walking to the window, Murdoch looked out towards the hills over fields dotted with grazing cattle.“We're talking about now. What's happening out there...to this ranch. Last fall somebody made off with one of our horses. My segundo and I trailed him to a place called Morro Coyo. We walked right into it. O'Brien was killed and I ended up with this leg that's gone sour on me. Since then my fences have been cut, beef stolen, workers frightened off, burned out. Three months ago I had one hundred and fifty vaqueros. Now I've got eighteen.”

“Well, then it's the ranch you're worried about, huh?” Johnny looked amused.

Murdoch was in no mood to be mocked.“I love this ground more than anything God ever created. I've got a grey hair for every good blade of grass you see out there. They're trying to drive me off this place.”

“You mean to tell me that men can just come along and drive you off your land?” Scott apparently found that rather hard to believe. “What about the law?”

“There isn't any. They killed two good men: Joe Carvajal from Modesto, Peterson from San Jos é .” Murdoch left the window and went again to pour himself a drink. He felt in need of one even if his sons did not.“The others quit. Found business elsewhere. The only law we've got here is pack law. The big dog gets the meat. By summer they'll own half of this state.”

“Does big dog have a name?” Johnny stood legs spread and his hands thrust into the front of his belt. This was a dilemma he evidently understood. He was listening, interested.

“Pardee.”

“Day—Day Pardee.”

“You know him?”

“Oh yes, I know him. He's a gunfighter and he's pretty good.” Johnny spoke softly. Then taking a few steps towards Murdoch, he smiled as if he found Murdoch's situation entertaining.“Yeah, I'd say you have some kind of trouble.”

From his perch on Murdoch's desk, Scott re-joined the conversation. “Just how many men does he have, this Pardee?”

“Twenty or twenty-five.”

“That doesn't exactly put him in the class of Attila the Hun.” Getting up, his elder son went over to the map of Lancer hanging on the wall. “It seems to me you have a very simple military problem here. One: find the enemy. Two: engage him. Three: destroy him.”

Johnny chuckled. Murdoch understood why, but he was not laughing.

“Something funny?” Scott was not impressed; Murdoch could see he did not appreciate being laughed at by a dusty, upstart half-brother.

“He's saying it's not that kind of fight.” Murdoch put down his glass, pleased at least that they were now seriously discussing the problem at hand.“But you could be wrong. I've got eighteen good men, only the best stayed. You two make twenty.”

Johnny was quick to respond. “Now wait a minute, this is listening money. Now all of a sudden you're talking about gun money. Let me tell you something. That's extra. That don't come on no lunch.”

“I want more than your guns. I want your arms and your legs and your guts—if you've got any.”

Johnny looked back at his father, seemingly unruffled by the barb. He took a few seconds to consider. “All right, say I come up with all these arms and legs and guts you're talking about. What do you come up with?”

“One third of everything you see out there.” Murdoch smiled grimly. That shut him up. This time it was Johnny's turn to walk towards the window, looking out over the ranch as Murdoch followed. “One hundred thousand acres, twenty thousand head of beef, the finest campañero de palominos in the San Joaquin.”

“One third, huh? You wouldn't mind putting that down on a piece of paper, would you? No offence.”

Murdoch removed his pocket book from his jacket and unfolded the contract he had had Franklin Randolph draw up two days ago. He handed it to Johnny. “This do? Agreement of partnership. Equal shares to each of us, but I call the tune. Agreed?”

Palpably interested, Scott nodded his assent. That was gratifying. Earlier he had shown no interest in the money. What was his motivation? Something more positive than financial gain at least or so Murdoch hoped.

Johnny still appeared sceptical. “You didn't sign it.”

“Nothing for nothing. You'll get your share of this ranch when you prove to me that your man enough to hold it. When you get the man that put the bullet in my back.”

“Pardee? Let me tell you, old man, you want a lot.”

“Take it or leave it.” Murdoch looked Johnny straight in the eye, challenging him to make a decision, but at that moment they were interrupted by frantic ringing. “Fire bell.”

All three ran to answer its call. A corn field east of the hacienda was ablaze. Smoke stung their eyes and caught in their throats as they and the small ranch community fought the flames with water, sacks and shovels. The heat scorched their skin, but men and women kept beating at the inferno until covered in soot Murdoch called a halt to their efforts. “Let it go. It's already got too much of a head start on us. Let it burn up to the ridge.”

Spotting Scott and Johnny nearby, clothes in disarray and dirty, he joined them. “Take a good look at it. It's the third field that Pardee has destroyed. I told you you'd have to fight to hold onto this place. What do you say?”

“I've already given you my answer.” Scott met Murdoch's eye and spoke with a pleasing certainty.

“What about you, boy?” Murdoch looked to his younger son.

Johnny continued to gaze out over the burning field.“I'd hate to see my property go up in flames.”

“Our property,” Scott qualified.

Murdoch could not help but smile, more on the inside than the outside, but his sons had taken the bait. They may never know how much it meant to him, but for the first time, they would fight for Lancer together.

*****

He had business with Cipriano so Scott and Johnny returned to the hacienda with Teresa. Murdoch did not see them again until they all sat down to dinner. He was feeling calmer by then, and he was content to let the young people drive the conversation with him as an interested observer.

Both sons came to the table having made some effort to clean up from the fire, but whereas Scott had changed his clothes, Johnny had merely brushed his off. After a short grace, they all began to eat. In honour of Scott's arrival, Teresa had organised a roast with all the trimmings. She was rewarded for her consideration with a casual display of Bostonian manners. “My compliments, Teresa. The table is looking almost as wonderful as the hostess and the food is delicious.”

Johnny demonstrated his approval by ploughing in like he had not eaten for a week. “Yeah, it's good.”

Later that evening, Johnny let slip his last meal had been nothing more than a rabbit shot and roasted over his campfire the night before. What caused more interest at the dining table, though, was that in his hurry he ate like a wrangler on the range using his own knife to scoop and stab at his food, completely ignoring the cutlery laid out for the purpose. The disdain on Scott's face would have been comical if Murdoch had not been so eager for the brothers to get on. Johnny's expression when he first met Scott's disapproving gaze was unreadable. Then he answered it with a crooked grin. Not breaking eye contact, he stabbed the next piece of meat with a flourish and chewed it with deliberate slowness. Scott coughed into his fist. Looking down at his plate, he began to eat, making polite conversation with Teresa between mouthfuls about the differences between Boston and California. First round won, Johnny reinforced victory by piling his plate with a second helping. Wiping his knife off on his napkin, he slid it back into his boot and then continued to eat in a more civilised manner. A small smile from Scott conceded the match and a nod between the brothers put all to rights. Even so Murdoch was left slightly rattled by the exchange. He had thought he had observed the whole interaction with detachment, even mild amusement, but when Johnny picked up his knife and fork and proved he did know how to use them, Murdoch was shocked by his own sense of relief.

The days that followed were confusing, full of things Murdoch did not understand and conflicting emotions. On the plus side, he was sleeping better. Since the Pinkerton's last report telling him where they had finally located Johnny, he had been plagued by nightmares of firing squads and death. Having his son at Lancer seemed to have relieved that tension, although others replaced it. He did not feel comfortable in the presence of either son, but he cherished every moment that went well and analysed every encounter that did not. Scott appeared cautious, but at least willing to work with him in the best interests of the ranch. Johnny was a mystery, always defensive, often for no apparent reason.

The first morning Murdoch left the young men to sleep in after their long journeys and pursued his normal routine. When he came in for his breakfast, he met Johnny in the hallway bare-chested and holding a new white shirt. “Guest money is one thing, but I don't need you buying me clothes, old man. Where's my shirt?”

Murdoch examined the white shirt and smiled. It was in Mexican style with the embroidery that Maria and Estella were both so good at. “Nothing to do with me. I expect Maria left that and took yours to be washed.”

“Who's Maria? She has no right.”

“Maybe not, but you can tell her. She's my housekeeper. You'll probably find her in the kitchen or out by the clotheslines seeing it is washing day. When you tell her though, just remember she used to change your diaper. I suspect she thinks she has every right.” Murdoch did not hang around to see Johnny's reaction, but he noted later when he drew the buckboard up near the corral that the boy was wearing the white shirt.

From a distance, Murdoch witnessed both sons exhibit their horsemanship before going about his business for the rest of the morning. Pride as well as satisfaction warmed him as his ranch hands cheered them on. This was what he had hoped for; that the men would look up to his sons and gain strength from their presence—and in time their leadership.

He intended to let them settle in with Teresa as their guide for the first day. That seemed to work for Scott, but Johnny had other ideas. Even though Teresa and Scott had apparently voiced the intention of going into Morro Coyo to buy Scott more suitable clothes, Johnny did not wait for them. He went in alone. Murdoch was aware that Pardee and some of his henchmen were hanging around the town. He was in two minds about letting Scott and Teresa go there later without an escort, but the mere suggestion of a guard earned him a scathing look from his elder son. “I think I am more than capable of escorting Miss O'Brien without assistance.”

Murdoch said no more. Teresa knew to steer clear of the highriders and from what he had seen, Pardee kept his men well away from respectable women. Although Murdoch doubted that was for any reason he would have sympathy with, it still gave him hope that the visit would be uneventful.

But why had Johnny gone to Morro Coyo alone? The question plagued him throughout the day. It made no sense or none that brought him any peace of mind.

“Señor Murdoch! Cipriano! Isidro!” The cries of one of his vaqueros interrupted his thoughts. Diego galloped up to where Murdoch supervised the branding of some new calves, just as Scott, Johnny and Teresa arrived back together.

“What is it, man? What's the matter with you?”

“I ride. I see smoke at Gaspar's place. I ride over there. What I see,Señor!” Distraught Diego buried his face in Murdoch's shoulder.

Leaving Teresa safely behind, Murdoch and Scott drove the buckboard to Gaspar's farmhouse. The other vaqueros and Johnny rode along side. Smoke from a smouldering wagon and chicken coop obscured their view until they entered the yard, but then Murdoch was crushed by what he saw. Gaspar dangled upside down from the barn hoist—dead.

As Scott and Johnny helped the ranch hands cut the body down, Murdoch hurried to the house to check on Gaspar's wife. “Oh, my God. My God.”

Death had not come quickly enough for Maria Mendez. Murdoch turned away from her dishevelled body, appalled by the brutality, the savagery.

He was still standing on the porch of the log cabin, sickened, when Cipriano rode up to him. “The trail was clear. They rode to the San Benitos.”

Pulling himself together, Murdoch instructed Gaspar's cousin, Isidro, to get another man and take care of the deceased while he went with the rest to fetch firearms. Back at the hacienda, he stayed quiet as Scott questioned his foreman about the San Benitos. Cipriano knew those mountains like the back of his hand. When he confirmed there was a steep pass that he could easily find, Scott was eager to ride out in pursuit of Pardee's gang.

But Johnny was against it.

“Do you know what's going to happen up there with a couple of cowhands and a tin soldier?”He demanded of Murdoch before addressing his brother. “That sun will be coming down in about half an hour and you're going to be stumbling around in the dark blowing each other's heads off.”

Scott looked to his father. “You call the tune, what do you say?”

“I say you go.” Murdoch knew Johnny could be right, but a decision had to be made and he would support the son, who seemed committed to acting in the best interest of the ranch—and who showed him some deference.

Johnny threw his hat down in disgust. Scott went with Cipriano to join the vaqueros waiting armed and ready outside. Johnny made no move to follow.

Murdoch considered the enigma before him. “Are you going or not?”

“Is that an order?”

“There is only one man that's going to run this ranch.” Murdoch was firm on this point. His son needed to learn to abide by his decisions even if he disagreed. Even if Johnny was ultimately proven right, and Murdoch was experienced enough with land pirates to know his younger son could be right.

“Pardee is sucking you out in the open. He'll either cut your cowboys to shreds up in that pass or go for you in this house when nobody is here.” Johnny spoke with the certainty of experience. Murdoch stood his ground, but he was shaken by his son's persistence.“Now you've got one chance. Fort up here and wait until I find Pardee.”

“Maybe you've found him already. What were you doing in Morro Coyo?” This was the crux of the matter. After only one day Murdoch was confident he could trust Scott. Facing this angry young man, who appeared at this moment to be more gunhawk than son, Murdoch did not know if he could trust Johnny. The very thought sat like a lead weight inside him.

Johnny paused. “Is that what you think of me?”

“I don't know what to think of you.” Murdoch shook his head slightly as he spoke the unpleasant truth.

“Think what you like. I never was much good at taking orders.” Johnny left without a backward glance.

That night Murdoch sat in the dark stretched out in his armchair in front of the fireplace, worrying about Scott facing armed men in darkness and unfamiliar territory, and about Johnny—God knows where. What were they thinking? Of him? Of all this? Having been in the army Scott was used to taking orders, but he had been brought up in luxury. How long would he really put up with taking orders from a father he did not know on a ranch that could never offer the lifestyle he had been used to, even if it was not ‘a mud hut' on ‘a desolate strip of sand'? And Johnny—Murdoch did not know even where to begin. At Gaspar's his vaqueros had been obviously distressed. Scott had been a soldier, he had experienced the horrors of a prison camp and yet he had still appeared as sickened as Murdoch. But Johnny? Sorrowful, yes, but not shocked, not nauseated by the barbarity. Resignation—that was what Murdoch had seen—acceptance of the unacceptable and the calm calculation of a gunfighter when everyone around him was distraught. How many times had he witnessed scenes like that? How many times had he instigated scenes like that? The bile rose in Murdoch's throat at the very thought that his son could have done to any woman what had been done to Maria Mendez. Somehow even the killing did not compare to the brutality that involved. What kind of man was Johnny Madrid? Was he still a man who could be his son in any real sense? As the clock struck ten, Murdoch wondered what the morning would bring.

Teresa came into the great room to check on him. Taking the poker she stirred life back into the fire. “You're thinking about your sons out there, aren't you?”

“They're strangers to me.”

Teresa picked up an Indian rug and draped it over him. “It'll take a little time, but once they get to know you…”

“And stop hating me.”

“Oh, they don't hate you. They want to love you.”

“I ought to get myself a dog. They don't answer back.”

Teresa settled down on the floor next to him and rested her head on the arm of his chair. He stroked her hair. “You miss your daddy don't you?”

“Yes, but I've got you.”

“Yes you have. You surely have.” And for that he was truly grateful, especially now as he struggled to build some kind of rapport with his sons. Teresa was his safe harbour in stormy seas.

Just before daybreak Scott and the men returned from the San Benitos, and Murdoch breathed a little easier. Scott was confident that they had fooled Pardee's men into thinking they had taken the bait. To Murdoch's surprise, he had been convinced by Johnny's argument from the outset. He had coupled it with ideas of his own, and before leaving the hacienda, he had decided to ride only so far and then come back to the house and fort up as his brother recommended. Why in God's name had he not said that in the first place? Maybe the falling out with Johnny could have been avoided.

For all his outward civility, Scott was no easier to decipher than his brother. Why had he come? Less than four years earlier he had totally ignored Murdoch's telegram and left it to his grandfather to convey the message he was not interested in establishing a relationship with an absentee father. If not the money, why? Briefly, Murdoch had entertained hope that Harlan had intercepted the birthday telegram. It was one reason why he had insisted the Pinkerton agent deliver his letter away from Louisburg Square, but that pipe dream was soon destroyed. On the first evening, after Johnny and Teresa had retired, Scott and Murdoch had been finishing their drinks together in the great room. Murdoch had risked voicing his disappointment that Scott had not come in more settled times. The boy had muttered something about ‘circumstances' before gulping down what was left of his brandy and going to his bed.

Was that only two days ago?

Now the sun was rising and soon Pardee and his men would attack. Scott helped himself to a glass of port to give him strength for the confrontation to come. “Where's Johnny?”

“Gone.”

“Gone where?” Murdoch could hear concern and censure in Scott's voice.

“What difference?”Why could he not admit he cared? Pride, stubbornness, twenty years of restraining his emotions—whatever it was, it did nothing to smother the fear Murdoch actually felt for Johnny's safety, and now Scott's silent response was adding to his misery. Damn the boy! His rivalry with his brother was partially to blame for Johnny leaving so what right had he to criticise? Murdoch's head throbbed, but the pounding did not prevent his brain answering its own question. Every right: the fundamental right of a son to expect his father to be the wiser, bigger man.

Gunshots!

Murdoch snapped out of his thoughts. The fire bell sounded. The raid had begun.

Vaqueros dashed to their positions. Murdoch ran with Scott and Teresa, rifles in hand, to mount the stairs ascending the south wall. Scott took control like the army officer he once was. “Hold your fire! They're still out of range.”

His son was right. They were out of range so why were the highriders shooting, alerting the hacienda to their assault? It made no sense. Puzzled, Murdoch searched the approaching riders for an answer.

Scott cocked his rifle. “Here comes the first one.”

“Wait!” Murdoch recognised the palomino jumping the rough-sawn timber fence. “It's Johnny!”

Murdoch gripped his rifle, paralysed, cold sweat forming on the back of his neck, as Johnny galloped towards the hacienda, frantically pursued by shooting men. Teresa screamed when the bullet hit. Johnny jerked and fell from his horse only yards from safety. Murdoch closed his eyes, his heart now a solid lump in his chest. Scott pushed past him.

“Scott—it's no use.”Murdoch stood numb and without hope.“I don't understand what that boy was trying to do.”

“He was coming back to us.” Teresa cried from the landing below. Was she right? The possibility he had lost his son at the turning point, cut Murdoch to his core as Scott continued down the stairs.

There was no time to think about it. Scott ran forwards to take cover behind the outer courtyard wall. Murdoch and Teresa also found safe positions. All three started firing their rifles as a second wave of highriders bore down on the hacienda. Bullets filled the air; attackers and defenders vied for the upper hand and men on both sides met their maker.

An outlaw made a dash across the ground where Johnny lay. Suddenly the son Murdoch had thought was dead came back to life. Johnny shot the man down, and then another, and another; he shot four of the enemy within seconds. Murdoch could not believe his eyes. He could not believe the relief he felt. “Look at that. Look at your brother!”

“Cover me. I'm going out after him.” Scott ran to where Johnny lay injured, firing his rifle as he went. Murdoch watched in dread for the safety of both his sons. Scott reached Johnny and attempted to haul him one handed to shelter, but he was too heavy. Through the smoke, Murdoch saw a vaquero emerge from behind a wall to help. Together they dragged the wounded man across the grass to the partial protection of a tree. Returning his attention to the battle in the nick of time, Murdoch aimed and fired. A bandit with Scott in his sights clutched at his belly and keeled over. Then Scott shot another highrider. Moments later through the gun smoke Murdoch spied Pardee himself take aim from behind an acacia. Scott's rifle fired and Day Pardee collapsed to the ground.

“They've got Pardee!”

Leaderless, the other highriders fled. More were shot as they tried to escape, and then as suddenly as it had started, the battle ceased.

Through the clearing haze, Murdoch limped towards where his sons were talking. Johnny rose shakily to his feet, using the tree as support. His brother put an arm out to steady him, but Johnny brushed it away and staggered towards his father alone. For the briefest moment, Murdoch relived his younger son's first steps. Then the boy fainted. Scott caught him neatly over his shoulder and carried him home.

*****

Thankfully the bullet had missed Johnny's spine. Doc Jenkins drove out from Spanish Wells to tend him. On the first night Johnny was feverish and Murdoch's mind persisted in fearing the worst. He fell restlessly asleep in the chair and awoke sweating and shaking. The firing squad nightmare had returned, only this time he not only knew it was his son who fell to the ground riddled with bullets, this time he saw his face and his dead, empty eyes. Murdoch had to splash his face and drink water from the ewer to rid his mouth and skin of the taste and feel of dust and fat-laden smoke.

Johnny's fever broke around dawn as Doc Jenkins had predicted, and the nightmare did not reoccur. During the next few days the boy lay unconscious, drugged against the pain. Murdoch sat with him almost continuously, thinking of all the things he wanted to say, but when Johnny finally awoke Murdoch found he was unable to say any of them. He allowed Teresa and Scott to take over the bedside vigil, only entering the room briefly each day for gruff enquiries about how Johnny was doing. It was not all Murdoch's fault. Johnny seemed to find it difficult to talk too.

Thankfully, Murdoch's relationship with Scott became more relaxed as the days passed. There were still things that neither of them wanted to talk about, but they also had interests in common, not least their concern for Johnny. By the time Johnny was fit to go into town to sign the contract that would make him and Scott part owners of the ranch, Murdoch had decided he liked his elder son, and he was hopeful that the feeling was mutual.

Murdoch, Scott, Johnny and Teresa all attended Franklin Randolph's office in Morro Coyo for the signing of the contract. Scott signed first above his name and then Murdoch. When it came to Johnny, Murdoch suddenly remembered he had forgotten to tell Randolph Johnny went by another name. “Oh Mr Randolph, I should have told you. That last name should read John Madrid, not Lancer.”

Murdoch hoped he had said the right thing. He looked uncertainly at his son. Unreadable as always, Johnny looked back, but said nothing. Mr Randolph went to make the change.

That evening, Murdoch wrote to his brother, Jock, in Scotland. Words could not express the joy he felt having his sons back—nor convey what it meant to Murdoch when Johnny had stopped the lawyer making the amendment.

“No,” he had said. “Let it stand.”

 

 

Chapter 52: To Homecoming

“It's old but it's still a good timepiece.” Murdoch closed the fob watch he had taken from his pocket. After one last look at the keepsake, given to him by his grandfather as a link with his Scottish home, he handed the watch to Johnny, ostensibly so the boy would know when it was two o'clock. “Keep it.”

Johnny looked at the watch in his hand. What was he thinking? Murdoch never knew what this son of his was thinking, except when he was in a rage; then he knew exactly what he was thinking. Either way it scared him. “I, ah…”

“What?”

“Nothing. You just be back at the ranch at two o'clock. Scott will be waiting for you.” Murdoch twitched the reins and the horses pulled the buckboard away from where Johnny and ranchhand Wes were erecting a new fence. Murdoch had thought maybe to tell Johnny the watch's history, perhaps hint at what it stood for, but he could not think of the words and Wes was sitting within earshot. Besides Murdoch was not sure Johnny would yet appreciate the deeper meaning of the gift even if it was explained. Murdoch had understood its importance; not because his grandfather had told him, but because of the relationship they had established over the years. Johnny and Murdoch had a way to go before they shared that unspoken understanding. Would they ever get there? Murdoch always felt like he was on the verge of losing Johnny and yet he could not stop himself from pushing him. When he analysed it he thought he was trying to get the boy to make up his mind. Johnny had come back to Lancer for the money. He stayed for the financial value of the land or maybe the prestige of being a substantial landowner. Murdoch desperately wanted to feel that his son stayed at Lancer for better reasons.

Johnny and Wes had made good progress on the fence. Johnny had been pushing hard with the idea of getting some time off later in the day, but Murdoch needed him to help Scott with some surveying. He had ruined Johnny's plans for the evening too; there was bookwork to do. As part-owner, Johnny needed to understand and deal with it. As well as the bookkeeping, some legal documents and a letter from Will McIntyre had arrived requiring prompt response. Scott had already proved he could handle this side of the business; he lacked knowledge about cattle and ranching, but that would come in time. He and Johnny both seemed interested to learn—they had the blisters and muscle ache to prove it— but Scott already had a good business brain and he was definitely more ready to knuckle down to the routine and responsibilities. Murdoch felt that these particular papers were good ones to teach Johnny what was required, but he knew already his younger son hated bookwork of any kind.

Murdoch had put his foot in it well and truly the first time he had set Johnny to do some basic bookkeeping. The maintenance expenses needed to be recorded in one place and the capital expenses in another. He had explained the difference between the two, and left Johnny once the boy had said he understood. Murdoch had come back an hour later expecting him to be finished. There had not been many receipts to enter, but Johnny was still only half way through and he had entered the purchase of a new multiple-furrow plough under maintenance instead of capital. Murdoch said the words without thinking. “If you're struggling to read any of these just set them aside and check with me rather than making a wrong entry.”

He knew as soon as he said it, he had embarrassed Johnny. That was why it was taking him so long. Apart from some of the handwriting, the words themselves were giving him difficulty. Murdoch cursed himself for being so thoughtless, but to apologise would have probably made things worse so he had just pretended not to see the look that flashed across his son's face.

He had made a better job of it—equally by accident—a day or so later when he was reading a newspaper article and Johnny and Scott had happened to come in for something. “Hand me that dictionary, will you.”

Johnny had followed Murdoch's gaze and picked up the solid tome with its well-worn cover that lived on the top corner of the desk. “This?”

“Yes. Best dictionary I've ever had, if either of you are ever in need. I'm forever having to look up words when I get letters from our San Francisco lawyers. Will McIntyre likes big words. I don't usually need it for the newspaper though.”

Next time it was Johnny's turn to do the bookkeeping, Murdoch noticed the dictionary was close at hand and he got through the work faster.

Murdoch would have liked to test Johnny's reading and writing skills to see just how good or bad they were, but he did not dare suggest it. Johnny was not illiterate thank goodness. Not surprisingly he could read and write in Spanish as well as English, but he was not proficient in the written form of either language, and he was sensitive about it. Maybe if Murdoch could encourage him to read more, he would improve naturally. It was the best he could come up with for now at any rate.

He had no such worries about Scott. Well-educated was an understatement. He knew things Murdoch had no idea about even after fifty years' experience and a half-decent education. Harlan had certainly not let him down in that regard and Scott had a natural quickness both for information and atmosphere, which was useful, especially when dealing with his brother. Murdoch was not quite sure how those first few weeks after they became official partners would have gone for him and Johnny if Scott had not been around. He seemed to have the knack to recognise the danger signs early and smooth troubled waters.

“Johnny is intelligent and capable. There is still a kindness about him that I was afraid he might have lost.” Murdoch had smiled at the thought, pausing as he tried to sort out his ideas. He had dined at the Conway ranch alone that day, and it had been a relief to discuss the situation with Aggie. “But in almost every other way we seem poles apart. I get on much better with Scott. We share a lot of the same interests and opinions. Our only major difference is that he's much better at getting along with his brother than I am.”

Murdoch had passed the tureen back to Aggie, who had served herself before replying. “From what I hear Scott is a lot like his mother. I wish I'd met her. I'm told Catherine had a sixth sense for people's emotions and was very good at saying the right thing.”

“That's true, but Johnny is like his mother too. In a quieter way, he has inherited her love of fun and life in general—I am pleased about that, but he is also quick to fire and stubborn.”

“Well, I never met Maria either, but frankly Murdoch you're no pushover yourself. You may be more slow-burning than Johnny, but when the firecracker lights, it goes off with a bang. And you're a terror at keeping things locked inside and stewing over them. I suspect some of the problems you have with Johnny are because you are too much alike.”

Maybe Aggie was right, but as she could not come up with any useful solutions, they would just have to struggle on. His sons were settling in slowly. Both of them seemed to get on well with the small ranch community. Scott took a bit of teasing about his clothes and way of talking, but he mixed in all right with most people. His experience as a second lieutenant in the army probably helped; the hands seemed to like and respect him for all the right reasons. Johnny had an easy rapport with the vaqueros, but Murdoch worried the respect they showed him was less to do with his ability to lead, or even being the boss's son, and more to do with the awe they had for Johnny Madrid. Murdoch hated everything about the gunfighter, Johnny Madrid. He had an inherent love for his son and he wanted to love him in the larger sense, but his desire to rid him of every last vestige of Madrid stood in the way. Murdoch's hands tightened on the reins as he drove the buckboard through the Lancer arch. He must be patient.

Maria Ramirez crossed the yard as he pulled up outside the barn. Both sons got on well with Maria. He had noticed Johnny talking to her the first day Doc Jenkins had allowed him downstairs after being shot. It had probably been the only time Johnny and Maria had been in a room alone together since his conversation with Murdoch about the shirt. Murdoch had been scraping muck off his boots outside the kitchen doorway when he had heard them talking inside. He had backed away and gone around to the front entrance instead. Johnny had visited Estella later with Scott. Doc had prescribed light exercise initially. A walk to the Ramirez farmhouse was deemed acceptable as long as he took it slow and rested when he needed to. Since then both sons, together and alone, had taken opportunities to spend time with Estella and Maria. Murdoch could guess why. He hoped it helped.

Murdoch observed his sons' interactions with the women of the ranch with interest. Most of them had lived at Lancer a long time, many all their lives. The older ones kept a motherly eye on Teresa and after an initial period of wariness they seemed to naturally extend that attention to his sons. Maria, in particular, was soon chivvying and chiding them as she would her own children. “You are a bottomless pit, Juanito. Fuera de aqui!”

The boys seemed to enjoy this treatment. Scott was conspicuously uncomfortable at first. Murdoch supposed he was not used to hugs, kisses and friendly pushing and shoving. After all, Harlan was not a demonstrative man, the servants would hardly dare show genuine affection to the young master once he was out of frocks, and the idea that Scott's Aunt Winifred would cuddle her nephew was laughable. Murdoch was sorry that Scott had missed out on physical displays of affection—they had featured significantly in his own childhood—but his son seemed to be quickly adapting now.

Happily, it was clear that Johnny had not been similarly deprived. He was perfectly comfortable with the hugs and playful contact that came his way. He also demonstrated a general liking and respect for women of all ages. In a more restrained, mannerly way so did Scott, but it meant more to Murdoch to see the trait in his younger son. The Pinkerton reports said Johnny Madrid had been involved in range wars where rapes had occurred. Murdoch had been ill with the thought that Johnny could have been directly involved in any form of violence towards women, let alone rape. He had wondered how he would ever find out for sure, but Johnny had been at Lancer only a few weeks when he knew there would never be any need to broach the subject. After seeing how his son behaved and spoke to the women of the ranch and how they responded to him, Murdoch was one hundred percent certain that Johnny Madrid was no rapist.

Both sons seemed to get on well with Teresa, and she offered useful insight into their thoughts. She had told Murdoch about a conversation she and Scott had had with Johnny by the river that first morning at Lancer. It fitted with what the boy had said to him in the great room the day he arrived.

“He thought you had thrown him and his mother out. I told him he was wrong. I don't think he believed me at first, but I'm sure he has doubts now.”

Murdoch was not surprised Maria had let Johnny think he had driven her away. From her perspective maybe he had, though not quite as literally as Johnny had believed. Murdoch did not know how to talk to his son about it without the conversation disintegrating into hurtful recriminations. He was relieved Johnny loved his mother. Murdoch had heard some awful stories about her, but if she still retained her son's affection, the Maria he remembered could not have completely disappeared into a bottle. He was actually pleased to know there was a valid reason for Johnny never trying to find him before; once they were past the lies, maybe there was some hope of a real father and son relationship. He was determined not to get thereby damaging his son's memory of his mother, though he suspected over time Johnny would hear things from others that would not make him happy.

Murdoch knew he would probably have to talk to Scott at some point about Catherine and how he came to leave him in Boston, but that too he hoped to put off until actual experience of each other brought perspective to any discussion. Scott seemed committed to staying at Lancer and making their new family work. He had accepted Murdoch's initial pronouncement that the past was in the past and better left there, and their relationship was growing stronger every day.

From what Scott had said about his life in Boston, he had been suffocating and directionless. Without actually complaining, he had painted a picture in Murdoch's mind of a young man who had found freedom and enlightenment in war. Boston society and his grandfather's plans had become more of a prison than Belle Isle. Beyond any desire to build a relationship with Murdoch, Lancer offered Scott adventure and a chance to achieve something through his own efforts. Murdoch could not be jealous of that—after all, the same need had brought him from Scotland to California.

Murdoch liked and respected his elder son, not just because his abilities and knowledge were things he had always admired, or even because they shared aspirations, but because Scott was willing to give this new relationship of theirs a chance. His elder son started out every situation with the attitude that he would be on Murdoch's side. He might change his mind along the way and they would discuss any difference of opinion, but from the outset he would stand with Murdoch. Johnny on the other hand always seemed to want to see how the land lay before he decided which side he was on. Murdoch could not help but be irritated by that—the Madrid-effect, as he always thought of it.

There had been signs that their relationship was getting better. Murdoch had been pleased how he and his sons had all pulled together when, after his mother's death, young Ben Wallis had run off to meet his outlaw father. The experience had taught Murdoch how much more actually knowing his sons could add to his anxiety. Scott had been held hostage, and from the moment he had been taken everything Murdoch did and said had revolved around getting him back. Johnny had apparently put himself in danger to protect his brother. Murdoch was glad he had not seen him run out unarmed with bullets flying to save Scott, but he relished the idea of a strong bond between brothers.

Ben had gone to live with the Tafts, a family with a ranch on the other side of Morro Coyo. He would be well cared for, and now he had met his pa—and watched him die—he would settle to his new life. Murdoch was not sure the boy really understood all the sacrifices that had been made by his parents for his sake, but Murdoch would explain them to him when Ben was older, when Murdoch gave him the pocket knife. Morgan Price might have been alive now if he had not taken that knife for his son. The shattering of the shop window had alerted the sheriff to his presence. Even coming to town to see the boy had been a risk. Price had pretended to be hard and uncaring, but his actions had told a different story. Price and Murdoch were similar in that regard; unable to tell the people they cared most about the truth about their feelings.

One day Murdoch would explain to Scott and Johnny the sacrifices he had made for them; when they were more settled, when it would not just seem like he was trying to win favour or poison them against those they loved. Murdoch did not wish to win his sons affection and trust by destroying their faith in others. He did not want thanks for the efforts he had made. As most of his effort had been fruitless, he did not believe he deserved thanks—just maybe a little credit for at least trying to get them back. Maybe he would even let his sons see what losing them in the first place cost him, but at the moment having them here with him at Lancer was all too new.

Murdoch got up from his desk and the letter he had been attempting to write since arriving back at the hacienda; his mind kept wandering. Scott had just come into the great room again. He had been waiting on Johnny for a while now. Murdoch had an uneasy feeling he was heading towards another confrontation with his younger son. Going over to the grandfather clock, he was annoyed to discover it was already three o'clock. “What's keeping Johnny? That job on the south gully shouldn't have taken this long.”

“Look, I can do that surveying without him. It's not that rough a job. Tell him to forget it.”

“Scott, stop trying to cover for him.”

At that moment one of the ranch hands knocked and entered, breathless from riding fast. Fifty head of cattle had got through a hole in the fence near the south gully where Johnny and Wes had been working. The beasts had ended up in the gully. It would take the rest of the day and most of the men to haul them out.

Scott pre-empted Murdoch's thoughts. “We don't know what happened out there.”

Murdoch knew though, whatever the details it was just another example of Johnny not taking his responsibilities seriously enough. He and Wes had been close to finishing when Murdoch had seen them mid-morning. “Maybe you better start that surveying by yourself.”

Scott had not been gone more than ten minutes when Johnny showed up with a string of wild horses. Johnny sauntered over from the corral to where Murdoch and Teresa stood in front of the hacienda. He took off his hat and gloves, and handed them to Teresa, then walked past Murdoch to the washbasin that lived on a small table by the portico. Not a care in the world, he had no idea what his afternoon chasing horses had cost and apparently no shame about being back late—great example that was setting for the ranch hands. Murdoch knew what they would be saying in the bunkhouse that night if the boss let his son away with such irresponsibility.

“Where you been, Johnny?”

“Look at that stallion, huh! I tell you he's going to outrun any horse on this ranch.”

“I asked you where you been.” Blast the boy, he was still just washing his face as though nothing was wrong.

“I've been rounding them up.” Johnny dried himself off with a towel. “How long since you seen a horse like that?”

“What about the fence?”

“We'll wrap that up tomorrow morning.” Johnny took the fob watch out of his pocket, and smiled as he opened it and checked the dial. “I'll tell you what when that little hand is on six and the big hand is on twelve—bright and early.”

“It's not good enough, Johnny. You had a job of work here to do and you didn't do it.” Murdoch was trying very hard to stay calm, but his son's apparent lack of unawareness or consideration for others was making his blood boil.

“I told you I'd do it tomorrow.” Johnny was not smiling now. Finally it was sinking in that Murdoch was not happy.

“This is a cattle ranch. We're not in the business of catching and selling wild horses.”

“We could be. Now I cut that horse and I want to break him. You mind?”

“You do that on your own time.”

“When's my own time?”There it was. Johnny's resentment of Murdoch for destroying his plans for the evening was palpable.

“When you've done your day's work the same as everybody else!” Murdoch had not meant to shout, but what did the boy think? That a ranch would just run itself with its owners waltzing in and out of the picture as the whim took them. “Just because you're my son doesn't mean you don't carry your own weight around here.”

That did it. Johnny gave Murdoch one of his Madrid looks. Glancing at Teresa and then over towards the corral where Wes looked on from the gate, he turned and walked into the house without a word. Murdoch gazed unseeing in the direction of the yard, adding another less-than-successful conversation between father and son to the list.

Teresa tried to play peacemaker. “You can't blame him. He's never had to run his life by a clock before. Well, he probably didn't even know he was late.”

“He knew what time it was.” The problem was not that Johnny did not know the time. The problem was that Johnny bucked against routine like a wild horse against a rider. And he did not like taking orders from anyone, least of all from Murdoch—his father in name only.

Murdoch might have said more, but at that moment two unknown riders entered the yard. He went to see what they wanted. The older man introduced himself as Samuel Stryker and claimed he and his sons had been dogging Johnny's wild horses for two weeks. Johnny came up behind Murdoch as Stryker accused Johnny of stealing the horses. He toned down his words when Murdoch acknowledged Johnny as his son, but Stryker still wanted Murdoch to give up the herd. “I don't want any trouble. Just them horses.”

Stryker's story did not impress, but before Murdoch could reply, his new leading hand rode up and interrupted.“Mr Lancer, you want the men on the bridge pulled off to help pull out the cattle?”

Once the highriders were defeated and vaqueros started to return, Murdoch took on Frank Cooper to help Cipriano until Scott and Johnny learned enough to truly pull their weight. Lancer would no longer need two foremen.

Frank waited respectfully for a response.

Stryker was less patient. “What's it gone to be?”

Holding onto wild horses was the least of Murdoch's worries—the damned animals had caused all the trouble in the first place. “All right take them and get off my land.”

Immediately Johnny objected. “Look, I caught those horses. They're mine.”

Was he being too hard on his son? Unsure, Murdoch tried for a compromise. “Leave the stallion. Take all the rest of them.”

Stryker's son began to protest, but his father silenced him. They rode over to the corral to collect their ill-gotten gains.

“Whatcha let them get away with that for?” Johnny clearly did not appreciate the concession Murdoch had made.

“There are more wild horses on this range than you could catch and break in a lifetime. Right now we've got more important things to think about.” Murdoch turned away and finally gave Frank his instructions. “Pull the men from the bridge. Take off the crew from the north line camp.”

Frank rode out and Murdoch headed back to the hacienda, but the sound of a tussle behind him made him swing round. He was just in time to see the Stryker boy draw on Johnny Madrid.

Apparently young Stryker had tried to take the stallion along with the other horses. Johnny had stopped him by knocking him down, and the rest had been as Murdoch had seen. The outcome was inevitable. Stryker was on his knees by his son when Murdoch reached them; fortunately the boy was still alive.

“Let's get him to the house.” To his credit, Johnny sounded sorry for shooting the man, and Murdoch knew he had acted on reflex—that was part of the problem. Any other vaquero might have just tried to dodge the bullet or maybe even disarm but not kill.

“Nobody touches him.” Stryker helped his son to his horse. The boy did not look fit to ride, but if they would not accept help, there was nothing Murdoch could do. “It don't end here Lancer. You'll see. Not here, not yet.”

Murdoch had a bad feeling about Stryker. He watched the men ride away and then he returned to the house with Johnny to continue their conversation.

“What do you keep looking at me for? You saw what happened. He drew on me. What did you expect me to do?”

Murdoch could hear the distress in Johnny's voice. The boy could not conceive any alternative to what he had done. He did not understand Murdoch's reserve. Murdoch could see it in his body language. How many times had he seen Maria hold herself like that? Arms crossed over her chest to give herself strength or comfort, too angry or hurt to allow him to give her those things. Johnny was his mother's son in so many ways; Murdoch saw the likeness daily. But what was he supposed to say? He could not condone the shooting even if he could not condemn it.

“What's the matter—ain't that good enough?”

Johnny was looking for an acceptance of his actions that Murdoch just could not give. “Scott's still waiting for you to help him with that surveying job. Maybe you better go join him.”

“I asked you a question. If it's about that fence, I told you I'd finish it tomorrow morning, didn't I? Look there's only a small section left. If it makes you happy, I'll go finish it right now.”

Murdoch was no longer angry. He just felt exhausted and downhearted. “Now is too late. About fifty head of cattle strayed through that little hole in that section you didn't finish. What's left of them is now at the bottom of the south gully. That's what your time off cost.”

Johnny slumped. Shaking his head he looked at the floor. Murdoch could tell he was sorry, but still his words did not assume responsibility for the incident.“How was I to know that was going to happen?”

“Maybe you never will know. Maybe it takes twenty years of just living with this kind of land. Maybe it's not for you, Johnny.” Murdoch cursed himself. Why had he said that? Too late now—he could not take it back.

“Look all right. I'm sorry about the cattle you lost.” Johnny sounded much younger than his years at that moment. Where was the arrogance of Johnny Madrid now?

Maybe Murdoch could build on that. He did not want to destroy the boy's confidence. He just wanted him to embrace the real world—Murdoch's world; the world in which a man was reliable and acted as part of something larger than himself. “We lost, Johnny—not you—we and all of the responsibilities that go with it.”

“I'd do fine. I'd just do fine if you didn't push so hard.”

“I wish I had a chance to break you in easily but I don't. You've got to make up your mind who you are and where you belong. And if it's not going to be here, I want to know it now.”

Of all the moments for someone to walk in on a conversation, that drifter, Wes, had to pick that one. He had come to say good bye. He reckoned he was leaving—to ride free. He must have gotten his wages off Cipriano, because Murdoch had not given them to him. He would be no great loss as a hand, but he and Johnny had been friends. Murdoch would be sorry to lose him on that account. A minute later Murdoch was more than sorry; Johnny was going with him.

Perhaps he should have tried to stop Johnny, but something inside told him it would do no good. If his son did not want to stay for his own reasons, nothing Murdoch could do or say would keep him at Lancer in the long term. If he persuaded him to stay today, he would leave tomorrow or the next day—just like Maria—and the agony of waiting for the inevitable to happen would tear Murdoch apart. Maybe it was better to get it over with. Twenty years of wearing a mask and not betraying his true feelings helped him act unconcerned. Murdoch paid Johnny his wages. He let his son walk out the door, and he died a little inside. “Johnny.”

Teresa heard him as she entered from the kitchen. “What's happened?”

“He's leaving. Johnny's decided ranch life is not for him.” Murdoch re-established his grim don't-ask-me-any-questions face. Teresa put down the vase she was carrying and hurried towards the front door. Please God, she persuades him to stay. Murdoch sank into the chair at his desk and stared miserably at the wall, not really holding out much hope.

Johnny rode out. Scott wanted to know what Murdoch planned to do about it, but Murdoch told him the subject was not up for discussion; as if that was ever going to work. Scott was also his mother's son, and he would not be put off. He forced Murdoch to speak his thoughts—damn him.

“You don't give at all do you? All pride and Johnny's cut from the same mould. Not one inch of give.”

“You want me to go after him, beg him into coming back here?”

“Is that so bad?”

“And how long do you think it would last? If he's willing to let go that easily—if nothing here has gotten through to him—if he hasn't learned anything—if what he's running to out there is so important, then let it happen. Let it happen now.”

Well, he had said the words and they had shut Scott up. His elder son had no idea of the history behind Murdoch's final comments; no knowledge of the double hurt Murdoch still felt when he thought of Maria running off with Cole, taking Johnny with her. No idea that Murdoch was blaming Johnny for the crime his mother had committed. No, that was not right. He did not blame Johnny for Maria leaving, but Johnny reminded him of Maria so much. He was terrified if he allowed his love to strengthen, Johnny would leave him in the same way. That's why he had pushed Johnny so hard. If Johnny was going to desert him by his own choice, it was better he left before his leaving would break Murdoch's heart—and perhaps his sanity as well. Murdoch did not know whether he could survive that kind of hurt again. Scott did not understand any of this. How could he? Murdoch had only just realised it himself.

Murdoch began to tremble. He sat down in his chair and gripped hard to the arm so Scott would not notice. Turning his back on his son, he pretended to study some documents on the desk, reinforcing his earlier words that there was nothing more to discuss.

Frustrated, Scott went off to his room and left Murdoch to get on with what he was doing. Which was what exactly? Murdoch could not settle to anything. The trembling did not last, but his thoughts kept coming back to Johnny: what was said, what was done, what might have been said, what could have been done. If he could set aside the anger and fear that stemmed from Maria's actions, had Murdoch been right or wrong to let Johnny go? Did it matter or should he just ride out and beg Johnny to come back on whatever terms the boy would stay? And if he did not come back, what would become of him? Murdoch was glad he had given Johnny his grandfather's watch. What was it his Grandda had said, ‘It would please me to think you carried something of me in a strange land'; that was it. Murdoch not only knew what his Grandda had meant now, he felt it. Please God, let Johnny stay safe, and know he can come home.

Murdoch had never been particularly religious, but he found himself saying such prayers frequently these days. He went to his bed, resolved not to push Johnny away again if he chose to return. Another memory had invaded his mind as he paced the great room, not of Johnny's mother but of Scott's. Murdoch remembered how Catherine had tried to justify her father's coldness, how she had said that when her mother died, Harlan's humanity died too. He could not remember his wife's exact words, but that was the gist. Then all of a sudden it had struck him that maybe he had grown more like Harlan Garrett than he had ever thought possible. Maybe he was judging his son the way Garrett had judged him, concentrating on the weaknesses, refusing to see the strengths and blocking any real chance for Johnny to show his worth. What kind of welcome home was that? Why would the boy want to come home to a father so unyielding? Murdoch tossed and turned in his sleep. A firing squad and empty blue eyes plagued his dreams.

In the morning the fates continued to play cruel tricks. Stryker rode in with several men. His boy had died, and the grieving father wanted revenge. Fearing for Johnny's safety, Murdoch was now relieved he was not at the ranch. “He's gone. He's not coming back.”

Stryker did not believe him. On his instruction, his men spread out around the yard, watching the front of the hacienda. A ranch hand attempting to go for help was shot. He was not badly injured, more shaken than anything, but the message was clear: Stryker meant business. “When your boy gets back, we'll be waiting.”

Most of Lancer's hands were out at their work and not expected back for hours. Scott had gone looking for his brother, hoping to persuade him to return. If Johnny came back now he could face a lynch mob—or a firing squad.

Consequently, when Scott cantered in unhindered mid-afternoon without his brother, Murdoch was relieved. Scott had found Johnny, but he had proved as stubborn as his father. Murdoch paused from loading his Colt long enough to explain the situation with Stryker, and then Scott headed out again to get help. He was not the target and he had been allowed to ride in. Murdoch was too engrossed in his thoughts about Johnny to consider the possibility that Scott could be in danger if he tried to leave.

At least until a few minutes after Scott did leave and a shot rang out. Murdoch was about to investigate when Teresa called out; through the window, she had seen Johnny riding towards the hacienda.

“We've got to keep him away from here.”Murdoch hastened towards the kitchen entrance, rifle in hand.

But before he got to the archway, Johnny came through it. “Murdoch.”

“How did you get in here?” Murdoch made his tone deliberately unfriendly and aggressive. Lancer was not safe for Johnny at the moment. He needed to leave the way he came and quickly before Stryker realised he was here.

“I heard a shot. I came around the side.”

“Who told you to come back?”

“I wanted to talk to you.”

Words Murdoch had so wanted to hear, but in an attempt to keep Johnny from harm, he threw them straight back at him. He had not known his son long, but Murdoch knew Johnny would not escape if he knew the truth. “I thought you did all your talking when you left. Now get out of here.”

Johnny did not move. His eyes flickered with suspicion. “Where is everybody?”

“Out making up for all the work you refused to do, I suppose.”

“Something's wrong.”

“The only thing wrong around here has always been you—so get out while you still can.”

Johnny tried to push passed Murdoch. “Teresa—“

Murdoch grabbed his son by the arm and swung him round. “I thought I made myself clear, but in case I didn't, listen and listen hard. I don't need you, now or ever. Now get off my land.”

The cruelty of Murdoch's words stabbed deep. He had intended them to. He was a good actor, and the ends justified the means. Murdoch could see the anger and hurt in his son's eyes. Johnny wrenched his arm free. “All right.”

Johnny went to leave by the side door, but in the foyer he found Scott staggering in, wounded. He seemed only stunned, knocked from his horse when a bullet grazed his shoulder, but Murdoch was worried. When he had let Johnny go out the side door, he had thought Stryker's men were all around the front. Had some of them moved? Had Scott been on that side of the house when he was shot? No, there had been no time for him to get there before the shot rang out. Scott's horse was tied out front and he had only just gone out the front door. Johnny had ridden in safely from the side. Stryker's men must still be out front; probably Scott had returned by the side door to avoid further notice. If he was quick, Johnny could still escape the same way.

Johnny helped his brother into the great room and onto the sofa. “What happened?”

Murdoch intervened before Scott could answer. “It's no concern of yours.”

“Look I have a right to know.”

“Sam Stryker's boy died.” Teresa had been going for bandages, but now she stood determined to ruin Murdoch's carefully staged charade.

“Teresa!”

“He has a right to know. Stryker and his men are out front just waiting for you to come back.”

At that moment Stryker called out from his position near the old guardhouse. There was no point in play acting anymore. Stryker knew Johnny was back. If Murdoch sent him out, no one else would get hurt.

“Johnny.” Murdoch tried to stop Johnny going outside, but he wrestled free.

“Look it's my responsibility and I've a right to handle it in my own way.”

Murdoch stood aside. Following his son at a distance, he watched from the kitchen courtyard as Johnny began working around behind Stryker's men. When Murdoch lost sight of him, he returned to the great room and threw Scott a rifle. The two of them went out the front door and started to shoot, hoping to distract the gunmen.

For a few minutes the tactic worked. Using wagons, livestock and troughs for cover, Johnny scrambled his way unseen by their enemies across the yard and corrals towards the barn. Then as Murdoch fired his rifle at the main group by the guard house, he saw one of Stryker's men dash towards the barn and vanish. Johnny had just reached the water trough nearest the other side of the building. The man reappeared behind him with gun drawn.

Madrid saved Johnny's life.

He wheeled in time to wing his attacker in the shoulder. The wounded man cried out over gunfire for his pa—dear lord, he was Stryker's other son. Stryker turned his rifle towards the sound of his boy's voice. Murdoch held his breath. Bullets flew as Johnny ran low to where young Stryker lay. He reached him unscathed and hauled him to his feet, holding him close like a shield. Murdoch exhaled.

“Stryker! You lost one boy. Do you want to try for another?”Johnny Madrid pressed hot steel against the young man's cheek. “Tell your men to drop their guns.”

Murdoch said a silent prayer of thanks when Stryker did as he was told. The worried father ordered his men to discard their weapons.

“Now get on your horses and get out.” The gunfighter was in control. Stryker and his men knew it and they hurried to mount.

As they did so, Murdoch approached the barn corral from the hacienda. He could see Madrid was still master; a pistolero gripped the terrified Stryker boy, gun barrel menacing his throat.

For the first time Murdoch did not feel hate for Johnny Madrid. Oddly calm and accepting, and with a strange sense of gratitude, he knew instinctively what to do. Without rancour, he called his son back from the brink of that other life. “Johnny.”

A look in Murdoch's direction, a second—maybe two—and the fire went out. Lowering his gun, Johnny Lancer shoved his hostage forward.

Stryker rode up to the corral with a horse in tow. Clutching his injured shoulder, his boy clumsily mounted. Side by side, Stryker father and son caught up with the other men and rode to escape the Lancer ranch.

The world seemed unusually quiet.

A half-smile and nod passed between Lancer father and son. Words would not come, but Murdoch briefly gripped Johnny's shoulder and they both knew the retired shootist was welcome and he would stay. They walked back to the house side by side; still not quite together but in Murdoch's mind one gigantic step closer. Scott and Teresa greeted them with relief, and Murdoch and Johnny hid their awkwardness in their welcome.

Little more was said until later that evening. Murdoch's nerves were strained. He tried to analyse the events and emotions of the day, but his brain would not cooperate. He left the young people to themselves until all four of them sat down to their evening meal. Even then by unspoken agreement the day's drama was not discussed. Later around the fireside, Murdoch and Scott settled to read and write letters while Teresa knitted and tried to memorise her part in the church pageant. Johnny was too restless to settle. Refusing Scott's challenge to play him at chess, he started wandering the room. Eventually he stopped in front of the photograph of Murdoch's grandfather and stared, cocking his head to one side and then the other.“Hey Boston, I never noticed before, but this old man looks like you.”

Curious, Scott set his book aside and got up to take a look. “Well, I have to agree. There is a likeness. Who is he?”

Murdoch and Teresa joined them.

Murdoch had been wondering how long it would take for someone to notice. “That's your great grandfather, Murdoch MacKinnon.” He hesitated, wondering how much he should say, but they were all looking at him, expecting him to continue. He cleared his throat. “Finest clock and watchmaker in the Highlands. He made that watch I gave you, Johnny—it was his apprentice piece. He gave it to me when I left Inverness.”

Johnny took the watch out of his pocket and opened it. He studied its face for several seconds without saying anything. Closing the lid, he rubbed his thumb over the case. Then he looked up. “I didn't know. You shouldn't have given it to me just to tell the time.” Speaking softly but firmly he held the watch out to Murdoch. “Here.”

He looked—bereft, that was the word Murdoch was looking for, bereft. The watch meant something to him.

“No, it's yours. I didn't give it to you just to tell the time.” Murdoch held his son's gaze. He could feel his throat closing up. He swallowed to clear it and plunged into the unknown realm of a father confiding in his son. “I gave you the watch for the same reason my Grandda gave it to me. As a reminder of the man who gave it—and so you'd know there was always a home for you if you wanted it.”

The ticking of the grandfather clock could be heard over the silence. Johnny blinked. Thoughtfully, he put the watch back in his pocket. Then a small self-conscious smile danced on his lips. His eyes stayed fixed to the floor. “Worked then.”

Murdoch beamed back at the top of his son's head. He felt…he did not know how he felt, but it was good. Excellent in fact. Happier than he could remember feeling in years. Glancing sideways at Scott and Teresa, they were grinning like Cheshire cats. In for a penny, in for a pound.

“I know you both came back a couple of months ago, but that was for money. And then I bribed you with the ranch. I needed you.” Murdoch coughed to clear another catch in his throat. As he looked between his sons, his voice took on a slight Scottish burr, quiet and gruff with emotion. “Tonight I feel like you're both here, because you want to be. God knows it's what I've always wanted. That watch… it travelled with me from the Highlands to California. It helped me build this ranch. Now it's helped you truly come home to Lancer—and me.”

Three sets of eyes gazed back at Murdoch—not with antagonism and suspicion this time, nor with an unreadable expression. Maybe there was a little embarrassment, but their pleasure and accord was unmistakable.

Always the diplomat, Scott broke the small discomfort of the moment. He moved to the decanters on the side table behind the sofa and poured everyone a drink. “I think this warrants a toast.”

Light reflected off the whisky in Murdoch's glass, winking at him, daring him to look up. Proudly he smiled at each face, one by one. His sons stood by his side on Lancer soil and they were choosing to stay of their own free will. Not for money or the desire to be landowners, but because they wanted to share with their father and each other the life Lancer offered. The path ahead could not be easy, but he felt now that they would overcome the challenges and eventually lay history to rest. Teresa was more than a goddaughter to him and she would be their sister. At that moment he knew without doubt the past was the past, to be learned from and accepted, no longer feared or resented.

Lancer was his dream, but his dream was more than just for land; it was for a home. Acquiring and developing the land had filled so much of his life and it was important, but land without people with whom to share the joys and hardships could not truly be home. People made a home. For short periods when Catherine and then Maria and Johnny had shared it with him, Lancer had been home. Without them, it was where he lived and part of him went back to Scotland. His grandfather's watch had been a reminder that his old home would always be there for him if he wanted it; when he needed it. That would never change. He would never have physically gone back, but even at such a distance the family who lived there had sustained him through the hard times. They would always be there and he would always value their presence, but Murdoch no longer needed his old home. With the return of his sons, Murdoch also came home to Lancer. The people who would make Lancer a real home for him again were standing with him now. Without doubt, Murdoch loved the land bearing his name, but he loved these three young people more—much more than anything else God had ever created.

A family at last, Murdoch, Scott, Johnny and Teresa raised their glasses. “To homecoming!”

 

 

~end~

Chapter Notes

Chapter 44 Robbery and Reports
1. Nate Benedict featured in The Experiment , Series 2, Episode 18.
2. Aggie Conway features and husband Henry is mentioned in The Rivals , Series 2, Episode 24.
3. Illinois Central Railroad is a real company that did indeed employ the Pinkerton Agency for the purposes stated. Henry Conway was not, however, one of its directors.
4. The Pinkerton Agency was founded in Chicago in 1850 as a law enforcement agency. In 1855 it specialised in railroad shipment security. In February, 1861 Allan Pinkerton uncovered and foiled an assassination plot on the life of Abraham Lincoln.
5. Don Baldermero features in The Homecoming and in The Highriders , Series I, Episode 1.
6. Dolph Cramer is mentioned and his wife, Elizabeth, features in Lizzie , Series 2, Episode 23.
7. Doc Mort (first name not given) was the doctor in Morro Coyo, who identified botulism, in The Splinter Group , Series 2, Episode 19. Little Willie Otis died in that episode. Willie's father is not mentioned, but I decided he had one called Bert.
8. Doc Jenkins (first name not given but fanon says Sam) features in Jelly , Series 1, Episode 8.
Carly Johnson loses his ranch to land grabbers in The Shadow of a Dead Man , Series 2, Episode 13.
9. Cleve Harper of San Jos é is mentioned in Glory , Series 1, Episode 10.
10. Donald Murphy is the name on the Quit Claim in Cabot Springs that Murdoch sends Johnny to sell in The Shadow of a Dead Man , Series 2, Episode 13.
11. Tim Phillips and Clem Carven feature as Murdoch's cattlemen friends in The Prodigal , Series 1, Episode 7.

Chapter 45 Human and Mother Nature
1. Elizabeth (Lizzie) and Jenny Cramer feature and Dolph Cramer is mentioned in Lizzie, Series 2, Episode 23.
2. Sacramento became California's state capital in 1854, although that status was not confirmed as permanent until 1879. Under Mexican government the capital of California had been Monterey. From 1849 to 1854 Monterey, San Jose, Vallejo and Benicia all had a turn serving as the capital.
3. The Great Flood of 1862 was the largest flood in the recorded history of California, Oregon and Nevada. If you want to learn more, you can start with the link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Flood_of_1862

Chapter 46 Loss
1. This chapter incorporates events described more fully in my backstory for Johnny entitled The Beginning, 2013. That story can be found archived in all the normal places for anyone who would like to read it.
2. The land at Cabot Springs features in The Shadow of a Dead Man , Series 2, Episode 13.
3. Murdoch tells Jelly and his sons in The Lorelei , Series 2, Episode 16 that he made an agreement with the mine owner seven years before. Whoever worked it “could drill it, pick it, crush it, sluice it, but no blasting.”
4. The First Corps of Cadets were a Boston militia. If you want to read more about it, start with http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Corps_of_Cadets_(Massachusetts) . The Corps was made up of ‘well-educated and intelligent young men' and furnished several Union Army volunteer regiments with officers.
5. Colonel Grierson and his cavalry raid was a famous part of the Vicksburg campaign. You can read more about the raid at http://www.historynet.com/griersons-raid-during-the-vicksburg-campaign.htm or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grierson's_Raid and more about the campaign as a whole at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Vicksburg .
6. In The Escape , Series 1, Episode 12 we learn that Scott was at Vicksburg with Jed Lewis. Scott was at least in the latter part of the war in the 83 rd Regiment, second in command to Lieutenant Cassidy. They and sixteen men, including Jed Lewis's brother, spent a year in a Confederate prison camp together.
7. Harper's Weekly published 1857-1916, was an American political magazine based in New York. It was the most widely read journal in the United States during the American Civil War. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harper's_Weekly .
8. Aggie Conway features and husband, Henry, is mentioned in The Rivals , Series 2, Episode 24.
9 In The Homecoming (Pilot)/ The Highriders , Series 1, Episode 1 we learn Scott served under General Philip Sheridan. If you want to read more about Sheridan and the Battle of Yellow Tavern you can start with http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Sheridan .
10. If you want to learn more about the highs and lows of the cattle industry in California between the 1840s to 1880s you could start with this excellent summary on the Monterey County Historical Society website: http://www.mchsmuseum.com/cattle.html .
11. Murdoch attempting to get the railroad spur constructed by Acme Land closer to Lancer was mentioned in The Rivals , Series 2, Episode 24.
12. For more about Belle Isle prison camp start with http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belle_Isle_(Virginia)
13. Juan Contanado was mentioned in Devils Blessing , Series 1, Episode 26.
14. The Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle is celebrated by the Catholic Church on 25 January.

Chapter 47 Longwei
1. I created the character of Zhang Longwei for a short story I wrote in 2013 called Beautiful Wind . In that story set in 1870 I say Murdoch and Longwei met six years earlier when due to a strange set of circumstances they were stranded in the badlands and helped each other survive. It seemed only right that I clarify those circumstances in this story. Anyone wanting to read Beautiful Wind will find it archived in all the normal places.

Chapter 48 1865
1. Harlan Garrett features in Legacy , Series 2, Episode 10
2. Brooks, Noah: The Murder of President Lincoln, Sacramento Daily Union , April 16, 1865.
See also http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/04/15/the-murder-of-president-lincoln.html
3. Belle Isle was a Confederate prison during the American Civil War. Its prisoners were officially liberated on 3 April, 1865, but I have no actual knowledge of how long it took for prisoners to be assisted and returned home. Anyone wishing to research further can, however, start with http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belle_Isle_(Richmond,_Virginia)
4. Godfrey and Penny Rose Evans feature and Annabel Evans is mentioned in The Little Darling of the Sierras , Series 2, Episode 1

Chapter 49 Coming of Age
1. Belle Isle was a Confederate prison during the American Civil War. Its prisoners were officially liberated on 3 April, 1865, but I have no actual knowledge of how long it took for prisoners to be assisted and returned home. Anyone wishing to research further can, however, start with http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belle_Isle_(Richmond,_Virginia)
2. Miller and Lux were a real company. See http://www.mchsmuseum.com/cattle.html for more information.
3. Acme Land was the company owned by Buck Addison in The Rivals , Series 2, Episode 24.
4. Learn more about Mark Twain and his 1866 lecture tour at: http://www.salon.com/2014/03/22/how_mark_twain_became_mark_twain_the_amazing_story_of_the_lectures_that_made_him_a_superstar/
5. For more about Beadle Dime novels start with http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dime_novel .
6. Darne Rodgers was the rancher hosting the cattle auction, to which Murdoch invited Buck Addison in The Rivals , Series 2, Episode 24.

Chapter 50 Worsening Times
1. Aggie Conway features in The Rivals , Series 2, Episode 24.
2. Learn more about the shooting of Thurstan Cole by Johnny Madrid in my story The Beginning , 2013.
3. Joe Barker featured in The Lawman , Series 1, Episode 5.
4. Don Baldermero, the later events of this chapter and some of the dialogue are taken from the pilot movie, The Homecoming, and The Highriders , Series 1, Episode 1.

Chapter 51 Highriders
1. Most of the events and much of the dialogue for this chapter is taken from the pilot movie, The Homecoming , and The Highriders , Series 1, Episode 1.
2. To find out more about Murdoch's nightmare read a story I wrote in 2013 entitled What If…?
3. To learn more about the background of Day Pardee read my story Five Facts for Day Pardee , 2014.

Chapter 52 To Homecoming
1. Most of the characters and events and much of the dialogue in this chapter have been taken directly from To Chase A Wild Horse , Series 1, Episode 3.
2. Ben Wallis and Morgan Price feature in Blood Rock , Series 1, Episode 2.
3. To find out more about Murdoch's nightmare read a story I wrote in 2013 entitled What If…?

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