Word Count 56,791
* Dedicated to the Lancer Ladies of the United Kingdom.
* I started the story in 2019 on my second trip to Scotland.
* An A/R inspired by the episode Legacy and Lancer fans will recognize the words written by
* Thanks to Alice Marie, Chris (chrischime), and Diana (Buckskin) for help with the beta
April 10, 1832
The courtroom was quiet as Inverness’s Chief Prosecutor stood before the witness stand, hands clasped behind his back. The trial of Liam Brùn was only in its first hour, but already it looked as if there was no doubting the outcome.
Gavin Stewart, dressed in traditional black robes and white wig, looked upon his witnesses, knowing they were scared but also knowing he’d prepared them well and everything hinged on their testimony. If these four hadn’t been walking along the River Ness that fateful day, they’d never have caught Liam Brùn.
“Ye’r sure, laddie. Ye’r sure he’s th’ one?”
A small boy with short dark hair stole a glance at the man he was accusing of murder and then looked back at the attorney.
“Aye, Sur.” Ten-year-old Alasdair MacKay hesitated and stole a glance at his companions. Then swallowing hard, he continued, “Aye. A’m sure.”
“N’ ye Jamie Buchannon. Whit dae ye say?”
“Speak up, laddie. Whit dae ye say?”
“Aye, Sur. A’m sure.”
The barrister stepped down the line and looked at another boy.
“Whit dae ye say, Rory McLeish?”
Rory was younger than the other boys. Nervously he shifted from one foot to the other.
“Rory?” The attorney’s voice softened. “Thare is na need tae be afraid.”
“Aye, ’twas him,” the voice was so soft you could hardly hear it.
“Ye hae tae speak louder, lad.”
Rory drew himself up, nodding as he said in his full voice, “Aye, ‘twas him.”
Stewart smiled and shifted to the last boy.
“And you, are ye sure as weel? A man’s life hangs in the balance. Ye’r sure this is the man wha murdered Angus MacKinnon?”
The tall eleven-year-old red-headed boy took a deep breath and nodded. “Aye, Sur, tis as th’ ithers say. He’s th’ one we saw. He murderred Mister MacKinnon. Whin he saw us, he bolted.”
Gavin Stewart smiled and turned to look at the Judge. He was about to make his case and advance his career at the same time.
“Thare ye hae it. Thare is na doubt that Liam Brùn is guilty of the murder of Angus MacKinnon and that he shuid be hanged.”
Brùn looked at the four young boys who’d testified against him.
“Ye’v lied. Ah swear by a’ that’s holy ye’ll regret this day.”
The judge slammed his gavel against the desk to quiet the courtroom. Then looked again at the tall boy. “Ye sure lad?
“Aye, a’m sure. Sure as my name is Murdoch Lancer. ‘Twas Mister Brùn who murdered Mister MacKinnon.”
The judge looked at the others standing next to Murdoch. “And Alasdair MacKay, Jamie Buchannon, and Rory Mc Leish urr sure?”
In unison, the boys answered, “Aye, a’m sure.”
The judge’s gaze fell on the accused man before speaking.
“Weel then.” The judge took a deep breath and let it out before continuing. “Ah hae na choice bit tae fin’ Liam Brùn guilty o’ murder.”
“Ah didnae dae it! Ah swear ah didnae! MacKinnon wis awready deid whin ah found him!”
The courtroom erupted. The judge slammed his gavel against his desk over and over, the sound echoing off the building’s walls.
“Order. Ah will hae order in mah courtroom.” It took a minute, but the room was once again silent.
The judge cleared his throat and gave the prisoner a grim look. “Liam Brùn, three days fae noo at noon on April 13, o’ this year eighteen hundred ‘n’ thirty twa, ah sentence yer tae be hanged by th’ neck ’til yer deid ‘n’ may God hae mercy on yer soul.”
The prisoner was pulled kicking and screaming from the room. “Na! Ah swear ah didnae dae it. A curse on yer houses. Ah curse ye ‘n’ yer bairns until they breath their last.”
A woman and four children were sitting in the front row crying. Elspeth Brùn for her husband and the children for their father. The youngest child, a girl, broke away from her mother and ran across the room.
“Da,” she screamed and grabbed Brùn’s leg, sobbing. “Na, Da. Na.”
“Annaleigh, mah wee bairn.” Brùn bent down, putting his arms around the child. “Dinnae cry. Gang back tae yer mither. It wull be a’richt.” He looked at his wife, pleading; he said, “Elspeth, tak’ her.”
The woman hurried to the little girl and pulled her away. The child buried her head in her mother’s skirts, sobbing uncontrollably.
Brùn glared directly at the four boys and then Gavin Stewart.
“Marc mah word ye’v nae heard th’ lest o’ Liam Brùn.” He looked at his wife as he was dragged past her. “Elspeth ye mak’ sure oor bairns remember, mak’ sure thay revenge mah death.”
Green River California
A hot, dry breeze stirred the dust on the town’s main street. Although the temperature was still comfortable, the residents of Green River could tell the heat was building, and by late afternoon it would be sweltering.
Val Crawford sat in a chair in front of his office. Leaning back, he had one foot braced against the wooden four-by-four roof support while he used the other to rock back and forth on the chair’s back legs. Although his hat was pulled down over his eyes, there wasn’t any movement on the street he wasn’t aware of. For now, the town was quiet, and that’s the way Val liked it.
Before taking the job in Green River, he’d been the Sheriff of Temecula, a little over 300 miles south.
Six months ago, gunhawks started filtering through Temecula on their way north. Although he’d known many of them, Val made sure they didn’t stop in his town. When Day Pardee rode in one day, he’d not let the man off his horse before sending him on his way. Pardee and his men left Temecula alone, but Val knew he could do nothing to help anyone else.
The raids on the ranches to the north were daily news in Temecula, and then one day, he heard that the largest ranch in the San Joaquin Valley was hit. Val knew good and well who Murdoch Lancer was, but at the time, he was mourning the death of the boy he knew was Lancer’s son. He could have cared less if Day had taken over the man’s ranch. It was a surprise when he found out somehow Lancer had fought off the land pirates and Pardee was dead.
Four months ago, he got an offer for the job of Sheriff of Green River. He jumped on it, hoping for a fresh start and a chance to put a bullet in Murdoch Lancer’s heart.
That first month, Val spent most of his time dealing with the last of Pardee’s gunfighters. Then the second month, he found out his friend was alive, and everything changed. The gunfighters started coming to Green River for one reason: to face down Johnny Madrid.
Now, it had been almost a month since someone had ridden into town looking for Johnny. It was a good sign, one he hoped meant men had stopped looking for his friend.
No, he and Johnny were closer than friends. Years of riding together, watching each other’s back, and even taking a bullet for the other made them as close as brothers.
That’s how he saw himself, as the boy’s older brother and even a father when needed, but it was Johnny who let him know when that was. Val smiled, remembering the times Johnny called him Papi.
Of course, not knowing how Murdoch Lancer would take it, Johnny hadn’t shared that bit of information with his family, and Val didn’t mind. All that mattered was Johnny was alive, and Val was going to do everything he could to keep him that way.
The musical sound of rattling harnesses, horse hoofs and rolling wheels announced the arrival of the noon stage.
Val pushed his hat back and leaned forward, allowing all four legs of his chair to settle on the boardwalk. Standing, he straightened his hat and gunbelt before strolling across the street. He liked knowing who came and went in his town, and meeting the stage was a real good way to find out.
The stage stopped in front of the Stage Depot, followed by a cloud of dust that swept over the coach and then settled on everything within twenty feet. Circling behind the coach, Val stepped up onto the walkway and leaned against a support post.
“Howdy, Val,” Jake Skinner yelled down from atop the stage.
“Howdy, Jake. Looks like you made good time today. It’s only 12:45.
“Yeah, made real good time. Here, catch.”
Val straightened up and caught a valise Jake tossed down. When two more pieces of luggage came his way, Val grabbed them in midair and set them on the boardwalk.
“Thanks.” Jake swung down, stepped on the top of the wheel, and landed next to the coach.
“You’re welcome. Is this all you’ve got?”
Jake shook his head. “No. There’s a trunk around back. I’ll get it in a minute.”
Val looked up in time to see a man step down from the stage and then help a woman out. Recognizing the couple, Val tipped his hat.
“Mrs. Dickenson, Mr. Dickenson, welcome home. Did you have a good trip?”
“Hello, Sheriff. Yes, thank you, but it’s good being home,” Mr. Dickenson replied with a smile.
“Come, dear, let’s get home.” Mrs. Dickenson took her husband’s arm.
Val turned his attention back to the stage, interested to see who else had come into town. He watched as a tall man stepped onto the boardwalk and thought there was only one other person he knew who could match the newcomer’s height.
The bearded, fair-skinned man had neatly trimmed reddish-brown hair streaked with gray and was dressed in a woolen tweed suit coat and vest. Val had no doubt the man was from somewhere back east. The only other time he’d seen someone dressed like the stranger was the one time he’d visited St. Louis.
Just when Val was going to ask if the man needed help, the stranger looked at him and then at the badge on his shirt.
In an accent, Val barely understood the man asked, “Sur, urr ye th’ local constable?”
Val cocked his head. “Come again.”
The man smiled. “Am sorry. I mean, I’m sorry. There are times I slip back into the old language.”
“What language would that be?”
“Scottish, Sir. Scottish.”
Val laughed. “I take it you’re from Scotland then?”
“Aye, I am.” The man extended his hand. “They call me Alasdair MacKay, and I’ve come to see my old friend, Murdoch Lancer.”
“Lancer, you say?”
“Aye. I understand he lives near here.”
“Yeah, he does. Mr. Lancer has a ranch just north of here.”
“You know him then?”
Val laughed. “Ain’t many people in these parts that don’t know of Murdoch Lancer.”
The man smiled. “You say his ranch is north, and how far would that be?”
“A good two hours by buggy, less on horseback.”
“That far?” The man frowned and looked around. “Is there a place I can rent a buggy?”
Val nodded towards the east end of town. “The livery stable is just down the street.”
“Two hours, you say? From Murdoch’s letters, I thought his ranch was closer to town.”
Val nodded and leaned against the post again. “Well, the ranch is. The southern boundary is only about thirty minutes out of town, but the ranch house itself is another hour and a half.”
“Murdoch said he had a large estate. I didn’t realize….”
“You’ve known Mr. Lancer a long time?”
Excited, Alasdair blurted out, “Aye, we wur laddies th’gither in Scootlund.” He stopped and took a breath. “We were lads together in Scotland. When he came to America, I stayed behind, but we’ve kept in touch with each other these many years.”
“Does Mr. Lancer know you’re coming? He hasn’t mentioned anything about a friend coming to visit.”
“No, he doesn’t. I was afraid that if I sent word to him, the others would find out.”
“It’s Sheriff, Mr. MacKay. The name’s Val Crawford.”
“Sheriff, are you a friend of Murdoch?”
“I wouldn’t go that far, but we’re on speaking terms. I’ve only known the man a little over four months, but I’ve been friends with his youngest son, Johnny, for a long time.”
“Murdoch has written of the return of his sons, and that’s why I’m here. I’ve got to warn him and the laddies.”
Val straightened up. The man had his full attention now. “Warn them? About what?”
“I cannot tell you. It is a tale for Murdoch alone. Can you help me get a buggy and direct me to the ranch?”
“I can ride there with you. Give me a few minutes to let my deputy know where I’m going.”
“I dinnae want to be a burden to you.”
“It’s no problem. If the Lancers are in danger, I need to know about it.”
“Aye, perhaps it would be best if you come. I must ask, have there been other strangers in town looking for Murdoch or his lads?”
Val hesitated before answering, “No one’s been asking about Murdoch or Scott, and it’s been a while since anyone asked about Johnny.”
Alasdair looked relieved. “Good. That’s very good. Now Sheriff, how soon can we go? The sooner I warn Murdoch, the better I’ll feel.”
Val looked around. The only luggage in front of the stage depot was a small trunk and a leather traveling bag.
“Those your things, Mr. MacKay?”
“I’ll be back in fifteen or twenty minutes with a buggy, and we’ll load you up and head out to Lancer. If you want to wait in the Café over there.” Val pointed across the street, “You can get something to eat and a cup of coffee if you want.”
“I’d like that very much. It’s been a long journey. Thank you, Sheriff.”
Thirty minutes after Alasdair MacKay stepped off the stage in Green River, he and Val Crawford were headed north to Lancer.
Val decided to drive the buggy and tie his horse to the back. He wanted to question the man further about the threat to the Lancers.
“Call me Alasdair, Sheriff.”
“Alasdair. You said the Lancers were in danger. Can you tell me who’s out to get them?”
“I’d rather tell the tale only once. It can wait until I see Murdoch.”
“All right, we’ll wait.” Val was quiet for a few minutes, but his curiosity couldn’t keep him silent. “You say you’ve known Murdoch since you were little?”
“Aye, we grew up together.”
“I can’t imagine Murdoch Lancer as a boy. What was he like?”
“Murdo was always tall and lanky, towered over the rest of us even as a wee lad,” Alasdair laughed. “And he was always into trouble and more times than not took me along with him.”
“Murdo?” Val chuckled.
“Aye, we called him Murdo. Murdoch is a mouth full, just as Alasdair is. He called me Ally.”
“So, he was always in trouble? Hard to believe Murdoch Lancer was ever in trouble,” Val chuckled.
“Aye, trouble always seemed to find Murdo. He couldn’t sit still, always searching for something more than we had in our village. He’d stand at the water’s edge in Inverness and watch the ships heading out to sea, and I knew he ached to be on one of them. He wanted what was over the horizon. I suppose that drove him to leave Scotland and come to this wild country.”
Val smiled. Alasdair could have been describing Johnny, like father- like son.
“Val, I’ve read books about your American west where a man lives by his gun, bandits and gunfighters. Do you know many such men?”
“A few.” Val dipped his head. “You don’t want to believe everything you read in those books.”
A few more minutes of silence fell between. Alasdair looked around and took a deep breath.
“It is a beautiful place Murdo has found here. When he wrote he’d settled in this valley, I knew he must have found what he was looking for, something powerful enough to keep him from looking over the next hill.”
A single shot caused Val to pull back on the reins and draw his gun. Standing in the buggy, he looked up to the hill to his left to see a lone rider waving his hat.
“Damn, that boy.” Val holstered his gun and sat back down.
Alisdair shaded his eyes against the early afternoon sun, trying to see who had fired the shot.
“It’s alright, Mr. MacKay. He’s friendly enough.”
“You know him?”
“Yeah, I know him.”
Val leaned back and waited while the rider started down the slope towards the road. Before he was halfway down, a second rider joined the first. Both riders smiled when they reined to a stop next to the buggy.
“Val, what are you doing out this way?”
“Headed to your place. Got someone here who wants to see your Pa.”
Alasdair looked at the two riders and then back to Val and beamed. “Are these Murdo’s lads?”
Val chuckled. “Yes, sir, these are them.” Val pointed to Scott. “This is Scott Lancer and the other one over there is Johnny.”
Alasdair stepped out of the buggy and walked to stand next to Scott’s horse. He reached up and shook hands with the blond Lancer. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, laddie. A real pleasure. Murdo has written me that you and your brother have come home.”
Scott smiled. “It’s very nice to meet you, Mister….”
“MacKay, Alasdair MacKay. Has your Da never mentioned me to you, lad?”
“Not that I can remember, Mr. MacKay, but there is still a lot we don’t know about our father and his past.”
“Call me Alasdair.”
“So, how do you know Murdoch?” Johnny asked as Alasdair reached up to shake his hand as well.
“Murdo and I have been best mukkers since we were wee jimmies.”
“What?” Johnny looked at Scott, who shrugged.
Alasdair laughed. “I said your Da and I have been best friends since we were small boys.”
Johnny laughed. “Oh, is that what you said? So, you’ve come all the way from Scotland to see Murdoch?”
Alasdair’s smile disappeared. “Aye, I have, and I must see him as soon as possible. There is trouble headed this way, and I’ve got to warn him before it’s too late.”
“Trouble?” Johnny asked, his hand instinctively moving to the butt of his Colt. “What kind of trouble?”
“It’s the worst kind, lad.”
“That’s what he told me back in town and why I decided to drive him out here myself,” Val explained. “Said he’d only talk to Murdoch.”
Johnny reined his horse around. “Then we’d best get to the ranch. Scott, I’ll ride in with Val and Mr.…. Alasdair. Why don’t you go ahead and let Murdoch know we’re coming?”
“That’s a good idea.” Scott nosed his horse towards the ranch house. “Johnny, ….”
“I know, Boston. I’ll watch my back and theirs too. Now get back to the hacienda and let the old man know we’ll be there shortly.”
Val snapped the buggy reins and the horses started off at a brisk trot. Johnny followed close behind, turning in the saddle and scanning the countryside. He wasn’t sure who he was looking out for but felt the hairs on the back of his neck bristle all the same.
Scott was off his horse before it came to a complete stop. Looping the reins over the hitching rail, he started to run into the house but was met by Murdoch coming out the French doors.
“I saw you coming? Is something wrong?” Murdoch looked towards the arch. “Where’s your brother?”
“He’ll be along in a few minutes.” Scott took a moment to get his breath. “Murdoch, Val’s coming, and he has someone with him who says he’s a friend of yours.”
“A friend? Who ….?”
Before Murdoch could finish his sentence, the buggy with Val and Alasdair rolled under the arch. Murdoch took a step forward, squinting his eyes, trying to see who was with the Sheriff of Green River.
Murdoch kept his place when the buggy pulled up in front of the hacienda and watched as Lancer’s visitor stepped down. The two men faced each other until Alasdair smiled and recognition lit up Murdoch’s eyes.
“Alasdair? Alasdair MacKay?” Murdoch rushed forward, grasping his old friend’s shoulders.
“Murdo, by God, it’s good to see you.”
Grinning, Murdoch threw his arms around Alasdair and pounded the man’s back.
“Ally, I can’t believe you’re here. Why didn’t you let me know you were coming? I’d have met you at the stage.”
“It’s as I’ve told the Sheriff and your lads, I could not risk letting anyone know where I was going. I had to see you, to warn you.”
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed. “Warn me?”
Val stepped down from the buggy and went to stand next to Johnny.
Alasdair turned slightly to look at Scott and Johnny.
“Aye, Murdo. You and your lads.” His eyes were wide, and he had a crazed look on his face when he looked at Murdoch again. “He swore a curse on our families all those years ago. You were there; you heard him.”
“Ally, you’re not making sense. Are you talking about Brùn? Liam Brùn?”
“Aye, I am. His curse has come true. They’re all gone now, Murdo. Jamie and Rory and their youngest bairns. We’re all that’s left, you and me, and,” he turned to look at Johnny again, “your….”
A shot rang out. Alasdair’s eyes widened as he lurched forward into Murdoch’s arms.
Johnny’s Colt was drawn as he spun around to face the direction the shot had come from. Val had his gun in his hand almost as fast as Johnny. Scott pulled his revolver and crouched in front of Murdoch and Alasdair. Lancer ranch hands and vaqueros took cover, and those with guns had them aimed to the slight ridge near the hacienda.
Johnny motioned for Pedro and Manuel to circle to the left when no other shots came. Before he started to move across the yard, he felt a hand on his arm, pulling him back.
“No, John, stay with me.” Murdoch looked at Scott. “You too, Scott. We have to get Alasdair inside.”
The brothers looked at each other and then at Murdoch. There was something in their father’s eyes they hadn’t seen before…. fear. Murdoch Lancer was afraid for his sons.
Johnny looked to the rise and saw Pedro and two new hands, Browning and Douglas, standing where the shot originated. Pedro waved his hat. “There is no one, Senor.”
“Damn,” Johnny cursed and holstered his gun.
“Scott, give me a hand.” Murdoch lifted Alasdair’s shoulders. “Johnny, send one of the men for Sam.”
Alasdair’s eyes opened and his hand reached for Murdoch’s.
“Take it easy, old friend. We’ll get you inside.”
Alasdair had difficulty speaking, and it came out in gasps when he did.
“Murdo, I have to warn you.”
“You already have.”
“No….” Alasdair’s eyes fluttered. “No. You have to know all of it.”
Alasdair’s hand was like a vice on Murdoch’s arm. “I know…. know… how…,” his voice faltered. Then gathering his strength, he looked into Murdoch’s eyes and said, “Remember….”
“Murdo ….,” Alasdair’s voice faltered. “Remember Glen….”
The hand on Murdoch’s arm opened and fell away.
“Ally? Ally?” Murdoch repeated, holding his friend close to his chest. “No. Stay with me.”
Scott knelt beside his father and the man who had come five thousand miles to warn him of a pending threat.
“Help me get him inside, Scott. Val….”
“I’ll have a look around up there where the shot came from,” Val spoke up. “Maybe I can spot something that will give us an idea of who did it. I’ll send Pedro into town for Sam?”
Murdoch stared at his youngest son and gave him that look that said, ‘do as I say or else.’
“Johnny, stay near the house until we know what’s going on.”
Johnny watched as Murdoch and Scott carried Alasdair MacKay into the house, then followed Val to the rise overlooking the yard.
Two hours later, Val and Johnny rode back to the house. Sam’s buggy had replaced the one Val and Alasdair arrived in.
Dismounting, they let Manuel take the horses as they headed for the front door. They hadn’t gone three feet before the French doors flew open and Murdoch stomped out.
“Where have you been? I told you to stay with me. Why….?”
Johnny raised a hand to stop Murdoch’s rant.
“Calm down, old man. I went with Val to make sure whoever shot your friend was gone.”
“Even though I asked you to stay with me. What if whoever it was tried to kill you?”
“Wouldn’t be the first time someone tried, and I’m still here. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m hard to kill.”
Murdoch gave his youngest son a hard glare. One Johnny had seen many times since coming home to Lancer. He knew he’d stepped over the line between Madrid and Lancer, the line Murdoch never wanted him to cross.
Val cleared his throat, breaking the tension between the Lancers.
“Sheriff!” Murdoch took his eyes off of Johnny and looked at Val.
“Did you find anything?”
Val shook his head. “No. We could see where the man was standing, and he had a horse nearby, but the tracks played out. Looks like your men’s tracks covered up our shooters.”
Murdoch nodded. “Sheriff, could I speak with you alone? John, your brother’s in the barn. I’d appreciate it if you stayed with him until we sort this out.”
Johnny frowned and started to shake his head. Murdoch gave him another one of those looks.
“Go ahead, Johnny.” Val placed a hand on the boy’s back. A gesture that didn’t go unnoticed by Murdoch. “I’ll come out and find you before I head back to town.”
Johnny spun and walked away.
“Now, what was it you wanted to talk about, Mr. Lancer.”
Murdoch sighed. “Sheriff…”
“Mr. Lancer, I’ve told you before the name’s Val.”
Murdoch took a deep breath and nodded. “Very well. Val, come inside. We need to talk.”
Val followed Murdoch inside, noticing the rancher didn’t ask him to return the favor.
“Val.” Sam Jenkins was coming from the hallway from one of the downstairs guest rooms.
“Sam, how’s MacKay?”
Sam looked at Murdoch and then back to Val. “That’s what we need to talk about.”
Johnny strode into the Great Room, pushing his hat onto his back. Looking around, he spotted Murdoch, drink in his hand, sitting in one of the wingback chairs in front of the fireplace.
Johnny looked over his shoulder to see Scott standing in the doorway to the kitchen. He started towards Murdoch, then hesitated and changed direction.
“Where’s Val and Sam? Val said he’d come see me before he left.”
Scott shook his head. “I’m not sure. When I came in, they were gone, and Maria told me that they had taken Alasdair’s body back to town.”
“Town? I would have thought Murdoch would have wanted him buried here at Lancer.”
“I don’t know the why of it, brother, and I wouldn’t ask Murdoch about it right now.”
“We’re going to have to ask him about what Alasdair said before he died.”
“Yes, we will, but let’s give him some time.”
“You think we have time, Boston? From what happened out there today, I don’t know if we have time to sit and mourn.”
“You’ll have to make time!” Murdoch’s voice carried across the room.
Johnny and Scott turned to see Murdoch push out of the chair and go to the drink bar. He picked up a bottle of Talisker and refilled his glass. Turning, Murdoch looked at his sons. He raised the bottle and cocked his head, his actions asking if either of them wanted a drink.
Scott nodded. “Thank you.”
Johnny raised a hand and shook his head. “I’ll hold off for now.”
Murdoch poured Scott’s drink and walked it across the room, handing it to his oldest. Then he walked to the window behind his desk. Looking out, Murdoch took a long drink from his glass.
“You want to tell us about it?” Johnny walked across the room and sat on the edge of Murdoch’s desk.
“Yes, but I want to wait for Val and Sam to get back. It’s a long story and….” Murdoch stopped and ran a hand over his face. Turning, he looked at first Scott and then Johnny. “I need time to think… time to understand what Ally was trying to tell me.”
Maria came in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on the apron.
“Patron, dinner is ready.”
Murdoch looked at her with a look of confusion on his face.
“Dinner, Patron,” she repeated.
“Yes, yes, of course.” Murdoch sat the glass down and took two steps towards the dining room before stopping. “Actually, Maria, I’m not hungry tonight. You boys can go ahead and eat. I think I’m going to my room.”
Murdoch strode across the room and up the stairs.
“He’s not taking this well.” Scott downed his drink and set his glass on the edge of the dining room table.
“Yeah, I can see that.”
Scott looked at his brother’s lowered head and noticed him thumbing the butt of his Colt.
“What’s wrong with you?”
Johnny looked up, giving Scott a faint smile.
“I wonder why Val didn’t come see me before he left?”
“I’m sure he had a lot on his mind.”
“Yeah, but it ain’t like him to tell me something and then not do it. You don’t think he and the old man butted heads?”
“Johnny, one of these days, you’re going to have to tell us what’s between you and Val. All we know is you two have a history.”
“A history?” Johnny laughed. “Yeah, I guess you could call it that.”
“You’re not going to tell me, are you?”
“Nope.” Johnny stood up and started towards the dining room. “Come on, Boston, the old man may not be hungry, but I am.”
Scott laughed. “When aren’t you hungry?”
Johnny and Scott sat alone at the table and looked at the dishes in front of them. Maria had made roast chicken with all the fixings.
Johnny reached for the platter of chicken. “When’s Teresa supposed to be back from the Jenson’s?”
“I think we need to bring her home tonight. Pass the potatoes.”
Scott shifted the mashed potatoes closer to Johnny and then hesitated.
“I agree. Until we know what’s happening, I don’t think any of us should be away from the ranch.” Standing, he called over his shoulder, “I’ll be right back.”
Scott walked outside. By the time he’d returned, Johnny had his plate loaded and was already eating.
“Thanks for waiting for me.”
Johnny mumbled, “Welcome.”
“Cipriano is sending Frank and three men to get Teresa.”
“Yes.” Scott reached for the chicken. “Pass the potatoes.”
Johnny lifted the dish of potatoes and handed it across the table.
Johnny laid his fork down and stared at his brother.
“I’m sorry, but I’m hungry too.”
Johnny pushed all the dishes closer to Scott.
“You have Cip set up guards on the house?”
“He’d already done it.”
Johnny nodded and started eating again.
Maria brought a piece of apple pie for each of them and started to turn back to the kitchen when Scott spoke up, “Oh, Maria, I sent some men to the Jenson’s to bring Teresa home. She should be here in a few hours. Would you leave a plate in the warming oven for her?”
“Si. Should I wait for her? I can sleep here tonight?”
“That may be a good idea.”
“Bueno, I will let Cipriano know. I already have things here from when I have stayed before.”
Alone again in the dining room, Scott and Johnny ate in silence. They’d just finished when Cipriano entered the room through the kitchen.
“Excusa, Senor Scott.”
“Cipriano, come in. Would you care for something to eat?”
“Gracias, Senor Scott, but I have already eaten. I have come to tell you I have placed guards on the front and back porticos and on the roof. Maria has told me she will sleep here tonight.”
“Thank you, Cipriano. Yes, we appreciate Maria staying. Do you want to stay here as well?”
Cipriano shook his head. “Gracias, Senor Scott, but no. It would not be proper for me to stay inside the hacienda.”
Scott looked confused, but Johnny spoke up, “We understand, Tio.”
“Buenas noches, Senor Scott. Buenas noches, Juanito.”
“Good night.” “Hasta mañana, Tio.” The boys spoke at the same time.
After eating, the brothers moved to the Great Room. Scott poured a Brandy for himself and tequila for Johnny. They sat on the sofa and looked into the flames of the fire.
“Hell of a day,” Johnny spoke up.
“Yes, I agree.”
“Did you hear what Alasdair said? I mean, at the end?”
Scott nodded. “I did, but it made no sense. I’m sure it did to Murdoch, and he’ll tell us tomorrow.”
Johnny leaned his head back and sighed. “I wish Teresa was home.”
“I do too.” Scott looked up as the clock struck seven. “Frank and the men should be back with her by ten.”
Johnny yawned. “Yeah, ten sounds about right.”
Scott started to say something and looked at his brother. Johnny’s chin had dipped to his chest and a soft snore escaped his lips. Scott reached over and took Johnny’s glass from his hand and set it on the coffee table along with his own. Leaning back, he closed his eyes.
The brothers jerked awake to see Teresa standing in front of them.
Johnny struggled to his feet. “You’re home.”
“Yes, I am. It’s late, and you two should be in bed.”
Scott stood and stretched. “Did Frank tell you what’s happened?”
“As much as he knew. We’ll talk about it in the morning. I’m exhausted from the trip, and I’m going to bed.”
“Maria’s in the room next to you if you need her. She left a plate warming for you in the oven.”
“I’ve already seen her. She was the only one awake when I came in. Now both of you go to bed. Good night.”
They watched Teresa disappear up the stairs to her room. Johnny waited for Scott to lock the doors and turn the lights out before following her.
Johnny went to his room and closed the door. Unbuttoning his shirt, he took it off and dropped it on the floor next to the dresser. He pulled up a chair to the open window and looked out into the night. He thought about Scott’s question about Val.
Johnny smiled. There was a lot about Val no one else knew. Val Crawford may have looked scruffy at times, and most folks didn’t take him seriously, but Johnny knew his friend used that to his advantage. He was smart, too. A hell of a lot smarter than anyone gave him credit for.
Val wasn’t a fast gun, but he could hold his own in a gun battle, and there was no one Johnny trusted more than Val Crawford to watch his back.
Kicking off his boots, he left them where they fell, then walked over to the bed and plopped down on top of the covers. He puffed up a pillow and laid his head back, staring at the ceiling.
Johnny laughed. “I wonder how the old man’s gonna take it when he finds out how his son met Val Crawford?”
He’d met the Texan for the first time when he was five years old in a small border town, the name of which he couldn’t remember.
It was mama Val was first drawn to. The tall gunhawk had spotted her dancing in the cantina and it hadn’t taken long for them to strike up a ‘conversation.’ By the end of the first week, the gringo had moved in with him and mama, and for a few short months, they’d been a family. Val was the first man he could remember calling Papi and wished it was true with all his heart.
After mama left Val, it was almost ten years before Johnny met up with him again. By then, Johnny was using the name Madrid and making a name for himself as a pistolero. They rode together for two years until Val decided to settle down and pinned on a badge.
There was no way Johnny could stay with his friend once he became a lawman. There were too many men looking for his reputation, and Val took his job seriously. For the first time in his life, Johnny found himself on the opposite side of the law from the man he called Papi. That was a year and a half ago.
Three months ago, he rode into Green River with Scott for the first time. They’d walked into the saloon, and before he could down his first beer, he’d had been called out. It was a fair fight, but Johnny found himself face to face with the town’s new Sheriff. They stood there grinning at each other like idiots until Val came to his senses and dragged Johnny to the jail.
Behind closed doors, Val held him at arm’s length and looked him up and down. Finally, he grinned and said, “Damn boy. I thought you were dead.”
“Almost was,” Johnny managed to say before being pulled into a bear hug.
The decision not to tell Murdoch and Scott about their history had been Johnny’s and for good reason. He was just getting to know both men and didn’t want to put any more strain on the already delicate relationship.
Johnny unbuttoned the conchos on his calzoneras. He raised his hips and slid his pants from under him, then tossed them across the room, satisfied they’d landed close to the shirt. As he crawled between the cool sheets, he thought about the family’s new threat and was glad for a change it wasn’t of Madrid’s making.
The next morning, when Scott and Johnny came down the back stairs, Murdoch was already sitting at the kitchen table, coffee cup in hand. They slid into their chairs and accepted the coffee Maria poured for them.
A few minutes later, Teresa entered the kitchen and went directly to Murdoch. She placed an arm around her guardian’s shoulders and kissed him on the cheek.
“Murdoch, I’m so sorry to hear about your friend.”
Murdoch patted the girl’s arm and nodded.
“Thank you, sweetheart. It’s just….,” he hesitated. “It’s just hard seeing him again after all these years and then to watch him shot down in front of me.”
Johnny nodded to Scott, urging him to speak up.
“Sir, are you going to tell us….”
“Scott, I told you last night. Once Val and Sam are back, I’ll tell you. It’s a long story and I don’t plan to tell it more than once.” Murdoch quickly stood and pushed his chair back. “I’ll be at my desk until they get here.”
Maria turned from the stove with a plate in each hand. “Patron?”
Murdoch looked at her and shook his head. “Thank you, Maria, but I’m not hungry.”
“Patron, you must eat.”
Murdoch shook his head and walked out the door.
Maria sighed and looked at the two plates. Resigned, she set one down in front of each of the brothers.
Reluctantly, Scott began to eat. When he looked at Johnny, he could tell nothing could curb the boy’s appetite.
Murdoch had spent all night and morning thinking about what Alasdair said about Liam Brùn. The man was dead and had been for thirty-eight years, and Murdoch had no idea what ‘Remember glen’ meant.
“Remember glen…. Remember glen…,” he repeated over and over, and still, it didn’t make sense.
Murdoch had everyone assembled in the Great Room by two o’clock that afternoon. He stood in front of the fireplace and looked around the room. They were all there, everyone who needed to know what happened all those years ago in Inverness.
Scott, Teresa, and Maria sat beside each other on the sofa. Val and Sam each took one of the wingback chairs, and Cipriano stood at the end of the couch close to Maria. Looking to his left, Murdoch saw his youngest son hadn’t taken a seat but was leaning against the wall nearest to Val’s chair.
“This is going to take a while, so if anyone needs a drink, get it now. Once I start, I’m not stopping until I’ve told it all.”
Murdoch paced back and forth, his hands behind his back. It was clear the rancher didn’t know where to start.
Johnny pushed away from the wall. “Murdoch, just get it said. Whatever happened was a long time ago, so just tell us.”
“You’re right. It was a long time ago. It started thirty-eight years ago in the spring of 1832.”
“1832,” Scott repeated. “That means you were …. how old?”
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed at Scott’s remark. He’d never told his sons his age.
“It was four months after I turned eleven.”
Johnny laughed. “Can’t imagine you that young.”
“Well, I was,” Murdoch grumbled. “I wasn’t always this old. Now be quiet, and let me tell you what happened.”
Johnny moved back to his place near the wall but kept the grin on his face.
“It was a Saturday, and for the first time in weeks, the sun was shining and the air was warm enough to be outside without a heavy coat. Our village was a few miles north of Inverness, but it was market day, and our parents traveled to the city and brought us with them.
“There were four of us. Ally…. Alasdair MacKay, Jamie Buchannon, Rory McLeish, and myself. Alasdair and Jamie were both ten years old, and Rory was nine. We’d started walking at Inverness Castle and followed the River Ness south.”
The longer Murdoch talked, the more a distinctive Scottish Brough returned to his voice.
“I can’t remember where we were going. I do know we’d joked about walking the six miles to Loch Ness to see Nessie.”
Scott watched Johnny cock his head and give him a questioning look. Before his brother could ask what Nessie was, he shook his head and mouthed the word ‘later.’
“We were only a couple of miles out of town and came to a slight bend in the river. The riverbank was lined with moss-covered rocks and overgrown with ferns, so we moved away from the edge.
“Rory was running ahead of us, laughing and daring us to catch him. He was just out of our sight when we heard him scream. It didn’t take long to catch up with him, and when we did, we saw a man lying on the ground and another man, I recognized as Liam Brùn, leaning over him.
Brùn was holding a dirk, and when he saw us, he dropped it and ran.
“We stayed long enough to see that the man had been stabbed in the chest and was dead. We ran all the way back to town to tell the Constable.”
“A dirk?” Johnny asked.
“A long knife,” Scott explained.
Murdoch emptied the glass of Talisker in his hand and went to the drink cart for a refill.
Val stood and went to get a whiskey for himself. Without turning, he asked Murdoch, “I take it the man you saw is the same man MacKay was talking about.”
“He was caught and tried?”
Murdoch snorted. “Yes, there was a trial. The Chief Prosecutor’s name was Gavin Stewart, and he grabbed hold of the case like a dog with a bone. Brùn testified he’d found MacKinnon dead only moments before the four of us discovered the body. He said the dirk was lying next to the body, and he’d picked it up. He swore to God he didn’t kill the man.”
Val leaned sat down and forward, putting his elbows on his knees. “What was the evidence against Brùn?”
“MacKinnon had sold a herd of sheep the same day he was killed and was supposed to have had a lot of money on him. When they searched MacKinnon’s body, there was no money. Stewart claimed Brùn murdered and robbed MacKinnon.”
“Did they find the money on Brùn?” Val asked.
“No, they didn’t, but there was no doubt in our minds at the time of the trial that Brùn was guilty. Stewart wove a compelling picture of what happened, and with our testimony…. well, he was found guilty and sentenced to hang.
“As he was dragged from the courtroom, he cursed us all and vowed to get even. He vowed to….” Murdoch looked at Scott and then Johnny. “He vowed all of us and all our children would die.”
“So, this man, Patron, he was hanged?” Cipriano spoke up.
“He was supposed to have been, but that’s not the way it worked out. Liam Brùn escaped custody before the execution. Every able-bodied man in Inverness was called upon to track him. It didn’t take long for them to figure out he’d gone back home to say goodbye to his wife and children. Later, we learned he’d planned to stow away on a ship leaving Inverness Harbor.
“The Constable caught up with him, and ….,” Murdoch sighed. “There was a gun battle. Liam and his youngest son were killed in front of his wife and other children.”
“My Lord,” Sam gasped.
“How many children did Brùn have?” Val asked.
“Four, counting the boy. If I remember right, the two oldest boys were eighteen and sixteen. The boy who was killed was eleven, and they had a seven-year-old girl.”
Scott shifted to the edge of the sofa. “Surely, the family couldn’t hold any of you responsible for Brùns death.”
“I’m afraid they could and did. You see, a week after Brùn was buried, a stranger came into Inverness spending a lot of money. One of the merchants the man bought from was suspicious and contacted the police. The man was detained and questioned, and they found Angus MacKinnon’s wallet and pocket watch on him.
“Short story, the stranger finally admitted to stabbing MacKinnon for his money and leaving the body along the river. He’d been surprised by Brùn and dropped the dirk in his hurry to get away.”
“But you saw Brùn stab MacKinnon,” Sam spoke up
“That’s not what he just told us,” Val commented as he sipped his drink.
Everyone looked from Val to Murdoch.
“Val’s right. That’s not what we saw. Jamie, Ally, and I thought Rory had witnessed the stabbing, but it wasn’t until after the trial that we sat down with him to actually have him tell us what he saw. Which was nothing more than we’d seen.”
“After?” Johnny was now standing straight, with his eyes on his father. “Kinda late by then, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, it was. Rory was pressured by Stewart to say he’d seen Brùn stab MacKinnon, and the rest of us went along with him. I’m ashamed of my part in Liam Brùn’s death, and it’s something I’ll have to live with the rest of my life. If we’d just spoken to Rory…. but Gavin Stewart was so sure of Brùns guilt. If I could go back and ….”
The room was quiet.
“So, now we know why someone is after you and yours. MacKay said the others were dead.” Val looked at Murdoch. “It’s been thirty-eight years. Why now after all this time?”
“MacKay had the answer, and it died with him.” Scott stood and stretched. “So, that’s it? Brùns descendants are seeking revenge for his death.”
“Yes, that’s it.”
“All we need to do is figure out who they are and stop them,” Scott added.
“Sounds real simple, Boston,” Johnny smiled. “Them kids have grown up and had kids of their own by now. They could be anyone.”
Sam was watching his friend and could tell his back was bothering him. He stood and waved a hand towards the chair. “Sit down, and take the pressure off your back.”
“Thank you, Sam.”
“There wasn’t anything else MacKay said that could help us?”
“No, nothing. Ally said the word ‘remember,’ but I have no idea what it was about. It could have been he wanted me to remember the trial.”
Again, the room went silent.
“Mr. Lancer, how many new hands do you have working for you?”
“You think it could be someone we have working at the ranch?”
Murdoch turned to look at Scott.
“We’ve hired a dozen men in the last three months.” Scott looked to Cipriano to confirm the numbers.
“Si. This month we hired six vaqueros Lopez, Moya, Ruiz….”
“We can count them out,” Val spoke up, cutting him off. “Who else?”
“Four gringos Browning, Trent, Sweeny, and Webber.”
“And before that?”
“Two men, both older gringos, Douglas and Finch.”
“Well, keep an eye on them.”
“Where is Alasdair’s luggage?” Scott stood to let Sam sit down.
“Thank you, Scott.” Sam took the seat and turned his attention back to Val.
“In town,” Val answered. “I thought it best to take everything back yesterday.”
“Have you gone through his things?” Murdoch asked.
“Not yet. Didn’t see a need to until now. I’ll check for strangers in town and let you know if I see anything suspicious. I’ll also go through MacKay’s things and see if I can find anything. In the meantime, maybe you should keep Scott and Johnny close to home until this is settled.”
Murdoch noticed Val was looking at Johnny when he spoke.
“I can take care of myself. You of all people should know that.”
Val smiled. “Yeah, I know, but maybe….” The look Johnny gave him made him stop in midsentence. “Alright, do it your way.”
“I usually do.” Johnny had a smile on his face until he looked at his father.
“John, this is no laughing matter. My best friend was shot down in front of me yesterday, and it appears all the boys I grew up with are dead. You will take this seriously.”
“Sure, Murdoch. Sure. Whatever you say.”
Val watched the interaction between Johnny and his father and knew he needed to leave them to it. He didn’t envy Murdoch Lancer trying to control the boy.
It had been a week since Murdoch told everyone about his walk along the River Ness and Liam Brùn. He’d been quiet and the only one he spent any time talking to was Sam. He’d kept Johnny and Scott close to the ranch house like Val suggested, and surprising, neither had protested.
Murdoch was sitting at his desk scanning a letter he’d had for more than two months. He read it over again, and then making up his mind, Murdoch stood and went to the French doors. Looking out over the yard, he saw Scott standing at the corral, watching his brother working with a horse.
“Scott! Johnny!” Murdoch shouted.
Scott turned and looked towards the house, waving that he’d heard. Murdoch turned and went back inside. Sitting behind his desk, he waited until he heard his son’s voices and the jingle of Johnny’s spurs.
“You wanted to see us, sir?”
Scott and Johnny each sat in one of the chairs in front of Murdoch’s desk.
“Yes.” Murdoch nodded and picked up the letter again.
Scott leaned forward and strained to see what Murdoch was holding.
“Isn’t that the letter from the California Cattle Growers Association?”
“Yes, it is. I would pass this year up, but I thought it best to go since I haven’t been in almost two years. It’s being held in San Francisco. I’ll be leaving on Friday.”
“Friday?” Scott replied, surprised. “That’s only two days away.”
“That’s right. Scott, you will be in charge while I’m gone, but I’m relying on both of you to take care of things. Cipriano will be here if you have any questions or need guidance. I’ll make a list of jobs I expect to be done by the time I get back.”
“You’re going by yourself?” Johnny came to his feet.
“Murdoch, you know with this Brùn thing hanging over our heads, maybe one of us should go with you.”
“I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself. It’s you I’m worried about. I want you to stay close and listen to your brother.”
Johnny placed both hands on the desk and leaned towards his father. Before he could speak, Murdoch pushed back his chair, stood, and looked directly at him.
“John, just this once, please do as I ask. I’m going to be worried about you enough as it is.”
Johnny’s voice dropped, “You don’t have to go.”
Murdoch smiled and glanced at Scott, who was also smiling.
“I suppose not, but it’s for the good of the ranch that I make an appearance at the meeting. Next year, I want both of you there beside me. It’s time the other cattlemen in the state meet all the owners of Lancer.”
Scott stood and moved to stand next to Johnny.
“Don’t worry, sir. You can count on us to take care of the ranch while you’re gone. Can’t he Johnny?”
Scott looked at his brother.
“Yeah,” Johnny answered with little enthusiasm.
“And perhaps, a change of scenery will take your mind off what’s happened. Who knows, once you relax, you’ll make some sense of what Mr. MacKay was trying to tell you.”
Murdoch nodded. “You may be right, Scott. Now, let’s get back to work. If you see Cipriano out there, please send him in.”
“Yes, sir.” Scott stood. “Come on, Johnny.” When Johnny didn’t move, Scott grabbed his arm and dragged him outside.
Murdoch laid his copy of the San Francisco Chronicle aside and looked out the train’s window, watching the scenery fly by. Sighing, he wondered if Scott and Johnny missed him as much as he did them. It felt good to be going home, good to know he had them waiting for him.
Raising his arms, Murdoch stretched and felt a twinge of pain in his lower back. He’d been sitting too long during the last week; a long, tiresome week of attending meetings of the California Cattle Growers Association.
As far as he was concerned, the members hadn’t accomplished anything except bragging about their ranches and getting drunk every night. At least, the others had. Murdoch had other business to take care of while in San Francisco.
The last time he’d attended a Cattleman’s meeting was the year before Pardee started raiding the ranch. After the raids began, he had little time for anything except defending Lancer. It was shortly before Thanksgiving that things had gone from bad to worse. He’d been shot, and his friend and Segundo, Paul O’Brien, was killed.
As he lay in his bed, hovering between life and death, he felt the end was near, not only of his life but also of the ranch he’d spent twenty-six years building. Sam was the one to convince him it was time to send for his sons before it was too late.
Scott was easy. He’d always known his oldest son was in Boston. However, his youngest had been lost to him for years in Mexico. It was only by chance the Pinkertons were able to piece together enough information to discover Johnny Lancer was going by the name Madrid. The Pinkertons set out to find Johnny Madrid with that information in hand.
Madrid. Murdoch shook his head. Johnny Madrid was famous throughout the Southwest and Mexico. At first, he couldn’t believe his Johnny had turned into a pistolero, a cold-blooded killer, but eventually, he had to accept the truth.
Anyone would have thought it would have been easy to find a notorious gunfighter, but time passed, and still, there was no clue as to Madrid’s location. Once he read the final Pinkerton report, Murdoch understood why it had taken so long. Johnny had been in a Mexican prison, and when the Pinkerton agent did locate the boy, it was almost too late. Another minute and Johnny would have been dead. It was only by the grace of God they’d found him in time.
Well, that was all in the past. The boys were home, the ranch was safe, and together they were rebuilding what Pardee destroyed.
Up until now, the only threat to his new family came from gunfighters who showed up all too often looking for Madrid’s reputation, but so far, Johnny had handled those threats himself. With the new danger from Liam Brùn’s family, all he could think about was how he would protect his boys, especially his youngest son. If the Bruns were true to form, Johnny was in the most danger.
The train car shifted and rattled, bringing Murdoch out of his musings. He stretched again and wished he was home with his family.
Murdoch looked up to see a tall, well-dressed woman making her way down the aisle. The lady had dark brown hair with a few gray highlights, and he judged her to be in her mid-forties. She was even with his seat when the train car lurched, and she lost her balance, toppling into his lap.
“Oh, my goodness. I’m so sorry,” she said, blushing. “Forgive me.”
“It’s quite alright,” Murdoch replied, not even attempting to push the lady from his lap. “It’s not every day I have a beautiful woman drop in on me.”
She laughed, and he released her. She tried to scramble back to her feet when the car bucked again, throwing her once again into Murdoch’s arms.
“It appears you might as well sit here until the rails straighten out.”
He thought she was going to turn his offer down when once again, the car jerked first right and then left.
The woman’s blue-green eyes met Murdoch’s light blue eyes, and she smiled.
“I suppose you’re right.”
Murdoch slid over to allow enough room for her to sit beside him. The woman sat down and smoothed the wrinkles from her skirt, then looked at him.
“Thank you, kind sir.”
“I suppose I should introduce myself. My name is Amanda Fleming.”
“Miss or Mrs.?”
“Mrs. but I’ve been a widow for some years.”
“It’s very nice to meet you, Mrs. Fleming. My name is Murdoch Lancer.”
“Lancer?” She leaned away from him and cocked her head. “From Green River?”
She broke into a broad smile. “Oh, my, this is a coincidence.”
“I’m on my way to Green River to visit my son, Josh. I believe he works for you.”
Murdoch’s brow furrowed. “Fleming? I don’t believe we have anyone by the name of Fleming working for us?”
“Oh, Josh’s last name isn’t Fleming. He’s from my first marriage. His name is Joshua Trent.”
“Trent?” Murdoch thought for a moment, then remembered the new ranch hand they’d hired. “Yes, of course.”
“Joshua’s written me about you, Mr. Lancer. I can’t thank you enough for giving him a job. From his letters, he likes working at your ranch very much.”
“I’m glad he enjoys the work. I have to be honest with you, Mrs. Fleming, it’s my sons who interact most with the ranch hands these days. I’m afraid I don’t know your son well.”
“Mr. Lancer, I wouldn’t expect you to. I imagine running an operation the size of Lancer is a full-time job that keeps you busy, and Josh is just one of many men you have working for you. He has mentioned your sons in his letters, but I can’t remember their names.”
Murdoch smiled at the thought of his boys. “The oldest is Scott, and my youngest is Johnny.”
“Oh, that’s right. Josh mentioned Scott was from Boston. It’s a lovely city. I’ve visited there more than once, and the last time was just a few months ago.”
“Yes, it is beautiful.” Murdoch didn’t want to discuss Boston and changed the subject. “How long are you going to be in Green River, Mrs. Fleming?”
“Please call me Amanda, Mr. Lancer.”
“Only if you call me Murdoch.”
She gave him a warm smile. “I plan to stay only two weeks. I know Josh will be working, so I’ll only be able to see him on weekends and perhaps some evenings.”
Murdoch studied the woman.
“Have I got something on my nose?” she laughed, putting a gloved hand to her nose.
Murdoch laughed. “No. It’s just that you seem familiar. There’s something about… never mind. Have you a place to stay in Green River?”
“I wired ahead for a reservation at the hotel in town.”
“Nonsense,” Murdoch responded without hesitation. “Why not stay at the ranch during your visit? We have plenty of room, and it will be easier for you to visit with Josh.”
“I couldn’t impose on you like that.”
“Really, Mrs. Fleming, the hacienda has many guest rooms. I’m sure you’ll be more comfortable at Lancer than at the hotel.”
She thought for a moment before answering hesitantly, “If you’re sure.” Then more enthusiastically, “Yes, I’d love to stay with you if it won’t be a problem. Being closer to Josh would mean a great deal to me. Thank you, Murdoch.”
The two talked and laughed and the miles flew by. Before they knew it, the train was slowing for Stockton. When the train car stopped, Murdoch stood and helped Amanda to her feet.
“Where are you staying in Stockton?”
“I’m not really sure. Someone told me the Hotel Bradford was close to the train station. I thought I’d try them.”
Murdoch smiled. “I have a much better idea. I usually stay at the Cattlemen’s Hotel. It’s close to the Stage Depot, and the rooms are nicer than those at the Bradford. Give me a few minutes to send a telegram to Green River and let my family know I’m bringing a friend with me.”
Amanda returned the smile. “That sounds wonderful. Thank you, Murdoch.”
“Scott, have you seen Johnny?”
Scott took one look at Teresa, holding a dust rag in one hand and a broom in the other, and wondered if he should respond truthfully. The girl had been busy cleaning since receiving Murdoch’s telegram that morning.
“Well?” She put the dust rag laden hand on her hip and glared at him.
“I think he’s in the barn?” Scott lied, knowing Johnny had escaped to town over an hour ago.
Teresa’s eyes narrowed, staring a hole through him.
“You do know I can tell when you’re lying.”
Scott tried to keep a smile off his face. “You can?”
“Yes, I can. Now, where is he?”
“I’m not sure. Have you asked…. anyone else?”
Now she was patting her right foot, a sure sign that life wasn’t going to be pleasant for any of them until she got a straight answer.
Scott sighed. “He went to town….,” then hurriedly added, “to check to see if the stage schedule has changed.”
“Scott Lancer, you know good and well the stage schedule changes every day.”
She patted her foot again and then huffed. “Well, I suppose you’ll ….”
“Teresa, I have work to finish outside before Murdoch gets home.”
“And I have work that needs to be done inside before Murdoch gets home.”
“What is it you need to be done?”
“I need furniture moved in the downstairs guest room.”
Scott grabbed his hat and started for the door. “I’ll send one of the hands in to help.”
Scott was already out the door and halfway across the yard.
“Scott Lancer, you get back here right now!”
Heads popped up all around the yard. Men quickly dropped what they were doing and scurried away like frightened rabbits. Scott spotted one man who had no idea what was happening and hadn’t disappeared into the barn or bunkhouse.
“Josh, would you go up to the house? Teresa needs some help moving furniture in one of the rooms.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Lancer.” Josh Trent wiped his hands on his pants and started towards the house.
“Josh, the name is Scott. The only Mr. Lancer around here is my father.”
Josh smiled. “Yes, sir.”
Scott walked into the barn and leaned against the door. He heard Teresa call his name and wished he’d gone into town with Johnny.
“You know you need to go home.” Val Crawford propped his worn boots on the edge of his desk and leaned back in his chair.
“I will.” Johnny imitated Val lifting his boots to the opposite corner of the desk.
“When? When Scott comes looking for you?”
“He won’t come looking. I told him where I was going.”
“You want to tell me why you ran away from home and came to town in the first place?”
“Didn’t run away from home,” Johnny responded with a pout, then blurted out, “Teresa’s cleaning house.”
Val laughed. “Is that all?”
“Val, you don’t know what it’s like when she starts cleaning. After we received that telegram from Murdoch, the first thing she did was to tell me to clean my room. Hell, no one’s gonna be going in there except me.”
“So,” Val chuckled, “did you clean it?”
Johnny dipped his head.
“You didn’t, did you?”
“I put some things away and smoothed out the bed coverings. It looks fine.”
“Hijo, I thought I taught you better. Never mess with the woman who feeds you.”
Johnny smiled. It felt good to hear Val call him hijo. He sure didn’t hear it often enough from his own father.
“And Teresa.” Val dropped his feet to the floor and leaned forward. “You have to meet them halfway. You know that, don’t you?”
“Papi, I’m trying.”
“I know.” Val stood up and walked around his desk. He put a hand on the back of Johnny’s neck and gave him a gentle squeeze. “Now, you need to head back before your old man gets home.”
“I’d rather stay here with you. I wish we could spend more time together.”
“It was you who didn’t want anyone knowing how we met. Hell, sometimes I see Murdoch staring at me like he wants to break me in half. I’m not sure I want to be anywhere near him when he finds out about your mama and me.”
Johnny laughed. “You know he has a Pinkerton report on her. How do you know he doesn’t already know about you and mama?”
Val paled. “He’d have said something by now if he did.”
“He might be biding his time until he knows the whole story. Between finding out about you and mama or how many men I’ve killed, I think he’s more interested in me.”
“And if he finds out I was the first one to put a gun in your hand?”
“Well, now that may trump mama for sure. And you didn’t exactly put that Colt Walker in my hand. I borrowed it.”
“You stole it. Thought for sure you were gonna blow your foot off. Thank God, it knocked you on your ass before you could pull the trigger again.”
Johnny huffed. “What did you expect? I was only five!”
Val laughed. “Hell, the gun was almost as big as you.”
Johnny smiled. “Yeah, it was.”
“So, when are you gonna tell them?”
“It’s only been five months. I’ll tell them when I feel more comfortable being around them.”
“You still don’t trust them?”
“You know I don’t trust anyone.” Johnny smiled. “Well, except you.”
“I appreciate that.”
Val’s eyes followed Johnny’s to the clock on the wall.
“The stage will be in any time now.”
“Yeah.” Johnny dipped his head. “The telegram said he was bringing home a friend.”
“Man or woman?”
“Not sure. Cipriano brought a buggy into town earlier and left it at the livery for them.”
“I’m sure Murdoch’ll appreciate it.”
“Don’t know why he had to go to that meeting anyway. We got more than enough going on around here without him running off to San Francisco.”
Val looked at Johnny’s downturned head.
“You worried about him going to San Francisco by himself, or you worried about who he’s bringing home?”
“What difference does it make who he brings home?” Johnny protested.
“Yeah, right.” Val grinned. “You missed him, didn’t you?”
Johnny looked up then quickly looked away.
“It’s alright if you have feelings for him. It’s alright to say you missed him,” Val paused. “You jealous he might be bringing home a lady friend?’
“Hell, no. The old man can see whoever he wants.”
The sound of the stagecoach coming into town brought Johnny to his feet and the window overlooking the street. Val’s office gave him a clear view of the Stage Depot.
Val walked over to stand with Johnny at the window. “I guess I’d better go over and see whose getting off.”
“Don’t tell him I’m here.”
Val opened the door and stepped out. “I won’t, but you’d better head out the back way and get back to the ranch.”
“See you later.”
Johnny strained to see who Murdoch was bringing home. The stagecoach leaned to one side, and Johnny was sure Murdoch had stepped down. When the tall rancher walked to the rear of the stage, Johnny waited to see who would join him. He was surprised when a tall woman took his father’s arm, and the two of them walked toward the livery.
“Well, hell, the old man has a lady friend.”
Johnny frowned and wondered why he felt a twinge of jealousy. Turning on his heels, he headed for the back door of Val’s office. He was sure he’d get home long before Murdoch and his lady friend.
With Amanda Fleming to talk to, Murdoch enjoyed the trip from Stockton. The lady had taken his mind off the trouble his family was facing from the Brùns. Once they reached Green River, he’d retrieved the buggy left for him at the livery stable and started for home.
“How long will it take us to get to your ranch, Murdoch?” Amanda asked as she took in the green pastures and rolling hills.
“We’ll reach the hacienda in another forty-five minutes, but we’ve been on Lancer for the last hour.”
Murdoch always loved to see the surprised look on people’s faces when they realized how large Lancer was.
“I had no idea. Josh said it was big, but…just how many acres do you have?”
“100,000 acres.” Murdoch pulled back on the reins and brought the buggy to a stop. He loved stopping at this spot to look down on the valley where the hacienda was nestled. He raised an arm and pointed to the horizon. “There it is, all the way to the mountains.”
“This is all yours?”
“Mine and my sons.”
“Murdoch, you must be very proud of what you’ve built?”
“Very proud. Now, let’s get to the hacienda and out of this heat. I could stand something cold to drink.”
Johnny stood inside the barn, watching as Murdoch brought the buggy to a stop in front of the house. He wanted to get a good look at the woman before meeting her face to face. He had to admit she was pretty, at least from a distance.
Scott came out of the house, followed by Teresa, both with smiles on their faces. Johnny could tell Murdoch was introducing everyone to each other, then he looked around the yard, and he was sure the old man was looking for him.
When everyone disappeared into the house, Johnny went back to Barranca’s stall and picked up a curry brush. Barranca nickered as he began the slow even strokes across the horse’s side. He was in no hurry to go inside. The thought of meeting someone new, of having them in the house with him, made him nervous. He’d been honest with Val. He still didn’t trust his family as much as he wanted or should, but at least he could relax around them.
“We’ve been looking for you.”
Johnny jumped at the familiar voice and turned around to see Scott standing behind him. His mind really must have been on something else to have allowed his brother to walk up on him without any warning.
“Sorry, I scared you.”
“Didn’t scare me. Just didn’t hear you come in.”
“All right, if you say so.”
“So, the old man’s home?”
“He is. I’m surprised you weren’t there to meet him.”
“Had to get Barranca taken care of.”
Scott moved to the stall and stood on the other side of the palomino.
“Murdoch was disappointed you weren’t there.”
Johnny’s face lit up. “He was?”
“Yes. He wanted to introduce you to the lady he brought home.”
Johnny frowned and dropped his head, going back to brushing Barranca. “Oh.”
Scott smiled at the subtle change in his little brother’s demeanor.
“Dinner’s in thirty minutes. Just enough time for you to get a bath and change clothes. Teresa and Maria have a special meal prepared for tonight.”
A heavy-handed swipe of the brush caused Barranca to jump. The horse turned his head and looked at Johnny.
Johnny gave the horse a pat on the neck. “Sorry, amigo.”
“Johnny.” Scott crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the stall. He wasn’t moving until his brother confirmed he was coming.
“Yeah, I’m coming. Go on ahead and I’ll be there in a minute.”
“I’ll take some clean clothes to the bathhouse for you. Don’t take too long.”
Scott left Johnny and strolled back to the house with a smile on his face. After five months of wondering, he’d just confirmed his hard as nails gunfighter brother wasn’t quite as tough as he tried to make people believe. His little brother cared how their father felt about him and maybe was a bit jealous of someone else vying for Murdoch’s attention.
He walked into the house and up the main stairs to the second floor. Going down the hall, he knocked on Murdoch’s door.
Scott opened the door, peered into the room, and smiled. Murdoch was admiring himself in the round beveled mirror hanging on the wall over his dresser.
“Johnny’s finishing up in the barn. He’ll be heading to the bathhouse any minute, and I’m taking his clean clothes to him.”
Murdoch nodded and picked up a string tie. “Thank you, Scott.”
“I’ll see you downstairs in a few minutes, sir.”
Scott stepped back and started to close the door.
He looked back in the room.
“Is he alright? Nothing happened while I was gone?”
“We managed not to bankrupt the ranch while you were gone. Everything here has been quiet.”
“Good, but you didn’t answer my question. Is Johnny alright?”
“Yes, he’s alright. I think he’s missed having you here.”
Murdoch stopped working on his tie. “You really think he missed me?”
Scott smiled at Murdoch’s reaction.
“Yes, sir. I believe he did. He’s been looking forward to you coming home. These last few months with you has given him the stability he’s never had in his life. You’ve been the anchor he needed, and without you, well…I don’t think he’s as tough as he pretends.”
Murdoch nodded. “There are times he lets his guard down and I can still see the little boy I lost. Then there are other times….” Murdoch held up his hands, pretending he was strangling his youngest son.
Scott laughed, “I know. Trust me, I know. I’ll see you downstairs.”
Murdoch glanced at the grandfather clock for the third time and frowned. Dinner was in fifteen minutes, and still, there was no sign of Johnny. Shaking off his irritation, he turned his attention back to their guest.
Amanda Fleming was chatting with Teresa, and the two women seemed to be getting along.
Scott poured himself a Scotch and looked towards the stairs, and he knew Johnny was going to cut it close.
There was a knock at the front door.
“I’ll get it.” Murdoch sat his drink down and went to see who it was. Opening the door, he found Amanda’s son.
“Mr. Lancer, Cipriano said for me to clean up and come see you.”
“Trent. It’s good to see you. Come in. I have a surprise for you.” Murdoch waved a hand for him to enter. Closing the door, he led the way into the Great Room.
“Amanda,” Murdoch called out.
Amanda looked over her shoulder and smiled. “Josh, darling.” She stood and hurried across the room, throwing her arms around her son, hugging him. “It’s so good to see you, son.”
“Mother.” Josh returned the hug with a surprised look on his face. “Mother, what are you doing here? I…I thought you were going to let me know when you were in town, and I would meet you there.”
Amanda released the young man and stepped back. “I met Murdoch…. Mr. Lancer on the train from San Francisco. He graciously invited me to stay here during my visit. That way, we can see more of each other. Isn’t it wonderful?”
“Yes, it is.” Josh looked at his boss. “Thank you, Mr. Lancer. It means a lot to me that my mother will be close. I’ve been trying to figure out how I was going to make time to get to town often enough to visit with her.”
“We’re glad to have her. We’ll be sitting down to dinner in a few minutes. You’ll join us?”
Josh shook his head. “I’m not dressed….”
“You’re fine. I know it would mean a great deal to your mother if you stayed.”
“All right then. I’ll be glad to join you.”
“Ahem.” Scott cleared his throat.
Murdoch turned to see Scott looking towards the stairs where Johnny was hurrying down, still tucking in his shirttail.
Johnny stopped at the bottom of the stairs and his eyes went from Josh Trent to the woman standing next to him.
“Amanda. I want to introduce you to my youngest son.” Murdoch strode across the room and put an arm around Johnny’s shoulders. “Johnny, this is Mrs. Fleming.”
Johnny nodded. “Ma’am. It’s nice to meet you.” Looking at the ranch hand, he cocked his head. “Trent?”
“Josh is Mrs. Fleming’s son. She was on her way to visit him when we met on the train, and I invited her to stay with us while she’s here.”
Teresa knew Johnny didn’t feel comfortable around strangers, but it was obvious to her that Murdoch wasn’t paying attention to his son’s reaction to the news.
Teresa knew she needed to say or do something quickly, or Johnny would bolt. She put a hand on his arm.
“Isn’t that wonderful, Johnny.” Teresa smiled and turned to look at Amanda. “It will be nice having another woman around the house.”
Johnny looked down at Teresa’s smiling face and sparkling blue eyes. There was no way he was going to ruin this for her. He returned the smile, then looked at Amanda.
“I hope you enjoy your stay.”
“Patron?” Everyone turned to see Maria standing in the dining room. “Dinner is ready.”
“Thank you, Maria.”
Murdoch stepped forward and offered his arm to Amanda. “Shall we?”
“Yes, I’d be delighted.”
Scott smiled at Teresa and then took her arm before following Murdoch and Amanda to the table. Johnny and Trent eyed each other, then followed the others.
The conversation that night flowed freely back and forth across the table. Johnny was the only one who concentrated on eating, so he didn’t register anyone talking to him.
Johnny jumped when Scott kicked him under the table.
“Mrs. Fleming asked you a question,” Scott answered.
Johnny looked at the lady who sat tall and straight to the left of Murdoch.
“I asked how you liked ranching. Murdoch tells me you were raised in Mexico.”
Johnny’s eyes went to Murdoch. He didn’t like that his father had been talking to strangers about him. “I like it fine.”
When Johnny didn’t continue, she pushed forward, “And Mexico?”
Johnny looked annoyed. “Yeah, I mean yes, ma’am, I was raised mostly in Mexico. Spent a lot of time in the territories along the border, Arizona and New Mexico.”
“I’d love to hear more about Mexico, some time.”
Johnny looked across the table to see Josh Trent staring at him. It wasn’t too long ago he’d have shot a man for less. He hadn’t spent much time with the young ranch hand since he’d hired on but figured he must have been doing his job, or Cip would have sent him on his way by now.
Scott quickly jumped in and drew the attention away from his brother.
“Mrs. Fleming, where did you come from? I mean originally?”
“My parents were from Great Britain,” she dodged the answer.
“Murdoch was born in Scotland.” Scott looked at his father. “Near Inverness, wasn’t it, sir?”
Amanda looked at Murdoch and smiled. “Is that so? You must have left Scotland when you were very young?”
Murdoch laughed. “Not so young.”
Johnny noticed the conversation quickly veered away from Mrs. Fleming’s past and redirected to Murdoch’s.
“I understand Scotland is a beautiful country?”
“It is beautiful.”
“I want to hear all about it sometime.”
Murdoch pushed back from the table and stood. “Shall we go to the Great Room for an after-dinner drink?”
Josh stood and tapped his mother’s arm. “I’ve got to get back to the bunkhouse.”
Amanda stood and looked at her son. “So soon?”
“Work starts early on a ranch. Mr. Lancer, thank you for dinner. Good night.”
“You’re welcome, Josh.”
“I’ll walk you out.” Amanda turned to Murdoch. “If that’s alright?”
“Yes, of course. Thank you for joining us, Josh. Amanda, I’ll have a sherry waiting for you when you come back in.”
Johnny waited until Amanda walked Josh to the door before looking at Murdoch. “I’m going to pass on that drink, too.”
“Is everything alright?”
“Yeah, everything’s fine. I’m just gonna check on Barranca, then turn in.”
“Well, then, goodnight. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Murdoch turned and walked to the drink cart.
Johnny stood staring at Murdoch’s back. This wasn’t how he’d imaged his father’s first night home. He wanted Murdoch to spend time with him and Scott, not with strangers.
After a few moments, Johnny said, “Night, Murdoch. Night, Boston.”
Johnny heard Scott say, “Goodnight, Johnny,” as he started for the door.
Once outside, Johnny saw Amanda talking to her son and slid behind one of the large pillars of the portico. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it looked like Josh wasn’t as happy to see his mother as he’d let on earlier.
Finally, Amanda turned towards the house and Josh headed for the bunkhouse. Johnny waited until both were out of sight before continuing to the barn. After checking on Barranca, he circled the house, came in through the kitchen, then took the back stairs to his room.
Johnny quickly shed his clothes and climbed into bed. He reached over to turn down the light and hesitated. Then Johnny did something he hadn’t done in almost a month. He pulled his Colt from the holster hanging on the headboard and put it under his pillow.
If Johnny was expecting trouble, it didn’t come.
Although he distrusted Amanda Fleming, she split her time between helping Teresa and Maria in the house, touring the ranch with Murdoch, and visiting her son.
Thanks to his new lady friend, Murdoch was always in a good mood. Normally, Johnny would have been happy not to be bumping heads with his old man, but that also meant Murdoch had no time for either of his sons. Johnny hadn’t had a private moment with his father since he returned from San Francisco.
Johnny was still uncomfortable having a stranger in the house. The lady was pleasant enough, but there was still something about her that bothered him. He could tell she had secrets, and anyone with secrets could be dangerous.
After a week, the Lancers still knew very little about Amanda Fleming, but she knew everything about them. Every time anyone tried to find out more about Amanda’s life or where she was from, she’d change the subject. Josh Trent was no better at giving up information.
Not for the first time, Johnny wondered if any of the information Murdoch was sharing was about him. Did Murdoch’s new friend know all about Johnny Madrid?
“Johnny, you in there?”
Johnny spun around at the sound of his name. Tom Browning was standing in the doorway of the barn.
“I’m here. You need something, Browning?”
“The Sheriff from Green River rode in a few minutes ago, and Mr. Lancer sent me to find you.”
Johnny strode out of the barn. As he walked past the ranch hand, he felt the man was staring at him. Browning was another new hand he didn’t know a lot about, and he made a mental note to speak to Cipriano about the man.
The French doors were open when Johnny reached the house. He didn’t slow his stride as he walked inside. Murdoch was standing in the middle of the room talking to Val and Scott.
Murdoch half turned to look at him. “Johnny, good, you’re here.”
Johnny didn’t respond to his father but gave Val a smile. “It’s been a while since you came out this way.”
“I’ve been busy.”
“Have you got any new information about Alasdair’s shooting?” Murdoch asked.
Val nodded. “These came in this morning.” He held out a stack of telegrams. “I sent some wires back east. The Boston police contacted the constables in Scotland and confirmed what Alasdair told us.” Val looked at Murdoch. “I’m sorry, Murdoch. Your friends Buchanon and McLeish are dead along with their youngest sons.”
Everyone turned to look at Johnny. “I told you before, I’m not that easy to kill. Let’em come.”
Murdoch sat down and shook his head. “I can’t believe it. Why have the Brouns waited this long?”
“Broun?” Scott asked, looking around the room. “I thought their name was Brùn.”
Murdoch nodded. “Yes, Brùn is the Gaelic pronunciation of the name, and Broun is the Scottish. Both are correct.”
“Was there any information on how the Brùns or Brouns did it?”
“No one seemed to know how they got access to the families.”
“Did they say how they died?” Johnny asked.
Val nodded. “Yeah. Buchanon and his son were knifed, throats cut while they slept. McLeish and his kid were shot, made to look like a hunting accident. Alasdair didn’t have a son, only a daughter, but she’s still alive. Guess they followed Alasdair to America to finish him off.”
Murdoch’s brow furrowed. “You say Jamie’s throat was cut?”
“I don’t know. There’s something ….” Murdoch waved his hand. “I don’t know. It’ll come to me.”
“So that just leaves you, Murdoch,” Scott said and turned to look at his brother. “And you, little brother.”
“I guess there’s more than one advantage to being the firstborn, Boston.” Johnny laughed, but no one joined in the laughter. Changing his tone, Johnny said, “Well, there has to be a way to figure out who they are before they get close to you.”
Val headed for the drink cart then stopped. He turned and looked at Murdoch, who nodded his approval. Val picked up the bottle of Scotch and poured a drink, and he downed it in one swallow before asking if anyone else wanted one.
“I’ll take one,” Johnny said.
Val poured a tequila and held the glass out.
“We’ll have to pay closer attention to who comes and goes around here.” Johnny took the glass but didn’t drink it. “I’m going to talk to Cipriano about the new hands we’ve hired. One of them might be working for the Brouns.”
“Good idea,” Scott agreed. “At least we know about Josh Trent.”
Johnny huffed. “Do we?”
“What does that mean?” Murdoch snapped.
Johnny lowered his head. “Nothing. Didn’t mean nothing.”
Val felt his shirt pocket and took out a small envelope. “By the way, Scott, I plum forgot. This came for you this morning, and I told Leon Fergus I’d bring it out to you.”
Scott walked across the Val and took the telegram. Opening the envelope, he looked at the message and shook his head.
“Thank you. I’m sure Leon was disappointed that he didn’t get his tip for delivering this.”
Val grumped. “I had to pay him. Not sure how much you’re giving that boy, but he didn’t appreciate the two bits I gave him.”
“What is it?” Murdoch asked.
“It’s a telegram from Grandfather.” Scott paused and bit his lower lip, then blurted out, “He’s coming to visit.”
“Now isn’t a good time, Scott. You’ll have to wire him and ask him to postpone his trip.”
“It’s too late. Grandfather is already on his way, and according to this, he’ll be here the day after tomorrow.”
“Well, that’s just great,” Johnny snorted. We’ve already got one houseguest, and now we’ve got another one coming.”
“We’ll just have to deal with it,” Murdoch said.
“Murdoch.” Everyone turned to see Amanda standing in the doorway. “I heard what you said about more house guests coming. You’ve been very kind in letting me stay here, but it is time for me to go.”
Murdoch walked across the room and took the woman’s hand. “You don’t have to leave. Scott’s grandfather is an uninvited guest. You, on the other hand, were invited.”
She laughed. “I feel honored, Murdoch.”
“You’re sure you have to go?”
“Yes, very sure.” She looked at Scott and Johnny, but her eyes lingered on Johnny. “I’m going to miss you all.”
“We’re going to miss you too,” Teresa said. “I do wish you’d stay on.”
“That’s sweet of you, Teresa, but I really do need to get back to San Francisco. The business I have there can’t wait.”
Murdoch stepped closer. “But we will see you again, won’t we?”
“Yes, Murdoch, I can guarantee you’ll see me again.”
“Would you like a final stroll in the garden, Mrs. Fleming?”
“That, Mr. Lancer, would be wonderful.”
Murdoch took her arm and led her outside, leaving everyone else to watch their departure.
Teresa stopped near the French doors and peered out. Wiping her hands on her apron, she shook her head.
The entire family had been walking softly around the Patron ever since they’d heard Harlan was coming. Even the mention of Bostonian’s name put Murdoch into a foul mood. When Scott reminded everyone this morning he was going into town to meet the stage, Murdoch had left the breakfast table without a word and taken himself outside.
A few minutes later, they heard the sound of the forge coming to life. That was hours ago now. Teresa knew each time he raised the hammer and brought it down, Murdoch imagined it to be Scott’s grandfather he was striking.
Murdoch tapped the hammer on the anvil twice before raising a strong right arm, bringing it down several times on the glowing horseshoe. The rhythmic clangor echoed throughout the yard.
It seemed heating cold steel until it glowed red hot and then pounding it flat, released the Patron’s stress and anger. However, the constant sound of metal against metal was starting to grate on her nerves.
Teresa saw movement near the barn and smiled. Scott and Johnny peeked out and then quickly drew back into the barn. They were staying as far away from their father as they could.
Amanda Fleming had left that morning. Teresa would miss her, and she thought Scott and Murdoch would also, especially Murdoch. It was as if the moment Amanda’s carriage pulled out of the yard, Murdoch’s thoughts had gone to who was coming next, and his mood had turned foul and stayed that way.
Johnny was another matter. He seemed to have relaxed since the departure of their house guest. Teresa knew Johnny well enough to know he had trust issues with everyone outside the family, and Amanda Fleming had been no exception.
“Nina, we have much to do.” Maria passed through the Great Room carrying an armload of fresh sheets.
“Coming,” Teresa answered as she turned away from the door. “It was good having Mrs. Fleming here, wasn’t it?”
“Si. She was a nice lady.”
“Yes, she was. I think Murdoch is going to miss her.”
The sound of the metal against metal reverberated through the house.
“The Patron will hurt his arm if he is not careful,” Maria said as the hammer came down again.
“I hope that’s all that’s hurt while Mr. Garrett is here.”
“Si. That man should not come, especially now.”
“I agree, but neither of us has a say in it. We have to think of Scott right now.”
The two women went back to work as the metallic pounding continued.
Johnny was laughing as he saddled Barranca. Every time he heard the clink and clang of the hammer at the forge, he laughed harder.
“It’s not funny.” Scott picked up a curry and started brushing the surrey horses.
“Sure, it is. Hell, the old man is gonna bust a gut. He sure must hate your abuelo.”
Johnny saw Scott turn to look at him and then look away without saying anything.
“Aw, come on, Boston. You’ve got to admit it’s funny.”
“No, I don’t think it’s funny.” Scott stopped what he was doing and turned to fully face his brother. “Johnny, my grandfather raised me. Harlan Garrett was the only father I knew until Murdoch Lancer saw fit to send for me and then only because he needed my help.
“I love my grandfather, and I know he loves me. That’s more than I know about Murdoch right now. My own father has never told me once that he loves me. Now, grandfather is coming because he does love me and misses me.
“How do you think it makes me feel to know those two men can’t stand each other?”
The smile vanished from Johnny’s face, and he dipped his head. “Scott….”
Johnny and Scott turned to the open barn door. Neither had heard the forge go silent.
“No, Scott. You’re right. Your grandfather and I have never gotten along, even from the beginning. We had a truce of sorts until your mother…. well, we’ve blamed each other for her death for 24 years. I’m sorry to say you were caught in the middle.”
Johnny started for the door. “I’ll leave you two ….”
“No, John, I want you to stay. You need to hear this, too.”
Johnny moved to stand next to his brother.
“I’ve tried to dismiss the years we’ve been apart by saying it was…,” he moved closer to Scott and put a hand on his shoulder, “past and gone, and I was wrong. So very wrong. I know now that until we sit down and confront the past, it will always come back to haunt us.”
Murdoch looked at his sons, wanting to say the right words and not knowing how.
“I want to sit down with both of you after Harlan leaves, and this thing with Brùn is over with. There are things I need to tell you both, and all I can ask is that you don’t make decisions without talking to me.”
“Why not now?” Scott asked. “After this is over, maybe too late. What if something should happen to one of us, to you? I’ll…” Scott dipped his head. “I’ll never know why you didn’t come. Why you can’t or won’t tell me how you feel about me?”
Murdoch took a step forward and stopped. Neither man saw Johnny step back.
“Oh, son, I’m sorry. So sorry. I know I haven’t said it in words to either you or your brother.”
Murdoch turned to look at Johnny. Realizing the boy had moved away, Murdoch held out a hand and motioned him forward. Johnny hesitantly retook his position next to Scott.
“It’s hard for me to express my feelings,” Murdoch confessed. “It always has been, even with your mothers.
“Scott,” Murdoch smiled, “your mother could see right through me, and she knew how much I loved her even without words. Johnny….,” the smile faded, “your mother needed the words more often than I said them, and it may have been one of the reasons she left me. I’ll never know.
“I had hoped you’d both know how I felt.” Murdoch fell silent for long moments then laughed. “Damn, I’m an old fool. How could you know how I feel if I haven’t told you?”
“Told us what, old man?” Johnny’s voice was a soft drawl hoping to draw the words out into the open.
Murdoch paused, his eyes going from one son to the other.
“How much I love you both.”
“Sir,” Scott paused. “Why tell us now?”
“Do I need a reason?”
“I’m afraid so. Why now?”
“Because I’m afraid.”
“Afraid?” Johnny shifted his hand to his gun butt. “What are you afraid of?”
“So many things, but mostly that I’ve waited too long to tell you what I’ve should have said every day since you’ve been home.”
“Murdoch, you don’t….”
“Yes, I do, Scott. I love you, and I have since the moment your mother told me she was carrying you. The dreams we had for you didn’t come true and as much as I wanted you with me all these years, it wasn’t meant to be. Just know I never stopped wanting you with me and never stopped loving you. I tried to bring you home.”
“I never heard from you. All those years and not one letter.” The pain was evident in Scott’s voice.
“I sent them, Scott. I wrote to you but never received an answer. I knew Harlan kept my letters and presents from you. I came for you when you were five and he blocked every move I made to bring you home.”
“I wrote you too, but you never wrote back,” Scott said
“I never received your letters.”
Murdoch stared at his son’s bowed head.
“It’s alright. We’re together and we’re going to make up for the years we’ve been apart.”
Murdoch turned to look at Johnny.
“John, it was different with you. You were my second chance. I know you don’t remember, but I did tell you every day of the first two years of your life how much I loved you. I never got to do that with Scott. When your mother left and took you away, I didn’t know how I would survive. For years I’ve built walls around my heart.
“Now that you’re both home, it’s taken time, perhaps too much, to start to break down those walls. I’ve been afraid you would reject what I had to offer. Finding the words to let you know how I feel has been slow in coming, but… never…ever doubt that I love you both.”
Murdoch took a deep breath and looked up. He’d expressed more emotions in the last few minutes than he had in years. Looking back at his sons, Murdoch watched for their reaction. When neither said anything, Murdoch turned to leave, feeling he’d finally lost them both.
“Murdoch,” Scott’s voice had an urgency to it.
Murdoch stopped but didn’t turn around. “Yes.”
“You know it’s going to take time for us too? Don’t you?”
Murdoch nodded but still didn’t turn to face them.
“I don’t know about Johnny, but I feel the same way about you.” Scott looked at his brother, who was toeing the ground with his boot. “Johnny.”
Johnny looked at Scott and then Murdoch’s back.
“Murdoch.” Johnny closed the gap between them, his voice sounding so much younger than he was. He stopped directly behind his father. “I don’t know how to say the words either. I never learned.”
Murdoch turned to face his youngest son. He moved forward and put his arms around the boy, pulling him close. He looked at Scott and opened an arm. Scott stepped into his father’s embrace.
“What do you say we learn to say the words together?” Murdoch said, placing a kiss on the tops of each of his son’s heads.
Johnny nodded into Murdoch’s chest and felt Scott do the same.
Stepping back, Murdoch looked at his sons.
“Remember, even if I don’t say it, I do love you. No one, and I mean no one, can tear us apart. Not the Day Pardee’s of this world, Liam Brùn, Harlan Garrett, or anyone else. We take care of our own and always will.
“What do you say when everything settles down, we go away for a few days? We’ll go hunting up in the mountains, just the three of us.” I want… no, I need to spend time with my boys.”
“I’d like that, sir.”
“Yeah, Murdoch, I’d like that, too.”
Murdoch knew it would take time for Scott and Johnny to deal with the years of hate they’d felt for him. He also knew, in his heart, they didn’t hate him any longer, and maybe one day they’d be able to find the words to let him know.
“Now, don’t you two have a stage to meet?”
“Yes, sir, we do,” Scott answered.
Johnny nodded. “I guess we’d better get a move on then.”
“Scott, let your grandfather know he’s welcome at Lancer.”
“Even after all he’s done?”
“Even after all he’s done. As I said the first day, I want to put the past behind us. So yes, tell him he’s welcome.”
“I’ll do that, sir.”
“And boys, keep your eyes open for trouble. I’m going to send a few men along with you just in case.”
Murdoch saw Johnny start to object and raised a hand to stop him. “No argument, young man. I only have two sons, and I plan to keep both of them.”
Johnny nodded and smiled.
Scott drove the surrey under the arch a few minutes later. Johnny rode alongside him while Walt, Frank, and Jose trailed behind.
He wasn’t looking forward to having Harlan Garrett under his roof, but if it made Scott happy, then the man was welcome at Lancer.
Murdoch turned and started walking towards the house. He was in the middle of the yard when he felt as if he was being watched. He stopped and looked around. A few men were working near the corral, but nothing was out of the ordinary. Shaking off the uneasy feeling, he continued on his way.
Scott snapped the reins, and the pair of matched bays fell into an easy trot. His eyes went from the road ahead to his brother.
Johnny was relaxed in the saddle, his right hand resting on the butt of his Colt. Frequently, Scott saw Johnny glance over his shoulder at the men riding behind, then scan the countryside on either side of the road before directing his gaze ahead again.
There were those rare occasions when Johnny would look over at him and smile. Those were the moments he looked forward to. The discussion in the barn had brought them a little closer to their father, and he found he was looking forward to the day; as Murdoch put it, all this was over.
Then maybe they could sit down and talk about the past. Scott wanted to know more about his mother, and he knew Johnny had his own questions.
Scott gave the reins a slight flick increasing the speed of the team.
Johnny turned slightly and smiled. “At this rate, we’ll be in town early. Anyone would think you were in a hurry.”
“I suppose I am. I’m just anxious to see grandfather again. Is that so bad?”
“No, Boston, that’s not bad.” Johnny scanned the countryside again and then looked at his brother. “Scott, have you told your grandfather about me?”
“Yes, I told him about you in one of my early letters. Don’t worry, I only said good things about you,” Scott laughed.
Johnny dipped his head. “Did you tell him about Madrid?”
The smile vanished from Scott’s face. “I did.”
“You think he’s still gonna want to meet me?”
“Johnny, I told him I’d found my little brother who happened to be good with a gun. I also told him I’d found my best friend.”
Johnny raised his head and looked at his brother to make sure he was telling the truth.
“Your best friend?”
“Yes, and I mean it.” Scott smiled and flicked the reins again. “Now come on.”
The Lancers entered Green River with an hour to spare.
Scott stopped the surrey around the corner from the Stage Depot, stepped down, and stretched. Johnny remained mounted and scanned the area for any signs of trouble.
“Boston, I’m going over to get the mail and then see Val. I’ll be back before the stage gets here.”
“Make sure you do. I want you to meet my grandfather.”
Johnny crossed his arms over the saddle horn and smiled. “Don’t worry. I wouldn’t miss it.” Johnny leaned back and started to nudge Barranca forward but instead pulled back on the reins. “Scott, you’re sure you want me around while he’s here? I mean, you don’t know how he’s gonna feel about me.”
“Yes, I want you around. I don’t care how he feels about you,” Scott paused. “Well, I do, but you’re my brother and it’s how I feel that counts. Now go on and see to the mail and visit Val. Be back here in thirty minutes.”
“Yes, sir.” Johnny gave his brother a salute. Turning in the saddle, he looked at Frank, Walt, and Jose. “You fellows can go for a drink if you want. Just be back by the time the stage gets in.”
Walt nodded, “We’ll do that. Frank, Jose, come on.”
Johnny rode away, leaving Scott to find a seat in front of the depot and wait.
Scott looked at his pocket watch and then back up the street. He heaved a sigh of relief when he saw Johnny and Val headed his way.
Scott put his watch away and waited for them to reach him.
“It’s about time. The stage should be here any minute.”
Fred Sullivan walked out of the depot, looked up the street, and then at his watch. The stout middle-aged man had worked for the Butterfield Overland Stage line for fifteen years, and he’d heard his share of complaints about the stage being late.
“That’s right. It should be here any minute,” Fred repeated.
Johnny laughed. “Fred, you ever know it to be on time?”
“There’s always a first time,” Val responded before Fred could.
“Stage coming in!” Someone yelled.
Scott lifted an eyebrow and gave Johnny and Val a smile. “Yes, there is always a first time.”
The stage rolled into town with dust billowing up behind it. The driver pulled the team to a stop, and Johnny stepped back with Val while Scott took a couple of steps forward.
Fred opened the coach’s door and stepped back. “Welcome to Green River, folks. Watch your step.” He then looked up at the driver. “Jake, you have a good run.”
“Sure did,” Jake Skinner replied and lowered the strongbox.
Fred carried the locked metal box inside as the first passenger, a well-dressed, gray-haired man, stepped down.
“You figure that’s him?” Val whispered.
Johnny looked the man over. He was wearing clothes that looked like some Scott had in his closet.
“Yeah, that’s him. Harlan Garrett. I’m not looking forward to meeting him,” Johnny growled.
The easterner looked around, searching the people’s faces on the boardwalk.
“Grandfather,” Scott called out.
Harlan looked directly at Scott for a few moments before recognition set in.
“Scotty. It’s good to see you, my boy.” Harlan stepped forward, extending his hand. “I hardly recognized you.”
Johnny turned to Val and grinned, mouthing the word, “Scotty.”
Scott took his grandfather’s hand and gave it a firm shake. “It’s good to see you also. Grandfather, I want you to meet my brother.” Turning, he waved Johnny forward. “Johnny, come here.”
Harlan’s expression changed, but he quickly recovered and plastered a fake smile on his face before extending his hand.
“You must be Scotty’s half-brother, Johnny Madrid?”
Johnny took his hand and gave the man a slight smile. “It’s not Madrid anymore, sir. It’s Lancer now.”
“Of course.” Harlan lowered his hand. “Scotty’s written to me about you. I’ve been looking forward to meeting the reason he’s decided to stay in California.”
Johnny saw a flash of something in the man’s eyes he didn’t like.
Scott quickly realized the first meeting between his grandfather and brother was deteriorating and changed the subject. “I think we should get your things and start back to the ranch.”
Johnny took a few steps back, and Val moved next to him.
“That man’s trouble,” Johnny said in a soft, low voice that only Val could hear.
Val turned his head and looked at his friend.
“You got a reason to feel that way? You just met him.”
“Call it a gut feeling.”
Val had never known Johnny to misjudge a man, and he wasn’t about to doubt him now.
Scott looked up as Jake started handing down bags, recognizing his grandfather’s luggage right away. Turning to look at Harlan, he saw his grandfather reach inside the coach and take someone’s hand.
“Scotty, I brought you a surprise. An old friend.”
Scott blinked twice when he saw who stepped from the coach. A young woman with dark hair, dressed in green traveling clothes, stood next to Harlan.
“Hello, Scott.” The woman’s voice was soft and as sweet as honey.
“Julie,” Scott’s said the name in almost a whisper.
Stepping forward, Scott took the young woman’s hands in his.
“It seems to me the young lady deserves a more substantial kind of welcome,” Harlan suggested with a smile.
“I couldn’t agree more, Sir.” Scott leaned toward Julie, kissing her on the lips, and then picked her up in a hug.
Johnny looked at Val with a smile on his face. Looking back at Scott and the woman, the smile vanished. He had a bad feeling about Garrett bringing the woman with him.
“Julie, I can’t believe it’s you. You never answered my letters.”
“I wanted to, but I couldn’t.”
“Why?” Scott frowned.
“Not now, Scott.” Julie glanced over her shoulder at Harlan, a move Scott hadn’t noticed, but Johnny did.
Scott turned to see Johnny strolling towards him with a grin on his face. “Now, I know why Scott liked Boston.”
“Julie, I want you to meet my brother, Johnny. Johnny, this is Julie Dennison.”
Johnny picked up Julie’s hand and kissed the back of it. “Julie, it’s my pleasure.”
Julie smiled but didn’t say anything. Instead, she turned back to the coach.
“Scott, I’ve brought some traveling companions with me.”
Scott tried to hide his surprise at seeing Harlan helping three more ladies’ step down.
“They’ve traveled with me from Boston. We met your grandfather in San Francisco, and, well, he insisted we come with him. I hope you don’t mind.”
Scott could hardly say anything but, “Of course, you and your friends are welcome at Lancer.”
Scott glanced at his brother’s stormy expression. Johnny didn’t like strangers under normal circumstances. They’d just had one houseguest leave, and now there would be a house full.
Julie motioned for the three women to step forward.
“Scott, these are my friends Jenny Fields and Caitlyn Devon, and this is Lea Devon, Caitlyn’s Aunt. She’s been kind enough to chaperon us on the trip. Ladies, this is the man I’ve told you so much about, Scott Lancer.”
Jenny was the first to speak. “Mr. Lancer, it is indeed a pleasure. I feel like we already know you.”
“Miss Fields, welcome to Green River.”
Caitlyn also stepped forward. “Mr. Lancer, you’re more handsome than Julie described.”
“Thank you, Miss Devon.”
Both Jenny and Caitlyn were the same height as Julie. Jenny wore her dark hair up like Julie, and Caitlyn’s reddish-blond hair hung around her shoulders.
Lea Devon extended her hand. “Mr. Lancer, it’s very nice to meet you.”
Scott took the hand of the auburn-haired woman who looked to be close to Murdoch’s age. “Mrs. Devon, welcome to Green River.
Johnny cleared his throat.
“Ladies.” Scott swung around. “This is my brother, Johnny. Johnny, this is Miss Devon, Miss Fields, and Mrs. Devon.”
“I heard. Real nice to meet you, ladies.” Johnny waited to see if any of the women would offer her hand. When they didn’t, Johnny glanced back at Val, who had a frown on his face.
Scott continued the introductions. “Ladies, I’d like you to meet a friend of ours.” Val moved forward. “Val Crawford is the Sheriff of Green River. Val, this is Julie Dennison, Jenny Fields, Caitlyn Devon, Mrs. Devon, and my grandfather, Harlan Garrett.”
“Ladies.” Val removed his hat. “Mr. Garrett, Scott’s told me a lot about you.”
Harlan glared at Johnny and Val. “Yes, he’s mentioned you in his letters also, Sheriff. Johnny, I see you’ve recovered nicely.”
Johnny looked confused.
“Scotty wrote me about the bullet wound you received after you arrived at your father’s ranch.”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, doing just fine now.”
“Good. That’s good.” Harlan abruptly turned away from Johnny and Val. “Now, Scotty, I’m sure the ladies would like to freshen up before we start to the ranch.”
“Yes, of course. Ladies, there is a café down the street. I’ll have the men load your luggage in the surrey.”
Scott turned to see Walt, Frank, and Jose walking their horses towards them.
“You take care of your company, Scott. I’ll help the boys get the luggage loaded.” Johnny turned away before Scott could respond.
“Well, that’s settled.” Julie took Scott’s arm, walking in the direction of the café. “I’m starving, Scott, and I know the others are also. Come, ladies.”
Johnny stood in a sea of bags and trunks, watching Scott walk away with Harlan and the four women. Looking around, he saw Val and the Lancer hands staring at him.
“Well, don’t just stand there, grab something. Let’s get the surrey loaded.” Johnny shook his head and let out a deep breath. “Frank, would you ride back ahead of us and let Murdoch and Teresa know what’s headed their way. Teresa’s gonna’ be fit to be tied when she finds out four women are coming, and I don’t even want to know what Maria’s gonna’ say when she finds out there are four more mouths to feed.”
“Glad to, Johnny.” Frank wasted no time in mounting up and heading out of town.
“Sure am glad I’m not gonna be out there.” Val picked up two valises’ and started to the surrey.
“I wish you were. I’d feel better having you there.” Johnny saw the expression on Val’s face. “Aw, come on, it won’t be bad. I think the old man’s starting to take a liking to you.”
Val snorted and then mumbled. “Yeah, like a vulture circling fresh kill.”
Val gave it a moment’s thought. “Tell you what. I’ll ride out this afternoon in time for dinner. You be sure to let your old man know I’m coming.”
Johnny gave him a smile. “Thanks, Papi. Remember we eat at six, and you’re staying the night.”
An hour later, Harlan and the ladies were seated in the surrey with Scott driving. There was so much luggage, Johnny arranged with the liveryman to bring it to the ranch later in the day.
Walt and Jose rode behind the surrey while Johnny rode alongside. Harlan occasionally looked Johnny’s way, while the ladies didn’t look at him at all.
“Scott, I’m so excited to see Lancer.” Julie was looking at the passing scenery. “When will we get there?”
“It will be at least thirty minutes before we get to the hacienda, but we’ve been on Lancer land for the last hour.” Scott glanced up at Johnny, and both men had smiles on their faces.
“Oh, my,” Jenny exclaimed from the rear seat. “It must be enormous.”
“One hundred thousand acres,” Scott proclaimed with pride as he pulled the surrey to a halt at the lookout overlooking the valley. “There it is, ladies, Lancer. As far as the eye can see. All the way to those mountains.”
Johnny rested his arm on the saddle horn. He was so busy enjoying the view he didn’t notice he was being watched.
“It’s beautiful, Scott.” Julie looked around at the other women with her and could see they were also impressed with the view.
“Very impressive, Mr. Lancer,” Mrs. Devon exclaimed.
“Yes, beautiful,” Harlan said. “Now, Scotty, I believe we need to move on. I would like to rest before dinner.”
Scott gave his grandfather a brief frown before snapping the reins. The surrey moved down the road towards the arch.
Frank didn’t waste time getting back to the ranch. He’d ridden in a little over two hours ago to give his Boss the news of the impending guests.
“Ladies?” Murdoch advanced on Frank, towering over him. “Ladies? What do you mean ladies?”
Frank held his ground even though he felt like bolting.
“All I know, Mr. Lancer, is Mr. Garrett brought four women with him. Scott seemed to know one of them. Seemed right happy to see her. The others came with her from Boston.”
Murdoch stomped to the French doors and looked out, trying to control his temper. It was bad enough that Harlan was coming on such short notice, but now he’d brought four women with him.
Teresa and Maria stood to one side, listening.
“Murdoch, I loved it when Amanda was here. It’ll be nice having a few more women around for a few days. Won’t it, Maria?” Teresa didn’t wait for Maria’s answer before asking, “What are they like, Frank?”
“Real pretty ladies. Three of them looked to be close to Scott’s age, but I’m not good at telling anyone’s age. The one Scott knows has dark hair, and he called her Julie. I didn’t catch the names of the other two, but one had dark hair, and the other one had reddish hair.”
“Oh, dear, we’ll have to get four more rooms ready.” Teresa turned to Maria. “Maria, get a couple of women to help with the rooms. You’d better get help with dinner tonight, also.”
“Si,” Maria responded. “Senor Frank, how did Juanito react to the guests we will have?”
Frank grinned. “How’d you expect him to react. You know that boy don’t like company. He didn’t say anything but wouldn’t be surprised if he cut out for one of the line shacks while they’re here.”
“That’s not happening,” Murdoch growled. “If we have to tolerate these people, my youngest son will tolerate them as well.”
By the time the surrey arrived, Teresa and two of the ranch women had the rooms ready, and Maria was well on her way to having dinner under control.
Scott rolled to a stop in front of the house, and Murdoch and Teresa stepped out to greet their guests. Maria stayed back, watching Johnny’s reaction to the visitors.
Harlan stepped down and turned to help Lea Devon down.
Scott jumped from the surrey and hurriedly walked around to help with first Julie and then Jenny and Caitlyn down and make the introductions.
Once everyone was on the ground, Scott turned to his father.
“Murdoch, I’d like to introduce Julie Dennison.”
Julie moved forward; her hand extended. “Mr. Lancer, it is a pleasure. I’ve heard so much about you.”
“Miss Dennison. Welcome.”
“Thank you.” Julie turned to her companions. “Mr. Lancer, may I introduce my traveling companions Jenny Fields, Caitlyn Devon, and our chaperon, Mrs. Lea Devon, Caitlyn’s aunt.”
“Mrs. Devon. Miss Devon. Miss Fields. Welcome to Lancer.”
Murdoch turned to Teresa. “Ladies, this is my ward, Teresa O’Brien.” Looking behind him, Murdoch spotted Maria. “And our housekeeper, Maria.”
Maria nodded but didn’t say anything.
“Miss O’Brien, Scott wrote to me of you.” Julie smiled at Teresa. “It is a pleasure.”
“Please call me Teresa. Miss O’Brien is too formal for ranch life.”
“Then, by all means, call me Julie.”
Teresa was smiling. She missed having Amanda at the ranch, so having someone different to talk to would be a treat for her.
That left Harlan and Murdoch facing each other.
“Harlan, welcome to Lancer.” Murdoch extended his hand.
Harlan briefly shook his former son-in-law’s hand.
“Yes, Murdoch, it’s been some time since we last met.”
“Yes, a long time. Nineteen years to be exact.” Murdoch’s eyes went to Scott.
“I hope you will make some time for us to talk while I’m here.”
“I believe that can be arranged. Now, I’m sure you’re all tired from your trip. Teresa, will you show everyone to their rooms.” Murdoch wanted nothing more than the introductions to be over and Harlan out of his sight.
Looking at Johnny still seated on Barranca, Murdoch had a feeling if he didn’t say something, Johnny would be riding over the hill any moment. Then again, if the boy rode away, he would go with him.
“John, will you have some of the men get the luggage inside?” Murdoch frowned when he saw how little there was.
As if reading his father’s mind, Johnny chimed in, “Oh, there’s more coming. We didn’t have room for it all. Tom Martin at the livery stable is bringing it out later. Jose, will you and Walt help with the bags. I’ll take the horses to the barn.”
“No, Johnny,” Murdoch smirked. “Let Jose take the horses. Don’t you think you should stay and help settle our guests?”
“I’ll get one of the fellows to help with the bags, Johnny.” Walt smiled, knowing that the Boss wasn’t going to let his youngest out of his sight and get a chance to escape.
Johnny huffed and dismounted. Handing the reins to Jose, he gave Barranca a pat on the neck before following everyone into the house.
They were almost to the door when Johnny gave Murdoch one of his best smiles and said, “By the way, I’ve invited Val to eat with us tonight. He’s gonna stay the night, too.”
Murdoch stopped and stared at his son’s back. Johnny turned and walked backward, grinning. “Knew you wouldn’t mind.”
“That was delicious, Mr. Lancer. The roast was cooked to perfection.” Lea Devon laid her napkin beside her plate and smiled at Murdoch.
“Thank you, Mrs. Devon. Maria is an excellent cook. I’ll let her know you enjoyed the meal.”
“Yes, it was excellent, Mr. Lancer. I’m must admit I’m surprised by everything I’ve seen since coming to Lancer,” Julie said as she looked around the dining room.
“How so, Miss Dennison?” Murdoch asked, knowing full well the ladies had most probably been told that Lancer was nothing more than a mud hut in the middle of nowhere.
“Mr. Lancer, I asked you earlier to call me Julie.”
“Of course. Julie, what’s surprised you about Lancer?”
“The house, the land, the meal… everything thus far has been impressive. You must be very proud.”
“We like it, Julie, and yes, I’m proud of what I’ve built.” Murdoch looked at first Scott and then Johnny. “I believe together, my sons and I can build it even better. Lancer is the largest cattle ranch in the San Joaquin at the moment.”
“Could be the best horse ranch too if you put your mind to it,” Johnny spoke up from his place at the table.
Murdoch smiled. “Yes, we could be the best horse ranch too, but for now, we raise cattle.” When he saw Johnny was going to say something more, he continued. “That’s not to say we won’t branch out someday into other ventures.”
Johnny looked up in time to see the smile on Murdoch’s face and the gleam in his eyes. He knew why the old man didn’t want to branch out, as he put it. He wouldn’t go into the horse business when the chances of his top wrangler ending up dead was a real possibility. Murdoch would stick to cattle as long as men were gunning for his youngest son.
Scott saw the looks being exchanged between his father and brother. He and Johnny had talked about the horse business Johnny wanted to start and why Murdoch was hesitant to allow him to begin it.
“Julie, tell us how you met Jenny and Caitlyn. Was it in Boston?” Teresa spoke up, anxious to know more about the ladies.
“Yes. Well, I mean, I met Jenny at Radcliffe College in Cambridge our first year there, and we’ve been best friends ever since. Caitlyn and I met only last year in Boston, and we had so much in common that we became fast friends.”
Julie smiled at each of her friends as she told the story.
“As it turns out, my father’s company, Dennison Imports, handles the business for Jenny’s grandfather and Caitlyn’s family. Jenny’s family has been importing Rum from Cuba for years, and Caitlyn’s family imports Jameson and Guinness from Ireland and whiskeys from Scotland.”
“Field?” Scott questioned, trying to remember something. “Jenny, your grandfather wouldn’t be John William Fields?”
“Why, yes, but everyone calls him Jack.”
Scott turned to look at Murdoch. “The Fields’s are quite prominent in Boston society,” he explained. He then looked at Harlan. “If I remember correctly, doesn’t Garrett Enterprises handle the financial account for Fields Shipping? I know you handle Dennison Imports. What about you, Caitlyn. Does your family use Garrett Enterprises, too?”
“I believe so, although I don’t know the first thing about the business. Perhaps, Aunt Lea knows.” Everyone turned to Mrs. Devon.
“I wouldn’t have the slightest idea, darling. I have heard your father mention the name Garrett, so I wouldn’t be surprised.”
“Small world, ain’t it.” Johnny joined in the conversation.
“Not so small, Johnny. Garrett Enterprises does the accounting for a great many firms in the Boston and New England area, as well as California now.” Harlan spoke up. “Yes, Scotty, Garrett Enterprises handles the financial accounts of Dennison Imports and Fields Shipping. I’d be surprised if we didn’t have dealings with Devon and Associates as well.”
“California? You’ve set up shop in California, Mr. Garrett?” Johnny asked, staring at Harlan, a knot forming in his belly.
“Yes, I’ve opened an office in San Francisco,” Harlan gave the senior Lancer a smug smile. “I’ve decided to split my time between Boston and California, so I can see Scotty more often.”
Johnny could see the vein on his father’s temple bulging. A sure sign the old man wasn’t happy with Garrett’s news.
“You didn’t tell me that, Grandfather.”
“I planned to Scotty. I just haven’t had the opportunity.”
“Johnny.” Caitlyn had been quiet during the meal, speaking only when spoken to by the others. “I understand you came to Lancer at the same time as Scott. You grew up in Mexico, didn’t you? Life must be very different for you here.”
“Yeah, life here is different.” Johnny shifted in his chair. He’d been expecting one of them to say something about his life before Lancer. “Never worked cattle much before coming to Lancer, but I’m learning. Scott never worked a ranch in his life before coming home, either. At least, I knew which end of a cow was which.”
Scott laughed. “Little brother, I knew which end was which. I just never knew how stubborn cattle could be or how dumb.”
“That they are.” Johnny laughed, lowering his head.
“Mr. Garrett mentioned you were injured not long after you arrived,” Caitlyn pressed on. “We’ve heard tales of gunman back east but ….”
Seeing Johnny’s unease with the questions, Murdoch spoke up, “Ladies, Harlan, would you care to take coffee and drinks in the Great Room while Maria clears the table?”
Scott stood and helped with the chairs of Julie and Jenny, while Harlan helped Lea and Caitlyn with theirs. Teresa gave Johnny a piercing stare until he stood and pulled back her chair.
Val sat at the table watching the circus. No one had spoken to him, and he had no intention of starting a conversation with any of them. He could see an ambush a mile away, and that’s what all these ladies were trying to do. They were going to try to ambush his friend. Well, that sure as hell wasn’t going to happen as long as he was around.
“Val, you coming?” Johnny’s voice brought Val out of his musings.
“Sure.” Val pushed back from the table. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world. Hell, this could get right entertaining.”
“Yeah, entertaining. Expect they’ll try at least one more time tonight to bring up my past.”
“Ain’t the first time someone’s done that to you. You know what to do. It’s a ‘dance’ just like a gunfight, and you’re the best there is at that.”
“Yeah, I am, just as long as it’s a fair fight. Somehow, I get the feeling I need to watch my back around this bunch.” Johnny grinned and backhanded Val’s stomach.
“You little…. I’m so full you do that again, and I’ll puke all over you.”
“You’d do it too, wouldn’t you?”
“Damn, right. Now, let’s get that drink and see what these folks got planned for the night’s entertainment.”
Johnny and Val entered the Great room in time to hear Jenny asking about the Spanish influence on the house.
“The hacienda was already here when I made the initial purchase in the valley.” Murdoch was pouring drinks and handing them out. “It was in poor condition and most of it had to be rebuilt.”
“Hacienda?” Caitlyn asked while accepting a glass of sherry.
“The Spanish word for house or home.” Murdoch glanced at Johnny and Val, holding up a bottle of tequila.
Johnny nodded yes, while Val shook his head. Murdoch held up a bottle of Glenlivet, and Val nodded his approval.
“I can’t get over how many Mexicans you have working at the ranch, Mr. Lancer…Murdoch.” Jenny sipped her drink and looked at Johnny. “You seem to handle them well. I would imagine Johnny is helpful in that area. You didn’t speak Spanish when you first came to California, did you?”
Johnny held her gaze until she looked away.
Murdoch ignored the remark about Johnny and the Mexican hands.
“No, neither Catherine nor I spoke Spanish when we first arrived, but we learned. Catherine was faster at picking up the language than I was.”
Scott smiled. He loved it when he found out new information about his mother. “I imagine she spoke French, which probably helped with the Spanish. I know it’s helped me.”
“Yes, Scotty, your mother was fluent in French as well as Italian. We traveled abroad on several occasions. Even to Spain once, if I remember correctly, we spent some time in Madrid. Beautiful city.” Harlan glanced at Johnny, letting a brief smile ghost across his face before composing himself.
“Johnny, I’m sure with your background, the Mexicans wouldn’t slack off,” Julie joined in as she sipped her sherry and smiled like she had a mouth full of honey. “I suppose you have no trouble conversing with the Mexican help.”
“Nope, John, don’t have no problem communicating with anyone.” Val jumped in, defending his boy. “They understand him just fine.”
Everyone turned to look at Val and missed the smile that flashed across Murdoch’s face.
Surprised by the lawman joining the conversation, it took a moment for Julie to compose her next question. “Do you speak Spanish also, Sheriff Crawford?”
“Yes, ma’am, I do. Comes in handy in my line of work and the name’s Val.”
“Have you always been a lawman…Val?” Julie held the glass with both hands in her lap.
“No, Miss Julie, I’ve only been a lawman for almost two years now. Before that…” Val glanced at Murdoch and Scott, “I hired out along the border.”
Murdoch froze and Scott cocked his head. It looked as if both men were holding their breaths and anxious to hear more.
“Hired out?” Julie shifted uncomfortably in her chair.
“Yes, ma’am, hired out my gun when it was needed by ranchers and such.”
“Johnny, I understand you, how did Val put it, hired out as well before coming to Lancer?”
Johnny gave her a lop-sided smile.
‘Here it comes.’
Johnny looked at Murdoch and Scott before speaking. He hadn’t told anyone how he and Val met, especially his family. It looked like that was about to change.
“That’s right, Julie, I hired my gun out along the border and a few other places. Val and I rode together for a few years before he became all respectable and put on a badge.”
“You were both…what’s the word we heard I read in one of those dime novels…pistoleros?”
Johnny gave Julie a slight smile and looked at Val.
“Yes, ma’am,” Val answered. “We were pistoleros. I’m not as good as Johnny, no one is, but I do alright.”
“Is there anything else you ladies want to know about me? We can stop beating around the bush, and you can come right out and ask. Don’t mean I’ll answer you, but won’t take offense.”
“Johnny!” Murdoch gave him a stern look.
“Just saying Murdoch, I’m sure old man Garrett has told the ladies all about me. I’m not ashamed of who I am. We get this all out in the open tonight, and the ladies can enjoy the rest of their stay without feeling the need to tiptoe around me.”
Julie set her glass on the coffee table. “Well, I suppose we have come with a preconceived idea about you, Johnny, and, yes, we did ask Mr. Garrett about you. I have to admit giving in to my curiosity about why Scott has stayed in California versus returning to Boston. Now I can see you have a lot to do with that?”
Her last words had more than a hint of accusation to them.
“Wouldn’t know about that. You’ll have to ask my big brother.” Johnny took a healthy drink of tequila and smiled at Scott.
Scott nodded, taking the hint. “Julie, Lancer is my home now. Yes, I miss Boston at times, but I’ve found something here I never had there.” Scott looked at Harlen. “Grandfather, you gave me everything except a father and …” Scott looked at Johnny with a loving smile. “a brother. I found them here, and here is where I plan to stay. I will go back for visits, of course, but it will be some time before that happens.”
“You do seem to be happy, Scott. Please, don’t take offense. It’s just that I’ve missed you, and I know your grandfather has as well. We worry about you and the dangers you face here.”
“Dangers?” Scott responded.
“Well, yes.” She glared at Johnny. “I understand you’ve been wounded several times since coming to California, and I would imagine Johnny attracts the kind of element that would put you in danger.”
“Julie, I agree there are more dangers in the west than in Boston.” Scott looked at his brother. “Johnny, however, isn’t responsible for my injuries.”
Scott could see the expression on Johnny’s face change but only for a split second. He was sure his brother was remembering the incident with the Strykers.
“That is good to know.” Harlan sat his glass down and stood up. “Yes, I’ve missed Scotty very much, but I can see he’s happy here with Murdoch and Johnny. Perhaps, he will come back for a visit sooner than he planned. Until then, ladies, I plan to enjoy my visit with my grandson. Now, I’m exhausted and feel the need to go to bed.”
“Of course.” Murdoch stood, putting his glass down.
“I believe we’ll retire as well.” Lea Devon stood up.
Julie, Caitlyn, and Jenny quickly stood as well.
“We’ll turn in also,” Julie said. “Thank you, Mr. Lancer, for a wonderful evening.
Murdoch nodded. “Good night, ladies.”
Once the women were gone, he collapsed in a chair and looked at Teresa. “This is going to be a long couple of weeks.”
Teresa sat quietly, listening. She’s been excited about having the women visit, and now, she wondered why they were here. In the last twenty minutes, she’d heard them belittle the Mexican family she loved, viciously attack Johnny, and question Scott’s reasons for staying at Lancer.
Teresa knew these women would need watching. There was no way they were going to destroy her family. Men had been trying to do that very thing for the better part of a year. She’d be damned if she’d let these three women do what gunfighters hadn’t been able to do.
Harlan made his way to his room, closed the door, and locked it. He took a deep breath and relaxed for the first time since getting off the stagecoach.
Walking across the room, he opened the dresser’s top drawer and looked inside. The wooden box he’d brought with him from San Francisco was still there and inside a small packet wrapped in rawhide. This was his insurance policy, and he only needed to bide his time before it was used.
Closing the drawer, he began to undress. He’d bide his time, but in the end, there were only two things he wanted to accomplish at Lancer. The first was to ensure Scotty’s return to Boston, and the second was to see the half-breed dead and buried and out of his life for good. The bonus was Murdoch Lancer would be buried next to him.
Harlan waited until he was sure all the women were in their rooms before leaving his. He gently rapped on her door and waited.
“Mr. Garrett,” she peered into the hall and looked around. “Hurry,” she whispered. “Inside before someone sees you.”
Harlan stepped around her and the door closed behind him.
“Here it is.” Harlan handed over the rawhide wrapped package. “Be careful with it.”
“Don’t worry. I know exactly how to use it and when.”
“When will you do it?”
She smiled. “When the time is right and not before. I have done this before, you know.”
“So you’ve told me.”
“You don’t believe me?”
“Yes, I believe you. Just don’t wait too long.”
“It’s a shame, too. I’m starting to like him.”
“But you will go through with it?”
“Of course. Now,” she walked to the door and opened it, “go back to your room and relax. Leave everything to me.”
Scott spent the next few days showing his grandfather and the ladies around the ranch and spent as much time as he could with Julie. It was apparent to anyone who saw them together that Scott and Julie were happy in each other’s company. This pleased Harlan to no end but left the Lancers worried.
Johnny happily made himself scarce, dedicating his time to working as far from the ranch house as possible. The work took his mind off Scott and Julie and distanced him from Jenny and Caitlyn, who persisted in asking about his life before Lancer.
For his part, Murdoch was the perfect host when his house guests were present. The family noticed he didn’t spend as much time with Mrs. Devon as he had Amanda. Murdoch found reasons to disappear into Green River several times but always returned in time for dinner.
There hadn’t been any signs of trouble anywhere on the ranch since Alasdair MacKay was shot. It had been so quiet Murdoch was ready to ease back on the security around the hacienda. Before he did, though, he wanted to talk to Scott and Johnny and see what Val thought.
The Grandfather clock in the Great Room chimed twice.
On the second floor of the hacienda, a door opened and a lone figure stepped into the hall, looking both ways. Taking a quick breath, she relaxed before starting toward the back stairs to the kitchen.
It had been seven days since coming to Lancer, and it was time to act. Everyone was relaxed and lulled into a sense of security. No one would suspect a thing. They never did until it was too late.
Everything had been planned; every step, every movement was memorized. It was easy to go down the back stairs and then move through the moonlit kitchen.
Opening the back door and stepping outside, she froze in place at the sound of a horse whinnying. She waited several seconds before deciding there was nothing to worry about. Using the light of the moon, it only took a few minutes to get to the barn.
Once in the barn, she waited. Hearing a rustling sound, she moved into the shadows. Finally, seeing the man she’d been waiting for, she stepped out.
“It’s about time you got here.”
“I came as soon as I could get away.”
“Which saddle is his?”
The man pointed to the darkened recesses of the barn, where everyone’s tack was stored.
She followed him through the barn to the tack room.
“This one,” he said and then stepped back.
Slipping on plain white gloves, she opened the small rawhide package Garrett had given her. She looked at the moist square piece of cloth and smiled.
‘So small, yet so deadly.’
Picking up the fabric, she carefully wiped it across the top of the saddle horn, careful not to touch it anywhere else.
‘Not too much. Not yet.’
The cloth was carefully folded and placed back inside the rawhide protector.
“Are you sure that’s enough?”
“I know what I’m doing. Remember, this is only a test. We have two days until this is over, and finally, after all these years, it really will be over.”
He reached out a hand and placed it on her arm. “Please, be careful. We’re so close.”
Taking off the white gloves, she turned and retraced the steps previously taken. Tomorrow she would dispose of the gloves. She had, of course, brought several pairs.
Upstairs, the bedroom door quietly closed; no one was wiser about what had been done or what was going to happen.
Val Crawford left Green River two hours before sunrise, hoping to catch all the Lancers before they left the house for the day. He needed to sit down with Murdoch and his sons alone and show them what he’d found. With luck, he hoped it would lead him to find whoever was after the Lancers.
It had been eight days since the night he’d had dinner at Lancer. Johnny asked him more than once to come again, but Val Crawford wasn’t anyone’s fool. He was determined to stay out of the line of fire of either Murdoch or Garrett.
Val entered the yard and reined to a stop as Cipriano came from around the side of the house. The Segundo threw up a hand.
“Hola, Senor Val. Buenos días.”
“Morning, Cip. The Lancers down yet?”
“No, Senor. Was the Patron expecting you?”
“No. I found something last night I need to talk to him about. You probably need to see it too. Maria got any coffee made?”
Cipriano smiled. “Si. Come, I will sit with you.”
The two men walked around the house and through the garden to the kitchen door.
“Maria, we have a visitor,” Cipriano said as he pushed the door open, waving Val ahead of him.
Maria turned to face Val, and a smile spread across her face. “Buenos días, Senor. Café?”
“Sit.” Maria put a cup of coffee in front of him. “You are hungry?”
Val returned the smile. “I could eat.”
“Bueno. Breakfast will be ready soon.”
“Café, Maria.” Cipriano took a seat next to Val, and Maria poured him a cup then went back to the stove.
Val lifted the steaming cup and started to take a sip when he heard spurs jingling. Turning, he saw Johnny coming down the back stairs.
Johnny stopped at the bottom of the back stairs and grinned. “So, what are you doing out here so early?”
“Came for breakfast. You got a problem with that?”
Johnny shook his head. “Not me, Papi.”
Val gave Johnny a quick look but didn’t say anything. He and Johnny looked at Maria and Cipriano; both seemed to ignore Johnny’s slip of the tongue.
Before Johnny could sit down, Murdoch and Scott came down the stairs. Both stopped and looked at Val before taking a seat at the table.
“Morning, Mr. Lancer.”
“Good morning, Val.”
Johnny laughed. “Now that the mornings are out of the way, Val, you want to tell us what you’re doing here so early?”
Before he could answer, Teresa walked into the kitchen.
“Val, good morning. What brings you out so early?”
“Morning, Miss Teresa. I’ve found something I need….” Val looked towards the stairs again. “Your house guests still in bed?”
“Yes,” Murdoch answered. “None of them are early risers.”
“Good, cause I need to talk to you, but…,” Val paused. “Does Garrett or those ladies know what happened to MacKay?”
“No. I haven’t mentioned it to them and don’t plan to.” Murdoch looked at Scott.
“I haven’t either. I didn’t want to alarm anyone. Julie asked about the guards we have posted, but I explained we were still cautious after Pardee’s raids.”
“I believe Mr. Garrett and the girls are going to Green River today,” Teresa spoke up. “I planned to go with them, but if I need to stay….”
“No, that would actually work out,” Val said. “Mr. Lancer can explain everything to you when you’re alone later.”
“What about Sam? Does he need to be here?” Scott asked.
“I spoke to him last night, and he’ll be out here this morning.”
Murdoch looked closely at Val. “It’s important enough that Sam can leave his office?”
“I think it is. I’m hoping we can figure out how the Brùns are going to come at you.”
“Good enough.” Murdoch turned to Cipriano. “Cip, I want you and the boys working close to the house this morning. We’ll see what Val’s found out when Sam gets here and after Harlan and the ladies leave.”
Cipriano was busy handing out orders as Scott and Johnny made their way across the yard to the corral.
“Cipriano, my grandfather and the ladies are going to Green River today. Teresa is going with them. Would you pick two men to ride along with them?”
“Si, Senor Scott.” Cipriano looked around at the hands. “Juan and Joe will go with them.”
Johnny waited for Cipriano to give Juan and Joe their instructions before approaching the two men.
“Keep your eyes open. It’s been quiet but ….”
Joe smiled. “Don’t worry. We’ll take care of them.”
Scott turned to see his grandfather walking towards him. Lea, Julie, Caitlyn, and Jenny were waiting on the front portico with Teresa.
“We’re anxious to get to town. I have some telegrams to send while the ladies shop.”
“The carriage should ….” Scott started, but the sound of tack jingling drew his attention towards the barn. “There’s Pedro now.”
Once everyone was in the carriage, Pedro flicked the reins and started down the road. They had just passed the arch when Teresa saw Sam coming from the opposite direction. She waved at him, wishing she was back at the house hearing what Val had to say.
When Sam’s buggy pulled up in front of the house, Murdoch hurried out to meet him.
“Sam, I’m glad you could make it.”
“Val said he has something to tell us, so I came out as soon as I could break away.”
“Senor Sam, I will have one of the men take your buggy.”
“No, wait, Cipriano. I have to go back to town as soon as we finish inside.”
Cipriano nodded and waved to one of the vaqueros.
“Manuel, water the doctor’s horse, but do not unhitch him.”
“Gracias, Manuel,” Sam said and turned to the house.
“De nada, Senor,” Manuel replied as he led the buggy horse away.
“Everything in town alright?” Murdoch asked as they walked together.
“Everything is fine. I have patients to see to this afternoon and need to get back.”
Scott and Val were seated near the fireplace in the Great Room, waiting for the others. Maria set a tray of lemonade and glasses on the coffee table and found a seat on the sofa.
Sam took a seat next to her.
Murdoch looked around the room. “Where’s Johnny?”
“Right here.” Johnny hurried through the front door, his spurs ringing.
“Val, you said you’ve found something?” Murdoch sat in one of the wingback chairs.
“I was going through the things of that friend of yours.”
“MacKay?” Scott asked.
Murdoch cleared his throat. “Val, what did you find?”
“This.” Val pulled a piece of paper out of his shirt pocket and unfolded it. “Found it in one of the books he had in his luggage.”
“What does it say?”
“Makes no sense to me. Mr. Lancer, he’s… he was your friend. Maybe you can figure it out.”
Murdoch took the paper, silently read it, then paled.
“Well, sir?” Scott moved a chair behind his father. “Sit down, sir, before you fall down.”
Murdoch did as he was told.
Scott took the missive from Murdoch’s hand and read it aloud, “Remember Glencoe. Remember the Campbells.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Johnny looked between Scott and Murdoch.
Val took the message back. “Mr. Lancer, you have any idea what he meant.”
“No, Val, I don’t.”
“You know who Glencoe is?” Johnny was getting impatient.
“Glencoe isn’t a who, John; it’s a place. It’s a small village approximately 60 miles south of Inverness.”
“Everything keeps going back to Inverness and Scotland,” Scott said aloud.
“So, why did he say remember Glencoe? What happened at Glencoe?”
“A massacre?” Val exclaimed. “Who got killed, and who did the killing?”
“It’s a long story.” Murdoch leaned his head back and closed his eyes.
Johnny laughed. “Isn’t it always.”
Val gave Johnny a stern look before asking, “Mr. Lancer, you remember what happened?”
“Val, the massacre of Glencoe is a legend in the Highlands. What happened has been recorded in history books and handed down by word of mouth for generations.”
Murdoch paused, gathering his thoughts, and tried to remember all he knew about Glencoe.
“In the late 1600s, William III became King of England. Scotland was under British rule, but most of the Scottish Clans weren’t loyal to the Crown. To determine who was loyal to him and who wasn’t, William demanded the clan Chiefs swear allegiance to him in writing.”
Murdoch looked at Johnny’s face seeing a question forming. “A clan is a type of family.”
Johnny nodded his understanding.
“The deadline to sign their oaths of allegiance was set for January 1, 1692. Those Chiefs who didn’t sign the pledge were deemed traitors to the Crown along with their entire clan.
“For several reasons, Alastair Maclain, the Chief of the Clan MacDonald of Glencoe, was late signing the document. Although Maclain was assured his allegiance to the Crown was recognized, he didn’t know that William disagreed and viewed Maclain and the Clan MacDonald traitors.
“In a preemptive move, William ordered the Scottish government to send 120 troops to Glencoe under the command of Captain Robert Campbell.”
“Robert Campbell? As in beware the Campbells?” Val asked.
“I assume so,” Murdoch answered.
“Go on, Murdoch,” Sam urged.
“Alastair Maclain had no reason to doubt the troops were friendly, as he had signed his allegiance to the Crown. Robert Campbell and his men were welcomed into the homes of the residence of Glencoe. Campbell’s men slept in the homes of the MacDonalds and ate at their tables. To the MacDonald Clan, the troops were welcome guests.
“On February 12, 1692, William sent an order to Robert Campbell. The message has become famous and simply said every member of the Clan MacDonald under the age of seventy was to be put to the sword.
“In the early hours of Wednesday the 13th, the blood bath started and the Clan Chief Alastair Maclain was the first to die, killed in his bed while he slept. Before it was over, 38 men, women, and children were killed in the village, and others fled to the mountains only to freeze to death. The true total death toll varied but could have been as many as 300.”
Everyone in the room was quiet. Finally, Johnny broke the silence.
“So, what’s that got to do with Brùn?”
Murdoch shook his head. “I …. I have no idea.”
“Well, it must mean something,” Scott said.
Sam sat thinking for a moment longer. “Murdoch, is there anything else you remember about the story? I mean, it’s obvious whatever MacKay wanted to tell you involved what happened at Glencoe.”
“I’ll have to think about it.”
Johnny stood up. “Well, while you’re thinking, I’m going to work.”
“I’m going with you, little brother.” Scott stood and looked at Murdoch. “If you do remember something, send someone for us.”
“I will. You two, be careful. Murdoch stood and turned to Val. “Thank you for bringing this to us.”
“Not a problem. I’m headed back to town. I’ll let you know if I find out anything else.”
Scott strapped on his gun belt while watching Johnny do the same. Somehow, when Johnny put on his rig, it was poetry in motion. Each movement was graceful, almost like the dance Johnny did with his Colt when he faced a man in a gunfight.
“What have you got planned for today, little brother?”
“Murdoch wants the strays in the south pasture rounded up. The grass is playing out down there and we’re going to have to move the heard north soon.”
“We’ll get rain soon, but he’s right. The herd needs to be moved.”
Johnny went to the barn and saddled Barranca.
“Boston, you coming with me?”
Scott shook his head. “No. Some of the boys said the stream on the east pasture was running slow. Thought I’d take a ride out there and check it out. I’ll probably need to clear. I’ll see you tonight.”
As Johnny and Scott rode out, Johnny pulled up and looked around.
“Something wrong?” Scott scanned the yard and the field beyond the corral.
Johnny shrugged. “I don’t know. Just feel like we’re being watched. I guess Murdoch’s story has me spooked.”
“About the story, can you think of anything Murdoch told us that may help with what’s happening now?”
Johnny hesitated before shaking his head. “Maybe, but I need to think on it. We’ll talk about it tonight.”
Pedro didn’t mind driving Senorita Teresa and Lancer’s guests to Green River. It was better than stringing wire or rounding up strays. He tried not to listen to the women chattering away in the seats behind him, but when he’d hear something about Senor Scott or the Patron, his ears would perk up.
Pedro had worked for Lancer for many years. He was one of the 18 men who stayed loyal to Lancer when Pardee attacked the ranch. Pedro and the other hands who’d stayed and fought Pardee shared a special bond with Murdoch Lancer and his hijos.
Pedro glanced at the man sitting beside him. He didn’t particularly like Senor Scott’s abuelo, but then he wasn’t paid to like the hombre. Leaning back in the seat, he clicked the matched pair of geldings on. It was a good day for a drive.
The ladies chatted away while Harlan sat quietly next to the Mexican driver, thinking about the telegrams he needed to send. Occasionally, he’d turn to look behind the surrey. The two Lancer hands rode in silence behind them. Protection. That’s why they were there. To protect Teresa and Murdoch Lancer’s guests.
Harlan wanted to laugh out loud. If only the Lancers knew what was going to happen, they’d realize it would take more than these men to protect them.
He’d been on his best behavior for over a week. It had been hard keeping a civil tongue when speaking to Murdoch or his half-breed son. However, he did it for Scotty. He wanted his grandson back in Boston and knew any adverse reactions to Murdoch or Johnny would defeat his purpose.
Harlan was sure Scott would have returned to Boston months ago if it hadn’t been for his half-Mexican brother. Now, he was determined to make that happen. To that end, he’d spent six weeks in San Francisco planning his next move and working out the details.
His first plan was to call on the one person who could get to Scott and convince him to return to Boston. When he’d contracted Julie Dennison, he had no idea she came with a bonus.
Now, Harlan had a backup plan and someone who would carry it out for him. His hands would be clean, and he was assured no one would know he was involved. All that was required of him was to get Julie’s friends to Lancer and into the house.
“Mr. Garrett, Pedro will drop us off at the dress shop and take you on to the telegraph office if you want.” Teresa leaned forward so that Harlan might hear her better.
“No need, my dear. I believe I’d like to stretch my legs and I’m sure I can find the telegraph office. I thought that perhaps when you ladies are finished with your shopping, we might get a bite to eat at the café near the hotel.”
“What a wonderful idea, Mr. Garrett,” Lea responded before anyone else could speak. “There is something about all this fresh air that makes me ravenous, and I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so much.”
“I know what you mean,” Jenny added. “All this open county and fresh air is wonderful, but what I wouldn’t give for a whiff of the ocean breeze off Boston Bay.”
“Scott’s told us about Boston. It must be wonderful.” Teresa’s face lit up, hoping Jenny would tell her more about Boston. She wasn’t disappointed as the dark-haired woman continued to chat as they rode along.
It wasn’t long before they’d reached Green River. Pedro pulled up in front of the dress shop and stepped down to help the ladies onto the boardwalk.
“Pedro, if you want, you can go to the cantina. We’ll be at least a couple of hours shopping and then we’re going to the café,” Teresa said as she brushed the wrinkles out of her dress.
“Si, Senorita, gracias.”
“What about us, Miss Teresa?” Joe dismounted and led his horse to the hitching rail in front of the dress shop.
“We’re going to be hours, Joe. If you have business in town, you can take care of it while we’re here. Oh, and could you pick up the mail for Murdoch?”
“Yes, ma’am. I think we’ll go to the cantina with Pedro. We’ll check back with you at around 1:00 if that’s alright. We need to be heading back no later than 1:30 if we want to get you back in time for supper.”
“Thank you, Joe. I’ll see you later.” Teresa turned to the other women. “This way, ladies. Mr. Garrett, we’ll meet you at the cafe at noon if that’s alright.”
“Yes, of course. I’ll see you then.”
Joe watched Harlan tip his hat to the women and start down the boardwalk toward the telegraph office. Teresa and the other three young ladies were chattering away as they made their way into the dress shop.
Johnny pulled off his gloves and leaned forward in the saddle, pushing up on the saddle horn. Lifting his left hand, he looked at it then rubbed it against his pants leg. It had been tingling for some time, and now it was burning.
Johnny was hot and tired, and his rear end was aching. He’d been sweating for some time, more than he should have. He wet his bandana with water from his canteen and wiped his face and neck, then poured some over his burning hand, hoping to wash off whatever he’d gotten into.
Looking up at the gathering clouds to the west, he thought of Scott clearing the stream on the east pasture. There seemed to always be a stream or creek that needed clearing.
“Johnny!” Jacobs called out, pointing to a calf that had decided to detour from the rest of the small herd.
Johnny reined Barranca around and went after the young bull. It was easy enough to redirect the little one, who immediately looked for his mother.
Johnny raised his hand again. The tingling sensation was still there. Thinking nothing else of it, he went back to work.
“Hey, Johnny!” Frank yelled. It was the third time he’d called Johnny and still hadn’t gotten a response. Frank kicked his gelding’s sides and went to see what was wrong.
Johnny was leaning forward in the saddle, rubbing his left hand.
“Johnny,” Frank said as he reached out and touched Johnny’s arm. “You alright?”
Johnny raised his head and looked at Frank.
Frank could see something wasn’t right. “What’s wrong?”
“I…I don’t know. Feel funny, and my hand keeps tingling. Maybe I got into something when I pulled that calf out of the brush earlier.” Johnny continued to rub his left hand with his right.
“Maybe you should head on back. I’ll go with you. Let me tell the others to go ahead and move this bunch in with the main herd.”
Frank wheeled his horse around and went to find Jacobs and Slim. When he got back, he saw Johnny leaning over Barranca’s neck.
“Johnny, you think you can make it home?”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, just feel like I’m gonna throw up. Damn, don’t know what I’ve gotten into.”
“Come on, then.” Frank reached out and took Barranca’s reins out of Johnny’s hands.
Fortunately, the south pasture was the closest to the hacienda. It only took an hour for Frank to get Johnny home. By the time they rode under the arch, Johnny seemed to be feeling better.
Frank dismounted and called out. “Mr. Lancer!”
The front door opened and Murdoch stepped outside as Frank started helping Johnny out of the saddle.
“What’s wrong with him?”
Frank shook his head. “I don’t know. He was fine all morning, then he got to feeling like he was going to throw up. Said his hand was tingling. He thinks maybe he got into something pulling a calf out of some brush.”
“John?” Murdoch lifted Johnny’s chin and looked into his glassy eyes. “Do you have a fever?”
“Don’t know. Don’t think so. Just didn’t feel good and my hand keeps tingling. I’m feeling better now.”
“Frank, would you go find Cipriano and have him send someone to town for Sam, then come back and help me with John. I’m going to get him to bed.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Lancer.”
Johnny pushed Murdoch’s hands away. “Told you I was feeling better. No need for Sam to come all the way out here.”
“Go ahead, Frank. Be sure to come back.”
As Frank went to look for Cipriano, Murdoch put an arm around Johnny, guiding him towards the house. They’d only gone a few feet before Johnny leaned into his father.
“Guess I’m not feeling as good as I thought. Just need to lay down for a little while.”
Pushing through the French doors, Murdoch headed straight for the stairs.
“Si, Patron.” Maria stepped out of the kitchen, her eyes widened when she saw Johnny. “Juanito, que pasa?”
Murdoch shook his head.
“We don’t know. I’ve sent for Sam. Frank is coming back to help with him. Go up and turn his bed down.”
Once in Johnny’s room, Murdoch sat his son on the edge of the bed and turned to Maria.
“Maria, get some cool water. He feels like he has a fever.”
Murdoch laid Johnny down and started pulling his boots off of him.
“I can do that.” Johnny started to sit up. When the room started spinning, he quickly fell back on the bed. “Guess not.”
Murdoch heard a noise and looked over his shoulder to see Frank coming into the room.
“Frank, help me get his clothes off.”
“Cip sent for Sam and Val. Said he’d be up in a minute.”
Murdoch raised up and looked at Frank. “Why, Val?”
Frank swallowed before answering. “Just thought he’d want to know Johnny’s sick. I do something wrong?”
“No, that’s alright. I think Johnny would appreciate Val being here.”
By the time they had Johnny’s shirt off, Maria was hurrying into the room with a pitcher of fresh water. Close on her heels was Cipriano.
“I don’t know, Cip. He says he’s feeling better, but he’s still pale, and I think he has a fever.”
Johnny raised his head. “Just let me rest a few minutes.” Suddenly jerking upright. “Mur…” Johnny leaned over the side of the bed, breathing hard.
“Watch out.” Frank saw what was about to happen and reached for a washbasin, getting it under Johnny’s head just as he started heaving.
Murdoch sat on the edge of the bed and held his son’s head as he emptied his stomach. Once the retching began, Murdoch didn’t think it would stop. Finally, Johnny collapsed onto the bed, his bare chest gleaming with sweat.
“Patron. Let me.” Murdoch stood and let Maria take his place. She put a cool cloth on his forehead and wiped his face with another.
“Lay back, Juanito. It will be alright.”
Johnny raised his hand to examine it. “Damn, I wish it would stop tingling. Feels like I got ants crawling all over it.”
Maria took his hand and started bathing it in the cold water.
“Gracias, that feels good. Must have gotten into some weeds or something.”
Maria continued to bathe his hand, then his arms and chest. It wasn’t long before she smiled, seeing him close his eyes and drift off to sleep.
Scott pulled the last brush out of the stream and collapsed on the bank. Walt sat down next to him and handed him a canteen.
“I hate clearing streams. I hate stringing wire. I hate herding cattle. I….” Scott spouted off.
“But you love this land, don’t you?”
Scott laughed. “Yes, I love this land, and I wouldn’t trade being here for anything in the world. It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some places.”
“I was born just a few miles from Lancer and ain’t been nowhere to speak of, but don’t think I’d be happy anywhere else but here. I may not own any part of Lancer, but I love it too.”
“You’re a good man, Walt.” Murdoch has been lucky in having loyal men who he can trust. Scott took a deep breath. “Let’s get this finished and get home. I need a bath before the ladies get back from town, and it’s been hard getting a hot bath with so many women in the house.”
Walt leaned in, sniffing at Scott, then pulled back, waving his hand in front of his face. “Yeah, I’d say you need a bath.”
They stood up to return to the stream when they saw a rider coming fast.
“This can’t be good,” Scott said as he watched the rider get closer.
“Nope. Never is around here. Knew it had been too quiet.”
Jose pulled up before jumping from the lathered horse.
“Senor Scott, the Patron, needs you at the hacienda. Juanito is ill, and they have sent for el Medico.”
“Ill? Has he been shot?”
“No se. Juanito didn’t look wounded, only sick.”
Scott strapped on his gun belt. Grabbing his hat, he stepped into the saddle.
“Jose, let your horse cool down before you come back. Walt, stay with him. I’ll ride on ahead.”
“Scott, maybe I should go with you.” Walt was already headed to his horse.
“No. I want you two to stay together. Keep a lookout on my back trail. I don’t know if any of this has to do with Madrid or the people who shot MacKay, but I’m not taking any chances. If you see anyone you don’t know, stay clear of them and head for the house.”
As the two men watched Scott ride away, Walt turned to Jose. “What happened?”
“No se. Frank brought him home. He was sick. That’s all I know.”
“Alright, get that saddle off, and let’s cool him down.”
Walt shook his head. It had been too quiet for too long, and they all knew it.
Pedro took his hat off and held it against his chest as Harlan and the ladies stepped out of the café onto the boardwalk.
“Senorita Teresa, you are ready to go now?”
“Yes, Pedro. Thank you.” Teresa moved closer to the carriage, watching Joe and Juan safely stow their purchases. Pedro helped them get seated and moved to his place on the front seat.
“Miss Teresa. Ladies.” Joe and Juan tipped their hats before mounting and waiting for Pedro.
Pedro flicked the reins and clicked the horses forward.
Teresa tapped Pedro on the shoulder when she saw Val stepping out of the Sheriff’s office.
“Hold up, Pedro.”
Val stepped down into the street and walked over to the surrey. “Miss Teresa.” Val tipped his hat.
“Val, we’ll see you on Sunday?”
“For dinner. It’s been a while since you’ve been out to the ranch to eat with us. You might even consider staying over for the night, and I know Johnny would enjoy having you there.”
Val thought for a moment. “Yes, ma’am, wouldn’t miss it, and I’ll think about staying the night if it’s not a problem.”
“Don’t be silly, Val. You know you’re always welcome.”
“Yes, ma’am. Well, you’d better get on home if you’re gonna be there by dinner.” Val looked up at the sun’s position, judging it to be close to 2:00.
Teresa laughed. “All right, we’ll see you then. Pedro, you can go now.”
As the carriage moved away, Val nodded to Joe and Juan.
“The Sheriff seems to spend a great deal of time at Lancer,” Jenny said as she glanced over her shoulder at Val still standing in the street. She didn’t care for the gruff-looking man who always seemed to be watching them whenever he was near.
“Yes, Val is a good friend of Johnny’s. Well, to all of us.” Teresa smiled as she thought of her ‘brother.’ She wished they knew more about Johnny and Val’s relationship.
“Teresa, that first night Val said he and Johnny rode together. What did he mean?”
Teresa hesitated, but it was Val and Johnny who brought it up in the first place. She wasn’t ashamed to have either of them in her life.
“Val and Johnny were partners. They worked together in Texas and Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico.”
“Don’t you mean that Johnny Madrid and Val Crawford were gunman, hired killers, who sold their talents to the highest bidder?” Harlan put his arm on the back of the seat and turned to look at Teresa.
Pedro stiffened when he heard Scott’s abuelo speak of Johnny Madrid in the tone he used.
“Johnny did what he had to do to survive, Mr. Garrett. He’s no longer that man.” Teresa regretted answering the question in the first place.
“Teresa, it’s hard to believe someone so young could do such things. How old is Johnny now, twenty?”
“No, Johnny’s nineteen. He won’t be twenty until December.”
“Nineteen! How old was he when he started using a gun?”
She was saved from answering the question when Joe and Juan moved in front of the carriage.
“Pedro, hold up. Rider coming this way fast.” Joe pulled his rifle, planting it firmly on his thigh, barrel in the air.
“It’s Mateo.” Juan leaned forward in the saddle, shifting his rifle across his pommel.
Joe rode forward to meet Mateo before he was within hearing distance of the others.
“Mateo, what’s the hurry?”
“Cipriano sent me for el Medico. Senor Johnny is sick.”
“When did he get sick? The boy looked alright this morning.”
“I don’t know. Frank brought him home. Cipriano sent me for Senor Sam.”
“Alright then, go ahead. I ain’t telling Miss Teresa until we get back to the ranch. No sense in her worrying all the way there.”
As Mateo passed the carriage, he nodded to Teresa.
“Joe, what’s wrong? Is someone injured?” Teresa asked, unable to hide the worry on her face.
Joe didn’t like lying to her, but it was the best thing to do at the time.
“One of the men got sick. Cip sent for Sam. Don’t know which one, Miss Teresa.” Joe looked at Pedro. “Best get moving, Pedro.”
Pedro nodded and once again got the carriage underway.
“Is there anything to worry about, Teresa?” Caitlyn asked, seeing the concerned look on Teresa’s face.
“I suppose not,” Teresa answered yet couldn’t shake the feeling something was terribly wrong.
“How’s Johnny?” Julie quickly stood as Scott entered the Great Room.
“Better. Much better. Teresa’s with him. Sam isn’t sure what happened, but Johnny is feeling better. Sam’s told him to stay in bed until morning, which means we’ll most probably see him downstairs tonight.”
Julie moved to Scott’s side. “That’s a relief. We’ve been worried.” Julie looked around the room at Lea, Caitlyn, and Jenny.
“Yes, very worried. I’m so glad Johnny’s feeling better,” Lea added.
Scott looked past Julie, noting Harlan wasn’t in the room. “Where’s Grandfather?”
“Mr. Garrett went to lay down before dinner.” Julie smiled at Scott. “Perhaps, after dinner, you and I can spend some time in the garden. We’ve barely had any time to ourselves since I’ve been here.”
“I’d like that very much.”
Scott returned her smile and felt a tingle run through him. There was a time he’d loved this woman enough to want to marry. Maybe, just maybe, they could rekindle their relationship.
Jenny sat quietly, watching Julie and Scott. The handsome, tall blond made her friend laugh, and she liked seeing them together. It had been a long time since she’d seen Julie as happy as she was with Scott.
While life in Boston was good, Jenny knew Dennison Imports was in trouble, and Julie was worried about her father. Although Julie never said anything, Jenny believed Mr. Garrett had promised to help Mr. Dennison in exchange for Julie making the trip.
Jenny didn’t know all there was to Julie’s arrangement with Garrett. However, she did know that Mr. Garrett was hoping Julie would convince Scott to return to Boston. Seeing the couple together, Jenny hoped that would be the case. She’d give anything to see Julie married to Scott Lancer.
“I’m feeling fine now. Stop fussing over me.” Johnny started to throw the bed sheet off of him, then remembered he didn’t have anything on but his cutoff long johns.
“Will you stop being stubborn? You gave us a scare, Johnny, and we don’t know what caused it. Don’t you think you should stay in bed?” Teresa was tugging the bedsheet back over Johnny when he slapped her hand away.
“Stop it, Teresa.”
“What’s going on in here?” The voice was gruff and loud, freezing everyone in their places. “I ask a question and expect an answer.”
“Make them go away, Murdoch. I’m feeling alright now.”
“That a fact?” Johnny’s head shot up, hearing Val’s voice.
“P…Val, what are you doing here?”
“Where would I be, with you being laid up?” Val paused and cleared his throat. “Murdoch, I mean, Mr. Lancer, what’s going on?”
“It’s alright, Val.” Murdoch smiled. “All we know is Frank brought him home around 1:00. He was weak, having trouble standing. Sam’s not sure what caused it.”
“Anything else?” Val sat on the side of the bed. Reaching out, he brushed his hand across Johnny’s forehead, feeling for a fever.
Johnny pulled away and swatted Val’s hand.
“Ain’t got a fever. I was sick to my stomach and my eyes were hurting. What bothered me the most was my hand.” Johnny raised his left hand. “It started to tingle and burn. I think I must have gotten into something today.”
Val took his hand and looked at the palm, noting a slight red tinge.
“Nope, and I feel fine now.”
“I see he’s biting at the bit to get out of bed?” Sam entered the room, shaking his head. “I don’t have a clue what was wrong with you. Don’t you think it would be wise to give your body some time to recover from whatever it was?”
“Sam, I appreciate what you’re saying, but I’m ….”
“Fine.” The three men said at the same time.
Johnny dropped his head.
“We know, John.” Sam moved to the side of the bed and picked up Johnny’s wrist, and waited a minute. Pulling out his stethoscope, he listened to Johnny’s heart and then examined his eyes.
“Are your eyes bothering you now?”
“Not since Teresa closed the curtains. It was too bright in here.”
Shrugging, Sam turned to Murdoch and Val. “I’ll agree with him this time. He’s fine. His pulse and heart rate are within limits, and there is no dilation of his pupils. It’s as if nothing happened.”
“See.” Johnny grinned. “Now, can I get up?”
“Sam?” Murdoch crossed his arms over his chest and stared at his son.
“I don’t see any reason to keep him in bed.” Turning to Johnny. “If you feel alright, then yes, you can get up. If you feel any change, any at all, I need to know about it. I’m going to stay the night…if there’s room for me.”
Murdoch straightened up. “There’s always room, Sam.”
“Can I have a few minutes with Johnny alone?” Val stood up and moved to the chair next to the bed.
“Come on, Sam. I’ll buy you a drink. We’ll leave Val to deal with this one.”
Sam followed Murdoch out of the room and closed the door.
“What’s on your mind, Papi?” Johnny threw the covers aside and swung his legs off the side of the bed.
“What do you really think happened today?”
“Hell, if I know. I was alright this morning. About an hour after we got out on the range, my left hand started tingling. That was after I pulled that calf out of the brush. I was sweating like a pig by then. About a half-hour later, the same hand started to burn. I poured some water over it, and it seemed alright. Then I started getting light-headed and felt like I was going to lose my breakfast. That’s when Frank and I started for home.”
Val shook his head.
“Look, Val, no one was around when I got sick. If it was the Brùns, I have no idea how they did it.”
“I’m staying tonight, too.”
“Why not.” Johnny huffed. “Place is like a damn hotel already. Sure will be glad when old man Garrett and the ladies leave.”
“You think he’s gonna try to get Scott to go with him?”
“Yep, that’s why he brought Julie along. Scott told me once he was engaged to her back in Boston.”
Johnny shook his head, but deep down he was worried. Julie was a beautiful woman, and she had her sights set on Scott. He didn’t dare think of the possibility of Scott going back to Boston with her. If he did, that would mean Harlan Garrett won, and Lancer had lost; he’d lost.
Johnny was at his usual seat at the dinner table that night, and Val was beside him. The conversation switched between the trip to town and Johnny’s sudden illness.
Johnny quickly brushed off the illness and turned the conversation totally to the trip to town.
“Murdoch, your hospitality has been most welcome,” Lea Devon said. “I’m sure coming from Scotland, it was embedded in your culture when you were growing up.”
Murdoch nodded. “Yes, the Scots are known for their hospitality.”
Scott looked at Johnny and almost laughed aloud when his brother rolled his eyes. For the next ten minutes, the discussion was about Scotland.
Johnny felt the same anxiety he’d had when Amanda was at the ranch, and the topic of Scotland came up. His discomfort grew stronger the more Murdoch shared with these strangers.
All this talk about Scotland didn’t sit well with him. There was something about the story Murdoch told them about the massacre at Glencoe that tickled the back of his memory, but he just couldn’t put his finger on it.
Everyone moved to the Great Room once dinner was over. Johnny was about to make his escape with Val when he saw Scott take Julie’s arm and guide her to the garden.
Damn, if he wouldn’t be glad when they were gone.
“It is beautiful here, Scott. I can see why you like it.” Julie followed the path that meandered through the rose bushes and around the garden’s edge.
She sat on one of the benches, and Scott sat next to her. Reaching around her, he pulled her close, and his lips brushed hers. Scott looked into her eyes and leaned in again. This time the kiss lingered longer.
Letting her go, Scott reached up and brushed his hand along her cheek.
“Are you trying to forget me out here in all this wilderness, Scott?”
“Well, it takes more than an argument to end what we had.”
“What do we have now?”
Scott hesitated a brief moment. “I don’t know.”
“Scott, do you ever think about coming back to Boston?”
“Yes, I’ve thought about it.” Scott reached for a rose on the bush next to them. Taking the thorns from the stem, he handed it to Julie.
“Then why don’t you?”
“Because I have a home here with Johnny and Murdoch.”
“What about your grandfather?”
Scott laughed. “My grandfather is capable of taking care of himself. You know that.”
“Is that the only obligation you think there is in Boston? What about me?”
“Julie, if we’d gotten married….”
“If. Is that the only word we can use? What about now. Scott, I love you, and I want you to come back to Boston with me. Make your grandfather happy.”
Scott didn’t miss a beat. “Who makes me happy?”
“I will. I promise. You’ve got to believe me.”
“Julie, marry me. Marry me and live with me at Lancer.”
Julie sighed. “I can’t.”
“Because my father is an old man. He’s sick, and he needs me.”
“We could bring him here.”
Julie looked away. “No use talking about it. Scott, you just don’t understand. Maybe you just don’t care.”
Scott shifted closer to her. “But I do understand. Because I have the same feeling about my father. That’s why I can’t leave Lancer. He needs me, too.”
“Does he, then why didn’t he need you while you were growing up?”
“Julie, what’s that supposed to mean?”
“I remember talking about it in Boston. You hated your father then. You said he didn’t care about you.”
“Well, I was wrong because he does care. I know why he wasn’t there when I was growing up, and I’ve accepted his reasons. The past is in the past, Julie.”
Scott remembered the talk he and Murdoch had in the barn. Scott now knew what it had cost his father to lose him and how his grandfather had stood in the way of him coming back to Lancer, where he belonged. Any hate he’d had for Murdoch was long gone, and there was only love and admiration for the man now.
“Julie, how do I make you understand. I love it here. As I’ve said, I’ve found something here I didn’t have in Boston. It’s like a piece of me that was missing my entire life has now been put into place. I feel whole and complete for the first time in my life.”
“I can see how happy you are, Scott, but I’ve missed you so much. You know I can’t stay here. The only way we can be together is if you come back to Boston with me.”
“Julie, I can’t leave Johnny and Murdoch. My life is here now.”
“So, that leaves us nowhere, doesn’t it, Scott? I’ve heard what you said about your father. What about Johnny? Your grandfather led me to believe it was Johnny holding you here.” She stopped and looked away for a moment. Looking back, she sighed. “Scott, there’s something about him that scares me.”
“Julie, Johnny would never hurt you.”
“But he’s hurt you and more than once, as I understand.”
“What are you talking about?”
“When men have come looking for him, they’ve hurt you to get to him. What if someday, one of those men comes after him and hurts you or Teresa, or even Murdoch. I couldn’t live like that. Not knowing if someday you’d lose your life because of your brother, because of Johnny Madrid.”
“Yes, men have come after Johnny, and yes, I’ve been hurt, but I’d do it all again for Johnny. Julie, he’s my brother. Do you know what that means to me? I grew up alone, always wanting a little brother. Now, I have one. Julie, I love Johnny. He needs me; he needs a big brother.”
“So, you’re staying here to what, protect him? Scott, I’ve been around Johnny long enough now to see that he can take care of himself.”
Scott shook his head. She would never understand.
“It’s no use, Julie. My life is here now with my father and brother.”
Julie started to say something and knew she would be wasting her breath.
“All right, Scott. I’ve tried. I’ll talk to Jenny and Caitlyn in the morning. I think it’s time we started back to San Francisco and then home to Boston.”
Julie quickly stood up and faced Scott. She leaned into him, put a hand behind his neck, and pulled him down to her. Their lips meet, first in a brief touch, then hungrily. Scott wrapped her in his arms, holding her close. When they finally separated, both struggled to catch their breaths.
“Think about it, Scott. We could be together.”
“I have thought about it, Julie. I love you, but I won’t leave Lancer.”
She turned and walked into the house. Scott looked out over the ranch, sighing. He loved Julie but loved his life at Lancer more.
As Scott made his way into the house, two sets of eyes watched him. One person quickly melted back into the shadows and leaned against the side of the house, waiting a few minutes before going inside. The other person quietly moved through the garden gate and out to the corral.
“Well?” Harlan met Julie in the upstairs hallway.
Julie shook her head.
Harlan opened his bedroom door, grabbed Julie’s arm, and pulled her inside.
“He won’t go back to Boston, Mr. Garrett. I tried. He says his life is here now, here with Johnny and Murdoch. He says they need him.”
“Need him? No, they want him here to help protect that half-breed. If Johnny were gone, then Scott would come home soon enough.”
“What are you planning to do?”
“That, my dear, is my business.”
“I want to go home, Mr. Garrett. I’ll talk to Jenny and Caitlyn in the morning, and we’ll plan to leave the day after tomorrow.”
“Very well. Go back to San Francisco and wait for me. Don’t go back to Boston just yet. There is still a chance Scotty will go with us.”
Julie didn’t respond. She knew Scott was happy here. Why couldn’t Harlan Garrett see that also? If he loved Scott, he would want him to be happy.
Opening the door, Harlan looked up and down the hallway before pushing Julie out of his room. Closing the door, he began to pace.
“There’s still a way.”
Suddenly, Harlan stopped pacing. Turning to the door, he opened it and moved into the hallway. He had someone to see.
The next morning at breakfast, Julie told everyone that she and her traveling companions would be leaving the following day for San Francisco and then on to Boston. The announcement set the tone for the day.
Teresa and Maria spent the day doing laundry and helping the ladies pack for their journey.
Murdoch insisted Johnny spend his day in the house, which meant the boy was working on the books. For once, Johnny didn’t mind, and it gave him time to think about Murdoch’s stories about the Brouns and Glencoe.
Alasdair MacKay felt there was a connection between the Glencoe massacre and Broun’s revenge, but for the life of him, Johnny couldn’t figure it out.
Why was what happened at Glencoe so important?
The more Johnny thought about it, the more confused he became. All the MacDonalds had done was allow Robert Campbell’s men into their homes. What was it Murdoch said last night? ‘The Scots are known for their hospitality.’
Johnny snorted. “Yeah, that hospitality got them killed.”
A sudden thought brought Johnny’s head up, but before he could put it to words, he heard Scott and Murdoch coming in through the French doors. After that, the only thing on Johnny’s mind was what was happening outside.
Dinner that night was served as usual precisely at 6:00, with everyone present. Maria served tamales and frijoles to Johnny and roasted chicken and vegetables to everyone else.
The talk around the table was subdued, with everyone concentrating on their food. No one wanted to bring up the subject of the ladies leaving or why.
When it was time to move to the Great Room, Scott stayed behind with Johnny. Standing, he walked around to the other side of the table and put his hand on his brother’s shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze.
“Are you feeling alright?”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Do you want a drink?”
“No. I think I’ll take a walk,” Johnny smiled, “enjoy some of that fresh Lancer air.”
“You want company?” Scott cocked his head.
“No. You go visit for a while. I’ll see you before I turn in.”
“Alright, but if you change your mind….”
“I know, if I change my mind, I know where to find you.”
Scott left Johnny and walked into the Great Room. Seeing Julie, Scott had a tinge of regret. The reason for her leaving tomorrow came crashing back on him. He wanted her to stay and knew she wouldn’t. He did love Julie, but he loved his family and Lancer more. If she couldn’t accept that, then Julie Dennison wasn’t the woman for him.
“Johnny’s not joining us?” Jenny looked past Scott towards the dining room.
“No, he’s gone for a walk.”
Julie stood up. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to bed. It’s going to be a long day tomorrow.”
“We’ll come too.” Caitlyn stood and moved to Julie’s side. “Won’t we, Jenny?”
“No. I think I’ll see if Johnny would like some company. Goodnight, everyone.”
“It’s a cool night, Jenny. Do you need a wrap?” Lea asked.
“No, I think I’ll be alright.”
“Goodnight then.” Lea turned to the stairs.
“I’m going up also,” Harlan said. “Goodnight, Murdoch. Scotty.”
Murdoch looked at his oldest son and smiled. “I suppose it’s just the two of us. How about a game of chess?”
“I’d like that.” Scott smiled. “I’d like that very much. I’ll get the board.”
Jenny walked outside and looked around. Johnny was leaning against a low wall on the other side of the courtyard. She’d only taken one step when Johnny turned, his hand going to his gun. He relaxed when he saw who it was.
“Johnny, I hope I’m not disturbing you. I felt like a stroll in the garden and wondered if you would like to join me?”
Johnny smiled, wondering what the woman was up to. “I guess so.”
Jenny took Johnny’s arm and pulled him along the meandering path around the courtyard.
“Johnny, I’m glad I got the opportunity to spend a few minutes with you before we leave tomorrow.”
When Johnny didn’t respond, Jenny stopped and turned to him.
“I’m so glad you’re feeling better. I was worried about you.”
“Thank you, but I’m alright now.”
Jenny started walking again. Johnny wanted to know what she wanted. In the time this woman had been at Lancer, she hadn’t given him more than a few minutes of her time. Now Jenny wanted to walk in the garden.
“Jenny, what do you want?”
She turned to look at him. When she started to say something, she stopped and sighed.
“Julie’s in love with Scott, and I think Scott loves her.”
“That’s between them. What do you want?”
“I want Julie to be happy.”
“What’s that got to do with me?”
“Nothing and everything. Scott’s going to need you when we’re gone. He’s going to need your support.”
“He knows he has that. He’s my brother, and I’d do anything for him.”
“Even ask him to leave Lancer and go back to Boston with Julie.”
A smile slipped onto Johnny’s face.
“Jenny, Scott’s his own man. If he wanted to go back to Boston, he would. He doesn’t want to, and for whatever reason, Julie doesn’t want to stay at Lancer.”
“If you talked to him, asked him to go with her….”
“I won’t do that. Scott belongs at Lancer, and he knows it; we all know it. If Garrett would open his eyes, he’d know it too. If Julie truly loved him, she would stay here with him, not make him choose between Boston and Lancer.”
“Perhaps you’re right.” Jenny started toward the door. “I’d hoped that … well, hoped Julie would find that fairytale ending to this trip she was hoping for. Goodnight, Johnny.”
“Goodnight, Jenny. I won’t be going to town with you tomorrow. I’ll say goodbye now.”
She smiled at Johnny, but it was a smile that didn’t go to her eyes. “Goodbye.”
When she reached the house, Jenny saw Scott standing in the doorway.
“Scott. I’m going to bed. Goodnight.”
She turned sideways to look back at Johnny. “Goodnight, again, Johnny.”
When she was gone, Scott turned to his brother.
“Did you and Jenny have a good talk?”
“You heard us. What’d you think? You want to go back to Boston with Julie?”
Scott put an arm around Johnny’s shoulder and pulled him close. “No, I don’t. I want to stay right here. You ready for bed?”
Johnny nodded. He was more than ready.
A door upstairs opened. She’d heard voices earlier, but now the house was quiet.
She made her way down the back stairs to the kitchen, then stopped and looked around before moving into the Great Room. The hat rack near the front door was her destination.
At the rack, she saw the three hats and smiled. Reaching out, she took the hat she knew belonged to Johnny and set it on the entry table, crown down.
Reaching in her dress pocket, she pulled out the small package wrapped in rawhide. Even wrapped, she was careful of how she touched it. Laying it next to the hat, she took a pair of white gloves from her pocket and put them on.
Carefully, unwrapping the rawhide, she looked at the small square piece of cloth inside. Hesitating for a moment, she was fascinated by the object. How could something so small be so lethal? Cautiously, she picked up the fabric in her right hand and the hat in her left.
Smiling, she found the sweatband dry. It needed to be dry.
As she wiped the square of cloth around the front portion of the sweatband, she hoped she hadn’t transferred too much of the poison from the fabric. The instructions were precise. If her calculations were accurate, it would be enough to make the hat’s owner sick, but not enough to kill him… right away. He needed to suffer first.
She knew the poison wouldn’t activate until the sweatband was wet again. Johnny would be far away from the house and immediate help by the time that happened, and she would be on a stagecoach heading for San Francisco.
Returning the hat to the rack, she turned to the rawhide wrapping. She rewrapped the poisonous cloth and put it back in her pocket. Taking off the tainted gloves, she folded them inside out, placed the right glove inside the left, and put them in her pocket as well.
Johnny Lancer would linger a day or two and then die. It was a shame too, as she’d become fond of the boy. Well, there was no help for it now.
As she made her way back upstairs, she had a revelation. One more way to ensure Scott’s return to Boston and she’d be tying up a loose end at the same time. Smiling, she opened her bedroom door and stepped inside.
“Good morning, Sir,” Scott said as he came out of his room to find his grandfather making his way toward the stairs.
“Good morning, Scotty,” Harland answered with a smile. “Did you sleep well?”
Scott hesitated before answering, “Well enough.”
“Well then, shall we go down?”
“After you, Sir.”
Standing in the entryway, Johnny tightened his gun belt for the third time that morning. The tingling he had experienced in his hand was finally gone, as was the dizziness he’d experienced.
Johnny wasn’t sure what he had gotten into that had caused the burning and tingling in his hand earlier in the week, and he sure didn’t want to experience it again.
Satisfied his gun belt fit properly, he reached for his hat and put it on. As he went to turn the door handle, he heard voices behind him.
Scott and his grandfather were coming down the stairs.
“Where are you off to?” Scott asked with a smile.
“Gonna check out that stream on the south range. Noticed it looked like it was gonna back up. Figure we can get it cleared out in a few hours. Want to lend me a hand?”
“I’m taking the ladies to catch the stage; Grandfather is going with me.” Scott glanced at his grandfather, who was now standing next to him. “I’ll let you get dirty today, Brother.”
Harlan was staring at Johnny but didn’t say a word.
“Have you already had breakfast?” Scott asked.
“Maria fixed me something earlier,” Johnny answered as he absentmindedly rubbed his stomach, thinking maybe he shouldn’t have had the extra salsa with his eggs. His stomach was feeling a little queasy.
“I’ll see you at dinner then,” Scott said as he and Harlan turned toward the dining room. “Who does Cipriano have going with you?”
“Not sure. I know Frank’s going. See you,” Johnny replied, noting Harlan was still staring at him. Opening the door he stopped and half turned back. “Oh, Boston, while you’re in town could you go by the Mercantile and see if that pretty Miss Clements has any peppermint sticks in stock? She was out the last time I was in there.”
“I can do that,” Scott smiled. “Is one bag going to be enough?”
“I’ll make do with one if that’s all she’s got,” Johnny replied wishing he had one now to settle his stomach.
Johnny walked out of the house into the bright morning sun and put on his hat. Pulling it down on his forehead, he attempted to shade his still sensitive eyes.
Frank had Barranca saddled and tied outside the corral and Joe, Juan, and Slim were waiting for him.
Entering the dining room, Harlan took his seat. Just as Scott was about to join him, they heard someone coming down the stairs.
“Good morning, everyone.” Julie greeted them with a smile as she made her way to the table. Behind her were Jenny and Caitlyn, both with smiles on their faces.
“Where is Mrs. Devon?” Scott asked.
“Right here, Scott.” Lea followed the other women into the room.
“Are you ready for today?” Scott stood to help the ladies with their chairs.
“Yes, we are,” Lea answered as she sat down.
“We’ll leave for town as soon as breakfast is over.” Murdoch moved into the room and sat down.
“Where’s Johnny?” Jenny asked, looking back toward the main staircase.
“Already eaten and gone.” Scott could see the disappointment on her face, and Caitlyn had the same look.
“That’s alright. We said our goodbyes last night.
“Are you ladies ready to go?” Murdoch asked as Maria brought him a cup of coffee.
“Yes, we are. Our things are packed.” Julie accepted a cup from Maria. “Thank you, Maria. I must say I am going to miss your cooking.”
“Gracias, Senorita.” Maria turned back to the kitchen, passing Teresa on the way out.
“I’m going to stay here today, Julie. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all. It has been a true pleasure meeting you, and I’m sorry if we caused you extra work while we were here.”
“Nonsense, it was fun having other women in the house. You’ll come back sometime, won’t you?”
Julie thought for a moment. “I’m not sure. Only time will tell.”
“Eat ladies, we’ll miss the stage.” Scott went back to his own breakfast.
After saying their goodbyes to Harlan and the ladies, Teresa and Maria set about to put the hacienda right again.
“It’s going to be good having the house back to ourselves.”
“Si. It will take time to do all the laundry and straighten the rooms. I will ask some of the other women to help.”
“At least Scott and Johnny’s shirts are done. I can’t believe she helped with the laundry and ironing yesterday.”
“Si, she ironed Juanito’s shirts. I told her she did not have to worry about them, but she said she was happy to do it.”
“Yes, she was a lot of help. I hadn’t realized she’d done them until I saw her putting them away in Johnny’s room.”
“I’ll finish up in the kitchen, Maria, if you’ll start upstairs.”
“Bueno. By tonight everything will be in order and we will have a quiet night.”
Murdoch shook his head, seeing Scott walking toward him with Julie beside him. He was so close to having the women out of his son’s life, and the damn stage was late again.
“Sir.” Scott stopped next to Murdoch.
“The stage is late?”
“Yes, I know. I was going to take the ladies to the café, but Fred said it shouldn’t be much longer.”
Murdoch laughed. “And we know Fred is never wrong.”
Scott smiled. “That’s true.”
His smile faded when he saw Julie standing alone, her head down.
“Do you need to talk to her again?” Murdoch asked.
“No. Julie and I have talked enough. I hope we can remain friends but beyond that ….”
Murdoch put a hand on Scott’s shoulder. “Son, I know how hard it is to see her leave. Are you sure….?”
“Yes, it is hard to see her leave, but it would have been harder leaving you and Johnny. No, Murdoch, I’m sure this is where I belong.”
Murdoch smiled. “What do you say we go check with Fred again?”
Harlan looked around. Seeing Murdoch and Scott go inside the Stage Depot, he ensured no one was watching before approaching one of the women.
“Well, my dear, I take it you’ve done the deed?”
“Yes, yes, it’s done, and well done. I believe you’ll see results by evening.”
“Good. Now, where did you leave the package?”
“I took the liberty of slipping into your room before leaving the ranch. It’s back in the box in your top drawer, and I’ve…disposed of the gloves.”
“Excellent, my dear. Excellent. I’ll see you in San Francisco by the end of next week.”
“I’ll be there.”
Smiling, the lady joined the others. If she had planned it right, she would never see Johnny Lancer or Harlan Garrett again. Yes, she had disposed of the gloves and returned the packet to his top drawer. The gloves had been placed in the drawer on top of the others, and the package had been coated with the same poison that was on the cloth inside it.
‘Killing two birds with one stone. Isn’t that what it was called?’
The ride to the stream on the south range didn’t take very long. An hour after leaving the house, Johnny and the three men arrived at their destination. As reported, it was backed up with debris.
Johnny placed his hat and gun belt on his saddle horn before stepping into the slow-moving water.
It took them three hours, but finally, all the debris was gone, and the water was moving faster.
Johnny looked at the men with him and grinned.
“I’m ready for a swim. Anyone want to join me?”
“Think the hefe will mind?” Slim asked as he started shedding his shirt.
“I know one that won’t mind.” Johnny already had his shirt off and was working on his belt.
Johnny laughed as he sat down and pulled his wet boots off. Soon all four men were down to their long johns, and in the stream, they’d just cleared.
Johnny wadded out fifteen minutes later, a lot cooler and cleaner.
“We’d better get dressed and head back.”
A nod of agreement came from the other three men.
Johnny used his shirt to dry himself. In this heat, the shirt would dry fast enough. He dressed and walked to where he’d ground-tied Barranca. He took his hat and gun belt from the saddle horn and put them on.
Squaring his hat on his wet head, he mounted up and waited for the others to join him.
Johnny felt a tingling and burning sensation on his forehead and yanked his hat off. First, he rubbed his forehead and then looked inside his hat. Seeing nothing, he put it back on.
As the men rode back toward the hacienda, the tingling continued. Johnny kept taking his hat off and rubbing his forehead. Ultimately, he hung the hat on the saddle horn and wiped his face and forehead with a wet bandana.
Slim was riding to Johnny’s right.
“Johnny, you alright?”
“Yeah, it just feels like my forehead is burning. Kinda’ like my hand did last week.”
Slim remembered the incident of the prior week.
“We’re almost home,” Slim said, looking at Joe and Jose. “Just hold on. Jose, go into town and get the Doc. Joe ride ahead and tell Mr. Lancer that Johnny’s not feeling good and that I’ll have him there as soon as I can.”
“I’m feeling alright. Stomach’s acting up a bit, but I don’t need Sam.”
Joe and Jose looked at Slim. Slim nodded, indicating they do as he’d said.
“I know you’re feeling alright now, but if you’ve got the same thing you had last week, it could get worse. Sam needs to figure this out.”
Riding on, Johnny started feeling numbness in his face. Yeah, someone needed to figure this out.
When Johnny and Slim rode in, Murdoch and Joe were waiting. Murdoch hurried to Barranca’s side and put a hand on Johnny’s leg.
Johnny looked down at his father and swayed slightly before his eyes rolled back in his head and he slid out of the saddle.
“Jose’s gone for Doc, Mr. Lancer.” Slim dismounted and moved to help Murdoch.
“I’ve got him, Slim. Open the door and tell Teresa and Maria to get his bed ready.” Murdoch picked up his son and carried him inside and up the stairs.
Joe was left standing holding the reins of his horse and Barranca. Knowing he’d be in the way inside, he decided to put the horses away. As Joe turned to the barn, he saw Johnny’s hat hanging off the saddlehorn. He tied off the horses and reached for the hat.
Joe took the hat inside and hung it on the hat tree just inside the front door. He went back outside and led the horses away. As he did, he felt a slight tingling sensation in his right hand. Vivid memories of Johnny’s hand tingling earlier in the week stopped him in his tracks. He reached in his back pocket and took out a handkerchief and wet it in the water trough and then wiped his hand until the tingling stopped.
Squinting against the brightness of the morning, Johnny turned his head away from the light. His head was hurting, and the movement caused a brief wave of nausea. Johnny gave serious thought to forgetting about the day and staying in bed.
Sitting up, he let the nausea pass before making his way across the room and getting dressed. Going down the backstairs, he stopped and looked around the kitchen. No one was there. Just as well, he thought, they’d probably send him back to bed if they caught him.
He didn’t remember much about yesterday afternoon. He didn’t remember being carried into the house or put to bed, but when he came to, he was feeling better. He was still dizzy when Sam got to the ranch, but the lightheadedness, blurred vision, and nausea were gone. The only real pain he had was the tingling and burning of his forehead.
This morning, except for some nausea, he was feeling fine. There wasn’t a need for him to stay in bed, and he had things to do.
Johnny smiled as he lifted his hat from the hat tree, put it on, and started toward the corral. He was almost there when another wave of nausea hit him and just as suddenly, his legs felt weak. He staggered a few feet and stopped. Something was wrong, so very wrong.
“What the hell?”
Johnny turned back to look at the house.
Frank was calling to him from the corral, but Johnny didn’t dare turn around to acknowledge him. He knew if he did, he might as well give it up right there. The dizziness was back, as well as the blurred vision and burning sensation on his forehead. Suddenly he felt cold.
Taking a few more steps, Johnny realized the fog that had been threatening his brain was going to win. He closed his eyes and felt his legs give out, barely sensing the ground when he hit it.
Frank watched Johnny from the corral. A worried frown crossed his face when the young man staggered the first time. When Johnny turned back to the house, he started toward his friend. He had only taken a few steps when he saw Johnny crumple to the ground.
“Johnny!” Frank screamed. “Mr. Lancer! Anyone!”
The sound of Frank’s panicked voice brought Murdoch running from the main house and ranch hands from the surrounding yard and bunkhouse.
“What happened?” Murdoch knelt next to his son.
“Not sure, Boss,” Frank answered. “He looked like he was having trouble walking, and then he just keeled over.”
Murdoch looked up to see Cipriano running toward them.
“Cipriano, send someone for the Sam. You men,” Murdoch waved a hand at the four closest men, “help me get him inside.”
As the four hands carried Johnny into the house, Scott and Teresa met them at the door.
Scott stepped back to let the men pass. “What happened? I didn’t hear a shot.”
“He hasn’t been shot,” Murdoch answered. “I don’t know what happened. Frank said he just collapsed. Cipriano is sending for Sam.”
“What’s he doing out of bed? I left him for only a few minutes.” Teresa ran ahead of the men to get the bed ready.
“I don’t know, but you know Johnny. He probably felt better and decided to go outside.”
Murdoch kept his eyes on his son’s pale face.
“What’s that?” Murdoch pointed to the red band on Johnny’s forehead. “It wasn’t there this morning when I saw him.”
Scott shook his head. “I don’t know. What could have caused it?”
“Mr. Lancer, do you need anything?” Frank asked, coming through the bedroom door holding Johnny’s hat.
“Not right now, Frank. Just make sure to send Sam up when he gets here.”
“Yes, sir.” Frank turned to go, but not before laying Johnny’s hat on the top of the dresser. As he walked out, he rubbed his hand on his tingling hand on his pants.
Harlan stood back and watched as Johnny was carried up the stairs to his room. A shadow of a smile crossed his lips.
“I don’t know. I just don’t know. There are so many symptoms, I can’t pin it down.”
“Sam, you’ve got to do something.”
“Let me think.” Murdoch and Scott sat quietly while Sam paced back and forth across the room.
“Tingling and burning. First, it was his hand; now it’s his forehead.” Sam looked at Johnny lying motionless in the bed. “Dizziness, nausea, blurred vision, sensitivity to light.” Looking at Murdoch. “You said he had a fever the first time when his hand was bothering him?”
“Yes, but it didn’t last long.”
“He said his face was numb yesterday,” Scott spoke up. He’d talked to Johnny the night before, trying to help his brother figure out what he’d gotten into that could cause everything that was happening.
Sam sat down at the table in the room. Taking a small notebook out of his vest pocket, he started writing down the symptoms. Getting back to his feet, he went to his medical bag and took out a stethoscope.
“Scott, help me to hold him up. I want to listen to his heart.”
Scott moved to the side of the bed. Reaching down, he pulled Johnny to a sitting position and held him for Sam to move closer. Sam put the stethoscope on Johnny’s back first. Listening for a full minute, he switched to the front.
“His heart rate is slow and uneven, and his breathing is shallow.” Sam stepped back. “You can lay him down, Scott.”
Sam frowned. “I need one of the medical books from my office.”
“What is it, Sam?”
“I’m not sure, and I don’t want to speculate until I’m sure.”
Sam looked around the room and saw Harlan standing in the doorway.
“Scott, I’m going to write down what I need. Would you go get it for me?”
Murdoch and Scott looked at each other and then Sam. “We can send one of the men.”
“I’d prefer Scott go, Murdoch. I want to make sure it’s the correct book, and I need a couple of items from my medicine cabinet.”
“Alright, Sam, write it down, and I’ll go right away.”
Scott moved to the doorway, seeing Harlan. “Grandfather, Johnny’s ill again.”
“I can see that, Scotty. You’d best get what the doctor wants and get back as soon as possible in case something should happen to John. I know you’d want to be with him if….”
“Don’t think like that, Grandfather. Johnny’s not going to die.”
“Of course, not Scotty. Of course, not.”
Sam wrote out what he needed and handed it to Scott. Scott read the paper and nodded.
There were three things on the list; a medical book, a bottle of digitalis, and Val. The last striking Scott as being ominous. Why Val, unless Sam didn’t think Johnny would survive.
Once in the yard, Scott called for his horse. Within minutes he was on his way.
Harlan could barely contain himself. Johnny was on death’s doorstep, and Scotty was one step closer to returning to Boston. He knew one more dose of the poison would be needed to finish the job.
Going back to his room, Harlan opened his top drawer. The box sat innocently in the corner. Opening it, he reached in, picking up the small packet of rawhide. He slid it into his pocket and selected a pair of white gloves.
It had been hours since Scott left to get what the doctor needed. Harlan knew he was running out of time and wanted to finish what had been started before Scott returned.
Smiling, Harlan closed the drawer and made his way back to Johnny’s room. Luck was on his side when he saw that no one was with the boy.
Harlan looked over his shoulder, making sure he was alone. Smiling, he took the packet out of his pocket, unfolded it, and looked at the small piece of cloth saturated with the poison. Slipping on the gloves, Harlan felt a slight tingle in his hands but thought nothing of it. He was too excited with the prospect of what he was about to do next.
Harlan picked up the poisoned cloth and reached forward to wipe it across Johnny’s arm.
“Harlan!” The bellowing voice came from the doorway.
Harlan dropped the damning cloth and turned to face the towering rancher striding towards him.
“What are you doing?” Murdoch’s eyes went from Harlan to Johnny.
“What’s going on in here?” Sam asked as he and Scott entered the room.
“That’s what I want to know.” Murdoch gave Harlan a questioning look.
“I was just going to check to see if John had a fever.” Harlan stood his ground but refused to meet Murdoch’s eyes.
“With gloves on? He’s not contagious that I know of, Mr. Garrett.”
Harlan looked at his gloved hands and quickly lowered them to his side.
Scott entered the room carrying a book and a small bottle. Coming to stand next to his grandfather, he glanced at the floor. A piece of cloth lay next to the bed, and Scott bent to pick it up.
“Don’t touch it, Scott!” Sam moved forward, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket. Gingerly picking the piece of cloth up, he examined it and then sniffed it.
“What is it?” Scott looked from Sam to his grandfather.
“I’m not sure.” Sam turned to look at Harlan. “What is it, Mr. Garrett?”
“I don’t know what you mean. It’s just….” Harlan paused as the color drained from his face.
“What’s wrong, Grandfather?”
“I don’t feel well, Scotty. My hands are tingling and …numb, and …” Harlan grabbed at his chest and started to slump to the floor as Scott caught him.
“Scott, get him to bed, and whatever you do, don’t touch those gloves without putting on a pair yourself.”
“Just do it, Scott. I need to see if he had time to touch Johnny again with this.” Sam held the poisoned cloth for everyone to see.
“Sam, what can I do?” Murdoch’s mind was racing, unable to process what might be happening.
“We need to bathe him, Murdoch. All of him. If this,” Sam held up the cloth, “any of this came in contact with Johnny, we could lose him.”
“What is it, Sam.”
Sam took a deep breath. “I suspect poison. I just don’t know what kind.”
Scott took his grandfather by the arm and guided him out the door.
“What have you done, Grandfather?”
Harlan was still clutching his chest and struggling to breathe.
“Help me, Scotty.”
“I asked you a question. What have you done? What was on that cloth?”
Harlan didn’t answer.
Scott helped his grandfather to his room and to lie down. Leaving the room for a moment, Scott went to his bedroom and picked up a pair of gray gloves from his top drawer. He hurried back to Harlan and removed the white gloves his grandfather wore. Putting the gloves in the trash can, he began to help remove Harlan’s jacket and vest.
Scott turned to see Sam standing in the doorway. Walking across the room, Scott was ready for some answers.
“Sam, what’s going on? What was on that cloth?”
Sam had suspected poison, and his suspicions were apparently confirmed. The who was now apparent; the why he knew also. He didn’t know what type of poison was used, and Sam desperately needed to know.
“Scott, I need to examine your grandfather first. Murdoch is with Johnny.”
Sam moved to Harlan’s side. He listened to his heartbeat and felt his pulse. Harlan’s heart was racing and erratic, and his pulse slow.”
“My hands… they’re numb. You have to help me.”
“Mr. Garrett, I need to know what type of poison you used on Johnny. It’s the only way I can help either of you.”
“POISON!” Scott yelled. “Johnny’s been poisoned.” His eyes were wide as he stared at his grandfather.
“Calm down, Scott. We need answers, and your grandfather is the only one who can give them to us.”
Sam moved to the doorway, pulling Scott along.
“Scott, it appears your grandfather has been exposed to the poison, as well. I’m not sure how, but it was probably on the gloves.” Sam held up the rawhide wrap with a gloved hand. “The piece of cloth was wrapped in this. The poison may have gotten on the outside of the wrapping. He may have touched his exposed skin by accident. I don’t know. I do know your grandfather is extremely ill.”
“What can we do for him?”
“The only way to help either of them is to know what he used.”
“What chance do they have?”
Sam looked back at Harlan and then at Scott.
“Your grandfather is an old man, Scott. His health is in question, to begin with. There may not be anything I can do for him, but there is still a chance to save Johnny.”
Scott nodded his understanding. Moving back to the bed, he sat on the edge and put a hand on Harlan’s arm.
“Grandfather, Sam wants to help you but to do that, we need to know what you used. Where did you get it?”
Harlan was now sweating. “I’m going to be sick, Scotty.”
Sam handed Scott a washbasin. Harlan gagged but couldn’t bring anything up, but the exertion caused his labored breathing to increase.
“Grandfather, please.” Scott was begging now.
“You’ll help me, won’t you, Scotty?”
Scott looked up at Sam, who shook his head. Sam knew there was no helping Harlan Garrett.
“Yes, Grandfather. I’ll help you. Tell me. Tell me everything so we can save you.”
“I did it for you, Scotty, so that you’d come home where you belong. It’s always been for Catherine and for you. My poor Catherine would have understood. You understand, don’t you, Scotty?”
Harlan’s face contorted as pain shot through him.
“Go on, Grandfather.”
“I found a man in Chinatown… in San Francisco. When used in moderation, he told me the poison would only make John sick, not kill him. It was perfect. It’s absorbed through the skin or can be ingested. I chose to have an extract made.” Harlan started to laugh, proud of his ingenuity.
The laughter ended in the older man coughing. Catching his breath, Harlan smiled at Scott.
“I needed help, of course. Last year, they came to me wanting my help to get close to Murdoch. They told me what he’d done to their family. I spent weeks working out a plan that would work to both our benefits.
“When I asked Julie to come to California, it was only natural they’d come as well.”
“Who, grandfather? Who are you talking about?”
Harlan continued as if not hearing his grandson’s question. “She put a small amount on John’s saddle horn. It was a test, you see, to see if it would work. When he started to sweat, his wet hand activated the poison.” Harlan coughed again. He looked at Scott with pleading eyes. “You’ll help me, Scotty?”
Scott took a deep breath, trying to hold back his emotions. How could his grandfather do this? How could he try to kill his brother? Scott heard a noise in the doorway. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Murdoch, Val, and Cipriano.
“Grandfather, tell me the rest so we can help you.”
“It was perfect, Scotty. I had her wait until the night before they left to administer the final dose. She put it on his hatband. A thin coating would dry and not affect him until he started to sweat. That’s when he would absorb the final dose, but it didn’t work fast enough. I had to give him more, but Murdoch stopped me.”
At the mention of Johnny’s hat, Cipriano stepped out of Harlan’s room and walked back to Johnny’s. Sitting on the dresser was his sobrino’s hat. He slipped on his work gloves and lifted it, looking at the hatband. Seeing nothing but knowing the poison was there, he decided to speak with the doctor to see what could be done to save the favored hat.
Back in Harlan’s room, Cipriano heard Scott begging his grandfather for answers.
“What poison? Grandfather, please tell me quickly so we can help you. What kind of poison?”
“He’s dead, isn’t he, Scotty? You’ll come home with me now? It can be just the two of us.
“The man…” Harlan gasped for air; breathing became more difficult. “The man in San Francisco said it was Monkshood. Now, have the doctor help me.”
“Scott, where are the things I asked for?” Sam asked.
“Here, Senor.” Cipriano held Sam’s medical book and two small bottles.
Sam took the bottles from Cipriano’s hand and left the room. When he returned several minutes later, he had a syringe in his hand. Walking to Harlan’s side, he gave the old man an injection.
“You’ll see, Scotty, it’s for the best. Your brother is dead, and Murdoch will be soon. They’ll see to it. Her brother is still here at Lancer. You can return to Boston with me.”
Scott’s head shot up. Looking at Murdoch, he saw his father shake his head. Johnny was still alive.
“What did you give him, Sam,” Val asked as he watched Harlan’s face.
“You suspected it was poison all along?”
“No, Val, not until this morning. Johnny’s irregular heartbeat meant I needed to do something. Digitalis will do that. Now that I know it’s Monkshood, the digitalis will help with the symptoms. To my knowledge, there is no antidote for this poison. You treat the symptoms. For whatever reason, Johnny’s exposure to the poison has been in small enough doses that he’s not as far gone as Garrett.”
“The boy gonna be alright now?” Val’s worry was mirrored by Murdoch and Cipriano.
“I don’t know. I gave Johnny an injection a few minutes ago. We’ll need to wait and see how he reacts to the drug.”
“What was in the other bottle?”
“Also, Digitalis but in tablet form. You’ll be giving him those when I’m not here. Excuse me, I need to get back to Johnny.”
Val stepped aside as Sam edged by heading straight for Johnny’s room.
Maria and Teresa were with Johnny when Sam returned to the room. Johnny’s breathing was labored, and his heartbeat was still erratic. Holding Johnny’s wrist, Sam waited to see what effect the drug would have.
Scott sat at Harlan’s bed and placed a hand on the older man’s chest. He could see Harlan’s color paling.
“Grandfather, who was it? You said ‘she.’ Was it, Julie?”
Harlan had a faint smile on his face. “She’s waiting in San Francisco, but she fooled me too. I should have known she’d turn on me. She poisoned me just like she did Johnny.”
“Who? Please tell me.”
Harlan started to open his mouth to speak when his eyes got wider. He grabbed his chest, throwing his head back. His body bowed. Convulsing, Harlan Garrett took two more breaths and went still under Scott’s hand.
“Grandfather!? No! Please, no!”
Scott closed his eyes and lowered his head. The man that had raised him for 24 years was dead. He did love his grandfather; however, coming to terms with what he’d done was going to take time.
Murdoch moved to Scott’s side. Placing a hand on his son’s shoulder, he could feel it shaking.
Murdoch looked back at the door. There was nothing on Val or Cipriano’s faces to give away their emotions. He was sure they were glad the man was dead, but for Scott’s sake, neither showed it.
Scott raised his head, tears streaming down his face. Turning to his father, Scott choked out, “Johnny?”
“I don’t know, son. We need to talk to Sam. Come when you’re ready.”
Scott nodded. The others left the room, leaving him to his misery and grief. He didn’t wait long, though, before exiting the room. Slowly, he closed the door giving his grandfather one last look.
No one noticed Scott when he stepped into Johnny’s room. All eyes were on the bed.
Cipriano was behind Johnny, holding him upright against his chest. Johnny’s breathing was labored, and a fine sheen of sweat covered his face and chest.
“Sam?” Murdoch’s patience was wearing thin.
Sam was silent as he continued to hold Johnny’s wrist. Frowning, Sam lowered Johnny’s hand and picked up his stethoscope. Putting it to the young man’s chest, Sam closed his eyes while he listened.
Everyone waited quietly.
Straightening up, Sam took a deep breath and looked around the room. Scott stood in the doorway. Murdoch, Val, Teresa, and Maria surrounded the bed’s three sides.
“You can lay him down, Cipriano.”
Cipriano scooted out from behind Johnny, gently laying him back on the bed.
“His heart rate isn’t as erratic; we’ll need to let the digitalis work a little longer. Scott, I’m sorry about your grandfather. He was exposed to a larger dose of the poison than Johnny. Combined with his age…well, I knew I could do little when I heard what poison was used. Monkshood is lethal in large amounts.”
“How was Grandfather exposed?”
“I’m not sure, but from what he said, the last person who handled the poison may have gotten it on the outside of the wrapping or on the gloves.”
“Did Grandfather…did he touch Johnny again with the poison?” Scott’s anguish could be heard in his voice.
Sam looked at Murdoch. “You were the first in here. What did you see?”
Murdoch thought for a moment.
“I was coming up the stairway and was just starting down the hallway when I saw Harlan disappear into the room. By the time I got here, he was reaching for Johnny’s arm. I don’t think he touched him, but I just don’t know for sure, Sam.”
“Maria has bathed him. Hopefully, any that got on his skin has been washed away and didn’t have time to be absorbed.”
Val hated to bring it up now but needed to know. “Scott, did your grandfather say who he was working with?”
Scott shook his head. “No. He only said it was ‘she,’ which could mean anyone.”
Scott turned to Murdoch. Somehow hearing her name made it real. He didn’t…couldn’t believe she would do something like this. No, not Julie and not…
‘Oh, my God, not my grandfather.’
But it was his grandfather, the man he’d loved as a father for most of his life.
“I’m not sure. Grandfather…” Scott’s voice broke as he took a deep breath. “Grandfather died before he could say. He said something about a brother still being at Lancer. He was confused at the end, and I’m not sure he knew what he was talking about.”
A soft moan from the bed drew their attention. Sam lifted Johnny’s wrist again. This time there was a faint smile on the old doctor’s face.
“Pulse is better.” Sam listened to Johnny’s heart. “Heart has a much better rhythm.”
Sam put his hand on the side of Johnny’s face. “Johnny.” He waited a few seconds. “Johnny.”
Johnny’s head rolled on the pillow as long dark lashes fluttered. His eyes opened and then just as quickly closed.
“Johnny, open your eyes.”
Opening his eyes again, Johnny tried to focus on the person who’d called his name.
“That’s right, Johnny.”
Looking around, Johnny saw everyone standing around the bed. He reached under his pillow for his gun.
Murdoch moved to the side of the bed, putting a hand on Johnny’s arm.
“Everything’s going to be alright, Son.”
Johnny relaxed. “Am I sick?”
“Yes, son, you’re sick.”
Murdoch looked up at Sam, wanting to know whether to tell Johnny the truth or not. Sam shook his head.
“Johnny, I want you to go to sleep. You’re still a very sick young man. There’s a lot to tell you when you’re feeling better.”
Johnny nodded and closed his eyes. Sighing, he started to drift off but fought back to consciousness.
“I know, Murdoch. I know who….”
“Johnny, what did you say?”
Johnny whispered the words, “Murdoch, remember the Campbells.”
“He’s asleep,” Sam said, checking his patient’s pulse.
Murdoch, Val, and Cipriano were in the Great Room when Scott came downstairs.
“I’m sorry, son.” Murdoch walked to Scott and put an arm around his shoulders.
“I still can’t believe it. All the things he did. It’s ….” Scott collapsed into the nearest chair.
“Scott, you need to rest. Please go upstairs and lay down. Cipriano will take care of your grandfather.”
Scott looked at his father and nodded. He started to stand and then sat back down. “Murdoch, I was wondering….”
“Can we bury him here on Lancer so I can be close to him? I know what he did, but he was still my grandfather.”
As much as Murdoch wanted to say no, there was no way he could refuse his oldest son.
“Of course,” Murdoch replied and turned to Cipriano.
“I will see to it, Patron.”
Scott nodded and managed to stand. He slowly made his way upstairs and down the hall to his room. Reaching for the doorknob, Scott stopped and turned to the room across the hall. He opened the door and paused. Stealing inside, he saw Sam seated on one side of the bed, watching Johnny sleep.
“Scott, are you alright?”
“Yes…no. I don’t know Sam. I’m just tired.”
Without another word, Scott sat on the edge of the bed.
“I’m going to lay down with him for just a few minutes. Is that alright?”
Sam nodded. “I think it would do you both some good.”
Scott smiled and kicked off his boots. He laid down on his side next to his sleeping brother. The heat coming from Johnny’s body warmed the chill that ran through him.
Tomorrow Scott would bury his grandfather in the small cemetery on the knoll above the hacienda, but for tonight all he wanted to think about was his brother.
As if knowing he wasn’t alone any longer, Johnny sighed and rolled onto his side, throwing an arm over Scott’s chest.
For four days, Sam was able to keep Johnny in bed. On the fifth day, Johnny announced he was going to San Francisco and would shoot anyone who tried to stop him. They’d argued with him for what good it did. When Murdoch came to the realization there would be no dissuading the boy, the Lancers packed their bags and headed for town, leaving the ranch in Cipriano’s hands.
When the Lancers reached Green River, they found Val and Sam waiting. Just like with Johnny, neither man could be persuaded to stay behind. The five men boarded the next stage to Stockton, where they’d connect with the train to San Francisco.
When they arrived in San Francisco the next day, Scott quickly found where Julie was staying and sent her a message.
Miss Julie Dennison
Palace Hotel – Room 214
I’ve just arrived in San Francisco. I’m staying at the Cosmopolitan, Room 122. I have sad news and must see you.
Please meet me tomorrow morning at 11:00 and bring Mrs. Devon, Jenny, and Caitlyn with you.
“That should do it.”
Scott folded the message and handed it to the Bellboy along with a silver dollar.
“Now, we wait until tomorrow,” Scott said. “I, for one, am going to lay down before dinner. I think we should eat in the room tonight. We don’t want any of the women to see us tonight, especially Johnny.”
“I agree.” Murdoch grabbed his bag and looked around the suite. There were two bedrooms off a central sitting room. Murdoch headed for the room with the largest single bed, leaving his sons to the other bedroom.
Val picked up his saddlebags and headed for the door. “Sam, I’m going to our room. You coming?”
Sam shook his head. “No. You go ahead. I have some business at Saint Mary’s Hospital, but I’ll be back in time for dinner. Eating in the room is a good idea.”
There was little discussion that evening, and after they ate, all five men called it a night.
Johnny didn’t need to be prodded. Murdoch could tell he was tired and still didn’t feel well. The trip, first by stage and then train, had taken all the reserve energy Johnny had left in him. He was asleep the moment his head hit the pillow.
The following morning seemed to drag by, waiting for the confrontation they knew was coming.
Murdoch looked at Johnny’s pale face. He knew they should never have let him come with them. Murdoch huffed. ‘Let him.’ There was never ‘let him’ when it came to Johnny. He did what he wanted to do. It was the price the family paid for having Johnny in their life. Damn, hard-headed boy.
Murdoch couldn’t remember how many times in the past five months he’d stood back and watched his sons, marveling at the fact they were with him. Each of the boys filled a space in his heart that had been empty for too many years.
Now that they were with him, the thought of losing one of them caused him physical pain. When one of them was hurt, his pain was worse. The worry he felt was overwhelming at times, threatening to steal his breath and cause his heart to pound out of his chest.
“It’s 10:30. The ladies should be along shortly.” Murdoch looked at his pocket watch. “Johnny, are you sure you’re up to this?”
“I’m fine.” Johnny stretched his legs out in front of him.
“You got something to say?” Johnny turned his head to look at his friend.
“Don’t sass me, boy.” Val snapped. “We know you’re not up to snuff yet. We should have waited back at Lancer a few more days.”
“They could have been halfway to Boston by now,” Johnny snapped. “No, we needed to get here.”
“How will we know who it is?” Scott shifted in his chair, wanting to stop the banter between Val and Johnny.
“I’ll know,” Johnny’s voice was soft and quiet.
“Johnny can read a man faster than anyone I’ve ever met. You all know that. It’s kept him alive a long time.” Val smiled, knowing it was the truth.
“Boston, I’ve been doing this ‘dance’ my whole life.” Johnny saw he had Murdoch and Scott’s attention. “That’s right, the ‘dance’ is not always a gunfight. The ‘dance’ is about survival. Makes no never mind if it’s in the middle of a street or in this room.
“One or more of those four women tried to kill me; did kill Garrett. I’ll know the moment I look them in the eye which it was. Everyone has a ‘tell.’ I told you that. Man or woman, there’s always a tell.”
“And you’ll know when you see her; which one it was?”
Johnny nodded. “When I face her, I’ll know. It’ll be in her eyes. The eyes never lie.”
“I hope you’re right, son.”
Murdoch thought about what Johnny had said. How many times in his nineteen years had he depended on his ability to read people to survive? How many times had he done this ‘dance’?
“Where did Sam get off to this morning?” Scott asked.
“He went back to the hospital. He said he’d be back as soon as he could.”
“You’d better get across the hall to Val’s room until they get here.” Scott opened the door ushering everyone out of the suite.
Murdoch, Val, and Johnny walked across the hall and sat quietly, waiting. Murdoch and Val stole glances at Johnny when they didn’t think he was looking.
“Will you two stop looking at me? I’m alright.” Johnny had his head leaned back against the back of the chair.
“We worry about you, son. We know you don’t want us to worry, but there it is.”
Johnny raised his head and looked at the two men. With a faint smile, he nodded. Closing his eyes, he leaned back again.
“Val, are you going to….” Murdoch started to say when Johnny raised a hand.
“They’re here.” Johnny sat up straight in the chair.
Murdoch and Val turned to look at the door. At first, they didn’t hear anything. A few moments later, they heard Julie’s voice.
“Room 122. Here it is.”
Moving closer to the door, Murdoch and Val put their ears to the wood; they heard a faint rapping sound on the Suite’s door.
The door across the hall opened.
They heard Scott’s voice, “Julie. Ladies, come in.”
“Scott, I got your message. I have to admit I was surprised to hear from you. What are you doing in San Francisco?” Julie moved into the room, followed by Mrs. Devon, Jenny, and Caitlyn.
“Julie,” Scott said, taking her hand in his. “I have some bad news. Devastating news.”
“What is it, Scott?” Julie grasped both of Scott’s hands.
Scott took a deep breath. This was hard for him. Part of what he was doing was play-acting; part was coming to terms with his grandfather’s death.
“Scott, don’t keep us in suspense. What’s wrong? You act as if someone died.” Jenny took a step forward, coming closer to Julie’s side.
Scott looked Jenny in the eye. Could he do what Johnny did; tell who it was by looking them in the eye?
Scott looked past the woman to see Val and Murdoch step into the room through the open door. Each took a step to the side, leaving the portal itself empty. Within seconds, Scott saw Johnny framed by the doorway.
Scott was amazed at how much Johnny looked like he did when he faced a man down in the street. It was going to be just like a gunfight. The dance was the same; only the place had changed.
When Johnny stepped into the doorway, the four women’s backs were to him. His eyes met Scott’s, and he could see his brother shudder under his gaze.
“Maybe, I can answer your questions.” Johnny’s deep voice was soft and quiet.
The women spun around.
“Johnny? Murdoch, Val, what are you doing here?” Julie asked, then turned back to Scott. “Scott, what’s going on. Why are you here?”
Johnny looked into the eyes of each woman. One of these women had tried to kill him, and now he knew who it was. He didn’t let the look of surprise show on his face. Of the four, she was the last he thought would have been a murderer.
Johnny stepped into the room, kicking the door closed behind him.
Murdoch and Val stood silently to each side of the now closed door. The hand had been dealt, and they’d let Johnny play it his way.
“You see, ladies, my brother has come to tell you that old man Garrett is dead.”
“Dead?” Julie pivoted to look at Scott. “Oh, Scott, I’m so sorry. Was it his heart?”
“No, Julie, it wasn’t his heart,” Scott answered, trying to see what Johnny was seeing.
“No, Julie, not his heart.” Johnny took another step closer. “Well, maybe it was. You see, his heart stopped the moment the poison got to it.”
“Poison?” Jenny gasped. “Someone poisoned Mr. Garrett?”
“Yep. Tried to poison me too, but I wasn’t exposed long enough the second time. Too bad for the person who did it too. You see, when I felt the tingling and burning start on my forehead, I took my hat off and kept it off. Wiped my face with a wet handkerchief. Sure, I was sick; darn near died. Would have died, I expect, but Harlan told Scott what kind of poison he used before he died. Doc Jenkins knew what to do. Still, it took a lot to pull me through.”
“And you think one of us poisoned you and killed Harlan?” Lea put an arm around Caitlyn and moved her away from the other two women.
Johnny pulsed his lips and nodded. “Yeah, one of you did it, and now I know which one.”
“That’s ridiculous.” Julie started for the door, and Val stepped forward to stop her.
“John, which one is it?” Murdoch’s voice was quieter than usual. “Which one of them tried to kill you?”
Johnny looked first at Julie, then at Jenny, Lea, and finally at Caitlyn. He could see the apprehension on two women’s faces and the fear on the third. He started to dismiss Lea Devon when he saw a flicker of something in her eyes.
“Why don’t you tell them why you did it….” Johnny paused and then turned to face the woman who murdered Harlan Garrett. “Jenny. Why’d you kill Garrett and try to kill me?”
“Me? I never…” Jenny was stepping away from Johnny, unable to meet his glare.
“Sure, you did. You tried twice to kill me.… or was it the first time just to see if the poison would work?”
“Jenny, tell him he’s mistaken.” Julie moved away from Scott and took a step toward her best friend. “Tell him!”
Jenny looked at Julie. “All right, I will.”
A derringer appeared in Jenny’s hand pointed at Johnny.
“Yes, it was me. I did it for Julie. She loves Scott, and you were keeping him from her. She’s my best friend and I’d do anything for her.”
“All right, so you wanted me dead. Why’d you think Scott would go to Julie if I were out of the picture?”
“Mr. Garrett told us all about you. He said you were keeping Scott at Lancer, and he could have been killed more than once because of you.” There was a subtle change to Jenny’s voice. No longer the innocent young woman they’d come to know, she now sounded like a woman filled with hate on the verge of insanity. “Garrett told me everything.”
“Everything, Jenny?” Scott spoke up. “What do you mean, everything?”
“You don’t know, do you? You’ve never guessed. Oh, he told me; bragged to me about it.”
She looked at Murdoch.
“Harlan Garrett spent years doing everything he could to keep Scott away from you. All the letters and gifts you sent were intercepted, and your name was never mentioned. Scott had totally forgotten you existed until you sent that Pinkerton agent. Do you really believe Harlan Garrett would let you keep what was his?”
“I don’t belong to anyone, Jenny, let alone my grandfather.” Scott took a step forward.
“Stay where you’re at, Scott. I don’t want to hurt you. The only one I want dead is Johnny.”
“Why did you kill Grandfather, Jenny?”
“He threatened all of us to come to California, threatened our family businesses with ruin if we couldn’t get you to come back to Boston.” She shrugged. “So, you see, he had to go, too. I put the poison on Johnny’s hatband and then realized I could kill Johnny and Garrett.”
Her eyes bore into Johnny. “I only put enough to make you sick, Johnny. I wanted Garrett to finish the job. I wanted him to touch the outside of the packet. I coated it and the inside of the gloves with the poison. I see it worked.”
“Yes, it worked,” Scott hissed. “He died in pain.”
“Good! He was evil.” she barked. “Garrett deserved to die. You don’t know the suffering he caused in his lifetime.”
“Jenny, give me the gun. It’s over now. Grandfather’s dead, and there’s nothing more you can do.”
Jenny looked at Scott with a confused look on her face.
“But you’re wrong, Scott. Johnny’s still alive. Until he’s dead, you won’t go back to Boston. You have to go back now to be with Julie and settle Garrett’s estate. Once Johnny’s dead, you’ll be free, and there won’t be a reason for you to stay in California.”
Scott glanced at Johnny and saw only Madrid. Licking his lips, he knew the deranged woman still held the derringer pointed at his brother’s chest.
“You’re wrong, Jenny. I’ve decided to go back to Boston to stay. I’ll inherit my grandfather’s estate and run Garrett Enterprises. I’ll make sure I take care of all your families. There’s no need to kill Johnny.”
“You’re going back to stay?” Looking at Julie, Jenny tipped her head to the right. “See Julie; I knew he’d come back with you. You’ll be married, and you’ll be happy.”
Julie glanced at Scott, knowing what he was doing.
“Yes, dear friend. We’ll go back, all of us, together. No one in this room liked Harlan Garrett, and no one can blame you for his death. He was an old man, but if you shoot Johnny, they’ll hang you. I can’t let that happen.”
Caitlyn and Lea stood back the entire time, listening to Jenny rant.
Lea Devon was as surprised and shocked as Julie that Jenny killed Harlan Garrett. It was a terrible way to die, and she wondered why she hadn’t thought of it herself. She could have easily put the poison on the outside of the rawhide wrapping after she applied it to Johnny’s saddle.
Garrett said he wanted to apply the poison to Johnny’s hatband. She didn’t know he’d gotten Jenny to do it, and the stupid girl had no idea what she had gotten herself into.
No matter. Garrett was dead, Jenny would either be hanged or go to an insane asylum, and no one knew of her involvement. It couldn’t get any more perfect. She and Caitlyn would go home and regroup, and when the time was right, they’d come again for Murdoch Lancer and his youngest son. The Broun family had waited thirty-eight years to get their revenge; it could wait a little longer.
Murdoch’s heart broke when Jenny told them of Harlan’s vendetta that lasted almost a quarter of a century. So much had been lost because of one man’s insane belief. He was sorry his ex-father-in-law was dead because he wanted to strangle him with his own hands.
When Scott announced he was going back to Boston, Murdoch saw it for the ploy it was. He knew his oldest son, and Scott’s life was here now, not in Boston. Whether Johnny was part of that life or not, Scott would remain at Lancer.
Murdoch stood behind and to the right of Johnny. Noticing Val’s movements, he tried to draw Jenny’s attention to him, giving Val time to get into place.
“Jenny, please, give it up.”
For a brief moment, Murdoch thought it had worked.
Jenny started to lower the gun, and Scott stepped in, reaching for it. Her eyes went wide when she realized what was about to happen and raised the derringer again.
Murdoch, acting on pure instinct, jumped in front of Johnny as Jenny pulled the trigger.
Scott wrestled Jenny for the gun before she could fire again. His only thought was to prevent a second shot, and he hadn’t had time to figure out where the first bullet had gone.
“No, let go. Johnny has to die!” Jenny held the derringer firmly in her hand.
Scott pushed the weapon down between them.
“Let go…let….” The sound of a second shot cut Jenny’s statement short. She looked at Scott with shock and confusion on her face, then her head turned to look at Julie.
“It was for you; only you. Julie, only…”
Jenny slumped into Scott’s arms, and he lowered her to the floor just as someone started pounding on the door. Not waiting for the door to be opened, it was kicked in.
A man dressed in a dark suit and wearing a badge hurried into the room. Behind him was a heavy-set man Val recognized as the desk clerk.
“What’s happening here?” the police officer asked, trying to take in the mayhem in the room. Seeing the blood, he turned to the desk clerk. “Get a doctor.”
The clerk wasted no time running from the room and down the hallway.
Val’s eyes went from Scott, still hovering over Jenny, to Murdoch and Johnny sitting on the floor. Johnny was holding his hand over Murdoch’s right arm.
“Just sit still, Murdoch. The clerk’s gone for a doctor.” Johnny pressed harder on the bleeding wound.
“It’s not that bad.”
“Bad enough. Why’d you move in front of me like that?”
Murdoch turned his head to look into Johnny’s eyes.
“I wanted to protect you.”
Johnny lowered his head, letting out a breath.
“And you almost got yourself killed.”
“But I didn’t, and if I prevented you from getting shot, then it was worth it.”
Murdoch reached out and put his hand under Johnny’s chin, lifting it so that his son’s eyes met his. Murdoch smiled as he ran his thumb against the side of Johnny’s cheek.
“It’s a father’s prerogative, isn’t it, Val?” Murdoch looked at Val, knowing he felt the same.
Val looked at Murdoch and smiled.
“Damn, right.” Val nodded, then his eyes went to Johnny’s arm. “How the hell did you get hit?”
“You’re hurt? How?” Murdoch’s hand dropped to Johnny’s bloody sleeve.
Johnny gave his father a faint smile and looked down at his left arm.
“Bullet hit you first and kept going.”
Val knelt by the two men. “Let me take a look.”
Val tore Johnny’s shirt sleeve to get a look at the wound.
“Hey, that’s the only shirt I brought with me.”
“We’ll buy you another one,” Val growled. “Now, hold still and let me see.”
Val shook his head. “The bullet’s still in there, but it don’t look like it’s deep.”
“Murdoch slowed it down before it got to me.” Johnny winced when Val pressed a handkerchief over the wound to stop the bleeding. “Stop that. Help Murdoch.”
Val glanced at Murdoch, who shook his head.
“I’m alright, tend to John.”
Johnny turned his head away and rolled his eyes.
“Don’t roll your eyes, John.”
Johnny snapped his head around and looked at Murdoch, who had a smile on his face.
“I’m beginning to know you.” Murdoch answered Johnny’s unasked question. “Besides, I saw your reflection in the mirror over there.” Murdoch stuck his chin out, pointing to the large square mirror on the wall.
Johnny laughed and then winced. “Yeah, I guess you are. Val, just leave it.”
“You don’t stop sassing us, I’m gonna take you out to the woodshed when we get back to Lancer.”
“We…” Johnny grunted, “we don’t’ have a woodshed.”
Val kept the pressure on the wound. “I’m about ready to help your Pa build one. Think you need a woodshed, Murdoch?”
“I think a woodshed would be an excellent idea. I’m sure we could make good use of it. I know there have been several missed opportunities in its use already.”
“Yeah, right. I’d like to see you try it.” Johnny put his head back and took a deep breath. “Val, that’s enough.”
“That’s all I can do anyway. The Doc is going to have to take the bullet out.” Val stood and stretched. “Come on, boy, let’s get you off the floor.”
Johnny reached up with his good arm while Val hoisted him to his feet and hung onto him until he was seated in a chair.
Val turned to help Murdoch up. It took more effort than it did for Johnny, but Val finally got the tall rancher onto his feet and the chair next to his son.
Once Murdoch and Johnny were taken care of, Val turned to Scott.
“How is she?”
Scott shook his head. “She’s gone.”
The Police Officer stood in the middle of the room. Looking at Val, he noticed the badge on his shirt.
“Are you a lawman?”
Val nodded. “Sheriff. My name’s Val Crawford, Sheriff of Green River. I came here to arrest a murderer.” Val pointed to Jenny’s body on the floor.
“Murderer? Who did she murder?”
“A man by the name of Harlan Garrett. She killed him at a ranch outside Green River six days ago.”
“Harlan Garrett? I’ve heard of him. He’s got a business in San Francisco.”
“Yeah, that’s him. That fellow over there.” Val pointed to Scott. “That’s Harlan Garrett’s grandson.”
“So, Sheriff, what’s her name?”
“Jenny Fields. We trailed her here and when we confronted her, she pulled that little pea shooter. Took a shot at Johnny, then Murdoch jumped in front of him, and a bullet caught both of them. Scott tried to get the gun before she could fire again, and well, it went off and got her.”
“All right, let me get this straight. You’re Sheriff Crawford from Green River. That’s in California, right?”
“That man is Harlan Garrett’s grandson. What’s his name?”
“Scott, Scott Lancer, Officer,” Scott spoke up and moved over to sit on the arm of Johnny’s chair.
The officer wrote the information in a notebook he’d pulled from his pocket. “Who are these two?” The officer turned to Murdoch and Johnny.
“I’m Murdoch Lancer, Scott’s father, and this is my youngest son, Johnny Lancer.”
“So, I take it Harlan Garrett was your father-in-law.”
“Ex-father-in-law. My first wife died when Scott was born.”
Turning to the three women standing to one side, staring blankly at the body on the floor. “And the ladies?”
“Miss Dennison is a friend from Boston. Miss Devon is her traveling companion, and Mrs. Devon is their chaperon.” Scott stood and moved to Julie’s side. “All of you need to sit down.”
The three trembling women sat side by side on the sofa, holding each other’s hands.
The officer approached them. “Ladies, I’d like to ask you a few questions.”
“What do you need to know, Officer?” Mrs. Devon responded.
“You’ve heard what Sheriff Crawford said. Is there anything you can add? You were friends of the deceased, Miss Fields?”
“Yes, we are… were friends of Jenny. Julie has known her for years, but Caitlyn has only known her for about a year. I only met her before we started this trip. I can’t believe she killed Mr. Garrett, but she admitted it to us. She tried to kill Johnny twice.”
The officer glanced at Johnny.
“No, Officer. Besides trying to shoot him, she tried to poison him back at Lancer.”
The Officer closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. He had a headache, and it was getting worse.
“So, Miss Fields tried to kill Mr. Lancer once before?”
“Twice before,” Caitlyn spoke up quickly.
The Officer nodded. “Alright. I think I have enough for now. Ladies, Gentlemen, don’t leave town until I say you can.”
The sound of the desk clerk coming into the room with a tall man with gray hair drew everyone’s attention to the door.
“I’m Doctor Phillips. Which one of you is injured?”
Johnny pointed at Murdoch at the same time everyone else looked at him.
“Let me rephrase the question. Which one of you is injured worse?”
Johnny started to point to Murdoch and saw the expression on Val and his father’s faces.
“Guess I am, Doc.”
The doctor smiled. “Let me see, son.”
The doctor leaned over Johnny, looking at the wound. “I need you to lay down.” Looking toward the bedroom. “Will one of you help him into the bedroom?”
“I can make it on my own.”
Scott snorted. “We’ve heard that before.”
“Come on, boy.” Val leaned over and put a hand under Johnny’s arm, lifting him to his feet and helping him into the bedroom. Once Johnny was on the bed, Val moved out of the way.
The doctor placed his bag on the nightstand and started removing what he’d need to take the bullet out.
“Normally, I would do this in my office or at the hospital, but I can see the bullet. It will be only a moment.” Doctor Phillips took a pair of forceps and quickly lifted the bullet from Johnny’s arm. “There, all done. As I said, it’s a shallow wound. You’re lucky.”
“Bullet hit my old…father before I caught it. Now that you’ve got me taken care of, go take care of him.”
“I’ll do just that as soon as I have your arm stitched and wrapped.”
Once the wound was tended, the doctor leaned over to his bag, removing a bottle of laudanum.
“Hold on, Doc. You don’t need that.”
“There’s no sense in you laying here in pain, young man. Please take the medicine and get some sleep.”
“That’s just it, Doc. I’m not going to lay here.” Johnny sat up and swung his legs off the bed.
Johnny stood up, holding the bedpost a moment to get his balance. “Now, go take care of Murdoch.”
The doctor looked at Johnny and shrugged. “Very well.”
Stepping out of the bedroom, the doctor came face to face with Murdoch, Val, and Scott. When Johnny followed him out of the room, there were smiles on all their faces.
“He alright?” Val asked, looking past the doctor to Johnny.
“He should be in bed, but apparently, he’s not going to listen to me. Now, sir,” he said, looking at Murdoch, “let me take a look at you. In the bedroom, please.”
After the doctor was finished with Murdoch, he walked back into the sitting room. Scott was next to Johnny on the sofa.
Seeing Murdoch, Scott and Johnny got to their feet.
“Are you alright, Sir?” Scott asked.
“Yes. It was only a graze.”
Murdoch got a good look at Scott for the first time since before the meeting with Julie. The boy was done in. Too much had happened in the last week.
“Scott, are you alright?”
Scott nodded. “Yes. I’m glad it’s over, at least this part anyway. Now, all that’s left is settle grandfather’s estate.”
Scott looked at his father, the man who had suffered the most at Harlan Garrett’s hand.
“I suppose after all we’ve found out; I should have taken grandfather back to Boston for burial instead of burying him on Lancer. I’m sorry, Murdoch.”
“It’s not over.”
Everyone looked at Johnny.
“What do you mean?”
“Jenny tried to kill me for her own reasons, and she had nothing to do with the Brouns. Best I can figure they’re still out there somewhere.”
“How are we going to find out who they are?” Murdoch asked. “Are we even sure they had anything to do with the attempts on your life?”
“What was it, grandfather said?” Scott lowered his head, thinking. “They approached him, and when he brought Julie west, it was only natural ‘they’ came too.”
“But it wasn’t Jenny,” Johnny added.
“No, Julie said she’d known Jenny for years. So, it must have been….” Scott’s eyes widened. “We have to talk to Julie.” Scott looked around the room. “Where is she?”
Murdoch and Val looked at each other and then checked out the adjoining bedrooms. There was no sign of Julie or the Devons.
Scott hurried downstairs to the front desk. The clerk who had come to the room was just coming back into the lobby.
“Have you seen the ladies who were in our room a few minutes ago?”
“Why, yes, sir. I just put them in a hack.”
“Where were they going?”
“I believe the older lady and the one with dark hair were going back to their hotel, The Palace she told the driver.”
“And the other lady?”
“Saint Mary’s Hospital.”
“Thank you.” Scott turned and went back upstairs. He had no idea what to make of the information the clerk had given him.
Scott walked into their suite and shrugged. “Julie and Mrs. Devon went back to her hotel.”
“What about Caitlyn?” Val asked.
“According to the desk clerk, she went to Saint Mary’s Hospital.”
Murdoch and Val looked at each other.
“You don’t think she knows, do you?” Murdoch asked.
“How could she? Only the three of us know.” Val was already reaching for his hat.
“We’d better get over there.” Murdoch headed for the door, not waiting for the others.
“Where are you two going?” Johnny asked, looking between Murdoch and Val.
“To the hospital, and we have to hurry. Johnny, you stay here.” Murdoch called over his shoulder as he walked into the hallway.
“No way.” Johnny was on Val’s heels as he followed Murdoch down the hall. Johnny looked back and saw Scott still standing motionless. “You coming, Boston?”
“Wait for me.” Scott detoured into the bedroom and came out with Johnny’s bolero jacket. By the time he got to the front of the hotel, Murdoch had already climbed into a cab. Val and Johnny were piling in behind him.
Scott threw himself in the hack as it started moving. Turning to Johnny, he held out the jacket. “Here. You walk around with a bloodied sleeve and bandaged arm, someone’s going to think you’ve been hurt.”
Johnny smiled. “Thanks.” He put his jacket on and asked, “What’s going on, and why are we going to the hospital?”
Before Murdoch could form an answer, Scott asked, “Isn’t that the same hospital Sam’s been spending so much time visiting since we came to San Francisco?”
“Yes, it is. Sam’s visiting a patient.”
Johnny’s eyes were on Murdoch. “Who?”
“You’ll see when we get there.”
“Val, you know what’s going on?”
“I do, and like Murdoch said, wait until we get there. Now, hush up and settle back.”
Moments later, Murdoch announced, “We’re here.” He threw the cab door open before it stopped.
“Pay the man Scott,” Murdoch said as he rushed into the three-story building.
Scott hurriedly pushed a few bills into the driver’s hand before running to catch up with the others.
Once inside the hospital, Murdoch asked for directions to the room of Angus MacKinnon.
Before Johnny could ask, Murdoch said, “It’s the only name we could think of that they wouldn’t ask for if anyone came looking.”
Out of breath, Scott gasped, “Looking for who?”
Murdoch and Val wasted no time heading for the stairs with Scott and Johnny on their heels. Finding room 214, they stopped while Murdoch pushed the door open. His bulk blocked the doorway keeping the others from seeing past him.
From inside, they heard Sam Jenkins’s voice, “What are you doing here? Get in here, Murdoch. Tell me what happened at the meeting with Julie and her friends.”
Murdoch took a step into the room and let out the breath he’d been holding since leaving their hotel.
Everyone crowded inside. Murdoch closed the door behind him and walked to the other side of the room. Scott and Johnny got their first look at the man lying in bed.
Alasdair MacKay looked up at them with a smile on his face.
Scott shook his head, bewildered. “MacKay? I don’t understand. We thought you were dead.” Scott looked at his father and Val. “You said…”
“I almost was, lad. If not for Sam, I would have breathed my last that day.”
“We never said he died, Scott,” Val responded. “He was hurt real bad, and we didn’t think he was going to make it. Sam took him to his place. After Murdoch told us about what happened in Scotland and about the Brouns, we decided not to let anyone know he was still alive.”
“Alasdair was unconscious for almost a week,” Sam added. “When I thought he was strong enough to travel, I made arrangements for the hospital in San Francisco to take him until the trouble with the Brouns was resolved.”
“So, why didn’t he tell you what Remember Glencoe meant sooner?” Scott found a chair and sat down.
“As I said, he was unconscious. When he was able to speak, he was already in San Francisco.”
Val leaned against the wall. “I really did find that note in his books. The one about ‘Remember Glencoe’ and ‘Remember the Campbells.’ If Murdoch hadn’t recalled the story of about Glencoe, we’d have still been in the dark.”
“Val, we still don’t know what it means,” Scott snapped.
“Yes, we do.” Murdoch sat on the edge of the bed. “I wish I had figured it out sooner. In the story I told you, the MacDonalds welcomed Campbell and his men into their homes. You have to understand. To the Highland Clans, the fact that Campbell and his men were deemed friends made the event even more horrendous.”
Murdoch sighed. “We welcomed Harlan and the ladies into our home. The MacDonalds were betrayed by those they deemed to be friends, just as we were.”
“We had no way of knowing, sir.”
“I should have been paying attention. Caitlyn is a Scottish name, as is Devon.”
“That wouldn’t necessarily make her part of the Broun family.”
Sam and Alasdair looked between Murdoch and Scott.
“What are you talking about?” Sam turned to Murdoch. “Are you saying Caitlyn Devon is part of all this? What about her aunt? And what happened with Julie?”
Murdoch looked at Scott. “Do you want to tell them, son?”
Scott nodded. “I suppose it is my story to tell.”
For the next few minutes, Scott relayed what happened in room 122 of the Cosmopolitan Hotel.
“So, Jenny had nothing to do with the Brouns.”
“And you believe Lea and Caitlyn did?” Sam shook his head. “I can’t believe it.”
“It’s the only thing that makes sense.”
“She can’t have been working alone. If Lea and Caitlyn were with Julie and Jenny, then who shot Alasdair?”
The room fell silent. It was Johnny who spoke next. “Harlan mentioned a brother.
“Yes, but who is he?”
“We’ll figure it out. We have to.”
There was a soft tap on the door. Val turned to open it, but the door opened before he reached it.
“Oh, my,” she laughed. “The nurse said Alasdair had visitors. I just never expected all of you.”
Murdoch’s mouth dropped open as he stared at the woman framed in the doorway.
Stepping inside, she closed the door, walked across the small room, and kissed Murdoch on the cheek.
“Hello, Murdoch,” she said with a smile.
“What? How?” Murdoch was at a loss for the words at seeing the woman again.
“It’s so good to see you again.” Amanda Fleming looked around the room. “It’s good to see all of you.”
“It’s good to see you, too.” Murdoch looked at the expressions on the other men’s faces. “But what are you doing here?”
Amanda moved to the bed and picked up Alasdair’s hand. “I’ve come to see my brother.”
“That’s right, Murdo,” Alasdair answered. “This is Mandy. You remember her, don’t you?”
Murdoch stared at the woman. “Mandy MacKay? I can’t believe it. I told you on the train, you looked familiar, but the last time I saw you, you were only a child. Why didn’t you tell me who you were?”
“I couldn’t risk it. I’m sure the Brouns have someone working at your ranch.”
“And Trent?” Johnny asked.
“Joshua is my son. He was beside himself when Ally was shot down in front of him.”
“Slow down,” Murdoch took her and pulled her to one of the chairs. “Sit down and start from the beginning. Where have you been all this time?”
“Do you remember Ian Trent?”
Murdoch thought for a moment. “Yes. Ian was a few years younger than me, but I remember him. He’s Josh’s father?”
She nodded. “Aye, we were married the year I turned eighteen. Ian was like you, constantly looking for something he couldn’t find in Scotland. We moved to Boston the year after we wed. He went into the shipping business and was very successful at it. My poor Ian died ten years ago.”
“Trent Shipping?” Scott asked.
“Yes. Garrett Enterprises handled our accounts.”
“I met your husband once, but I don’t remember you.”
“After I found out Harlan’s relationship with Murdoch, I tried to limit my time around him. I did see you a few times when you were younger.”
Johnny huffed. “Really is a small world.”
“Yes, it is,” Amanda replied. “Too small, as it turns out. That was the reason I had to leave Lancer when I heard Harlan was coming.”
“You won’t have to worry about running into him again,” Johnny said. “Old man Garrett’s dead.”
“Dead? But how?”
Murdoch related the same story to Amanda he’d told Alasdair and Sam. When he was done Amanda looked at Scott. “I’m so sorry, Scott. I may not have liked the man, but I know you cared for him deeply.”
Scott took a deep breath and nodded. “Thank you.”
“Amanda, what about Josh? Weren’t you afraid Harlan would recognize him?” Sam asked.
“Josh didn’t have anything to do with the business and never met Harlan.”
“So, how did you get here?” Murdoch pulled the other chair in the room closer to Amanda and sat down.
“Two months ago, Ally sailed to Boston. He told us about poor Rory and Jamie. I’m ashamed to say all I could think was, thank God, Ally didn’t have a son for them to murder.
“When Ally said he was coming to California to warn Murdoch, Josh knew he couldn’t just sit in Boston and do nothing. He made the trip west and got a job at the ranch. Josh wanted to be there if his uncle needed help and hoped to find out who the Brouns had at Lancer.
“I was in Boston when Josh wired me that Alasdair was shot. By the time I got to Denver, Doctor Jenkins had already moved Ally to Saint Mary’s. When I arrived in San Francisco, I came straight here. The nurses told me a tall man had been visiting Ally. I saw you leaving his room one day and stayed out of sight.”
“But….?” Murdoch began and stopped.
“You have to remember, it had been almost thirty years since I’d last seen you. I wasn’t sure who you were and couldn’t take a chance you were with the Brouns. After I made sure Ally was out of danger, I decided to go to Green River to see if Josh had discovered anything.”
“That day on the train?”
Amanda smiled. “Meeting you on the train was an accident.”
“Why not tell me then who you were?”
“I’d seen Harlan and the women with him at my hotel. I knew he’d eventually go to your ranch and didn’t want anyone to accidentally use my name.”
“What about your last name, Fleming?”
She laughed. “My middle name, but of course, you wouldn’t know that.”
Scott shifted closer to Amanda. “What made you think the Brouns had anything to do with my grandfather?”
Amanda gave Scott a sympathetic look.
“Harlan hadn’t exactly made it a secret that he disliked Murdoch. Everyone in Boston society knows the story of how your father ‘stole’ Catherine away from her father. We’d already suspected the Brouns were in contact with Harlan. It only made sense. The surest way the Brouns could hurt Murdoch was by making a deal with Harlan.”
“A deal?” Scott asked hesitantly.
“Yes, Scott. The Brouns sole purpose now that they think everyone else is dead is to kill Murdoch Lancer and,” she looked at Johnny, “his youngest son.”
“We’re not so sure they don’t know Alasdair is alive,” Murdoch said. “The desk clerk at the Cosmopolitan told us Caitlyn was coming here.”
Amanda looked at her brother. “Ally.”
“It’s alright, Mandy.”
“Murdoch, you’re sure it’s the Devon’s? They’ve never used that name before.”
“Frankly, we’re not sure of anything.”
“No. We don’t have proof, but it makes sense,” Val answered. Val turned to the door and opened it. “I’ll be right back.”
“Where are you going?” Murdoch asked.
“To see if anyone at the hospital has seen the Devons’.”
No one spoke while Val was gone. Several times Scott caught Murdoch and Amanda smiling at each other.
Ten minutes after leaving the room, Val was back.
“Well?” Scott asked.
Val laughed. “There was a woman asking questions about an Alasdair MacKay, and the staff told them they didn’t have anyone by that name here.”
“They didn’t ask for Angus MacKinnon?”
“So, she’s gone?”
“Looks like it.”
“So now what do we do?” Johnny asked.
Scott gave Johnny a warm smile. “Right now, I want to go home.”
Johnny dipped his head. “Boston?”
“No, little brother. I’ve only got one home and that’s Lancer.”
Murdoch stood up, put an arm around Scott, and then looked at Johnny. “John?”
Johnny gave them a slight smile before moving across the room. Scott put an arm around Johnny, pulling him closer to him and Murdoch.
“Yeah, let’s go home.” Johnny turned his head to look at Val.
Val smiled and gave him a quick nod.
“Amanda, will you come back with us?”
“When Ally can travel, we’ll both be there. I think we need to stay together until the threat is over. That is if you don’t mind a few more guests at the ranch.”
“As I said before, you were invited. You’re always welcome.”
“Then we’ll see you soon.”
Amanda took Murdoch’s hand. “You can count on it.”
After returning to the Cosmopolitan, five exhausted men walked upstairs and to their rooms. Sam changed Murdoch and Johnny’s bandages and then ordered them straight to bed. He was surprised when neither argued with him.
Scott peeked into his and Johnny’s room and then Murdoch’s. Easing the doors closed, he looked at Sam.
“How are they?”
“Tired. I’m surprised they were able to make the trip to the hospital.”
“Couldn’t keep either of them here.” Val sat on the sofa and stretched his legs out.
Scott stood in the middle of the Sitting Room, giving thought to what he would do. Jenny was dead, and finding the Devons was most probably a lost cause. He did want to talk to Julie one more time before returning home.
“Val, I’m going out for a couple of hours. If Murdoch or Johnny wake up, tell them I’ve gone to the Palace Hotel to talk to Julie.”
“You need company?”
“No. I want to speak to her alone. I’ll also see if I can find Johnny a shirt while I’m out.”
“You be careful and watch your back.”
“I’ll do that.” Scott turned towards his bedroom.
“Yeah, I don’t want Johnny taking my head off ‘cause I let you go out alone.”
Scott laughed. “I’m confident you can hold your own against my brother.”
Val snorted. “Don’t count on it. The boy’s buffaloed me more than once over the years.”
Scott paused, wanting to ask about those years but decided Val wouldn’t tell him anyway. He slipped into his and Johnny’s room and picked up an overcoat. Scott gave Johnny one more look and pulled a blanket up over his bare shoulder before easing out of the room. Once downstairs, he had the doorman wave down a cab.
Thirty minutes later, he was knocking on Julie’s door.
Julie opened the door, a look of surprise on her face. “Scott, it’s so good to see you. Please come in.”
Scott walked into a Sitting Room similar to the one he had at the Cosmopolitan.
Julie moved closer to him and wrapped her arms around his neck. Scott responded by pulling her in close and, without a word, kissed her. The long passionate kiss left them both breathless, but it was Scott who found his voice first and stepped away from the embrace.
“Julie, I had to see you before I left San Francisco.”
“You’re going back to Boston?” A smile spread across her face.
“No, Julie, not Boston. Back to Lancer.”
Julie stepped back and looked at him, surprised by his answer. “Surely, you’ll go home now if nothing else to settle your grandfather’s estate?”
“I have more important things to deal with right now, and Lancer is my home.”
Julie turned away from Scott and walked to the middle of the room.
“I had hoped now that things have changed, you’d want to go back to Boston. We could be together, Scott.”
“The only way we can be together is if you agree to stay here.”
“Well, that’s it then?”
“I suppose it is.”
“I’ll be leaving for home as soon as I can make arrangements.”
“Julie, do you know where Mrs. Devon and Caitlyn are right now?”
Julie turned to face Scott. “Caitlyn? No. Not since we left your hotel this morning, but I’m sure she’ll be back soon.”
Scott walked across the room and opened the door to one of the bedrooms off to the right. The room was neat, and there were items on the dresser and a coat, he recognized as Julie’s laying across the back of a chair. He closed the door and started for the next room.
“Scott, what are you doing?”
“Just checking ….”
Scott opened the second bedroom door and walked inside. The room was neat and the bed made. Opening the armoire, he found empty hangers, and the dresser top was void of any toiletries.
“I don’t think Caitlyn will be coming back. All of her things are gone.”
“Gone!” Julie looked inside the room and shook her head. “I don’t understand. Where has she gone?”
“Julie, we believe Caitlyn and her aunt were working with grandfather and Jenny in trying to kill Johnny.”
“That’s impossible. Caitlyn wouldn’t do that.”
“Would you have believed Jenny would kill my grandfather?”
Julie sat down, wringing her hands. “I …. I suppose I’m not a very good judge of character. I thought I knew Jenny and Caitlyn.”
“Tell me how you meet Caitlyn?”
Julie sighed. “I met her at one of the dances in Boston almost a year ago. If I remember correctly, it was your grandfather who introduced us, and we hit it off right away.”
“And grandfather made sure she was with you when you came west?”
“Besides her aunt, did you ever meet any of her family? Did she ever mention a brother?”
She thought for a moment. “I don’t think so. Now that I think of it, I don’t think Caitlyn had any friends except for Jenny and me. You really think she’s responsible for trying to kill your brother?”
“Yes, but we have no proof.”
Scott walked over to Julie and helped her stand. “I’m going to miss you. I wish you’d come back to Lancer with me.”
“I can’t, Scott.” She put her arms around his neck again. “I hope you know how much I love you, but I can’t stay here. My life is in Boston.”
“And mine is here.” He leaned in and kissed her gently at first and then more passionately. Finally, he leaned back and sighed. “I love you, too, Julie, but ….”
“Yes, I know. Your life is here with Murdoch and Johnny. You will call on me when you come back to Boston to settle your grandfather’s estate?”
“Yes, I will, but Julie…. don’t wait for me.”
She nodded and took a deep breath.
Scott turned to the door, opened it, and stepped into the hallway. He looked back over his shoulder and smiled. “Goodbye, Julie.”
The door between them closed. Scott stood for a moment and then walked down the hallway and out of the hotel.
The shrill whistle of the engine and rattling cars announced the departure of the 9:20 Southern Pacific train to Stockton.
The Lancers, Val, and Sam gladly left San Francisco, leaving Alasdair and Amanda behind with the promise of returning to the ranch once Ally was released from the hospital. Johnny was the first to board and grabbed a seat next to the window.
When Scott took the seat across from him, Johnny grinned and stretched out his legs, taking most of his brother’s legroom.
“Do you mind?” Scott pushed Johnny’s legs aside and stretched out his own legs.
“Nope. Plenty of room,” Johnny replied with a smile.
Murdoch chuckled and shook his head. The stress of the last few weeks had taken its toll, and it was a relief to see his sons getting back to normal.
Murdoch looked across the aisle to his right, where Sam and Val were settling into their seats.
Sam put on his glasses, opened a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle, and started reading.
Val was watching Johnny’s antics and smiling.
The more time Murdoch spent with Val Crawford, the more he liked the man. Val was good for his son and knew how to handle him. Murdoch still wanted to find out the relationship between Val and Johnny, but there was time. Someday soon, he’d sit down with Val and have a man-to-man talk with him.
As the train gained speed, Murdoch settled back and sighed. It was good to be going home.
“May I sit down?”
Murdoch looked up.
Caitlyn Devon was smiling down at him. Without another word, she sat down next to Murdoch and looked around at the others.
Johnny’s hand went to the gun on his hip.
“I wouldn’t, Johnny.” Caitlyn raised a finger and waved it back and forth. Then she showed him the gun she had pointed at Murdoch’s side.
“What do you want?” Murdoch asked loud enough to draw Val and Sam’s attention.
Caitlyn turned to look across the aisle. “Sheriff. Doctor. It’s good to see you both again.”
Scott spoke up, “You’ll never get away with it this time, Caitlyn.”
“Get away with what? I have no idea what you’re talking about, Scott. I’ve done nothing…. that you can prove, and I don’t plan to. In the eyes of the law, my hands are clean.” She glanced at Val. “Isn’t that right, Sheriff?”
“What do you call holding us here at gunpoint?”
She looked down at the derringer in her hand and shrugged. “This is just to make sure I have your attention. I hope you know I wouldn’t use it unless forced to. I’ve actually become fond of all of you, especially you, Johnny.”
“Was it you that killed the others? Rory and Jamie?” Murdoch asked.
She shook her head. “Me? No. I’ve lived in America my entire life. No, my Uncle Malcolm and his family took care of those in Scotland who were responsible for destroying Liam Broun and his family.”
“And your aunt?”
Caitlyn didn’t answer.
“Don’t you think enough people have suffered because of the mistake we made in Inverness?” Murdoch asked.
“Personally, yes, but it’s not my place to say who’s paid enough and who hasn’t.”
“Whose place is it then?” Scott asked.
“My aunt and father, of course. They watched their Da unjustly tried and then gunned down along with their younger brother.”
“The little girl?” Murdoch asked. “Her name was Annaleigh, wasn’t it?”
“That’s right.” Caitlyn raised an eyebrow. “I’m surprised you remembered her name. She’s lived with the nightmare of those events her entire life. She was only seven years old, but she remembers everything as if it were yesterday.”
“Where is she now?”
Caitlyn smiled. “Now, that I can’t tell you.”
“And your brother?”
“That I can tell you. He’s sitting behind you with a gun pointed at the back of Murdoch’s head. He will be until our next stop when he and I will step off the train. We’ll disappear, and you’ll go on your way back to Green River.”
Johnny and Scott strained to see if they could see anyone they recognized.
“Don’t bother looking. The men in my family are good at hiding their appearance.”
“You didn’t answer my question. What are you doing here?” Murdoch asked again. “Are you going to try to kill Johnny again?”
“Not me. I’ve lost my taste for vengeance for something that happened long before I was born. That’s what I wanted to tell you.”
“What about the rest of your family?”
“Murdoch, your and Johnny’s fates were sealed thirty-eight years ago when an eleven-year-old boy wrongly testified he’d seen my grandfather commit a murder. Liam Broun cursed you and the others. They’ve paid the price, and now there’s only you two left.”
“I’m sorry. I’ve lived with what happened my whole life. I could blame it on Gavin Stewart pressuring four small boys into testifying, but there is no excuse.”
“I believe you are sorry. For what it’s worth, I will try to get my aunt to go back to Scotland and forget this vendetta. Beyond that, I can’t make any promises.”
“Next stop, Walnut Creek.” The conductor announced as he walked through the coach. “Next stop, Walnut Creek.”
“That’s my stop,” Caitlyn stated. “We have to hurry this along.”
“You know the Constabulary in Scotland will arrest your uncle for what was done to the others?’ Scott joined in.
Caitlyn laughed. “The Broun family has been planning their revenge for decades. Every move has been calculated down to the last detail. I doubt the police in Scotland will find proof of the family’s involvement in those deaths.”
The train slowed and then stopped.
The conductor passed by announcing, “All off for Walnut Creek.”
“Now, I have to leave you. Please don’t try to come after me.” She looked at Johhny. “I’m sorry, Johnny. I really do like you.”
Gathering her skirts, she started down the aisle and stopped. Turning back, she said, “By the way, I have to admire your use of Angus MacKinnon’s name at the hospital.”
Seeing the surprised look on Murdoch’s face, she smiled. “Don’t worry. Aunt Lea still believes MacKay is dead. I have to admit I was surprised. My brother seldom misses what he aims at.”
Caitlyn walked down the aisle and stepped off the train onto the platform.
The train began to move again and Johnny jumped to his feet. There was no one in the rear of the coach.
Johnny sat back down and looked at Murdoch.
“What do you make of that?”
“I’m not sure. It would appear that was Caitlyn’s way of telling us she was done with us.”
“Why bother? She could have just …. walked away and been well on her way back east by now.”
“Let’s hope she meant it.”
Fred Sullivan shook his head and sighed. He’d been watching Cipriano pacing in front of the Stage Depot for more than an hour.
“Cipriano, you want to come in and sit down?”
“Gracias, Senor Sullivan, but no.”
Fred checked his pocket watch and looked down the street. “It should be along soon.”
Cipriano nodded, wishing the stage would hurry. Yesterday Leon Fergus delivered a telegram to the ranch saying the Patron and his sons were returning on the noon stage. Senorita Teresa and his Maria made sure he’d left in plenty of time to get to town, but the stage was late, again.
Both Senorita Teresa and his Maria were worried about Juanito. Cipriano smiled. The boy would complain about being fussed over, but Cipriano knew deep down Johnny enjoyed it.
“Here it comes.”
Cipriano turned at Fred’s words to see the four-horse team pulling the Butterfield/Overland coach down the street.
“WHOA!” Jake Skinner pulled back on the reins bringing the stage to a rocking stop.
“Howdy, Mr. Lancer. Welcome home,” Fred said as he opened the stage door.
Murdoch stepped down and stretched. “Thank you, Fred. It’s good to be home.”
Sam was next to step down, then Val, Scott, and finally Johnny.
“I will get your bags, Patron. The carriage is around the corner.” Cipriano looked at Scott. “I have brought your horse, Senor Scott.”
Johnny frowned. “What about me? Did you bring Barranca?”
Cipriano smiled. “Si. He is here also.”
“Has everything been alright at the ranch while we were gone?” Murdoch asked.
“Si, Paton, all is well. We did have one of the new men quit.”
“Is Josh Trent still there?”
“Si, Patron, Trent is still here.”
“Good. Well, what do you say we go home?” Murdoch put an arm around his sons and directed them to the carriage. “Sam. Val, thank you for all your help.”
The Lancers disappeared around the corner of the building, leaving Sam and Val standing in front of the depot.
“Well, guess I’ll head over to the jail and see what’s happened since I left town.”
“Yes, I suppose I should check to see if anyone needs me.”
They stood staring at each other, then turned and went their separate ways. They hadn’t gone more than a few feet when they saw Johnny running back towards them and a confused looking Murdoch and Scott right behind him.
Val scanned the area for trouble and, seeing nothing, asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Val, when you rode up on the hill to check out the tracks after Alasdair was shot, what did you say you found?”
“Didn’t find anything. Like I told you, your men’s tracks covered up the shooters.”
“Let’s see. There was Pedro, Browning, and Douglas.”
“Murdoch, you said that the Scottish name for Brùn was Broun. What’s the English name?”
Murdoch responded without even thinking. “The English name is Brown.”
“Brown?” Johnny snorted. “Well, hell.”
“What?” Val asked.
“He was right there.”
“The man the Brouns had at Lancer. Tom Browning.”
“Well, I’ll be damned.” Val cursed. “He was right under my nose the whole time. No wonder we couldn’t find any tracks.”
“Do you think Tom Browning is Caitlyn’s brother?” Sam asked.
“Yeah, I do.” Johnny nodded.
Val walked off and then turned to look at Murdoch. “If Browning was covering us on the train, that means he’s gone with Caitlyn.”
“So, you think it’s all over?”
Val rubbed the stubble on his chin. “I …. I don’t know. It just seems too easy. After everything they went through to kill Johnny, it seems like they’ve just given up.” Val looked at Johnny. “You ever know anyone to hold a hate for so long and just give up?”
“Seems it was Lea who held the hate. I don’t think Caitlyn and Tom were raised with it. Maybe it’s like Caitlyn said, and she’s not interested anymore.”
“There’s still something that’s eating at my craw,” Val said.
“I’m not sure. It was something someone said, but…oh, well, it’ll come to me. I’m headed for my office.” Val patted Johnny on the back. “You watch your back.”
“Don’t I always,” Johnny laughed. “See you later, amigo.”
Johnny watched Val walk away, wondering what was bothering his friend. He’d been around Val long enough to know that if he had a bad feeling, then the Johnny Madrid in him needed to keep his eyes open.
“Maria!” Johnny’s voice carried through the hacienda.
Scott wiped the last of the shaving creme from his chin and chuckled, wondering why his brother was in an uproar so early in the morning.
Murdoch stepped into the hallway, a straight-edge razor in one hand and his face covered in soap.
“John, will you stop yelling.”
Scott opened his bedroom door and joined Murdoch in the hall. Johnny stood in front of his bedroom door bare-chested and barefooted.
“What are you yelling about?”
“I can’t find my blue shirt.”
“Have you tried looking in your dresser drawers instead of under the bed?”
“Funny, brother. Real funny. There ain’t nothing under my bed. Teresa cleaned under there yesterday, and I have looked in the dresser where it’s supposed to be.”
“Johnny, instead of yelling for Maria, why don’t you go down to the kitchen and ask her or wear another shirt?”
“But, Murdoch, that’s the shirt I want to wear today.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, son. The blue one may be in the laundry, or Teresa may have it in her mending basket.”
“John, I’m going to continue shaving, then I’m going downstairs for breakfast. I suggest you figure out what you’ll be wearing and do it fast.”
Murdoch turned back to his room and shut the door behind him.
Scott laughed. “Why not wear the pink shirt?”
“It’s dirty, and it’s not pink. I keep telling you it’s red.”
Scott shook his head and walked back into his room, leaving the door open. He heard Maria coming up the back stairs.
“Good. Maria, I can’t find my blue shirt. Do you know where it is?”
“Si. If you have not worn it since coming home, it is in your room.”
“I’ve looked everywhere.”
Maria mumbled something under her breath and pushed by Johnny. Once in his room, she when to the dresser and opened the top drawer.
“I already looked, and it ain’t there.”
Maria closed the top drawer and opened the next two until she found what she was looking for. Picking up the folded blue floral shirt from the bottom drawer, she turned and held it out.
“Is this what you are looking for, Juanito?”
“What’s it doing down there?”
“I do not know.” She pushed the shirt into Johnny’s hands. “I have to finish preparing breakfast.” She patted him on his cheek. “Get dressed, nino.”
Johnny shook out the shirt and slipped it on. Pulling on his socks, he stomped into his boots and hurried downstairs, anxious to get back to the normal routine of the ranch.
Murdoch and Scott were already seated when Johnny reached the kitchen.
“I see you found your shirt.” Scott sipped his coffee.
“Maria found it. Someone put it in the bottom drawer of the dresser.”
“You said you’d looked everywhere.”
Johnny ignored the remark and dug into his breakfast.
Scott reached for a biscuit. “What do you want us to do today, sir?”
“Talk to Cipriano and find out where he needs help. I’m going to work on the books.”
Both Murdoch and Scott looked at Johnny, expecting some type of remark.
“What? I heard you. Talk to Cipriano.”
When breakfast was over, the three men went their separate ways. Murdoch to his desk and Scott and Johnny outside to see where they were needed.
Teresa and Maria were clearing the table when Teresa asked, “I heard Johnny yelling earlier. What did he want?”
“He could not find his blue shirt.”
“He had it on, didn’t he?”
“Si, I found it in the bottom drawer of his dresser.”
Teresa stopped what she was doing. “The bottom drawer? How in the world did it get down there?”
Maria shook her head, shrugged, and went back to work.
Val Crawford sat at his desk in the Sheriff’s office, thumbing through the mail that had been ignored while he’d been away. He was halfway through the stack when he tossed it on the desk and leaned back in his chair. He hadn’t had much sleep the night before, thinking about all that had happened.
Val still didn’t believe the Brouns would have given up so easily. There was something he was missing, something they’d all missed.
Deciding he wasn’t going to get anything accomplished in town, Val decided to ride out to Lancer. Maybe talking to Murdoch would trigger something in his memory that would help.
“Café, Patron?” Maria held up the coffee pot.
“Yes, please.” Murdoch laid down the pencil he was holding and picked up his empty cup.
As Maria started back to the kitchen, she glanced out the French doors in time to see Val tying his horse at the hitching rail. She half-turned to look at Murdoch.
“Patron, Senor Val is here.”
Murdoch stood and walked to the doors. Opening them, he stepped outside.
“Val, what are you doing here? Has anything else happened?”
“No. Everything’s fine. I just want to talk.”
“Come in.” Murdoch stepped aside and waved Val inside.
Murdoch led the way back to his desk and sat in his chair, motioning Val to have a seat.
“You said you want to talk? Is there still something bothering you?”
“There is. You said something ….”
Val shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“That’s not much help, Val.”
Maria entered the room carrying a tray with a pot of coffee and a cup for Val.
“De nada, Senor Val,” Maria responded as she poured the coffee.
Val stretched out his legs and looked out the window behind Murdoch. “Everything here getting back to normal?”
Murdoch laughed. “Yes, as normal as it gets around here. Johnny was his usual self this morning, yelling his head off for Maria to find his shirt.”
Val picked up the coffee cup and took a sip. “Sounds like the boy. Did you find it for him, Maria?”
Maria laughed. “Si, it was in the bottom drawer of his dresser. I think maybe the Senora put it there by accident.”
“Senora?” Murdoch asked. “Senora Fleming?”
“No, Patron, it was Senora Devon. She helped with the laundry the day before leaving for San Francisco. I told her there was no need to iron Juanito’s shirts, but she insisted. The Senora even put them away.”
Both Murdoch and Val were on their feet.
“Is something wrong?” Maria sat the coffee pot down with a thud.
“Maria, we haven’t had time to tell you and Cipriano what happened in San Francisco, but it wasn’t only Mr. Garrett that tried to kill Johnny. The Devons and Jenny were working with Garrett.”
“Madre de Dios” Maria crossed herself.
“That’s right. They put the poison on his saddle horn and on the sweatband of his hat.” Val looked at Murdoch. “You don’t think Mrs. Devon put poison on his shirt somewhere?”
“I don’t know, but if it works the same way as the other times, then it won’t activate until he starts to sweat.”
Both men turned to look out the French doors at the sunny day heating up fast.
“Maria, I don’t want you touching anything in Johnny’s room. Send one of the men for Sam.” Murdoch was already headed for the door. “When Sam gets here, tell him what you told us about Mrs. Devon.”
“I’m going with you.” Val followed Murdoch towards the door.
Murdoch stopped and turned back to look at Maria. “His clothes may have poison on them, and we don’t know what else she may have put it on, so please be careful.”
Murdoch started out the door, changed direction, and headed for the stairs. “I’ll be right there, Val.”
Val untied his horse and led it across the yard to the barn where Cipriano was standing. Murdoch stormed out of the house a few minutes later in time to see Cipriano going to the barn.
“I’ve got him saddling your horse. He sent Scott and Johnny with the crew checking out the north fence line.”
“How far is that?” Val asked as he mounted his horse.
“A good two hours.”
Val took a deep breath and blew it out. “Let’s pray we’re wrong.”
“Yes, but somehow I don’t think we are.”
Murdoch and Val topped the hill and looked down on the Northern boundary of Lancer.
“Your crew supposed to be here?” Val stood in his stirrups and strained to see any sign of the work crew.
“That’s what Cipriano said. Let’s get down there and see if we can tell which way they went.”
Reaching the fence line, Val pointed to the east. “They’re headed that way.”
It didn’t take long to find the work crew. From a distance, Murdoch couldn’t tell if Johnny was with them.
As they got closer, the men stopped working. Walt dropped the shovel he held and walked up to the horses when they reined to a stop.
Murdoch quickly looked at the faces of what was supposed to be a nine-man work crew and saw only four were there.
“Walt, where’s Johnny?”
Walt pointed east. “He went with Scott to check the rest of the fence. We almost got this section fixed. Is there trouble?”
“Did anyone go with them?”
Walt nodded. “Yes, sir. I sent Trent, Douglas, and Finch.”
“Well, at least Trent’s with them.” Murdoch turned in the saddle and looked east along the fence line.
“Yeah, but aren’t the other two new hands?” Val asked.
“Yes, they are.” There was no doubt of the worry in the older man’s voice. “Walt, how long has it been since you saw them?”
“Not long. About half an hour. You want some of the men to come with you in case there’s trouble?”
“There’s trouble, alright.” Val reined his horse around. “The rest of you catch up with us.”
“That’s what was bothering me.”
“Don’t have time to explain. We need to find your boys.”
Val kicked his horse into a gallop.
The sun was reaching its zenith when Johnny started to feel the heat of the day. Unbuttoning his shirt, he pulled it off and hung it on a fence post.
“I wish I could do that,” Scott said as he twisted another piece of wire into place.
Johnny laughed. “Might as well roast you over a spit. I’d hate to hear Murdoch yelling if I brought you home blistered.”
“I suppose, but it would be cooler.”
“That it is.” Johnny pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his face and neck. “Let’s get back to it.”
Scott looked at Finch and Douglas working on repairing the fence a few feet further along and then at Trent behind them.
“Have you spoken to Trent since we’ve been home?”
Johnny shook his head. “No, not sure I should. If he’s still here, he must think there’s still a chance some of the Brouns are around.”
“Is that possible?”
“It was too easy, Scott. I just can’t believe they’d give up like that.” Johnny wiped his neck and face again. “Damn, it’s hot out here.”
“Are you alright?” Scott could see the sweat streaming down his brother’s bare chest.
“Yeah. Let’s get this done.”
“Looks good down that way, Johnny,” Trent said as he walked back to the brothers.
“Good, we’re almost done here.”
From the other direction, Finch and Douglas started back.
“I’ll get the tools and head back to the main crew.” Scott started picking up wire cutters and shovels.
“Go ahead.” Johnny looked at the hired hands. “You three can go back too.”
“Trent and Finch can go back with Scott. I’ll stay with you if it’s alright in case there’s something you need doing?” Douglas said.
“All right. Scott, we’ll be along in a bit.”
“Johnny, you’d best put that shirt back on. Even you can burn in this sun,” Douglas said.
Scott laughed. “That would be funny, brother. What would Murdoch say if you came back burnt?”
“I don’t burn,” Johnny huffed but reached for his shirt anyway.
Scott, Trent, and Finch were halfway back to the main crew when they saw Murdoch and Val riding towards them. They pulled up and waited.
“Scott, where’s Johnny?”
“We left him about two miles back.”
Val looked at the men with Scott.
“You leave Douglas with him?”
Scott nodded. “Yes, is there a problem?”
Murdoch looked at Trent. “Josh, has Douglas given any indication he’s working for the Broun family?”
Trent’s eyes widened. “No, you think he might be?”
“I just have a feeling.”
Brian Douglas leaned against a fence post and smiled as Johnny slipped back into his shirt. He liked the young man, and he’d been surprised when he heard about Johnny Madrid from the other hands.
“Johnny, can I ask you something?”
Johnny’s eyes cut to the right and the corner of his mouth turned up.
“You can ask. Don’t mean I’ll answer.”
“I heard you were Johnny Madrid. Is it true?”
“It’s no secret.”
“Do you ever get scared? I mean, you’ve faced a lot of men, aren’t you afraid of dying?”
Johnny shook his head. “Can’t afford to be scared in a gunfight. Scared gets you dead.”
“I see,” Douglas responded. “Are you ever afraid for those around you, for your father or Scott?”
Without hesitation. “Always. That’s why I try to get them to stay away when I have to face someone. I don’t want them hurt.”
Johnny glared at Douglas and swiped at the back of his neck.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry. I was just wondering.”
“Not to worry. Now I have a question for you?”
“How long you worked for the Brouns?”
“If you’ve learned anything about me, Douglas, it’s I don’t play games.”
Douglas shook his head. “I still don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“In that case, we need to head back to the others.”
“I want you riding in front of me.”
Johnny started towards Barranca and swayed.
“You alright, Johnny?”
“I don’t know. Don’t…. my neck’s burning.” Johnny started unbuttoning his shirt.
“No, leave it on.” Douglas stepped forward and pulled Johnny’s arms down to his sides. “You’ve probably got too much sun.”
Johnny fought to raise his arms. “Not too much sun. It burns like before.”
Johnny’s head came up, and his eyes met those of Douglas. He’d seen the look before, just before a man drew on him, and there was no doubt now.
“I can’t let you take it off, Johnny.”
Johnny’s hand went for his gun.
“You won’t be needing that.” Douglas lifted the Colt from Johnny’s holster with a gloved hand. “Try to relax. It’ll be over soon.”
“So, you do work for the Brouns?”
“No.” Douglas shook his head. “I don’t work for them. I am one.”
Douglas’s head shot up at the sound of horses coming fast. Looking west, he saw who he knew was Murdoch Lancer in the lead.
“Your Da is here, Johnny, but this time it’s too late.”
Douglas let Johnny slide to the ground, then slowly walked to stand behind Barranca and waited. He’d given thought to flee, but, no, it was time to finish this once and for all. With the death of Murdoch Lancer and his youngest son, it would be over, and his Da would finally rest in peace.
“Hold it right there, Lancer!”
The sound of Douglas’ voice and the sight of his son laying on the ground was enough to cause Murdoch to rein in fast and jump from his horse.
Murdoch took three steps towards Johnny and heard the sound of a gun being cocked. Looking up, he saw Douglas rest his revolver on top of Barranca’s saddle and point it directly at him.
“Let me go to him, Douglas.”
“That won’t be necessary, Mr. Lancer, and it’s not Douglas.”
“What?” Murdoch asked while watching his son on the ground.
The man with the gun smiled. “You don’t remember me, do you?” Seeing the confusion on Murdoch’s face, Douglas continued. “I remember you. You stood in front of that courtroom and lied about my father.”
“You’re one of Liam Broun’s children?”
“That’s right. There’s no reason for you to remember me, just like you didn’t remember Annaleigh. The others didn’t either.”
“Douglas… Broun, whatever the hell you want to call yourself…my son didn’t have anything to do with the death of your father.”
“It would have been only you who had to pay, but Liam Broun’s youngest son, Duncan, my little brother, died with our father. Now you will die with your youngest son.”
“If you shoot me, you’ll die also.”
“It no longer matters. Johnny said he wasn’t afraid of death, and neither am I. I’ve lived with this hate for most of my life, and it’s eaten me up inside until there is nothing left but the hate.”
“But why now? After all these years, why now?”
“Malcolm, my older brother, found out he was going to die. Cancer, the doctors said. He knew his time was running out to do what he promised Da.”
“Malcolm and Annaleigh did what was necessary in Scotland. McLeish and Buchanon are dead, along with their youngest sons. Annaleigh wrote she was following MacKay to America. We all knew he was coming to warn you.
“I came west some months ago, long enough to learn what I needed to know about you. You don’t know how happy I was when I found out your sons had come home.”
“Caitlyn’s your daughter? You own Devon Imports?”
Douglas smiled. “Yes. I started running the company almost twenty years ago after my wife’s father passed away.”
“Yes, Tom is my son. Tom and I planned to get jobs at Lancer while Caitlyn got close to Julie Dennison. But Harlan Garrett was the key to everything. We couldn’t have gotten into the house if it hadn’t been for Garrett. That man knew all about hate. Hate ate him up as much as it did my family, and it finally killed him, just like it’s going to kill me.”
“You don’t have to die.”
Douglas gave them a weak smile. “There’s nothing left for me.”
“What about your children?”
“Tom and Caitlyn want nothing to do with me now or our family’s vendetta, but that’s alright. I’m tired and ready for it to end. My only regret is I won’t see Scotland again or walk along the River Ness again or breathe….” Douglas stopped. “It doesn’t matter; nothing matters except you and your son go with me.”
“Douglas, don’t do this.”
“Th’ name is Brùn’ n’ aye, it haes tae be this wey.”
He pulled the trigger.
Scott dismounted and stood by his horse while Murdoch faced Douglas. It was apparent that no amount of talking was going to work.
He wasn’t surprised there was another member of the Broun family among them. Johnny said it was too easy, and he’d been right.
Scott glanced at Val. He could tell the Sheriff’s attention was split between the conversation going on and Johnny lying unconscious on the ground. All Val needed was an opening so he could take Douglas down.
Scott heard Murdoch’s words, “Douglas, don’t do this.” And then the man’s reply, “The name is Brùn, and yes, it has to be this way.”
Sensing what Douglas was going to do next, Scott threw himself in front of his father at the exact moment the trigger was pulled.
Barranca screamed and reared up, throwing Douglas backward, and his gun barrel knocked upward as a second shot rang out. Val crouched and drew, firing twice, both bullets hitting their target.
Brian Douglas Broun fell at Johnny’s feet, one bullet hole in his head and another in the chest.
Murdoch grabbed his oldest son before he hit the ground. Holding him close, he tried to stem the blood flow from Scott’s arm.
“I’ve got him, Mr. Lancer.” Josh Trent kneeled down next to Scott. “You go check on Johnny.”
Murdoch turned Scott care over to Trent and hurried to Johnny. Val was already there.
“Val, help me get that shirt off of him. Walt, bring me your canteen.”
Walt untied his canteen and hurried to hand it over to his boss.
Murdoch reached into his pocket and took out a small bottle. Opening it, he poured out one of the tablets inside.
Val held Johnny’s head while Murdoch put the pill in the boy’s mouth and forced water down his throat.
“Digitalis. Sam gave it to him when he was poisoned before. It’s what I went back upstairs for.”
“It better work fast. The boy don’t look good.”
“We need to get as much of the poison off of him as we can.”
Murdoch looked up to see Walt holding all the canteens they had.
Val raised Johnny’s shoulders. “I’ll hold him, pour the water over his head.”
Within moments, a stream of water flowed over Johnny’s head and down his back.
“Anyone have a clean bandana?” Val asked and had four in his hand almost before finishing the sentence.
“We need to get him back to the house.” Murdoch turned to look behind him. “Trent, how’s Scott?”
“The bullet went through, Mr. Lancer. I’ve got the bleeding stopped, but he needs a doctor.”
“Can he ride?”
“Yes, sir, I think so. You take care of Johnny, and the rest of us will get Scott home.”
“Thank you.” Murdoch stood up. “All right, everyone back to the ranch. Walt, stay with me. Trent, I sent for Sam before I left, and he should be there by the time you get there with Scott.”
Murdoch gathered Johnny in his arms. “Val, help me get Johnny onto my horse.”
Murdoch waited while Walt steadied the horse.
Val stepped up and held out his arms. “I’ll take him while you mount up.”
The two men’s eyes met. Murdoch hesitated for a few long moments, then surrendered his son to the only man he knew Johnny truly trusted.
Murdoch quickly mounted his horse and looked down, ready to take his son back.
Val held the boy to his chest, his cheek resting against Johnny’s dark head. As if knowing he was being watched, Val took a deep breath before handing Johnny up to his father. Then without a word, he mounted his own horse.
“How is he, Sam?”
Sam Jenkins turned at the sound of Murdoch’s voice.
“Asleep…finally. I was just standing here thinking how many times this boy has faced death and lived through it.”
“I know.” Murdoch walked around the bed and sat in the chair he’d placed there earlier. “Douglas said something about Johnny not being afraid of death. When he’s stronger, I need to talk to him about it.”
“I suppose in his line of work, he couldn’t afford to be afraid or show it.”
There was a soft tap at the door. Murdoch looked up to see Val walking into the room
Standing, Murdoch extended his hand. “Val, I want to thank you for all your help.”
Val shook Murdoch’s hand and nodded. “I’m glad I was here. I thought I’d head back to town with Douglas’s body. Don’t figure you want him buried on Lancer land.”
“I appreciate that, and no, I don’t want any reminders of the Brouns on Lancer.”
“How’s Scott doing?”
“He’ll be alright. Trent did a fine job of bandaging his arm. A couple of days in bed, and he’ll be able to get up and around. Just make sure he wears the sling I left for him.”
“Don’t worry. Both of these boys are going to do what you say.”
“Val, if you’ll wait a few minutes, I’ll ride back into town with you.”
“Did you find out how he came in contact with the poison?”
Sam nodded. “Yes, it was on the collar of his shirt. I spoke to Teresa and Maria, and they said Lea Devon helped with the laundry before she left. Apparently, she soaked the collar with the poison and let it dry.”
“Any other shirts found with the poison on them?”
“One. It was in the bottom drawer where Maria found the one he was wearing today. She also found this note inside the drawer under the shirts.”
Val took the note and read it aloud.
“I’m sorry, Johnny. The youngest son must always die. If not today, then soon.”
Val looked at Murdoch. “You planning on showing this to Johnny?”
Murdoch took the paper from Val and crumpled it in his hand. “No. I think he’s had enough threats in his life. He doesn’t need to know about this one, especially since it’s all over.”
Val nodded. “I agree.” Then turning to the doctor, Val asked, “Sam, that other shirt wasn’t red, was it?”
Sam laughed. “No, thank heaven. It was white.”
“What are you going to do with them?”
“The shirts? I was going to have Maria burn them.”
Val shook his head. “Not a good idea. He’ll throw a fit if you burn either of them.”
“You’re probably right. I’ll give Maria instructions on washing not only the shirts but all his clothes in case Mrs. Devon was hedging her bets and put the poison on anything else.”
Murdoch shook his head. “When will this end? The Brouns are gone, and we’re still trying to protect ourselves.”
“If Douglas was telling the truth, the original family is gone except for Lea Devon,” Val added.
“And if Caitlyn told us the truth, she’s going to convince Lea to return to Scotland,” Sam said.
“She won’t have anything to go back to. All her brothers are dead,” Val said as he watched Murdoch walk over to the bed and brush the hair from Johnny’s forehead.
“There’s no fever,” Sam commented. Then turning to Val, he said, “I’m sure there is some family there.”
“Family that still wants vengeance?” Val asked.
“I hope not,” Murdoch answered. “So, Val what was it that brought you out here today?”
“Something Caitlyn said on the train. You remember what you said and her answer?”
“Don’t you think enough people have suffered because of the mistake we made in Inverness?” Murdoch asked.
“Personally, yes, but it’s not my place to say who’s paid enough and who hasn’t.”
“Whose place is it then?” Scott asked.
“My aunt and father, of course. They watched their Da unjustly tried and then gunned down along with their younger brother.”
“I remember,” Murdoch answered. “I hadn’t given it any thought, but you’re right. It was the first time anyone had mentioned her father.”
Sam thought for a moment. “So, when Garrett said ‘her brother was still here’ did he mean Caityln’s brother, Tom Browning, or Lea’s brother, Brian Douglas?”
Murdoch shook his head. “For all we know, Harlan may not have known. I doubt the Brouns told him how many people were involved or who they were.”
“I suppose it doesn’t matter anymore,” Sam replied.
“No. It doesn’t matter now.” Val turned to go. “Well then, I’ll be going.”
Val took one last look at the bed and started to walk away. He’d only taken one step when Murdoch reached out and touched his arm. Val stopped and swung around.
“Val, I’d like you to come back for dinner if you can. I think it’s time you and I talked.”
Val smiled. “I know you got questions, but I don’t know that I have the answers you want.”
“Nevertheless, I’d like you to come back.”
“I’ll do that. Let me get the body into town and then clean up some.”
“Plan on spending the night.”
Val paused but nodded his agreement.
Dinner was over and Teresa had gone to her room, leaving Murdoch and Val alone in the Great Room.
Murdoch walked to the drink cart and lifted a bottle of Talisker.
Val nodded and shifted on the sofa, unsure of what was coming.
Murdoch handed Val a glass and then sat in one of the wingback chairs in the room.
There was silence between the two men as each sipped their Scotch. It was Murdoch who made the first sound by clearing his throat.
“Oh, by the way,” Val reached into his shirt pocket and took out a piece of paper. “Got a telegram for you. Stan at the telegraph office wouldn’t say who it was from or what was in it but did say it was from San Francisco.”
Murdoch stood and took the telegram from Val and sat back down. Opening the envelope, he smiled.
“It’s from Amanda Fleming. She says Alasdair is well enough to travel, and they’re coming to Lancer by the end of the week.”
“That’s good. I liked them both.”
“Yes, they’re fine people. It was a surprise to find out Amanda was Alasdair’s little sister.”
“Yeah, she’s a fine figure of a woman. Maybe you can get her to stay on for a while.”
Murdoch took another sip of his drink.
“Val, I know there’s history between you and Johnny. I’d like to know about it.”
Val shook his head. “Murdoch, that’s not my story to tell. It’s Johnny’s and he’s the one who decided to keep it private for the time being.”
Murdoch sat his glass down and stood. He walked over to his desk and returned a few minutes later with a thick folder.
“Do you know what this is?”
Val shook his head. “Nope.”
“It’s the Pinkerton report on Johnny Madrid.”
Val shifted again.
“I’ve read the report several times and nowhere is your name mentioned.”
Val swallowed and said a silent thank you.
“There are, however, references made to a man; a Texan, Maria lived with for a short while when John was five. Of course, she lived with several men during those years, and none had names. What made that man stand out in my mind was another reference to him when John was fourteen or fifteen.
“It seems the same Texan was there when my son was shot in a range war near Tucson. The man who saved his life also rode with him for almost two years.” Murdoch paused, “It was you, wasn’t it?”
Val looked down at the glass in his hand but didn’t answer.
Val’s head came up. “What for?”
“For taking care of my son. You were there when I couldn’t be. Knowing he had someone to care for him and watch his back, at least part of the time, means a lot to me.”
“You’re sure it was me?”
“It’s a simple case of two plus two, that and I’ve heard him call you Papi when he didn’t think anyone was around.”
Val looked past Murdoch to the door to the kitchen. A slight movement caught his eye, and he knew it was Johnny.
Val smiled. “You best not let on to Johnny what you suspect. Let him tell you in his own time.”
“Good advice.” Murdoch walked over to where he’d left his drink. Picking up the glass, he held it up and tipped it towards Val. “You’ve been a good friend to my son, Val Crawford. I hope I can count you as my friend, as well.”
Johnny lay on the sofa and kept raising up to look out the French doors. He was feeling better every day even though the poison had left him weak, and his body was having a hard time adjusting to normal activity.
“What time are they supposed to be here, Murdoch?”
Murdoch didn’t look up from the papers he was working on and casually answered, “It depends on when the noon stage got in.”
Johnny’s sigh carried across the room, and Murdoch smiled. There had been moments in the last week when he thought he’d lost both his sons.
Sam told him Johnny would have died before they got home if it hadn’t been for the digitalis. Still, it took several days to treat the symptoms and reverse the effects of the poison.
And Scott. God, when Scott took the bullet meant for him, all he could think was that the Brouns had finished what they’d started. Thankfully, his oldest was resilient and back on his feet in a few days.
Val had come to visit Johnny several times. Each time Murdoch had invited him to stay for dinner, they’d talked over drinks. Val was still playing it close to the vest when it came to the history he and Johnny shared, but a few stories had slipped out that shed light on his son’s childhood.
“Josh go into town to get them?”
“Yes, John, he did.” Murdoch looked up to see a shock of dark hair and a pair of blue eyes looking at him over the top of the sofa. “Will you relax? I’m sure they’ll be here soon.”
“Why does Scott get to get up and walk around? He was hurt, too.”
“Yes, he was, and he’s taking it easy, but he listens to what Sam tells him to do. You, my son, do not.”
Murdoch saw the dark head disappear and heard a snort.
“I listen,” a disembodied voice mumbled.
“John, if you listened, you wouldn’t have had a setback that’s going to keep you either on that sofa or in bed for another three days.”
The grandfather clock in the room chimed four times.
“I hope they get here in time for dinner.”
Murdoch laughed, “I’m sure they will.”
“Sir.” Scott, wearing a sling on his left arm, walked through the French doors. “I believe they’re here.”
Murdoch stood and walked to the doors. “You’re right.” He started to walk outside and faced about, looking at his youngest son’s eyes peering at him. “Johnny, stay where you are. I don’t want you walking around until Sam says you can.”
“I’m fine. Walking outside isn’t going to kill me.”
“Young man, you’ve pushed your luck as far as it’s going to get pushed this week. Stay there. I’ll bring our guests inside in a few minutes.”
Johnny flopped back on the sofa and sighed.
Josh Trent drove the buggy under the arch and stopped in front of the house. He helped his mother and uncle down and turned to see Murdoch and Scott waiting for them.
“Alasdair, fàilte. Welcome. Welcome to Lancer…again.”
Alasdair MacKay laughed. “I hope this time I’ll make it inside your home before anything happens.”
“I don’t think you have to worry about that any longer.”
“Aye, Joshua told us.” Alasdair looked around. “So, where is your youngest, Murdo? Josh said he was better.”
“He is doing better. I’ve got him planted on the sofa in the Great Room and he’d better still be there when we go in.”
Amanda held out a hand. “Murdoch, it’s good to be back.”
Murdoch took her extended hand. “It’s good to see you.” Without releasing her hand, he said, “We’d better go in before Johnny decides to come out.”
Alasdair and Amanda stepped into the Great Room and came face to face with Johnny.
Amanda laughed, “Aren’t you supposed to be….”
Murdoch rushed past Amanda. “John? What are you doing off that sofa?”
Johnny looked down at his socked feet. “You were taking a long time, and I thought something was wrong.”
“Well, everything is, as you would say, fine. Now, say hello to our guests and then go upstairs and get cleaned up for dinner.”
Johnny gave Alasdair and Amanda one of his heart-melting smiles. “It’s good to see you again, ma’am. You doing alright now, Mr. MacKay?”
“Aye, lad, I’m feeling fit. And what of you?”
“I feel….” Johnny cut his eyes to look at Murdoch. Maybe he had pushed his luck this week. “I’m getting better.”
“Good. That’s good.” Turning to Murdoch, Alasdair said, “Now, my friend, I need to rest before we eat.”
“Of course, let me show you to your rooms. Amanda, you’ll have the room you had the last time you were here. Ally, you’ll be in the room next to mine.”
“We have a lot to talk about, old friend, and a lot to catch up on. I’ll see you at dinner. Six sharp?”
Scott looked at Alasdair and smiled. “Mr. MacKay, how did you know we eat at six? Did Amanda tell you?”
“No, lad. The Lancers have always eaten the evening meal at that time of day. Murdo’s Da was strict on many things and one of them was mealtime.”
“Now, we know where he gets it.” Johnny laughed and started for the stairs.
Scott watched him go. “I’d better go with him, just to make sure he gets back down on time.”
Once Scott and Johnny were gone, Alasdair looked at Murdoch. “You have fine lads, Murdo.”
Murdoch smiled and nodded his agreement. “I know.”
Laughter filled the Great Room that night. Alasdair had a never-ending supply of stories about Murdoch when they were growing up.
When the conversation lagged, Scott asked a question that had been on his mind for some time.
“Mr. MacKay, when you were here the last time you tried to warn us about the Brouns. Why didn’t you just tell us the Brouns would try to infiltrate the house?”
“I did try, but there wasn’t time to tell you all of it. All I’d thought of since leaving home was the betrayal of the MacDonalds of Glencoe by those they trusted and thought were friends.”
“Is that what happened to Rory and Jamie?”
“Aye, I won’t go into the details, but both family’s had houseguests when they died.”
“So, the Brouns betrayed the trust of the families just like Robert Campbell betrayed the MacDonalds.”
Alasdair nodded. “Aye, and in 10 days.”
“Ten days?” Murdoch questioned.
“Robert Campbell and his men stayed with the Clan MacDonald for ten days, eating their food, sleeping under their roofs, before they put the clan to the sword. I dinnae know if the Brouns planned it so or if it was by coincidence, but on each occasion, they stayed ten days before killing our friends. How long were they here with you?”
Murdoch thought for a moment, but it was Johnny who responded. “Ten. They were with us for ten days.”
The room was silent for a few minutes before Alasdair spoke again, “I’m going to miss you, Murdo.”
“You don’t have to go, Ally. Why not stay here with me?”
“No, Murdo, I’m not like you, my friend. I don’t feel for this sprawling land as you do. Your ranch stretches to the horizon and is filled with more cattle and horses than I’ve seen in the whole of Scotland, but it isn’t for me. I’m content with our wee village with the mountains rising behind it. My heart aches to see the sun reflecting on the blue waters of Loch Ness and Highland cattle and sheep grazing in meadows surrounded by rock walls.”
Johnny glanced at his father. Murdoch never talked about his past, and Johnny couldn’t help himself.
“Mr. MacKay, what’s Scotland like?”
Alasdair smiled, took a deep breath and let it out.
“Oh, lad, it’s not just Scotland that holds my heart but the Highlands in the north. To me, it’s the most beautiful place in the world.”
Alasdair stood and walked to the French doors and looked into the night.
“The first thing that strikes you are the mountains. They’re rugged and green and stretch across the breadth of the land from one ocean to the next. Then there are glens that will take your breath away, with waterfalls and winding streams and rivers that cut deep as they flow into the lochs.
“There’s no other place like it anywhere. It’s an ancient land that’s still wild and beautiful, and I miss it.”
Alasdair sighed as he turned to look at Murdoch.
“Murdo, your land is beautiful and green, but there is nothing to compare with the sight of meadows covered with the soft purple hue of heather and wildflowers.
“I’m sorry, old friend, but I want to go home to Scotland.”
Murdoch was watching Johnny’s face. He could see the boy soaking in Alasdair’s words and would have never thought his son would have wanted to hear about such things. He now knew he was wrong.
The room was silent for a moment. “I understand what you’re saying, Ally. There are times I ache to see Scotland again, but this is my home now.”
“So, I’ll return to our homeland, and you’ll stay here.” Alasdair moved closer to Murdoch and put a hand on his shoulder. “Oh, but wouldn’t it be grand if Ally MacKay and Murdo Lancer could relive the day we walked along the River Ness, and this time we went all the way to Loch Ness?”
Murdoch nodded and fought to swallow the lump in his throat. “Aye, it wid be grand.”
Scott looked at his father sitting in front of the fire, smoking his pipe.
Time had flown by, and before they knew it, it was time for Alasdair, Amanda, and Josh to say their goodbyes. They’d boarded the stage that morning for Stockton and would take the train east from there.
The parting was bittersweet. Scott knew Murdoch would miss Alasdair, but Amanda said she would be back once her brother safely boarded the ship sailing from Boston Harbor to Scotland.
“Murdoch, would you care for a game of chess?”
When there was no answer, Scott spoke again, “Murdoch?”
The older man’s head came up. He took the pipe stem from his mouth, exhaling a puff of smoke.
“Did you say something, Scott?”
“Yes, sir. I asked if you wanted to play chess?”
“I don’t think so. Not tonight.”
Murdoch looked around the room and breathed a sigh of relief. After so many weeks of having house guests, it was finally just the family, his family. Teresa was in her chair to the left of the fireplace, with her mending basket at her feet. Scott occupied the chair opposite him, reading a book, while a bootless Johnny dozed on his stomach on the throw rug in front of the hearth.
There hadn’t been much time for him to spend with his family over the last few weeks. This was their first night alone, and he was pleased both boys had decided to stay home.
Johnny turned over to look at Murdoch. From his father’s tone, it was apparent he was sad.
“Thinking about Alasdair and Amanda?”
Murdoch smiled and nodded. “Yes, I am.”
“Who you missing the most, Alasdair or Amanda?”
“Both.” Murdoch’s eyes went to all three of his children and knew they saw right through him. “All right, Amanda.”
“Thought so,” Johnny laughed. “You gonna marry her?”
Murdoch choked on the next puff off his pipe. “I… we… that’s none of your business, young man.”
Johnny gave another half-hearted laugh and sat up. Alasdair said something that bothered him, and he figured now was as good a time as any to ask about it.
“Murdoch, can I ask you a question?”
“I don’t see why not. What do you need to know?”
“Do you miss Scotland? I mean, Alasdair couldn’t wait to get back there. What about you? You ever want to go back?”
Murdoch removed the pipe from his mouth and sighed. It took him a few moments to answer. “A part of me will always be there, but Scotland wasn’t big enough to hold me. I knew my destiny lay elsewhere. That’s why I came to America. It wasn’t until I saw this valley that I knew…I knew this was where I belonged.
“Would I like to see Scotland again? Yes. Would I want to stay there? No, never. My life, my heart, is here now and always will be.”
Johnny nodded and then stood. “I bet it would be something to see all those places. To walk along the river and wonder what it would have been like if you’d never come across that body.”
“You don’t know how many times I’ve thought of that. If we’d not gone along the river that day….” He sighed but didn’t finish the sentence.
“Hell, old man, we all have regrets. All any of us can do is do the best we can with the hand that’s dealt us. We have to live with what’s here and now and try to learn from our mistakes.”
“Johnny’s right, sir. We can’t live our lives with ‘what ifs.’ We have enough regrets as it is.” Scott laid his book on the coffee table and stood. “I’m going to bed, sir. Good night.”
“Me, too.” Johnny was already headed for the stairs. “Night, Murdoch.”
“Good night, John. Scott.”
Teresa sat her mending down. “I’ll come with you.” Teresa walked over and gave Murdoch a kiss on the cheek. “Are you coming up?”
“Soon, sweetheart. I just want to finish my pipe.”
Murdoch sat in the Great Room, listening to the sound of doors closing upstairs. Tapping out the last of the lit tobacco in the pipe’s bowl, he set it aside.
Walking to the French doors, he opened them and stepped outside. There was a chill in the air, and he wrapped his arms around his chest.
Closing his eyes, Murdoch thought of Inverness and the river that ran through it. Alasdair’s word came back to him.
“Wouldn’t it be grand if Ally MacKay and Murdo Lancer could relive the day we walked along the River Ness, and this time we went all the way to Loch Ness?”
Murdoch took a deep breath and exhaled, then said aloud, “Aye, it would be grand.”
.* To learn more on the Glencoe Massacre, click here.
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21 thoughts on “Along The River Ness by SandySha”
Excellent story from start to finish. I loved what you did in the end with Harlan,
Happy to see you finally got to tell this tale – it was so good.
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Wonderful story. Will there be a follow up Highland adventure?
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Thank you for reading and for letting me know that you liked it. As for a follow up, I’m not sure but it might be fun to write a short story reuniting Ally and Murdo.
Great story, Sandy! The line when Scott told Julie that he loved her but wouldn’t leave Lancer sent goosebumps over me. It would be fun to hear the stories Alasdair had of Murdoch’s youth… Maybe in the next story?
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Thank you Diana
Thoroughly enjoyed this tale and its twists! Well written characters and history. 🙏thanks for the enjoyment . I love lengthy stories the reader can really get into.
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Thank you for dedicating this wonderful story to those of us in the UK I loved it.
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Wonderful story Sandy. Such detail & plot twists. A good idea to focus on Murdo’s history. Keep it up.
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Sandy, I loved this tale, especially the mystery of who had attacked Ally and still wanted to take revenge on Murdoch and Johnny. You did a great job weaving Harlan’s first visit into your story. I admit that I stayed up too late reading because I was hooked and couldn’t put it down. Wonderful!
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Thank you so much.
Sandy, this was a marvelous tale, well worth waiting for! Your carefully woven plot was quite intriguing; I thought I knew whodunit, then realized I was wrong, then found out I was half right, hah! Just what I love in a mystery. I also thoroughly enjoyed the father/sons and brother/brother moments. And the lines: —Murdoch nodded. “Yes, the Scots are known for their hospitality.” Scott looked at Johnny and almost laughed aloud when his brother rolled his eyes.—made ME laugh aloud. Thanks for a damn fine read!
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Sandy, An excellent story with lots of twists and turns. I’m currently on the Scottish chapter of the Johnny’s journey’s saga. It’s slow young as I need laser treatment on my right eye and get headaches if I’m on the laptop too long.
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Thank you. I’m glad you’re enjoying the story.
Wauw, this was a great and beautiful story ! It was hard to stop reading and wait to read later. Thank you.
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Wonderful story Sandy. I truly loved it.
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What an imaginative story, Sandy! So excellent that you were able to weave everything together. All these characters have back stories, and while Johnny’s has been extensively explored, Murdoch’s and Scott’s not so much. It was great to have a long, involved story based on Murdoch’s past. Thank you for this wonderful read.
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Great story , throughly enjoyed it.As a Scot I thought I would pass on an anectdotal story about my grandfather. He was born in late 1880 and was a MacCorkindale. He was known to turn the knife ata dinner table place setting to face the guest if their name was Campbell! We Sots have long memories. Although he clans were always fighting among each other over cattle and land, it was truly abhorrent to accept hospitality and then turn on your host while sharing their home and food. However Scotland is welcoming and beautiful!
Great story. Many thanks from another UK fan.
I really enjoyed this story so well written. I have had a couple of holidays at Lock Ness and the Highlands and did have vague recollections of learning about the Glencoe Massacre at school. Did wonder what had happened to Ally but did not guess the right ‘Browns’ until the end. Thank you .
Fantastic. Loved the tie back to Murdocks Scottish history. Very well written from beginning to end