Word Count – 20.981
2nd in the Another series
“We almost lost a field today,” Scott said disgustedly. He was hot, tired, and covered in ash. His arm throbbed where his sleeve had caught fire.
“How bad?” Murdoch asked, dreading the answer.
“At least half the crop,” Scott replied. “It could have been worse. There was a stream nearby and we were able to contain it relatively quickly. That and the fact that Rodriguez saw the smoke and raised the alarm almost at once. But we’ll probably have to buy feed this winter.”
“Where’s Johnny?” Murdoch asked. Scott had said no one had been hurt, but still a lump of fear formed in his stomach for his younger son.
“Somewhere east. I think he’s still after that stallion he saw last week.”
Murdoch frowned. The boy should have stayed with his brother. And now they’d have to spend more money that they shouldn’t have to. “Any injuries?”
“No, thank God.”
“What about your arm?” There was anger in Murdoch’s tone.
Perhaps Scott hadn’t hid the charred sleeve as well as he thought. “It’s not too bad.”
“Have Maria look at it,” he ordered brusquely.
“I’ll be fine,” Scott assured his father, but nevertheless headed for the kitchen. He knew his father’s anger was directed at Johnny, not him. He was just the one standing there. He had been the brunt of that misdirection many times in the last six months after he and Johnny had signed the papers that made them equal partners in the ranch. He hoped Maria had some magic salve that would ease burn on his arm.
Murdoch watched his older son walk away and shook his head. He shouldn’t have been so gruff with Scott. It wasn’t his fault Johnny had left his duties and chased after his fancy. It was abundantly clear that Johnny preferred horses to cattle, but Lancer was a cattle ranch, dammit, and Murdoch needed everyone to do his job. His lectures on the topic fell on deaf ears; the boy did as he pleased. Even Cipriano couldn’t handle him.
And it wasn’t just Johnny. Scott had been impossible, too. After he’d recovered from his gunshot wound, he’d settled into a routine that Murdoch detested but couldn’t change. After church on Sunday, Scott would ride to the Double C ranch with Agatha Conway and help her with her horses for two days, returning to Lancer in time for dinner Tuesday night. Then Scott would work at Lancer until Sunday rolled around again. Murdoch was unhappy with the arrangement and had voiced his displeasure loudly. But Scott had calmly replied that he would continue to see “Mama” and help her in this way. Scott’s calling Agatha “Mama” had been a deliberate tactic to remind him that the Conways had looked after him when Murdoch had been forced to be away from his beloved ranch because he’d been searching for Johnny or trying to save it from bank loans coming due. And that memory would inevitably lead to images of Maria’s abuse of the boy, which had sent Scott to run away from Lancer and into the safe haven of Agatha and Henry Conway’s ranch in the first place. Murdoch’s guilt over Scott’s mistreatment could sting him still. He tucked it into the place he kept all his mistakes and carried on. There was no use in bringing up the past as far as he could see, but whenever Scott wanted to get his way, he had no qualms about doing it. Murdoch would retreat into silence and Scott would do as he pleased, just like Johnny.
Not for the first time, Murdoch questioned his judgment in giving his sons equal partnership in the ranch. At the time, it had seemed the sure way to keep his boys at home where they belonged. But it hadn’t turned out the way he wanted. Scott spent three days at the Double C, and Johnny took off whenever he pleased—to the saloon, the line shacks, the brothel, and every so often, he’d join his brother at the Double C. Yes, the partnership hadn’t had the results he’d liked, but his sons were here for the most part and he had resigned himself to taking what he could get.
Sounds of the vaqueros cheering made him rise from his desk and go to the French door. He could see the hands yelling and waving their hats as they opened the corral gate. And there, coming into sight, was his younger son leading a magnificent white stallion. He could see why Johnny had been bewitched by the creature. His lines were most unusual for wild horses. They tended to have shorter legs and necks. But this one looked almost regal with long lines and good proportions. He opened the glass door and walked to the corral.
“What have you got there, son?”
“Ain’t he a beaut?” Johnny gave the lead rope to one of the vaqueros and took Barranca back outside the corral to where his father was standing. He eased off the horse gracefully.
“He is indeed, but need I remind you that this is a cattle ranch?”
Johnny laughed. “Hey, if you don’t want him, Aggie will. I’ll take him over there once I have him green broke.” He knew his father wouldn’t let Aggie have the stallion. There seemed to be a competition between the two that he didn’t quite understand but could exploit.
“You’ll do no such thing! We’ll see what kind of a stud he makes in a few months.”
“Thought you’d see it my way,” Johnny said with a smirk. He gave some instructions to the vaquero on handling of the stallion and then sauntered into the house.
Murdoch shook his head. He’d wanted to admonish Johnny for going off on his own and not sticking to the crew, especially since there’d been a fire, but as usual Johnny had gotten him off topic. No one could do it better than his younger son. He caught up with Cipriano at the side of the barn and got his story of the fire. After giving his assessment of the losses, he turned to Scott’s injury. According to him, young Rodriguez’s serape had caught flame and Scott had immediately used his arm to put it out. Rodriguez’s heavy, hemp serape had suffered little damage and Rodriguez himself none, but Scott’s cotton shirt had easily ignited. Cipriano himself had doused the flame quickly.
“Your son has a good heart,” Cipriano said, “but sometimes does not think things through enough.”
Murdoch knew Cipriano was trying to be as diplomatic as he could. Trying to put out a flame with your arm was damned foolish. He nodded in agreement. “Neither one seems to.” Johnny, too, seemed to lack proper restraint and dove headfirst into things with no regard for the consequences. He thanked Cipriano for his report on the damages and followed Johnny’s path into the house.
Dinner that evening hadn’t been particularly pleasant. Johnny started to enthusiastically retell the chasing and catching of the stallion. When he paused, Scott said, “We could have used your help when the field caught fire.”
“Sorry, Papa,” Johnny retorted sarcastically. For the most part, Johnny liked his brother. He was a decent, hard-working man as far as he could tell, but sometimes Scott could suck the joy out of an occasion.
“Boys!” Murdoch chided. He hated it when they were at odds with each other. They were still testing their bonds of brotherhood, and it upset Teresa when they argued, not to mention him.
“Can I see the new horse, Daddy?” Teresa asked.
“I don’t know, honey,” Paul O’Brien said. “He’s still awfully wild.”
“I’ll take her after dinner,” Johnny volunteered. “I’ll make sure she don’t get too close.”
Both Murdoch and Scott cringed at the problematic grammar but had learned not to correct it. It only made Johnny purposefully use worse grammar for days until his mad wore off.
Paul nodded and Teresa beamed.
“What started the fire?” Paul asked Murdoch.
“Cip said he thought it looked like it was intentionally set.”
“Who would do that?” Scott asked. “What would be the point?”
“Your Pa has his share of detractors, mostly men jealous of him,” Paul said.
“And so they burn an alfalfa field?” Scott shook his head. There were more devious and effective ways to deal with one’s jealousy. Grandfather had taught him a few during his last two years at Harvard. His grandfather had quite the inventive mind when dealing with his adversaries.
“It will cost me time and money to deal with the damage,” Murdoch explained.
Scott stayed silent for the rest of the meal. His arm was throbbing unmercifully. Even though it looked like only a second-degree burn, it hurt like the dickens. After dinner, he excused himself and went straight to his room, while Johnny took Teresa to visit the corral.
Sometime later there was a knock on Scott’s bedroom door. Johnny came in and deposited a small, brown bottle of laudanum on the bedside table.
“Heard about your arm,” Johnny said softly. “Thought this might help if the pain gets too bad tonight.”
Scott had just enough time to thank him before the door shut behind his brother. He smiled at Johnny’s kind gesture and knew it was Johnny’s way of an apology. His brother was a complicated man, but when all was said and done, he was a man of integrity and decency. All was right between them.
Several nights later, Murdoch and Paul were burning the midnight oil trying to work out how they were going to allot the crews in order to cover enough of the range to safeguard the herd while dissuading any further arsonists. Worried whinnies from the corral interrupted them. By the time they decided to check out the noise, the rustlers were already moving Johnny’s stallion out of the corral. Murdoch and Paul took one look at each other and ran out to saddle their horses.
Johnny was a light sleeper. He’d developed the talent during his years as Johnny Madrid, when at any moment he’d have to wake up quickly. It had saved his life on more than one occasion. The sound of horses galloping out of the courtyard awakened him. He quickly dressed and went outside to the barn. The corral gate was wide open and his prized horse was gone. He ran into the barn to check on Barranca. The palomino was safe. Running into the house, he alerted Scott and told him to hitch a wagon. He’d leave a trail Cipriano could easily follow. Then he saddled Barranca and rode after his father. He’d be damned if he let anyone steal his stallion!
It soon became evident that the Murdoch and Paul were headed into Morro Coyo. He left a trail marker for Cipriano and then followed. He was just on the edge of town when there were two rifle shots. He left Barranca at the first hitching post and ran the rest of the way, gun drawn. The doors to the livery were open. Two bodies lay right outside. Johnny could hear the stallion within. He snuck in closer by the side of the livery and surveyed the scene. In the light of the half-moon, he couldn’t see very well, but there was no movement in any of the store windows nor the rooftops that he could discern. He stepped over Murdoch’s body and into the livery. Tethering the stallion more securely, he then went back to the bodies. He grabbed Murdoch under the armpits and dragged him inside, doing the same with O’Brien. Then he secured the livery doors from the inside. He hoped Scott and a large contingent of Lancer hands would be arriving soon.
Murdoch had moaned when Johnny moved him into the stables, but Paul hadn’t. Johnny was pretty sure the foreman was dead. Murdoch had a similar bullet hole in the back, but it wasn’t as close his spine as O’Brien’s had been. He briefly thought of the brown-haired little girl back at the hacienda and how heartbroken she was about to become. But he didn’t have time for that. He found a blanket he could use to keep Murdoch warm, and then went out the back way to find Barranca and direct Scott and crew to the back entrance of the livery.
While some men kept watch, Scott, Cipriano, and Johnny loaded Murdoch and Paul into the wagon. No one saw hide nor hair of their assailants, but Johnny wasn’t taking any chances. Scott insisted on driving the wagon to Green River and the doctor. That the undertaker was also there went unsaid. Johnny sent half the hands with Scott. Then he and Cipriano and the rest of the crew gathered the stallion and made their way back to Lancer. No one spoke. Each one’s heart was praying for the Lancer patriarch and for little Teresa, who was now orphaned. It was a slow, sorrowful journey back to the ranch.
It was almost two weeks later when Sam Jenkins deemed Murdoch well enough to make the trip home to the hacienda. Paul O’Brien had been buried the week before in the small cemetery on the ranch. Murdoch had insisted on that even though he was too infirmed to attend the ceremony. Scott had said some words and read several passages from the Bible and other books. Johnny and Maria had tried to console a disconsolate Teresa. She was to keep her room in the hacienda. Murdoch had already told his sons he would become her guardian, of which they had immediately approved.
But all that was after a week of worrying whether Murdoch would join Paul in the hereafter. Scott stoically remained by his father’s side in Green River until the crisis was over, while Johnny would take Barranca on long, aimless rides to steady his nerves. After all those years of believing his mother’s lies and hating the man, Johnny was surprised at the depth of his despair at the thought of losing him. The ranch would fall to him and Scott. Díos, he wasn’t ready for that! He didn’t think Scott was, either. He prayed to a God he’d long ago abandoned when his mother died that the Old Man would survive.
The Old Man did survive, if barely. Sam was afraid to operate on Murdoch lest he accidentally move the bullet and cause greater damage like paralysis or death. So the bullet stayed in, the wound stitched up, and everyone hoped the bullet would stay put until enough scar tissue would surround it and make sure that it didn’t move. Lying on his stomach day after day made Murdoch grouchier than a grizzly. He would only tolerate the women tending him. But then he’d demand updates to how the ranch was doing and Johnny or Scott would bear the brunt of his frustration. Scott finally decided Cipriano could give the daily reports. Johnny thought there were some advantages to having a Harvard educated brother.
Today Sam was evaluating whether Murdoch had healed enough to be let out of bed. He’d requested both the sons’ attendance, so he didn’t have to give his instructions twice. They’d tried to beg off by saying Maria and Juanita should be the ones he should speak to, but that suggestion was met with a severe frown. So they were all there in Murdoch’s bedroom waiting for Sam to make his pronouncement.
“Well?” Murdoch asked impatiently.
“Hold still or it’s going to take longer!” Sam retorted.
Scott and Johnny looked at each other. Scott refrained from rolling his eyes, but Johnny didn’t, which made Scott snicker.
“What’s so funny?” Murdoch demanded.
“You’re the worst patient I ever did see,” Johnny answered.
“You’ve got that right,” Sam agreed.
“I’ve got a ranch to run, dammit, and I can’t do it lying in this bed!”
“Would you like to do it from a wheelchair for the rest of your life? Because that’s what’ll happen if that bullet moves because you don’t have enough scar tissue around it.” That shut the man up, as Sam figured it would.
“What’s happening out there?” Murdoch looked at Scott for an answer.
Scott cleared his voice nervously. “Someone cut the wire along the northern boundary…”
“How many head of cattle did we lose?”
Scott shifted on his feet, so Johnny answered, “About thirty head, as we can figure.”
“I’ve got a crew repairing the fence line as we speak, sir.”
Murdoch ignored Scott and focused on Johnny. “How many did you recover?”
“None. Couldn’t see hide nor hair of ‘em, and someone did a good job of messing up any tracks. They’re long gone.”
“Thirty head!” Murdoch repeated. “What’s happening around here? Who’s doing this to us?”
Sam took off his stethoscope and placed it back in his black bag. “I heard a rumor about that…”
“And you didn’t tell me right away?” Murdoch growled.
Sam sighed. “I don’t hold much stock in rumors, but I’ll tell you what I heard.” At Murdoch’s nod, he went on, “The man’s name is supposed to be Pardee…”
Johnny noticeably stiffened. “Pardee, Day Pardee?”
“Yes, that’s the name.”
“You know this man?” Murdoch asked.
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, I do, and if the rumor’s true, we’re in a heap of trouble.”
“Why? He’s one man against all of our ranch. He’s outnumbered.”
“He’s more than one man, Scott,” Johnny chided gently. “Doc, any rumors as to how many men are riding with him?”
“Heard tell, twenty-five to thirty,” Sam answered.
“We still have more,” Scott said.
It was Johnny’s turn to shift his feet. “We lost four more men today.”
“What?” Scott couldn’t believe it. “Who?”
“Don’t matter who,” Johnny said. “The men are scared. They’re starting to believe all sorts of things.”
“Like what?” Murdoch demanded.
Johnny visibly swallowed. He knew the Old Man wasn’t going to like the answer. “Like this place is cursed. Ever since O’Brien died and you got laid up, they’ve been on edge.”
“Even more reason to get me out of this bed, Sam!” Murdoch ordered.
“Not today, Murdoch,” Sam ordered right back. “Tomorrow you can try sitting for a little while, and we’ll see how that goes.”
“What’s ‘a little while’ to you?” Scott asked the doctor.
Sam considered. “Twenty minutes or so. Thirty minutes at most.”
“You still have that cane from when you sprained your ankle?” Sam asked Murdoch. The bedridden man nodded. “You’re going to need it from now on, I suspect.” He moved toward the door and paused to look pointedly at Murdoch’s sons. “It’ll be up to you to see that he doesn’t try to do too much too soon. If that bullet moves…”
“Paralysis, we know,” Scott said.
“Paralysis, Murdoch, so do what these boys tell you!” With that admonishment, Sam left the room.
Murdoch shifted so he could see his sons better.
“Ah, ah! No moving around!” Scott warned.
“Then get over here where I can see you better!” Murdoch’s patience had reached its end. When the boys had gotten sufficiently in his field of vision, he asked Johnny, “So what do you know about this Day Pardee and how do you know it?”
Johnny was afraid his father was going to ask this, and he didn’t want to tell him the answer, even though he knew he had to. “Rode with him a while back before I came here.”
Murdoch swore. “And?”
“And then I quit riding with him.”
“Let’s just say we didn’t share the same style.” Johnny was loathe to get into the details. Pardee wouldn’t just kill a man, he’d gut him to send a message. Pardee liked to instill fear into his enemies. But Johnny suspected the mutilations weren’t just to send a message; Pardee enjoyed it.
“What’s this Pardee’s style?”
Johnny sighed. “He’s a liar and a cheat. He’ll shoot you for looking at him wrong. He’s a back-stabbing, back-shooting son-of-a-bitch if there ever was one. You might not like Madrid much, but I never shot a man in the back, and I dealt with folks as honestly as I could.”
Murdoch harumphed but said, “I like Johnny Lancer just fine.”
“Me, too,” Scott echoed.
Johnny couldn’t help the blush that covered him. He knew Murdoch wasn’t happy with his gunhawk past, but the Old Man was trying hard to accept it and move beyond it.
“Can we assume it was Pardee who shot our father?” Scott asked Johnny.
“Wouldn’t put it past him,” Johnny answered, “but any one of his men could’ve done it. He seems to like to surround himself with the worst of ‘em.”
“How do we beat him?” Murdoch asked.
Johnny blew out a breath. “Can’t say right now. We outnumber him at this point, but if we keep losing hands, we’re gonna be in big trouble.”
“We need to formulate a plan,” Scott recommended.
“Against what?” Sometimes Scott could think too much, Johnny thought. “We don’t know what they’re gonna do or when they’re gonna do it.”
“What about the army? Can we ask them to help since there’s no law here?” Scott proposed.
Murdoch shook his head. “The army left Fort Miller a few years ago. There’s nothing or no one to help us near here.”
Scott looked defeated. Murdoch looked bleak as well, but there was nothing Johnny could tell them to make them feel better. Pardee was a low-down, good-for-nothing sidewinder. He definitely lived by the credo that one should shoot first and…well, shoot first is all.
“Well, let’s hope we keep outnumbering him, then,” Murdoch said.
“Grandfather would give his workers a raise if he wanted to retain them,” Scott suggested.
Murdoch scowled. “We don’t have the funds for that.”
“I do,” Scott offered.
Murdoch’s scowl deepened like it did every time Harlan Garrett came up. “Let’s just wait and see what happens.” His sons shuffled out, and he blew out a breath in frustration. He wanted to scream. Why was this happening and why now? He knew he should be grateful he was alive, given where the bullet was lodged, but all he could feel right now was anger. He’d put his life blood into this ranch and the thought of this Pardee fellow simply coming in with guns blazing to take it from him made his blood boil. By God, no one was going to take Lancer!
A month later Day Pardee was still running them ragged. Three outlying estancias had been taken over. He’d purportedly gained control of Morro Coyo, so Lancer had to make the longer trip into Green River for supplies. More fence lines had been cut, more cattle rustled, and more fields had been burned. Worst of all, more men had left.
Scott again entered the great room covered in ash and soot. “We can’t keep this up.” At least he had learned not to try to put out flames with his arm.
“I’ll spread the crews out more, cover more area,” Murdoch decided.
“We can’t cover a hundred thousand acres, sir. It’s impossible. We don’t have the men to do it. We’ll probably lose more after today. They know we’re the next target.”
Murdoch just grunted. Scott was right. They were losing hands after every incident, especially after Jorge’s house had been lost to fire two weeks ago. They had learned Pardee was a ruthless land pirate who had been working his way south from Modesto. He strong-armed men into selling their property by scaring them, mainly with setting fires or rustling their cattle. Scott had gone into Sacramento to do some research as to who was buying up the land, but he hadn’t been fruitful. With Lancer, it had been both fires and rustling. Nothing too serious until Jorge’s modest casa was ignited. It was on the far end of a cluster of married men’s houses and the tragedy had scared many of them away out of fear for their family’s safety. Murdoch couldn’t blame them, but it did leave Lancer almost dangerously short-handed. Murdoch wasn’t allowed to ride yet, so he spent most of his time inside the hacienda, which frustrated him no end. He was a man of action, dammit, yet he could offer only minimal support.
Johnny trudged in soon after Scott. He, too, was soot-covered and tired because this time he had been with the crew to battle the fire. He flopped down on the sofa and Murdoch was too disheartened to scold him for soiling the furniture.
“We’ve got to do something!” Scott said exasperated.
“Let me go into Morro Coyo and check Pardee out,” Johnny pleaded again. “If he thinks I’m Johnny Madrid, he’ll offer me a job and I can get the inside information to find out his next move and warn you.”
“No!” Murdoch and Scott said.
“If he’s found out you’re Johnny Lancer, you’ll be killed,” Murdoch explained. “I’m not going to lose you over that. The risk is too great. There are people in Morro Coyo who know about your past, son.”
“Not to mention, the loss of your gun would be disastrous, and the loss of my brother would be devastating,” Scott added.
Johnny ignored Scott. While he appreciated his sentiments, this was no time to play it safe. “From what I hear, the townspeople are keeping away from Pardee and his men. I doubt they’d tell him anything.”
“With a gun to their heads, they’d tell him anything and everything,” Scott pointed out.
Again Johnny ignored Scott. “It’s our best shot, Murdoch, and you know it.”
Murdoch shook his head vehemently. “No, it’s too risky. I forbid it, Johnny!”
“Then you’re setting us up to fail, Old Man!” Johnny said, as he left the room. His father and brother were much too conservative. Pardee had no conscience, no qualms about doing anything and everything to achieve his objective. Lancer had to be just as ruthless or they might as well hand Pardee the deed. While he appreciated their concern for his welfare, Johnny couldn’t just stand by and lose the only that mattered in his life. This land was his land, well, a third of it anyway, and he’d be damned if he let an asshole like Pardee take it from him.
Murdoch watched his younger son storm out of the room and turned to Scott. “Do you think he heard us?”
Scott looked bewildered. “I think he’ll do whatever he wants to do, like always.”
“Keep an eye on him,” Murdoch ordered.
“While I’m keeping an eye on the herd, the fence lines, the fields, and the houses? Sure,” Scott said sarcastically as he followed his brother’s lead and huffed out of the room.
Murdoch balled his fists in impotence. He was used to imposing his will on others. Now he felt helpless to stop the takeover of his ranch. He’d put twenty-five back-breaking years of his life into it. To think it could disappear any day was too heart wrenching for words. He saw the exhaustion on his sons’ faces and in the faces of the other men still around. The men who were left were longtime employees. Some, like Cipriano, had been here from the start. They thought of Lancer as their home and had chosen to raise their families here. He owed it to them to see to it that the ranch survived and their livelihood maintained. But how?
Johnny tried to think of every possible scenario that would await him in Morro Coyo as he rode into town. He also thought of a hundred ways he could approach Pardee. If Pardee knew he was Johnny Lancer as well as Johnny Madrid, he’d gun him down in the middle of the street. No doubt the land pirate was holed out in the town’s saloon. That was his usual style. Perhaps he could get in the back entrance and get the drop on Pardee. Or this could be his last day on Earth.
In the end, Johnny opted to simply walk straight toward the cantina. A handful of men lounged around the doorway to the saloon. Most of them drew their guns on him as he walked closer.
“Day Pardee inside?” Johnny asked, stopping a few yards from the entrance.
“Who wants to know?” one of them spat out.
“Pardee!” another one shouted into the cantina.
Day Pardee sauntered onto the sidewalk looking as dirty and disdainful and cocky as Johnny remembered him. He took a moment before he drawled, “Well, well, well, Johnny Madrid.”
“Day,” Johnny acknowledged with a nod. Thank God Day called him Madrid. Maybe this could work. A few of the men gave startled responses to the name, he was pleased to see.
“What’re you doing in our little town?”
Johnny didn’t miss that Pardee was claiming ownership of Morro Coyo. The five outlaws lounging on the benches outside the cantina leaned forward. One of them cocked his gun, but Pardee waved him off.
“That ain’t no way to greet a friend, Coley.”
Coley put his gun away, and Johnny stifled a relieved sigh. “Heard you might be hiring guns up this way,” Johnny said, keeping his tone casual and light. He’d pasted on a bland look, making him appear disinterested in whether he was hired or not.
Pardee looked him over again. “Could be.”
“Can we talk about it over a beer? I’m kinda parched from riding all this way.”
Pardee stepped back and opened one batwing door. “Sure, sure, Madrid.”
Johnny walked as casually as he could past Pardee and into the darkened interior of the cantina. He’d played poker in the place on a number of Saturday nights when it was alive with gaming, women, and booze. Now it felt like a tomb. Pardee followed, along with the other five men. Johnny ordered a beer, while Pardee demanded a bottle of tequila. Johnny was just about to lay his coin on the counter, when Pardee stopped him.
“No need to pay; Pedro here’s been right kind enough to give us our drinks for free, ain’t that right, Pedro?” Pardee said with a smirk. Johnny kept his eyes away from Pedro, hoping the bartender wouldn’t give him away. Pedro looked too terrified to speak. “And we keep his establishment safe. I said, ain’t that right, Pedro?”
“Sí, Señor,” Pedro whispered.
Pardee ushered him over to an empty table. Once they were settled, he said, “What’ve you been up to, Johnny? Last I heard, you were killed by the rurales.”
Johnny tried to match the sliminess of Pardee’s smile. “Gotta a little lucky there. Don Esteban owed me a favor. Since then I’ve been laying low, you know? Thought I’d come up north and get outta my usual territory. But I haven’t found much work. Then I heard about you. Thought I’d check it out.”
“Who told you about me?”
Johnny shrugged. “Dunno. Just some guy in a bar in Visalia.”
“Well, we could always use a gun of your quality, Johnny.” Pardee smiled his snaky smile again. There was no warmth in it, and Johnny felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. Something wasn’t right, but he needed more information.
“What’re you running here, Day?”
“Doing us some land grabbing.” Pardee’s smile grew wider.
“For who? The devil knows you don’t want it.”
Pardee’s face fell flat, and Johnny knew he’d asked that question too quickly. “That’s none of your business, Madrid, especially since I haven’t decided to let you join my merry bunch of thieves.”
Johnny retreated. “You’re right. I don’t need to know. Just curious is all. Word in Green River is you’re going after Lancer.”
“Even a dumb gunhawk like me has heard of that spread.” Johnny leaned back in his chair and put his boots up on the empty seat beside him. Saluting Pardee with his beer mug, he said, “I admire your ambition.”
Pardee saluted him back with a more genuine smile on his face. A small hope arose in Johnny that he might just get out of this situation alive…and with a job.
“Shouldn’t this be over? The guy in Green River said you shot Lancer months ago.”
Pardee mimicked Johnny by putting his own boots on an empty chair. “The bastard lived.”
“No shit! But that would’ve been the time to move on him,” Johnny said.
Pardee’s eyes grew cold. Johnny realized he shouldn’t have criticized the man. He was failing miserably at this. Living at Lancer had dulled his Madrid sharpness.
“The boss said to let him recover and stew on it a bit. You know me, I just follow orders.”
Johnny pretended to be flabbergasted and blew out his sip of beer. “You follow orders?” He laughed.
Pardee didn’t laugh with him, and Johnny knew he was in trouble. “Well, if you don’t need me, I’ll be headed north, then,” he said, bringing his feet back on the floor and starting to rise.
Pardee likewise got his feet under him and leaned forward. “Sit down!”
A heavy hand on Johnny’s shoulder shoved him back in his chair. Johnny glanced back and saw the Coley fellow behind him. The other ten men who had been scattered throughout the room were now closing in on him. Pardee grabbed his right wrist and brought it up to lay on the table, while an Indian pulled his gun out of its holster. He was screwed now. Surrounded by the enemy and defenseless, he tried to calm his racing heart while his brain searched for ways to stay alive.
“You always did have more guts than brains, Johnny-boy,” Pardee sneered. “You waltz in here pretending to look for a job? What? You don’t think I have any brains? That I didn’t do my proper scouting of it? I know all about Lancer. I know he came from Scotland. I know he came out here in ’43, that he lost two wives…and that he has two sons. One’s a Fancy Dan from Boston and the other…is Johnny Madrid.”
“That’s a lie!” Johnny shouted and was a rewarded with a fist to his jaw.
Pardee grinned evilly. “What were you thinking? That you could just walk in here and infiltrate my gang?”
Well, that had been the plan. Johnny just stared at him with hate in his eyes.
“Let me kill ‘im, Day,” Coley said with more enthusiasm than Johnny wanted to hear. He regretted sneaking off to do this and not letting Murdoch or Scott know where he was going. He wouldn’t have minded them riding in with the rest of the hands to rescue him about now or five minutes ago.
Pardee got up and started pacing. The only sound in the cantina was his boots clomping on the wood floor. Finally, he stopped opposite Johnny. “I got a better idea,” he said, and Johnny hoped he’d never see such a look on a man’s face again—half sneer, half smile, all contempt.
In the end, they beat the shit out of him, but Pardee had made sure they pulled their punches enough for him be able to ride home. Then they dragged him out of the cantina and threw him on the ground next to Barranca’s hooves. They held him down on the ground, although they didn’t have to—he was too battered to have gotten up by himself.
Pardee looked mighty smug. “Guess you’re not so highfalutin’ now, are ya, Madrid—always thinking you’re better than everybody else, smarter than everybody else, quicker than everybody else.”
Through a bruised and split lip Johnny said, “I’ll always be faster than you, Pardee.”
Pardee’s face grew cold, and Johnny feared he’d decide to kill him after all. He’d never learn to control his temper or his mouth. Murdoch told him he had Mama’s temper. Now it was going to kill him. No matter, he had faced that possibility riding into Morro Coyo.
“Coley, hold his wrist.”
Coley held Johnny’s right wrist while Pardee ground his bootheel into his right hand. Twice. Johnny heard as well as felt the bones break. His gun hand!
“You ain’t gonna be faster than shit anymore, Johnny-boy. You tell your Pappy we’ll be coming for his ranch real soon. Just as soon as I get the word. You do that for me, won’t ya?” Pardee said as the men hoisted Johnny onto Barranca. Then Pardee whacked Barranca’s rump.
The horse took off down the street amid raucous laughter from Pardee’s gang. Johnny could barely stay on Barranca with only his left hand to control him. Luckily, he had trained the palomino well and soon had him down to a walk. His ribs wouldn’t take anything faster. It was going to be a long ride home, but he had escaped Pardee’s gang alive. Barely, but alive.
He was more than halfway home when Scott came galloping up to meet him.
“Jesus, Brother! What happened to you?” Scott asked when he saw the state Johnny was in. He’d been ready to give his younger brother a tongue thrashing for leaving his work crew but quickly swallowed that down.
“Paid a visit to Pardee,” Johnny answered through swollen lips.
Scott swore. “We told you not to do that, didn’t we?”
Johnny didn’t say anything. There was nothing to say. Scott and Murdoch had told him not to do it, but he was his own man and thought the reward might be worth the risk. It hadn’t been. His right arm hung uselessly across his lap. Without his gun hand, Johnny Madrid was dead.
“Want me to double up?” Scott asked when he received no answer from his brother.
Johnny shook his head. “Ribs are too sore for you to hold me.”
“I’ll go for Sam then.” Scott turned Sugar toward Green River. “You sure you can make it home?”
Johnny nodded. Scott took off, believing his brother’s sheer cussedness would get him home.
Murdoch and Scott, drinks in hand, were waiting for Sam when he entered the great room. Scott handed him his own glass. Sam took a sip of the smooth whiskey. Teresa came in from the kitchen.
“Well?” Murdoch demanded. He was already in a foul mood, having berated Scott for his failure to keep an eye on Johnny, and now look at what happened. At least Scott hadn’t offered any paltry excuses this time. He was running out of patience with his firstborn ignoring his wishes. He was worried sick about Johnny.
“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Sam told them.
Teresa sank into a dining chair. “Thank you, God,” she whispered. It had looked really bad.
“Nothing’s broken except his right hand. That’s a mess. The inner two metacarpal bones are broken as well as the last two fingers. I’ve put temporary splints on everything and when I come back tomorrow with the correct sized wood, I’ll put a more permanent one on.”
“A plaster cast?” Scott asked.
Sam nodded. “I learned how to do it during the War.”
“Yes, I saw many men in plaster casts when I was in the hospital then,” Scott said.
“It’s one of the most significant medical improvements for field hospitals in years,” Sam explained. “Saved many an amputation.”
Murdoch frowned. What had happened to Scott that he needed a hospital? He looked fine when he returned to Lancer last year. Too thin, to be sure, but other than that, fine. He put aside those thoughts. Johnny needed his full attention. The thought of Sam amputating Johnny’s right hand was abhorrent.
“Johnny said his ribs were bothering him,” Scott said.
“They’re not broken, just extensively bruised. He said Pardee ordered his men not to rough him up so he couldn’t ride. They pulled their punches but did enough damage. There’s blood in his urine. That boy is going to be awfully sore tomorrow.”
“He stuck his hand in cold water until you got here,” Teresa said. “I hope that was all right.”
Sam nodded. “Best thing for keeping the swelling down. He’s got his hand in the bucket now.”
“And that’s all right with the splint on it?” Scott asked.
Sam nodded. “It is for now. Tomorrow when I put on the plaster cast, he won’t be able to get it wet at all.” Sam threw a hard glare at Murdoch. “I mean not at all.”
“We’ll try our best,” the rancher said.
“I’ll go sit with him,” Teresa volunteered.
“I got him to take some laudanum, so he should be sleeping,” Sam told the girl. She nodded and left.
Sam sat down heavily on the sofa. “What in God’s name was that boy doing in Morro Coyo? Everyone knows that town’s off limits with that gang there.”
“Trying to infiltrate Pardee’s gang as Johnny Madrid,” Scott explained.
Murdoch slammed his hand down on his desk. “It was a foolhardy scheme and we told him so, Sam, but he did it anyway, damn him!”
“They figured out he was your son?” Sam asked.
Murdoch nodded. “It’s a miracle that they didn’t kill him.”
“Why didn’t they?”
Scott studied his drink a bit in thought and then said, “Their pattern thus far seems to be to strike fear in us—the broken fence lines, the burning fields and sheds. And their tactic is working. We’ve lost a good number of our hands. There’s only a dozen or so left. From what we’ve heard, Pardee has around twenty-five men. They’ve shifted the odds in their favor. I think Johnny was meant to be a warning and breaking his hand means he’s no longer a threat with his gun.”
“He told me Pardee was planning to attack soon,” Murdoch added.
Sam sighed. “Well, you’re right about being out another gun. There’s a chance Johnny’s hand will heal well enough to shoot again, but I can’t promise anything. He’ll have to do exactly as I say in order to have even a chance of that, and it’ll be weeks before we know anything.”
“If it’s his gun hand, Johnny will follow your orders religiously,” Scott assured the doctor.
“Well, that would be a first,” Sam said, climbing to his feet. “I’ll be back tomorrow with all the materials I need. In the meantime, that boy needs rest.”
“We’ll see that he does,” Murdoch promised.
Sam looked skeptical. He grabbed his hat off the rack by the front door. “I don’t need to tell you, everyone in the valley is scared, Murdoch. If Lancer goes, there’s no hope for the rest of us.” He walked out the door.
Murdoch and Scott looked at each other. “Damn fool boy,” Murdoch muttered.
Scott sighed, not knowing whether the “fool boy” applied to him or his brother. Failing to keep Johnny in line was yet another reason for his father to be disappointed with him. It was a long list. “He’s lucky Pardee let him live, but we know now that Pardee is looking to strike soon and that he’s taking orders from someone rather than doing this on his own.”
“That’s nothing that we didn’t suspect before,” Murdoch said, plopping down in his desk chair. “That information isn’t so new or vital that Johnny needed to risk his life for it.”
“I agree, sir, but I think we should let Johnny think it was essential,” Scott advised. At Murdoch’s raised eyebrows, he added, “He sacrificed himself for us. I don’t want him to think it was in vain.”
A week later, Scott came up short when he heard shots fired from the tree line south of the house. He ran out of the barn only to be stopped by Maria.
“No worries, Señor Scott. It is your brother,” she explained.
“What’s he shooting at? How is he shooting at all?” Scott ran toward the sounds of gunshots.
He slowed down considerably when he reached the tree line. He knew better that to surprise Johnny when he had a gun in his hand. He called out and Johnny told him it was safe to approach.
“What are you doing?” Scott asked in a half-curious, half-chastising way.
“Practicing,” Johnny answered as he picked up some tin cans from the ground.
Scott looked at Johnny’s right hand still encased in the plaster cast that ran halfway up his forearm. “You shouldn’t even be out of bed.”
“I’m just sore is all. Helps if I move around. I told Sam that, but he don’t listen,” Johnny groused. “I ain’t gonna be lying in bed when Pardee comes. We’re gonna need all the guns we can get. Help me with these cans.”
Scott helped Johnny set up a row of tin cans on a fallen log. Then he watched, awestruck, as Johnny hit most of them with the gun in his left hand.
“Shit!” was all Johnny had to say.
“You hit almost all of them. How can you be upset with that?”
“I can do better,” Johnny said, once more going over to pick up the fallen tins.
Scott helped again. “I take it you’ve tried to shoot left-handed before?”
Johnny chuckled. “Comes in real handy sometimes. The guy’s looking real hard at your right hand and you draw with your left. Gets ‘em every time. ‘Course that’s when I used to wear a gun on each leg. Haven’t done that since I came here. Guess I’m getting soft in my old age.”
Scott rolled his eyes at him. He watched Johnny hit every can on the next round. “Mighty fine shooting, brother. I should get back to the barn unless you need my help here.”
Johnny shook his head. “Nope. I’m good. I’ve only got enough ammunition for another round or two. Don’t want to use up too much before Pardee gets here.”
Scott walked back to the barn shaking his head at his brother. He had to admire his tenacity. Just as he reached the corrals, he saw Miguel riding full out into the yard. Every hand knew Murdoch had a rule against that. Scott ran up to the man as he dismounted. There was fear and panic on the Mexican’s face.
Murdoch lumbered out of the house, leaning heavily on his cane. “What’s the meaning of this, Miguel?” he demanded.
“Oh, Señor,” Miguel wailed, nearly falling into Murdoch’s arms. “I see smoke over at Caspar’s place. I ride there and what I see…” The man collapsed.
“Saddle up the horses and hitch a wagon,” Murdoch ordered.
Everyone scattered to do his bidding.
Caspar Ortega’s small farm was just to the north of Lancer. Caspar often helped with planting the fields for Murdoch, so an attack on his place felt like an attack on Lancer itself. The sight that greeted them was horrendous. Caspar was strung up by his feet on the haying beam of the barn, his body swaying slightly in the wind, his throat cut. He was clearly dead. The smoke was coming from a burning wagon. Most of the men went over to the barn to handle Caspar’s body.
Murdoch went to the house to look for Caspar’s wife. “Maria!” he called. He opened the door and stopped dead in his tracks. Caspar’s wife lay on the floor, her violated and mutilated body covered in blood.
Murdoch felt someone come up beside him.
“My God…” It was Scott.
Murdoch could only nod mutely, all speech leaving him.
“Aggie!” Scott said with panic in his voice. “I’m going to the Double C to make sure she’s all right.”
Murdoch grabbed his arm to stop him, and Scott tried to wrench his arm free. It was caught in a vise. “Tell her and her men to come to Lancer. They’ll be safer there.” Scott nodded as he understood his father was not trying to deter him. “Make sure she comes, Scott.” He let go of his arm.
“I will,” Scott promised and left.
Murdoch supervised the men to put out the fire and bury the bodies. Cipriano came riding in an hour later.
“The trail was clear,” the new foreman said. “They rode to the San Benitos.”
Murdoch wasn’t surprised. It was one of the places they had speculated that the land pirates could be hiding, but there were far too many small canyons and possible campsites to make blind searches fruitful. “We’re almost done here. Let’s get the men back to Lancer and get guns and ammunition we need to take these savages down.” Murdoch was tired of reacting to this Pardee. It was time to take the offense. With a clear trail to guide them, now they could.
Scott and everyone at the Double C came riding to the hacienda several minutes after the Lancer hands returned. Agatha Conway was visibly shaken.
“Scott told me what happened to the Ortegas,” she said. “It’s so horrible.”
“Get your men settled in the bunkhouse, Aggie,” Murdoch told her. “You’ll stay in the house with Teresa. She doesn’t need to be more worried than she already is.”
Aggie nodded and started giving orders to her hands.
Scott and Johnny were waiting in the great room when he walked back into the house.
“We’re going after them, aren’t we, Murdoch?” There was a haunted look on Scott’s face.
Murdoch wondered whether his face matched Scott’s. They’d both seen Maria Ortega’s ruined body. “Cipriano found tracks leading into the San Benitos,” Murdoch told him.
“Don’t you think we oughtta talk about this?” Johnny asked.
“What’s there to talk about?” Scott asked as he moved to the rifle rack.
“Don’t you think that’s exactly what they want us to do?” Johnny asked. “I know Pardee. He’s setting a trap,” he insisted.
“That thought did cross my mind,” Scott admitted, “but the trail could also finally lead us to their camp.”
“Unless they double back through Morro Coyo, pick up the rest of the gang and hit the ranch while we’re miles away chasing their tracks,” Johnny continued to argue.
Scott piled a handful of rifles on Murdoch’s desk. Then he walked over to the French doors. “Cipriano!” he called.
The Segundo came in immediately.
Scott addressed the big Mexican. “You said their tracks led to the San Benitos mountains?” Cipriano nodded. “Do you know them well?”
“Like my hand, Señor.”
“Isn’t there a pass up there? A shortcut back down to the range?” Scott asked. Henry Conway had taken him into the San Benitos on hunting trips several times as a teenager, but that was close to a decade ago.
“A steep one and narrow,” Cipriano confirmed.
“Can you find it?” Scott wasn’t sure he could.
“Sí, Señor Scott.”
“Good. We’re counting on you.” Scott found several boxes of ammunition for the rifles.
Johnny moved in front of Murdoch. “Don’t let them go.”
Murdoch didn’t know what to say. The terrible sight at the Ortega farm had rattled him more than he’d admit. He wanted the sons-of-bitches to be caught and killed. On the other hand, if Scott and Cipriano were riding into a trap…
“Do you know what’s gonna happen up there with some cowhands and a tin soldier? The sun’ll be coming down in about a half an hour and they’re gonna be stumbling around up there in the dark blowing each other’s heads off.” Johnny’s voice kept rising as he tried to convince Murdoch of the futility of Scott’s plan.
Murdoch looked beyond Johnny at Scott, clearly torn.
Scott was angry at being called a tin soldier, but he tossed the insult behind him and met his father’s gaze. “You call the tune. What’s it going to be?” He twanged with impatience. They needed to go now.
Murdoch took a deep breath. “I say you go.”
Scott nodded and left. Murdoch looked at Johnny, who was plainly distressed by his father’s decision.
Agatha Conway came in the door from which Scott had just left. “Where’s Scott going?” she asked.
“To his death,” Johnny answered and walked out of the room leaving Murdoch to deal with the distraught woman alone.
Scott crouched down among the rocks and trees and watched Pardee’s gang take down their campsite and get ready to leave. No doubt the small band of cattle wore Lancer brands. He left his hiding place and hurried back down to where Cipriano and the rest of the Lancer hands were waiting. “They’re on the move,” he told them. “Let’s find that shortcut and get back to the ranch.”
Murdoch was awakened by the sound of Scott’s crew returning from the San Benitos. He walked out onto the veranda. “You made good time,” he said.
“You don’t know how relieved we were to find the estancia quiet,” Scott said as he dismounted. He turned to the other men. “Get something to eat and drink and then get to your assigned positions.”
They murmured assent, and Murdoch walked Scott back inside. The boy looked exhausted but determined.
“Pardee headed out toward Morro Coyo. He’ll pick up the rest of his gang and then they’ll head this way. We made enough noise that their lookouts had to have seen us. They won’t know we have the Double C hands as well and think we’re massively undermanned here. Expect an attack at dawn.”
Murdoch agreed with his assessment. “We’ll be ready for them.”
Agatha came in holding a pot of coffee and some cups. “I heard you come in. I thought you might like some coffee.”
Both Scott and Murdoch nodded gratefully. As Scott took his cup, he said, “Could you make sure everyone in the bunkhouse gets some coffee and perhaps something to eat?”
“Teresa’s making biscuits as we speak. They should be ready in ten or fifteen minutes.”
“Thank you. Feed the hands first,” Scott requested. “It was a long ride and they’ll be tired and hungry.” Scott took a sip and almost purred. Agatha Conway knew how to make coffee. Johnny complained it wasn’t strong enough, but the sludge he preferred could grow chest hair on ladies.
Murdoch stole a sideways glance at Scott and liked what he saw: a man comfortable issuing orders and putting his men before himself. Murdoch had no idea what happened to Scott during the War. If he knew Harlan Garrett, the man wouldn’t have let his sole heir anywhere near a battlefield. A large “contribution” in the right hands would have ensured a safe clerical job. He often forgot Scott fought in the War. It was such an abstract event to those in California, even though plenty of men had volunteered to fight. It was no easy feat to get to the other side of the country. His son wrote a letter telling of his enlistment and then there was nothing until he had written again to say he was graduating from Harvard and coming back to Lancer, although Aggie had said he’d written her and Henry about someplace called Vicksburg. Perhaps he’d been an aide de camp for that General Sheridan.
The eastern sky was lightening when everyone went to their assigned places around the stables, barns, and hacienda. Agatha and Teresa were there to help distribute ammunition and reload rifles. No amount of argument could persuade them to hide in the wine cellar. Teresa was particularly adamant about helping to stop the man who had killed her father. Murdoch admired her determination even though she was only fourteen. Lancer needed all the help it could get.
“Is Johnny going to sleep right through this?” Scott asked his father.
“I’ll go get him,” Murdoch groused. He climbed the stairs and knocked on Johnny’s door. “Johnny! We need you, son,” he called through the door. When there was no answer, he opened it. The light from the hallway lamp shone dimly into the room. The bed was unmade as it usually was, but there was no sign of his younger son. Murdoch stared into the empty room and felt his stomach turn over.
Johnny stormed out of the great room and up to his room and gathered his gun and bullets together. He had his own plan and it centered on killing Pardee before he got to the ranch. He waited until Scott, Cipriano, and the rest of the hands left before he went out the back way to the stable and was relieved when young Tonio was there to help him saddle Barranca.
“Where are you going?” the teenager asked.
“To end this thing, once and for all,” Johnny said.
It was just after dusk when Johnny reached the outskirts of Morro Coyo. He tethered Barranca and gave him some water. He would need all the palomino’s strength on the way back. Johnny needed to find a hiding place that would allow him to monitor the saloon and give him an excellent position from which to shoot Pardee. He found a narrow alleyway across from the cantina that was littered with barrels and boxes and other detritus. It gave him ample cover now that the sun had gone down. He hunkered down. It was going to be a long night.
The sound of twenty horses thundering down the street was enough the wake the dead. Johnny was instantly alert. This was it, his chance to save the ranch. He watched as the man called Coley came out of the saloon’s batwing doors and greeted Pardee. In the complete silence of the early morning hour, Johnny could hear what they were saying quite clearly.
“So your plan worked?” Coley asked.
Pardee dismounted, chuckling, and met Coley face to face. “Like a dream. Almost all of them idiots are up there roamin’ around the mountains without any notion that we’re down here. Takin’ Lancer’ll be easier than kickin’ a baby. Get the men ready to ride.”
Coley went over to the doors and hollered into the saloon, “Saddle up, boys!”
The rest of Pardee’s gang came streaming out of the saloon and Johnny saw his chance. The light from the interior of the saloon gave enough illumination for a clear shot at Pardee. Johnny raised his left hand and pulled the trigger.
Damn! The bullet went left and took out Coley. He dropped down at Pardee’s feet as the outlaw dove behind the horse trough. Johnny shot two more times immediately and indiscriminately, scattering the enemy, and then ran for Barranca. He untied the palomino and leapt upon his back. “Time to run for our lives, amigo,” Johnny whispered as he urged his horse into a gallop. He knew he couldn’t run the horse full out all the way back to the ranch, but he needed all the speed he could get right at the beginning of his flight. He hoped Pardee would take a little time to get his men mounted and ready before they lit out after him. After all, Pardee thought there were hardly any men left at Lancer and the ranch was easy pickings.
Johnny went the back way to the ranch. After the initial burst of speed, Johnny reined Barranca down to a canter, ever vigilant on what might be following him as he reloaded, cursing the cast that made him drop several bullets. His ribs were also protesting their treatment. Loudly. He ignored the pain. A few miles from the hacienda, he was feeling almost confident that he’d make it. It didn’t last. He looked back and saw the riders coming.
“Here we go, amigo. Take us home!” Barranca responded immediately, seemingly excited to show his master just how fast he could be.
A shout went up from the outermost post and was relayed back to the house. Riders coming!
“Here we go, men! Don’t shoot until they’re well within range,” Scott shouted. Murdoch was surprised how loud Scott could yell; he rarely heard his elder son’s voice raised.
Scott settled his Henry rifle on his shoulder and took aim. A shudder ran through him. This was the first time he was going to shoot at a man since the War. He’d hoped he’d never have to kill a man ever again. The sights, sounds, and smells of that conflict assaulted his memory. He squeezed his eyes shut and set his mouth in a grim line, willing the memories away. The idea that someone could simply force his family off their land was an injustice worth fighting for, killing for. Yes, fighting against injustice was always right.
Murdoch saw the tremor in Scott. This must be his first time in a battle, he thought. He didn’t have time to coddle the boy right now. “Steady, boy.”
Scott took a deep breath and nodded. He wouldn’t let his family down.
Murdoch nodded back and then saw a sight he would never forget: a golden palomino carrying Johnny Lancer onto the hacienda grounds. The horse elegantly glided over the first fence, then soared over two more.
But Johnny’s luck ran out. There was a shot from the outlaws and Johnny fell artlessly off Barranca just off the courtyard. Scott ran down the outside steps and headed for his brother. Murdoch grabbed him. “It’s no use.”
Scott looked at his father in disbelief. He ran the rest of the way down and looked up to the roof, seeing Aggie’s foreman. “Jake, cover me!” he yelled, pointing to his brother. Scott saw Jake nod and direct his men to cover the area where Johnny lay.
Suddenly, Johnny raised up and shot two more men. That was all the impetus Scott needed. He raced out to where Johnny was struggling to rise and grabbed him under the armpit. It was difficult to move him with one hand still holding his rifle. Miguel came running from behind a tree and they both dragged Johnny to a more defensible position. Scott shot a man in front of him and then heard Johnny shout, “Nine o’clock!” Scott turned ninety degrees west and shot. Pardee dropped his gun. Scott shot again and the man went down for good.
Someone yelled, “They got Pardee! Let’s get out of here!” The cry was taken up by many of the outlaws.
Scott continued firing, taking out two more of Pardee’s gang. Chambers empty, he scuttled back to the relative safety of Johnny’s tree to reload.
Johnny squinted up at him for a few seconds and said, “That was good shooting.”
“Thanks, brother,” Scott said as he pushed a final bullet into the chamber. “We’d given up on you, boy.”
Johnny frowned at being called “boy.” “Well, you had your plan and I had mine,” he said, a bit cross.
“Mine didn’t include getting shot,” Scott retorted, smiling widely.
Johnny couldn’t help but smile back. Sometimes Scott could be a real pain-in-the-ass, but he couldn’t resist his dry wit. He tried to rise.
Scott tried to help, murmuring, “Take your time; take your time.”
Johnny grabbed Scott’s arm to steady himself. Then he saw Murdoch and Teresa start to run toward him. Standing up straighter, he released his hold on Scott and started to walk forward. “I can make it,” he assured his brother.
“Sure you can,” Scott said, trying to keep the laugh out of his voice as he matched his brother’s slow and stumbling steps.
Johnny took three more wobbly steps before he collapsed onto Scott’s ready shoulder. Hoisting Johnny up, Scott strode to meet his father and Teresa. All around him, the men were whooping in victory. The fight to keep Lancer was over.
It was strange to have Agatha staying at the ranch, Scott thought. She belonged at the Double C, not at Lancer, even though her presence here, along with her ranch hands were very much welcome. There were injured men to tend to and bodies to bury, buildings and fences to mend, and wayward cattle to collect. After two days, when it was clear that Johnny was going to survive the bullet wound, Murdoch proclaimed a day of rest for everyone. Scott slept for fourteen hours straight. He suspected he wasn’t the only one.
Lancer had lost four hands, the Double C one. Aggie was deeply affected by Howard’s death. Scott knew she viewed her hands as family. All of them had been with her for at least three or four years. Toomey had been her most recent stray who had found a home at the Double C. He was feeling Howard’s death most keenly as the man had taken the young man under his wing. Of the four Lancer casualties, two had had families with now fatherless children. Yes, they had beaten Pardee, but there was still a heavy pall surrounding the ranch. It would take months to get over the death and destruction caused by one evil man.
Scott found out that he was considered quite the hero in Morro Coyo. The residents had been released from their fear and reclaimed their town. Having heard that Scott was the one who had killed Pardee, they lavished him with free services and drinks when he had come into town for supplies. But what Scott cherished the most was that Murdoch’s usual stern comportment towards him had softened considerably. The man had even placed his hand casually on his shoulder as he congratulated him on his shooting and for saving Johnny. Although he frequently made the affectionate gesture with Johnny, it was the first time his father had made it with him since he’d returned from Boston.
Scott would never tell Johnny how quickly Murdoch had given up on him. After all these months, they were still trying to find their way as a family. Murdoch becoming Teresa’s legal guardian was never discussed but always assumed. She fit into their lives as a “sister” rather seamlessly. It was the three very stubborn men living under one roof that was the challenge. Scott knew his father disliked his staying at the Double C for part of the week, but he wouldn’t change it. Working at Lancer was like holding his breath; he could only release it at the Double C. Big Al, Ned, and Jake had worked at the Double C for as long as he could remember. They remembered him living there as a child and were patient and kind with him. He wasn’t “the Patrόn’s son” at the Double C. At Lancer, he felt like he had to constantly prove himself worthy of everyone’s respect, even his father’s and brother’s. But now that he had killed Pardee, that attitude was changing for the better.
Sam Jenkins made several stops at the ranch, causing him to grumble that Murdoch needed to set up a separate bedroom just for him. Agatha thought it was a great idea, since there was plenty of rooms in the hacienda. Johnny’s wound had been the most serious of those who were injured. Sam had decided not to come out to the ranch every day anymore when Johnny got a fever. Sam had to open the half-healed wound and root out the infection. The worry over Johnny began anew.
Murdoch quietly opened Johnny’s door, careful not to waken Johnny if he was finally asleep. He found Aggie sitting by his son’s bed. Juanita had again come out of her retirement for Johnny’s sake and she, Maria, and Aggie had taken on Johnny’s convalescence. Teresa pitched in whenever she could. Scott was running the day-to-day operations of the ranch, along with Cipriano, while Murdoch helped around the hacienda, due to his limited mobility. His leg would be hit with shooting pains if he rode or stood too long. Being restricted to tasks near the house, though, gave him the opportunity to check on Johnny during the day.
“How’s he doing?” he asked Aggie quietly when he saw Johnny asleep.
“Better, I think,” she whispered back. “His fever isn’t getting any higher like it usually does this time of day.”
Murdoch nodded. “Can’t tell you how thankful I am for your help with all this Pardee business.”
“Scott was right. The Double C would have been next, and we wouldn’t have been able to stop him.”
“About the Double C…” Murdoch began.
“I and my men will leave when Johnny’s out of danger. I think this fever will break soon,” Aggie informed him. “We turned the horses out before we left. We just need to catch them again. We’ll be back on our feet in no time.”
“I’ll make sure of that, Aggie. Whatever you need,” Murdoch assured her. “It’s the least I can do for all the help you’ve given me.”
Aggie gave him a tired smile. “It’s what friends do.” It was a phrase each of them had said to the other over the decades of friendship they shared.
Murdoch gave her a squeeze and a kiss on the top of her head. He knew friendships like Aggie’s were rare indeed.
The Double C looked just as they’d left it. The quiet unsettled Scott a bit. He was used to the ranch always bustling with cowboys and horses. The quiet seemed eerie. Agatha was already giving orders.
“Jake, take the men and see to the horses. We’ve been gone longer than I’d planned.”
“Be careful,” Scott warned.
“Careful?” Agatha asked.
“We don’t know where all of Pardee’s men went after their raid,” Scott explained.
“Surely, they’re long gone.”
“They should be, but I’m not willing to bet on it,” Scott said as he dismounted. “Let me check out the house first. He drew his gun and left Aggie standing on the porch.
The inside of the house looked as peaceful as the outside. Everything seemed to be in the right place, but Scott couldn’t shake the feeling that he wasn’t alone in the place. And it didn’t smell right. He picked up the end of cigar in the ashtray. Aggie didn’t smoke cigars…
There was movement to his left. He whirled just as he heard the shot and felt the fiery burn to his upper thigh. He fired a more accurate shot. The man fell with a grunt.
Scott struggled to remain upright. Aggie came rushing in. No! She needed to stay outside!
“Scott!” she cried.
“Get out!” he screamed as another man entered the parlor from the dining room.
The man fired before Scott could get a bearing on him. Scott spun around as the bullet seared into his side. He crashed against the wall, slid down it, and remained still.
“Scott!” Aggie cried again. Now the man was advancing on her with his gun aimed at her chest.
“Oho! What do we have here?” he said. “I got me a pretty little filly!”
“No!” Agatha said as she looked for a place to run to. It didn’t matter. He was on her in two strides and grabbed her wrist. “No,” she said again, but this time it came out weak and defeated.
“You’re gonna show me a good time, little filly. It’s been a spell since I had me that Mexican gal.” He tore at her shirt, sending buttons flying and exposing a breast.
With horror, Aggie realized this man was one of the animals that had gang raped and killed Maria Ortega. He was part of Pardee’s gang. And he had killed Scott! What was she going to do? “Scott!” she cried.
“That boy cain’t help you now, pretty lady,” the man said as he pushed her into the study. “Just you and me now. We’re gonna have us a real good time!”
Agatha tried to wrest her wrist out of his grasp, but he was too strong. The man was dark—Mexican or Indian—with a large, drooping moustache and yellowed teeth, what there was left of them. He reeked of body odor and tobacco. She turned her face away in disgust.
He threw her stomach down across the desk, papers and other items spilling onto the floor. Holding her down with one heavy hand splayed in between her shoulder blades, he hiked her skirt up with the other hand.
“No, no, no!” she kept repeating even though she knew the words were meaningless. This animal wasn’t going to stop because of her mewling pleas. But she was on the desk. There was hope. She reached out her hands as far as they would go, but the only stretched to the other end of the desk and not to the drawers underneath. She felt him rip at her pantaloons and bare her buttocks. He rubbed a hand over her exposed flesh that made her skin crawl. Then he insinuated one of his knees between her legs even as she fought to keep them tightly together.
“I like it when they fight,” he told her, his face so close to hers that she could smell his rancid breath.
He pulled away and she looked under her right armpit and saw him fumbling with the buttons on his trousers and the bulge beneath his fingers. Then her mind started to drift away. The sound of gunfire erupted outside, too far away to be of any good to her. This was real and it was going to happen. She was going to be raped by this man. But her mind wanted her to drift away, to deny what was happening. She stopped struggling.
Scott heard his Mama scream his name as she was pushed into the study. He knew immediately what was going to happen to her, but it was too difficult and painful to get up. He was losing blood fast. He had fallen into the corner of the parlor behind the end table of Henry’s thinking chair. Think!
He looked at the table and a plan took shape. He pulled on the tablecloth until its contents began falling on him. He needed the lamp. At last, it, too, came over the edge. He caught it as best he could with fingers that were turning numb. Mama’s favorite lamp, the one her mother had given her before she came West, with the paintings of delicate red roses on the base and chimney. The one he’d been told never to touch when he was younger. It couldn’t be helped. He took off the protective chimney and turned up the wick. He slid out the small drawer in the base and was relieved to find several matches there. It took him a couple of tries, but he finally lit the wick. It flared brightly. Now for the hard part: he had to throw the lamp into the study and hope that something would catch on fire. He didn’t know if he had the strength to raise himself up enough to throw it where he wanted it to go.
He heard Mama’s agonized shriek and the surge of energy that produced got him to his knees. He threw the lamp with all his might in the direction of the study. He heard the delicate glass shatter and hoped it would be enough to distract Mama’s attacker. Her scream of “fire!” was the last thing he heard before his consciousness melted away into the void.
Aggie thought she had lost all of her senses until she felt what she thought was the hideous man’s penis brush up against her buttocks. She screamed in rage and helplessness. The man pushed her legs farther apart. Then there was the sound of breaking glass and the smell of lamp oil and smoke. She turned her head and looked out from under her left armpit. The glimpse of a flame. “Fire!” she shrieked. “Fire!”
Suddenly the hand in the middle of her back disappeared. It sounded like the man was trying to put out the flames with his boots. She heard him swear. She didn’t care; she had one objective: the middle drawer of the desk. She threw herself farther across the desk until she could jerk the drawer open. ‘Thank you, Johnny,’ she thought as she pulled out the gun stashed there. She rolled over on her back, vaguely realizing the man’s pant leg had caught on fire. It didn’t matter. She pulled the trigger.
The bullet caught him high in the shoulder. It didn’t drop him, though. He turned to face her, surprise and anger in his eyes. She shot again, hitting him squarely in the chest and he fell soundlessly to the floor.
She pulled her skirt down and frantically watched the fire lick its way up the wallpaper. It seemed to devour its new source of fuel quickly. She pulled up the window sash and hollered “fire” even as her left hand was grabbing her heavy, velvet curtains and ripping them off their rod. She threw the material onto the fire and went to grab the one on the other side of the window. “Fire!” she yelled out the window again, although her lungs were starting to feel the effects of the smoke and her voice was losing its volume. The second set of drapes didn’t want to come down as easily as its counterpart had done. She was tugging at the curtain when Jake suddenly appeared at her side. With his extra strength, the curtain came crashing down.
“Get out of here!” Jake shouted at her as he flung the curtain over the flames.
Agatha ran out of the room but headed for the kitchen. She began pumping water into a large pot. She wasn’t going to lose this house that she and Henry had lovingly designed and built and added onto over the years. It was too precious to her. She ran back into the study and threw the water onto the now burning curtains.
“I told you to get out!” Jake yelled at her.
“Not until the fire is out!” Aggie yelled back.
Big Al burst into the parlor. Aggie ran back toward the kitchen with the pot. Big Al intercepted her and pushed her outside onto the porch, while Toomey entered the house to help.
Aggie stood there gulping for air, her mind blank, until she realized her left breast was still bare. She pulled what remained of her blouse over it and tucked the blouse into her skirt. There were no buttons left to button it up properly. She went over to the study window, standing on tiptoes to try to see what was going on with the fire. It looked like the hands had created a bucket line, or in this case a pot line, between the study and the kitchen and were getting the fire under control. It was hard to see; there was so much smoke. She was coughing more than she was breathing. Her knees felt suddenly weak, and she sat down on the porch steps trying to get her breath back. After what seemed like an eternity, Jake came out with one of her shawls which he draped over her shoulders. She looked up into his concerned eyes and started to cry.
“It’s all right, Miss Conway, the fire’s out now. It’s gonna be all right,” he told her, sitting on the stoop next to her and putting an arm around her trembling shoulders.
Big Al and Toomey came out carrying her assailant between them. They tossed him carelessly into the courtyard. She wished they had tossed him more violently. Next came the man Scott had shot.
“Scott!” She leapt up and tried to go back into the house, but Jake and Big Al stopped her. “Scott’s in there!” she told them.
“I didn’t see him,” Big Al said.
“He’s in there, I know!” Agatha cried, trying again to enter the house. Smoke was pouring out the front door.
“You stay here, Miss Conway,” Big Al said. “There’s too much smoke for you to go. I’ll find ‘im.” He hitched his bandana back over his nose motioned for Toomey to follow him inside.
Agatha buried her head into Jake’s shoulder, weeping. “He tried to save me, and they killed him,” she managed to get out between sobs. Jake smelled like smoke.
Jake held his boss tight. “I’m sorry, Miss Conway,” he said between his own coughs. “I’m real sorry. Scott was a real fine boy, a real fine man.” His eyes misted up. It wasn’t just because of the smoke.
It took several too long minutes for Big Al and Toomey to come outside with Scott’s limp body. They gently laid him on the ground at Aggie’s feet. She fell onto the body and sobbed. The smell of Scott’s blood filled her already burning nostrils. She had lost Henry and now Scott. She had no one left to lose.
“I’ll head out for the doc now.” Big Al told Jake, who nodded.
“It doesn’t matter,” Aggie wailed. “Scott’s already dead.”
“But Ned’s still alive,” Jake said. “There were three more of them in the barn waiting to ambush us. Ned took one in the right side of the chest. Good thing Scott warned us beforehand or it coulda been worse.”
“I was heading out for the doc when we seen the fire,” Big Al said. “I’ll go by Lancer on the way in case doc’s there.”
“Good thinking,” Jake said.
Big Al went to get his horse when Aggie heard it: a rattle in Scott’s chest and then a weak attempt to cough. “Jake! He’s trying to cough!”
Jake bent down and rolled Scott on his left side as his uncle had taught him to do with ailing people. Scott coughed in more earnest. Jake looked at Agatha Conway’s soot-smeared and hopeful face. “He’s alive. Scott’s alive!”
Murdoch helped Johnny sit up to eat the breakfast Maria had prepared for him.
“Juevos?” Johnny said, his eyes alight. He was so sick of watery oatmeal, although the honey on it had been a treat. The soft poached eggs and toast looked like a feast.
“Sam said you could start having some more solid food.”
“Gracias, Sam!” Johnny said, digging in as enthusiastically as he could with his left hand.
Murdoch was content to watch his son devour his breakfast. He’d been deeply worried about Johnny ever since he saw him fall off Barranca during Pardee’s raid. First the bullet in his back and then the fever. It was good to see that Johnny’s coloring and appetite were back to almost normal.
“Everything still all right? Pardee’s men ain’t come back?” Johnny asked, as he did every day once his injury and the fever allowed him to.
“No. No one’s seen them at all. I don’t understand why they all just ran away after Pardee went down,” Murdoch said.
Johnny thought about it a few seconds. “Pardee kept things to himself. He never told the men who worked for him what was going on, what the arrangements were.”
“So if Pardee goes down, no one else knows who his contacts are, how to contact them. Coley might have known, but I took him out in Morro Coyo.” Johnny grinned at the memory. “They ain’t getting paid, they ain’t fighting.”
“Scott had a crew go back to their campsite in the mountains, but there wasn’t anyone there. There were about fifty head of our cattle, though. That’s two hundred dollars saved.”
Johnny took a large swig of milk, smiling to himself. Murdoch seemed to always think of money he was losing or making. “Is Scott mad at me?”
“Scott? Not that I know of.”
“He hasn’t been by as far as I know.”
“He escorted Agatha Conway back to the Double C a couple of days ago and hasn’t come back. I have half a mind to ride over there and haul his ass back here.”
Johnny grinned. Murdoch didn’t use foul language very often. He must be mightily pissed off at Scott. He came to his brother’s defense. “Maybe she needed more help than he expected.”
“Maybe,” Murdoch said, but Johnny could tell his father didn’t buy it. “Your fever had just broken; you were so ill. He should be more concerned about you and the ranch. This is his home after all.”
“He thinks the Double C as his home, too,” Johnny said offhandedly and immediately regretted it. Murdoch’s jaw looked like it could grind rocks. That remark hadn’t helped Scott’s cause.
“Well. That’s going to have to stop. He’s part owner of Lancer and it’s high time he started to act like it!”
Murdoch looked like he was just about to jump up and ride on out to Aggie’s ranch. The only thing holding him back was that he was waiting for Johnny to finish his breakfast, so he could take the tray back to Maria.
Johnny took his time sopping up the runny egg yolk with his last piece of toast. He hoped the extra time would settle the man down, but it only seemed to irritate him more. Well, that was okay with Johnny, too. He didn’t mind irritating the Old Man. In fact, it was rather enjoyable, and he was getting quite good at it. “He’ll come back in his own good time. No use rushing him.” He popped the final bite of wet toast into his mouth and washed it down with the last of the milk.
Murdoch grabbed the tray but paused at the door. “Glad to see you feeling better, son. Now get some more rest.”
Johnny carefully rolled onto his good side and smiled. It felt nice to be the good son for once. But he wouldn’t let Murdoch get complacent about him. The Old Man needed to be kept on his toes where his sons were concerned. Scott seemed to be holding his own in that area as well.
Dr. Jenkins woke him up a few hours later to check him over. He was pleased Johnny’s fever had broken and the rest of his battered body was healing well. He was surprised Murdoch wasn’t hovering around his younger son like he’d been doing the past week.
“He’s gone over to Aggie’s to tan Scott’s hide,” Johnny told him. “He was pretty mad when he left.”
“Oh, dear,” Sam said. “Doesn’t he know?”
“Know what happened at the Double C. Didn’t anybody tell him?”
Johnny, greatly alarmed, struggled to sit up. “What happened?”
Sam pushed him back down. “Some of Pardee’s men took cover there after the raid. They were lying in wait when Aggie and Jake arrived.”
“He was caught in the ambush.”
Murdoch rode out to the Double C letting his anger grow. It wasn’t the first time he had ridden out to get Scott away from Aggie and back to Lancer. He idly mused that the ride out gave him ample time to bring his mad to its peak boil.
The courtyard was empty when he rode up to the house. He glanced over to the corral. Several horses were standing there patiently waiting for one of the hands to lay out feed for them. Toomey, if Murdoch remembered correctly. There was no other activity. The atmosphere seemed gloomy and oppressive.
Murdoch strode into the front parlor without knocking. He stopped short. The smell of smoke was overwhelming. The entire corner by the door to the study was badly burned. There was charred wallpaper by the door to the study and the adjacent wall. The doorframe was black from fire. Remnants of curtains lay on the floor in the entrance to the study, their burned cloth a testament to where some of the fire had been. All the windows were wide open to try to rid the room of its smell. Anger melted into fear. “Agatha!” Murdoch called. “Aggie? Scott?”
To his relief, Agatha Conway appeared in the doorway to the bedroom wing, looking as wrung out as he had ever seen her. To his surprise, she started to scold him.
“Well, it’s about time you showed up, Murdoch Lancer! What took you so long?” Then a look of profound guilt crossed her face, and she crossed the room to stand next to him. “I’m sorry. Is it Johnny? Is Johnny all right?”
“Johnny’s doing well. He’s healing quickly now that the fever broke.” He looked around the room. “Dear God, Aggie, what happened here?”
With a quiet sob, she fell into his arms and he held her for a long time as she cried herself out. Then he maneuvered her to the settee and sat them both down. The bullet in his back was making itself known.
“What happened? Obviously, there was a fire…”
“Oh, Murdoch, they were waiting for us when we came back.”
“Some of Pardee’s men. They came here after the fight at Lancer.”
“And they set the house on fire…”
“No, they didn’t do it. It was Scott.”
She started to cry again. “Oh, Murdoch, he was so brave. He set the house on fire with Mother’s lamp. You know the one with the roses on it? I loved that lamp so. It was the only thing that survived the journey out here. Well, that and the silver soup ladle. Henry used to joke about it—that I loved the lamp more than him…”
Murdoch interrupted her ramblings. “And Scott?”
“They shot him. Twice. He was so brave. He killed one of them, but there were two, you know. The other one shot him and then turned on me. Oh, Murdoch, he was going to, going to…just like Maria Ortega…and Scott stopped him by throwing the lamp. It was lit and crashed into the doorframe, but it was enough. Enough to stop…to stop…it…him.” She pulled back from his embrace. It felt so safe and warm to be surrounded by his huge, strong arms but she wanted to see his face. “And then I shot him, Murdoch. I shot and killed the bastard.”
He pulled her back to his chest and gently swayed. “I’m glad you killed him. He deserved to die.”
“He did; he did,” she whispered into his shirt, now stained with her tears.
“He killed Scott,” Murdoch whispered back, his voice heavy with grief.
Aggie pushed away from him again. “No! Scott’s not dead. He’s alive but so badly hurt. Sam still won’t say if he’ll live or die. Here, I’ll take you to him. I thought that’s why you came.” She grabbed his hand and led him down the hallway.
Murdoch would never tell her why he came, he felt so ashamed of himself. He usually thought the worst of Scott and it was never true. Never. When would he stop doing that? The first door to the left was ajar and Murdoch could see Aggie’s foreman sitting by the bed but couldn’t see who was lying in it. Agatha led him to the second door on the right. He had never been in Scott’s room here. It was not so grand as his room at Lancer, but it was filled with various bits and pieces, memorabilia from his stays here through the years. There were no such mementos in his bedroom at Lancer, except for a few framed pictures. A fishing rod leaned against one wall. One of Henry’s jackets lay folded on a shelf. But most of the space was taken up with a wardrobe and a large bed in a cast iron frame.
Scott lay partially propped up on a mound of pillows. His labored breathing filled the air. He breathed in noisily and agonizingly slowly. Then there was a hitch and quiet before the air would come out again in a rushed wheeze. The quiet spaces afterwards were the most unnerving, waiting to hear if he would inhale again. The boy was clearly fighting for each breath.
“He’s struggling to breathe,” Murdoch blurted out, realizing as he said it that he wasn’t saying anything that Aggie didn’t already know.
“Sam says it’s the smoke. There might be permanent damage to his throat and lungs. Thank God Sam was at your place when Big Al went to find him. He got here quickly. Scott’s throat began to swell. Sam said he got the breathing tube in just in time. But the swelling’s gone down, and Sam took the tube out last night. Scott’s been this way ever since.”
“But he still might die?”
Aggie nodded. “He lost a lot of blood, too, from the bullet wounds, and there’s always a chance of infection.”
Murdoch turned down the quilt. There was a bandage wrapped around Scott’s waist. It looked all too familiar to him.
“Sam said the bullet in his side almost overlapped the one he got last year from that rustler,” Aggie explained. “This bullet went through much of the scar tissue from that wound.”
“And the other bullet?”
“Tore through his thigh muscle. Sam says it’s the least of our worries.”
Murdoch didn’t bother to lower the quilt any farther. He trusted Sam’s assessments. There would be a matching bandage wrapped around the bullet hole in Scott’s leg. He sat down heavily in the chair next to the bed, the chair Aggie had no doubt been sitting in when he’d stormed into her house. He took Scott’s pale, limp hand into his and bowed his head in prayer. Scott’s painful wheezing was difficult to sit through.
“I’ll make you some coffee,” Aggie said and disappeared, not waiting to hear whether he wanted it or not.
Minutes later he heard her enter the other bedroom. It sounded like she was giving her foreman some coffee, too. Then she entered Scott’s room with a tray. Murdoch didn’t feel like drinking any coffee at the moment, but he took the cup, nonetheless. Aggie found comfort in doing these small niceties, and he knew she needed comfort now.
“Who’s in the other room?” he asked.
“Ned Bailey. He’s been with me for about four years. He’s a little older than Scott.”
“Is it bad?”
Agatha nodded. “Sam doesn’t think he’ll make it. He was the first one to walk into the barn, where the other three of Pardee’s men were holed up. He never stood a chance.”
“And Pardee’s men?”
“Jake hasn’t given me all the details about them, but it’s safe to say that none of them here survived.” Aggie watched as Murdoch’s gaze fell on a flat rock on the bedside table. He picked it up, a quizzical look on his face.
“It’s a memento from one of our trips to the lake,” Aggie explained. “It was the first time Scott skipped a rock farther than Henry. He was so excited!”
Murdoch turned the rock over in his hand, feeling the heft of it. So, Henry had taught Scott how to skip a stone. That was something he should have taught him, but he knew he never would have. With a ranch the size of Lancer, there was never time to take a day off and skip stones with your son. Henry didn’t run such a tight ship.
“Of course, that isn’t the actual winning stone. That one’s at the bottom of the lake, but it’s almost the same,” Aggie said just to fill the vacuum in the room. She was surprised he didn’t say anything. He shared her memory of skipping stones. “Should I prepare a room for you?”
Murdoch wasn’t sure what she was asking. Did she think he was staying overnight? He placed the stone back on the table, surprised that Scott was so sentimental. The pain from the bullet in his back gave him a sharp reminder of his infirmity. He stood and placed a hand on Scott’s forehead. It was warm but not hot. “I’m not staying.”
“You’re not?!” Aggie was shocked. Scott was lying at death’s door. Perhaps Murdoch didn’t understand just how dire the boy’s situation was.
“I’ll send some people over to help you,” he said, “but I have to get back to the ranch.”
She followed him down the hallway into the parlor. “Of course, I’d be grateful for any help you could give me, Murdoch, but Scott…”
“…Is in the best of hands. I know you’ll give him the best care possible.”
Agatha appreciated the compliment but still couldn’t believe he was leaving. She walked out to the porch and watched him ride away, biting back the words she wanted so badly to fling at him. If it had been Johnny lying there fighting for breath in that bedroom, she wouldn’t have been able to budge him out of the chair. She’d witnessed firsthand how attentive he’d been to Johnny after Pardee’s raid. She was emotionally wrung out and she let the tears fall. She had shed plenty of tears in the last couple of days. Howard had died in the raid on Lancer. Ned would probably die soon, and Scott might follow him. They were all like family to her. She dragged herself back into the house. There was no time for her to succumb to her sorrow. With his father abandoning him, Scott needed her now more than ever.
Murdoch recognized Sam’s carriage as he rode out of the Double C and back onto Lancer land. He stopped in front of it.
“You’ve seen Scott, then, I take it?” Sam asked.
Murdoch’s tone was frosty. “Why didn’t you tell me he was hurt?”
Sam didn’t seem to notice the anger in Murdoch’s voice. “I haven’t seen you since Big Al came to get me the day before yesterday. Johnny thought you might be headed out this way.”
“You’ve seen him this morning?” Murdoch was greatly relieved. “How is he?”
“He’s doing well—better than I expected. The boy heals fast, so he tells me. At any rate, he’s doing far better than Scott at the moment.”
“Aggie said Scott could die.”
“It’s all the smoke he breathed in. His body isn’t getting all the oxygen it needs. If his breathing doesn’t get better in the next few hours, I don’t think he’ll make it. He’s too exhausted by his blood loss to keep fighting so hard for each breath.”
“I’m going to get some help for Aggie right now,” Murdoch explained. He shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. “I wasn’t going to be any use to her. Damn bullet,” he muttered.
“No more riding for you today once you get home,” Sam advised. “I’ll be spending the night at Aggie’s. I don’t think the Bailey boy is going to last the night.”
Murdoch looked more closely at his friend and noted the exhaustion in his face. “You get some rest, too, Sam. We’re all doomed if you’re out of commission.” He expected the usual denial from Sam and the assurance he was all right. He didn’t get it, and that worried him all the more.
“If you need me, you know where to find me,” Sam said, shaking the reins and urging his ever-faithful Matilda on her way.
Later that afternoon, a wagon brought Teresa and two hands to the Double C. Teresa was distraught after learning that Scott was so ill. Aggie was very grateful for the help. She knew Lancer was short-handed because of Pardee. Murdoch could ill afford to send two hands to her place. She silently thanked the man and her irritation at him that morning dissipated. The wagon was filled with food and supplies to help fix the places where the fire had been. Sam was with Ned, so she sent Teresa in to sit with Scott while she went off to make enough stew for everybody at the ranch.
She was pulled off that task when she heard Teresa’s frightened voice. Sam was trying to soothe the girl, but that was drowned out by the sound of a hard, wet cough. Scott. Aggie burst into Scott’s room in time to see Scott leaning over the side of his bed and coughing up a great, black glob of phlegm. It did look horribly disgusting and she didn’t wonder at Teresa’s horrified cry.
“But it’s black! What is this black crud?” Teresa was saying.
“Because of the smoke,” Sam explained, holding a towel under Scott’s face to catch the sputum and pounding lightly on his back to loosen the phlegm. He looked up at Aggie. “This is the best sign we’ve had all day. He just might get through this.”
Aggie smiled at the doctor. “It’s about time we had some good news.” She sank down on the foot of Scott’s bed, her wobbly legs too weak to support her. Scott would live! She bowed her head and said a silent prayer of thanks.
Sam helped get Scott settled and gave him some water. His patient seemed surprised to see so many people in his room. He asked Sam about the people injured at Lancer and then drifted back to sleep.
“What’s happened to his voice?” a worried Teresa asked. Scott’s voice had been a raspy whisper.
“It’s from the smoke, too,” Sam said. “We shouldn’t encourage him to talk. His vocal cords may have been singed from the fire. Resting them would be the best thing for him.” Both Aggie and Teresa nodded their understanding. “On the other hand, we do need to encourage him to cough and get the phlegm out of his lungs before it turns into pneumonia. In his weakened state, Scott wouldn’t be able to fight the infection off.” He looked at the two women’s worried faces. “Coughing, yes; talking, no. Got it?”
“And Ned?” Aggie asked warily.
“I’m sorry, Agatha,” Sam said. “He’ll not be with us for long.”
Later that evening, Teresa heard men traipsing into Mr. Bailey’s room. There was murmuring, but she couldn’t hear the words. She knew they were paying their last respects to him. She remembered how the man had given her a few encouraging words before Pardee swooped down on them. He had told her it would be all right. But it wasn’t. Not for him. Now there was another death due to Day Pardee. She hated that man with all her soul, even though, as a Christian, she wasn’t supposed to hate anybody. But surely God could make an exception in this case. She looked at Scott’s pained face. Even in sleep, he looked fretful. Yes, surely God would understand and excuse her for hating Day Pardee.
She put a cooling cloth on Scott’s forehead. He shifted slightly at the touch and moaned a little. He had such an exquisite face. Ever since she was a little girl, she had thought his face was so handsome. She had had the worst crush on him before he left for college. And then he had brought that Julie and her awful mother to Lancer when he came home. She had never been so happy as when she heard Julie had broken off the engagement. She sighed. In her head, she knew she was too young and uncultured for a man like Scott. He had gone to Harvard. He had survived a war. He had seen a lot more of this country than she could ever hope to see. She had nothing to offer him, especially if he was taken with women like Julie. She had been so polished and sophisticated. Teresa still tripped over her own feet and dropped things. Daddy called it growing pains.
Daddy. She missed him so. Uncle Murdoch tried his best, but he couldn’t replace Daddy. He’d been the first of Pardee’s casualties. She wasn’t going to let Scott be his last. She had been so proud of Scott when he’d shot the man down. Yes, she hated Pardee and was glad Scott killed him! She wondered how many Hail Marys she would have to say to wipe away that sin. She’d have to ask Johnny. She wasn’t Catholic, but sometimes their practices made sense. She’d say her number of prayers and be cleansed. She picked up Scott’s hand. It was so elegant with its long fingers. The pads of his palm were calloused and rough against her skin. She raised his lax hand and bent over to kiss the back of it. No, Scott wasn’t going to be another of Pardee’s victims. She’d see to that.
She heard Mrs. Conway’s lighter steps go out of Mr. Bailey’s room and down the hallway and into her room. The door slammed shut. Sam came into Scott’s room not long afterwards. “Mr. Bailey passed,” he told her unnecessarily. Teresa nodded, tears springing to her eyes.
“Let’s see if we can rouse Scott and get him to cough up some more black crud and drink some more water, shall we?” Sam said.
With a deep sigh, Teresa bit back her tears and reluctantly let go of Scott’s hand.
The days that followed were a blur. Sam traveled back and forth between the Double C and Lancer. Johnnie was recovering well and the other injured hands were already on light chores. Scott was doing better, although he was in a lot of pain. Sam didn’t want to give him any opiates because of his breathing problems. The color of his sputum had changed from black to yellow, but Sam said the lighter color still indicated infection. So far they had staved off having his bronchitis develop into pneumonia, but Sam was still worried. Scott was worn out from the pain and the effort it had taken to breathe. They’d given him some paper and a pencil, so he wouldn’t use his voice, but most of his writings said “hurts” with underlining.
Since Scott didn’t need around the clock nursing anymore, Teresa helped Mrs. Conway with the cooking and laundry when he slept. Mrs. Conway told her to call her Aggie, but it didn’t seem proper. Mrs. Conway seemed happy to tell her stories about when Scott was young and lived with her and her husband. He sounded so different from the person who returned from Boston last year. She could understand why he loved to be at the Double C. It was much more casual and slower paced than at Lancer. And Mrs. Conway gave her so much advice about being a woman. She was easier to talk to than Maria, who often scoffed at or dismissed her questions. Time passed quickly at the Double C.
So it was a surprise when Johnny came riding into the courtyard one morning instead of Joe. Murdoch had sent his loyal hand to the Double C every day to inquire about Scott’s condition. Aggie had to concede that Murdoch seemed concerned about his older son, and Sam had told her that Murdoch’s wound from Pardee had made him unable to ride for a while. Both she and Teresa couldn’t believe their ears when they heard Johnny’s voice call “Hello the house!”
Aggie and Teresa came running out with cries of delight.
“Did Sam tell you you could ride?” Aggie asked Johnny skeptically after she gave him a warm hug.
“Barranca and I, we took our time,” Johnny said, giving his faithful palomino an affectionate pat on the neck. He returned Teresa’s hug and asked about Scott.
“He’ll be delighted to see you,” Teresa said as they walked into the house. The smoky smell still lingered. “He’s been breathing easier, but he coughs a lot. He’s still not supposed to talk, so make him write on his paper.” She led him to Scott’s room, and then left the brothers alone.
Scott put down his book and smiled at the sight of Johnny. He pointed to Johnny’s still casted hand and raised an eyebrow.
“It’s doing all right,” Johnny answered Scott’s unasked question. “Swellings going down. Doc is hopeful.”
Scott’s smile became brighter. He scribbled “your back?” on a piece of paper filled with short phrases.
Johnny nodded. “Well enough.”
Scott jotted something down again and Johnny noticed the patch of shiny, pink skin on Scott’s forearm. That must have been where he’d been burned putting out the fire on Rodriguez’ serape. Johnny had kidded him about his stupidity. Now he saw that the arm had been burned worse than Scott had let on. Why didn’t his brother ever tell anybody what was going on with him? Scars from burns took a long time to heal. Scott wrote “a game?” and Johnny nodded. “Sure, if you still like losing.”
Scott smiled and was reaching for the checkerboard when Aggie walked in and gave Johnny another hug. “Thank you,” she said earnestly.
“For saving my life.”
Johnny looked perplexed. “How’d I do that? I’ve been on my stomach for the past two weeks.”
“For giving me the guns to hide around the house. I killed one of Pardee’s men with the one I had in the desk in the study,” Aggie said with a slight waver in her voice.
Johnny nodded his approval of her actions. “And where’d you hide the other two?”
“One in my bedroom and the other in the kitchen.”
Johnny again nodded approvingly. “Good thinking.” He looked at Scott and found him frowning. What was wrong?
“Are you staying for dinner? You are staying overnight, aren’t you? Esmerelda is about to foal. I’m sure the men could use your supervision.” Aggie gave him another small hug.
Johnny laughed. “Sure.” Once Aggie had left, he asked Scott what was wrong.
“Look after her, Johnny,” Scott rasped.
Johnny was shocked at the roughness of his brother’s voice. “Use the paper! You’re not supposed to talk.”
Scott shook his head. “Too much to write.” Then he proceeded to tell Johnny about Aggie’s near rape. “Thank you for insisting she keep extra guns in the house.”
“Well, a woman alone in this big house…no telling what kind of trouble could find her.”
Scott was still frowning. “Trouble is, I don’t think she’s really dealt with it all. She been too busy with me and everything. Just keep an eye on her. Make sure she’s all right.”
Johnny didn’t think he was very good with upset women. “Ain’t that your job?”
“She thinks she has to put on a brave face with me.” His voice was strained and barely audible. “She won’t talk about it.”
“Well, maybe she don’t want to,” Johnny suggested. He saw Scott sag before his eyes. The effort to tell him about Aggie’s troubles had worn his brother out. “Tell you what. You get some sleep and I’ll see you later. I promise to keep an eye on Aggie.”
Scott nodded and hunkered down in the bed. Johnny watched him until his breathing evened out. Scott was pale and gaunt. He wouldn’t be able to withstand the ride home anytime soon.
Johnny stayed the night and for the rest of the week. He engaged in a lot of supervising. It wasn’t long before Scott could get around for short periods of time using a cane. Teresa was happy that her “brothers” were healing so well, and Aggie reveled in the sounds and sights of her house alive with young people talking and laughing. Sometimes she fantasized that they were her own children and that they were one happy family. But she knew that they would have to leave soon. They were Murdoch’s children, even though she thought he didn’t deserve them, well, one of them at least.
For the sixth night in a row, Murdoch ate dinner alone in the kitchen. With no one else living at the house, it seemed absurd to be fed at the large dining room table. Thinking back on it, he’d never been alone in the house except for the two years after Catherine died. Those had been dark and dismal days. Maria had delivered him from his overwhelming sadness, only to plunge him deeper into it when she had left and taken Johnny. He’d never forgive her for that. Never. But Paul and Teresa had kept him from being totally alone when Scott was away at school in Sacramento and then in Boston. He missed his friend and foreman terribly, but he was grateful that he had raising Teresa to distract him from his grief.
The silence of the house was unbearable. He missed the sound of his sons’ voices, of Teresa’s girlish laughter. He missed Johnny arguing with him over some unimportant detail that seemed so important at the time. He even missed Scott’s quiet and stilted “sir.” Tomorrow. If they weren’t home by dinner tomorrow, he’d ride over to the Double C and drag them back kicking and screaming himself. He was well enough to ride again.
He was in the barn when he heard the wagon returning. Teresa was singing a song and Johnny was doing his best to ruin it with off-key harmony. It finally dissolved into laughter. That was the real music to Murdoch’s ears. The wagon pulled up by the house, and as he was leaving the barn, Murdoch saw Scott sitting in the back. Johnny was driving it with Teresa next to him, Barranca tied to the back. Walt and Diego had returned as well, trailing Barranca.
“You’re home!” Murdoch exclaimed as he helped Teresa down. She gave him a warm hug, while Johnny jumped down and went to the back to help Scott. His older son looked still looked pale and sickly but not at death’s door like he looked when Murdoch had last seen him. “How are you feeling?” he asked Scott, as the boy accepted the hand Johnny offered. That told Murdoch plenty right there: Scott had more healing to do.
“I’m fine, sir,” Scott replied but then began coughing uncontrollably, belying his statement.
Johnny helped his brother inside with Murdoch and Teresa following. “Did Sam say it was all right for Scott to come home?” Murdoch asked.
Teresa looked affronted. “Of course, he did! We’d never risk Scott’s health!”
Johnny deposited Scott on the sofa, and the four of them exchanged news about what had happened to them while they were away. Johnny went on for some time about a colt that had been born. Apparently, he was quite taken with the lines on the creature. Teresa extolled his beauty as well. As usual, Scott remained silent throughout the exchange. True, he had been bedbound for most of their time together, but Murdoch wished that for once his firstborn would engage in the conversation as eagerly as Johnny and Teresa.
Johnny glanced over at Scott and saw he was flagging. “Let’s get you to bed, brother. We promised Sam we wouldn’t let you overdo it.”
“I’m just sitting here,” Scott protested. There was still a slight rasp to his voice, but it was nearly back to normal.
“No arguments,” Johnny insisted, grasping Scott’s upper arm and helping him rise.
Scott sighed and let Johnny help him. Truth was, the ride in the wagon bed had been rougher on him than he wanted to admit. He was more than ready to sink into his bed at Lancer.
Murdoch watched his boys leave, then turned to Teresa. “So you’re not regretting your decision to go to the Double C?”
“No, I’m glad I went.” The young girl assured her guardian. “Except Mr. Bailey died. That was so sad. We were so scared Scott was going to die, too.”
Murdoch didn’t want to think about that possibility. That was under the bridge now. Scott was alive and back where he belonged. “I’m glad you were there for Mrs. Conway.”
Teresa nodded. “She’s so nice. I feel so sorry for her living in that big house all alone. I’m glad Scott goes over there every week. She loves him like a son.”
Yes, Murdoch was very aware of that. That was what had created this unfortunate wall that had built up between him and Aggie. Between him and Scott, too, if he were really honest.
That jealousy and resentment had to stop before it ruined his relationship with either of them, and only he could make that happen. With trying to get the ranch back to its usual efficiency after Pardee’s raids, he had little time to worry about Aggie’s or Scott’s feelings. Perhaps he should start to work on that.
“Scott taught me how to play chess,” Teresa continued to prattle on. “I beat Johnny once, but don’t say anything about it. I don’t think he was happy about it.” She giggled. “I’m going to see Maria,” she declared and went off to the kitchen, leaving Murdoch alone in the great room. He didn’t mind being alone; he just hated loneliness. But his children were back home now and his loneliness had vanished.
Scott was fast asleep when the dinner hour came. They decided to let him sleep and take something up to him later. It was a surprise to Scott when Murdoch knocked and entered with a dinner tray.
“Are you ready for something to eat?” Murdoch asked.
“Yes, sir. Thank you,” Scott replied stiffly. Maria usually brought up food to him when he was ill. This was something different, and it set off warning bells.
After arranging Scott and the tray better, Murdoch lingered. He didn’t know where to start. Perhaps it was best to just plunge in. He cleared his throat and Scott looked up at him expectantly. “I just want to say how proud I am of you, son. The way you handled everything from this Pardee problem to saving Agatha from being hurt, I’m just very proud of you.”
Scott was stunned. He was unused to being on the receiving end of any praise from his father. “Thank you, sir.”
Sir! Always with the ‘sir.’ Murdoch was so put off by the word. So formal, So reserved. So devoid of affection. “Could you not say ‘sir’ to me, son? It makes me feel like your commanding officer rather than your father,” Murdoch said smiling, trying to keep his tone light so it wouldn’t sound like a reprimand.
“It signifies respect,” Scott argued, managing at the last second not to add the ‘sir’ to that statement.
“It sounds rather cold coming from my own son,” Murdoch persisted.
“I’m sorry,” Scott apologized, biting off the ‘sir’ again. Murdoch’s request would be impossible for him to do. “I learned it from Grandfather at a very young age, and then I was in the army…”
He looked at his father with pleading eyes. “It’s a habit, deeply ingrained, I fear.”
Murdoch seemed not to notice Scott’s silent plea to allow him to continue to say “sir.” “I’d prefer you call me ‘father’ like you did when you were younger. Actually, I’d prefer you to call me ‘Pa.’”
Scott’s pleading eyes turned hard. There was only one man he could call “Pa” and that was Henry Conway. Dear Henry Conway. He could never call Murdoch that. And he knew Murdoch knew it, too. Was he trying to force Scott into saying the hurtful words? Scott wasn’t going to.
Murdoch inwardly cursed himself. All he had wanted to do was compliment Scott on his bravery, and he had turned it into a reproof of Scott calling him “sir.” This conversation wasn’t going the way he wanted it to. Scott had turned stubbornly silent, a tactic he’d used since he was eight. Murdoch tamped down the anger that silence usually generated in him. He needed to salvage this encounter. “Well, I just wanted to tell you how proud I am of you.”
Scott nodded, accepting the compliment and the tacit apology. He waited some more. Was this it? Was this the time his father was finally going to tell him he loved him? He had saved Aggie. He had run out under fire and saved Johnny. He had saved the ranch by killing Pardee. What more could he do to earn his father’s love? Henry Conway was the only man to have told him he was loved. Grandfather never had; neither had Murdoch. Henry told him that almost every day during Scott’s stays with him. He would grab Scott around the neck or sling an arm casually over his shoulder when the day’s work was done and tell Scott what a good job he’d done that day and that he loved him. When Scott was studying at San Domenico’s and the Conways would visit him, Henry would grab him in a fierce bear hug and tell him that he loved him before he said good-bye. Scott felt totally loved by Agatha and Henry. Henry was the only man who deserved to be called “Pa.” Tears welled up in his eyes as the grief of Henry’s death swept over him again.
Murdoch didn’t know what had prompted Scott’s emotional response. The boy was too sensitive, always had been. He thought he would outgrow it. No man he knew would have come to tears from his banal request to stop calling him “sir.” He left the room before he upset the boy further.
Scott let his tears for Henry fall after Murdoch’s abrupt exit. No, Murdoch didn’t deserve to be called “Pa.” Even “father” seemed too awkward and intimate for the man since he’d returned from Boston. No, he would continue to call the man “Murdoch,” like Johnny did. And he’d let “sir” slip out whenever he wanted.
Murdoch entered the kitchen from outside and saw his sons just starting to eat their breakfast. It had been several days since Sam Jenkins had cleared Scott to ride (not far) and for light chores (no heavy lifting). Today was the day. He poured himself another cup of coffee and sat down at the table with them. “After breakfast I want you boys to saddle up. You’re riding with me this morning.”
Scott and Johnny exchanged ominous glances.
It was Johnny who spoke up. “What’ve you got planned for us today?”
“You’ll see soon enough,” was all Murdoch was going to say. It had been a while since it had just been the three of them out on a pleasant ride together. Yes, this morning was going to be a treat.
“Sir, you know what Sam said about me…”
“I know all about what Sam told you about riding,” Murdoch interrupted Scott. “This won’t set you back any.” Scott hung his head, properly chastised. Damn! Murdoch didn’t want them to start out on a bad foot today. “I’ll take it easy on you two boys,” he said, winking at them.
Johnny grinned and the corners of Scott’s mouth slid upwards. Pleasantness was restored.
“That sounds like a wonderful idea,” Teresa gushed, sitting down with her own breakfast plate. “Can I come, too?”
Johnny jumped on it. Murdoch was always easier to deal with when Teresa was around. “It’s all right with me!”
“And me,” Scott chimed in.
Murdoch chuckled at them. It was so good to have the three of his “young’uns” back with him again at home at Lancer. He hated to disappoint Teresa, but this morning was reserved for his sons. He’d do something with all of them soon, he promised himself. “I’m sorry, darling, but this morning it’ll just be the Lancer men.”
She didn’t look too disappointed and proceeded to tell them about how recalcitrant the milking cow had been this morning. Johnny said something inappropriate, which made Scott jump in with a pun and the verbal dueling began. Murdoch didn’t pay much attention to it. He just took in the familial atmosphere and let it wash over him like a warm breeze.
“What do you think the Old Man has planned for us?” Johnny asked as he hoisted Scott’s saddle over Sugar.
“I’ve given up trying to predict him years ago. But he’ll probably yell at us for something like shirking our chores.”
Johnny snorted. “Wasn’t our fault Pardee’s gang put bullets in us.”
“I’m sure he can make it sound like it was.”
“He seemed like he was in too good a mood to yell at us,” Johnny mused as he leaned a knee into Sugar’s belly and tightened the cinch.
Scott gave him an I-hope-you’re-right look and led Sugar out of the barn.
Johnny joined him soon after and it didn’t take him long to figure out where the Old Man was taking them—the rise overlooking the ranch. The same one Johnny had lingered on the day that he rode in as Johnny Madrid. It was one of the prettiest spots on the ranch.
Murdoch stopped and admired the view. Lancer. As far as the eye could see, Lancer. “This is it, boys. This is what we fought for. This is your legacy. I want you to love it as much as I do.”
Scott didn’t say anything. Johnny said, “Hell, Old Man, you know we do.”
“You’ll always have to fight for it, boys. There’s a lot of men who want what we have, to live how we live. I know now that Lancer is in good hands. You both showed me what you’re made of with this Pardee mess. I’m proud of you both.”
Scott and Johnny raised their eyebrows at each other behind their father’s back. Where was this praise coming from?
Murdoch looked at Scott, who returned his stare right back. “Thank you, sir.”
Then he looked at Johnny. His younger son’s cold, stony face was unexpected and startling. “What’s wrong, John?”
Johnny sighed. “This whole thing. Pardee. It’s just not right.”
“Of course, it’s not…” Murdoch began.
“No, hear me out. Day Pardee? He didn’t want our land for himself. He sells himself to whoever can pay. Said he was taking orders from someone but wouldn’t say who. And he had lots of help, so that means that someone has deep pockets.” Johnny leaned over and spat on the ground. “Whoever hired him is still out there. This ain’t over, Murdoch. This ain’t over by a long shot.”
To: Another Rival
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16 thoughts on “Another Highrider by RonD”
I liked this alternate beginning for the Lancer family. The following story in this series will be interesting, and I hope it will give us some insight into who hired Day Pardee. Maybe Murdoch will also figure out how to get closer to his sons. You’ve done a great job writing the strained relationships as they try to come together as a family. Thank you for posting this different view of Highriders.
Great.i can not wait and find out what happen next.love reading it. Thank you for witing it.
Oh please tell me you will have more to this series real soon! Don’t leave poor Scott in the mine. Love this different approach to their life.
Great to see this saga continuing and the problems between Murdoch and his sons slowly being resolved. Aggie is a wonderful character too and fits in so well. Looking forward to more!
Interesting take on the High Riders, RonD. It was strange to have Scott be the one to raise Murdoch’s ire instead of Johnny! Anxious to see where this goes! Thanks for sharing!
Thank you for another great story. I’m looking forward to the next part.
Thanks everyone for wanting to read more. That’s a great compliment! I hope your enthusiasm continues because this is going to be one drawn out saga with what I hope are a lot of surprising twists and turns along the way. I’m finding writing an AU is rather freeing. I can pay homage to the canon without being constrained by it. It’s fun and I hope it’s fun for you, too. Diana, you know I’m a Scottette! He’s always the main character for me, as Johnny is for you, but I try to include Johnny as much as possible! I always enjoy your stories that have a good dose of Scott.
You are such a truly talented writer, and even though I am not a Scott fan, I thoroughly enjoy your stories. In my opinion, they are some of the best on this website, and I am so very thankful that you share them with us. This comment is not so much about your story as it is a response to a reply that you made to your readers in which you stated that this series was going to be a drawn out saga. I love a good series as much as anyone could as long as each story can fairly well stand alone. I say that because a continuing saga has a definite down side — that being, the writers ability to continue it. There is, or possibly was, a writer of Laramie fanfiction that blessed readers with one of those drawn out sagas that you mentioned. There are four very good parts but the promised fifth one has never shown up. The writers last posting was in 2018 and it was not connected to the continuing saga. I fear we may have lost that writer, possibly to the pandemic. If so, his or her saga will never be finished. And, as sad as that may be, it is highly frustrating to the readers who wait month after month for the next part to appear. I have read the first four parts three times but will no more. On the first of every month, I check to see if part five of that saga has been posted. I won’t reread the entire thing until it has been. And as I said, I fear that will never happen. This Highrider series you have going is awesome and addicting, and I am thrilled that you are continuing it. I just ask that you do your best not to leave us in withdrawal if the worst should happen and, for some reason, you are not able to complete the saga you have planned. There are too many unfinished stories out there already. Please have mercy on your readers as you come to the end of each part of yours.
Thank you. This is a very interesting take on the story. Yet it still seems true to the characters we all love.
I look forward to the next installment.
Thank you for this great story and to make Scott the main character of your story because he is my favourite too !
Loved this alternative High Riders story and I’m looking forward to the next installment.
Throughly enjoying this series and am delighted that there will be more!
Carolyn, I, too, am frustrated when really good stories aren’t completed. I won’t let you down, I promise!
Great trilogy. I enjoyed your twist to the TV episode. It made your story more exciting and tense since I didn’t know what would happen. There’s only one problem with your fine storytelling, it ended! I’m anxious to find out what happens next. Thanks for writing.
Thank you for writing and sharing this well written AR/AU series. Even though there can never be too much Johnny-just an opinion-I liked this new view of Scott and look forward very much to the next part.
Thanks for this great story with the promise of more to follow. It certainly change things to have Scott being the black sheep but I think Murdoch is trying to find a way to make a relationship work with him. Can’t wait for part two!!!