Word Count 19,090
An A/R Episode Tag to High Riders/Homecoming
The story stands alone but could possibly be a prequel to my story Ransom
My Johnny is 18, and Scott is 22. (Definitely not canon)
Many thanks to Alice Marie and Diana (Buckskin) for help with the beta.
Through the open window, a soft morning breeze carried the sounds and smells of the ranch as it came to life. He’d lain awake for some time, taking it in, savoring it, and saving it all to memory. He wanted to remember as much as he could about this place, knowing that soon that’s all he’d have … memories.
The slight squeak of a door hinge was the first clue he wasn’t alone. Hoping they’d go away, he kept his eyes shut and breathing even. When he heard the heavy footfall and caught the scent of pipe tobacco, he knew who it was. Seconds later, the sound of a chair creaking told him he wasn’t going to get his wish.
Slowly opening his eyes, his first sight was Murdoch leaning forward in the chair, his elbows resting on his knees, head in hands.
Johnny studied him. It looked as if the man was in misery, and he had to wonder if he was the cause of the pain.
It was the first time since he’d woken up, he could remember Murdoch Lancer coming to his room when he didn’t have to light a lamp to see. Sure, Murdoch visited but always in the evening and always when either Scott or Teresa was there. It was as if the old man couldn’t stand being alone with him and needed the others for protection.
Johnny wondered where the thought came from. Did the old man believe he needed someone to protect him?
Sure, there was a time he’d given serious thought to putting a bullet between his father’s eyes. But everything changed the day he decided to let Lancer live and help him save his ranch. To do that, he had to turn his back on Pardee. He could still see the surprised expression on Day’s face when he’d told him, ‘It’s my land and I want you to get off.’
How long ago had it been – two, no, closer to three weeks? That’s right. He remembered now. It was also the same day he’d failed to keep his bargain with Murdoch Lancer and lost his chance at a new life.
As if knowing he was being watched, Murdoch’s head came up. His eyes met his son’s.
“I hope I didn’t wake you.”
Without responding, Johnny shifted slightly, resulting in a groan.
“Are you alright?”
“I’m fine.” Johnny took a deep breath, riding out the pain. “It’ll pass.”
The statement seemed to satisfy the older man as he leaned back and glanced toward the window.
“Is there something you want?” Johnny asked.
“No. I mean yes. I thought I’d help you with your ablutions this morning.”
Caught off guard by the word, Johnny grimaced. ‘What the hell were ablutions?’ It sounded like a word an old Padre down in Sonora used a few years back.
‘Until you confess your sins, you will never receive absolution.’ Making the sign of the cross, the Priest looked straight at him. “Heed my warning Johnny Madrid. Your soul will forever be damned.’
Well, he guessed that was surely the case. There weren’t enough hours in the day to confess all his sins, even if he wanted to.
But the word Murdoch used was different. Not wanting to admit he had no idea what the man was talking about, he took a wild guess, rolled the dice, and hesitantly replied, “Scott normally helps.”
“I’ve already sent Scott out with Cipriano. I thought I’d help you this morning. Is that alright?”
Johnny slowly nodded. “Alright.” The entire time thinking, ‘No. Hell, no, this ain’t happenin’.’
Throwing back the covers, Johnny eased up and put his legs over the side of the bed. Murdoch was there immediately, taking an arm and helping him to his feet.
“Look, I can do this by myself.” Johnny clutched the oversized nightshirt they’d stuffed him into.
“Nonsense. You’re too weak to stand, let alone…”
“I said I can handle it.”
Murdoch smiled and then cleared his throat. “I’m sure you can, but what do you say you let me give you a hand.”
The next few minutes were some of the most embarrassing of Johnny’s life, having his father help him take care of his needs. Both men were blushing by the time he’d finished.
“Bed or chair?” Murdoch asked, giving Johnny the option of sitting in the chair next to the room’s small table.
“Chair. Teresa will be up in a while with breakfast.”
Murdoch helped Johnny into the chair and then pulled a blanket off the bed and placed it over his legs.
Murdoch sat in the chair opposite him and stretched out his legs.
Johnny went from looking at his father to glancing out the window. From where he sat, he could see the corral. The palomino he’d broken the second day he’d been at Lancer was showing off, prancing and throwing his golden head, snorting to the wind.
“He’s a beautiful animal.” Murdoch’s words mirrored his own thoughts.
“Yeah, he is. Barranca’s the best horse I ever owned.”
“Barranca? That’s an unusual name. It means…?”
“Got lots of meanings, a canyon or ravine or even … what’s the word. Oh yeah, a precipicio.”
“That’s it. Precipice.”
“Which does he remind you of?”
“I don’t know. I guess when I was up there fighting to stay on his back and him bucking for all he was worth, it just came to me. I felt…,” Johnny paused, not wanting to reveal his feelings that day.
He’d climbed onto the palomino needing to break him and knowing instinctively in doing so he’d was taming something inside himself. Each time the stallion threw him into the air, he felt like he was on the edge of a precipice, ready to tumble into oblivion and not caring. He hadn’t cared about much for a long time.
“You felt like what?”
“It don’t matter.”
Not pushing it, Murdoch continued to stare out the window for a long time before looking once again at his son.
“You know that horse put three of my best vaqueros in the dust. When I saw you breaking him, I was afraid you’d end up the same way.”
Johnny gave him a faint smile. “Not many horses I can’t break.”
“Yes, I realize that now, but then I wasn’t sure.”
Murdoch looked away and then down at his hands now folded in his lap.
“Sam said you’re getting better.”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah. Doc said he’d take this off me today or tomorrow.” Johnny motioned to the strap holding his left arm in place against his chest.
“I would imagine you’ll be relieved when it’s gone.”
“Yeah.” Memories of another time not too long ago sent a shudder through him—memories of the Rurales pinning his arms to his sides.
Needing to change the subject, Johnny nodded toward the open window. “How are things out there?”
“Quiet. Thank goodness.”
“Any sign of any of Pardee’s men? Figure some of them are still around somewhere.”
“If they are, they’re staying out of sight. Cipriano had men checking in Morro Coyo, Spanish Wells, and Green River. No one has reported seeing any gun…” Murdoch looked at his son and paused.
“You can say the word, old man. There ain’t nothing illegal in being a gunfighter. Or were you going to say gunmen or gunhawk? It all means the same thing. So there ain’t been any of my kind around since Pardee died?”
“That’s right,” Murdoch bristled.
“You still have guards posted?”
Murdoch shook his head. “I haven’t seen the need. With Pardee dead and his men gone, I felt we could put our men back to work.”
“You’ve got to post guards,” Johnny straightened his shoulders with a noticeable wince.
“I don’t believe we need them.”
Exasperated, Johnny tried to push himself to his feet, only to collapse back into the chair. Murdoch was on his feet and around the table faster than Johnny thought possible.
Putting a hand on the younger man’s shoulder, Murdoch asked, “Are you alright?”
Johnny grabbed Murdoch’s hand and pushed it away. “I’m fine.”
“You still don’t know who hired Pardee. Just because Pardee and Coley are dead doesn’t mean the man behind him is done with you. You need to keep the guards.”
“Pardee’s second in command. The only other man I know of who could have taken Day’s place.”
“You’re sure this Coley is dead?”
Johnny shifted his eyes down and looked up through thick lashes. Smiling, he answered, “Yeah, I’m sure.”
Murdoch shifted uncomfortably. The smile he’d seen on Johnny’s face sent shivers through him. Yes, he was sure Coley was dead.
“You don’t believe Pardee was working alone?”
“No. When Pardee tried to hire me, he said there was plenty of money here. He was looking for a big payday. Pardee only hired out. He would never have wanted the ranch for himself. He was working for someone who had enough money to be able to afford him and me.”
“I take it your gun didn’t come cheap?”
Johnny gave Murdoch a slight smile this time. “No. No, it doesn’t.”
“You’re not a hired gun any longer, John. You’re a rancher.”
“Just saying it don’t make it true.”
Murdoch retook his seat. “If you…”
“Look, Murdoch, I know what I’m talking about.”
“Alright, don’t upset yourself. I was going to say if you feel guards are needed, then I’ll have Cipriano post them.”
Johnny sat back and tried to relax, then thought of something else. “Make sure the guards are men who’ve worked for you for a while. Don’t trust no new hires.”
A silence fell between them, each in their own thoughts.
“Johnny…” “Murdoch…” They both started at the same time, then stopped.
“Look, Murdoch,” Johnny started again, “I’m…”
Teresa burst into the room, stopping Johnny from completing the sentence.
“Oh, good, you’re up. I have your breakfast. I’ll let Maria know you’re out of bed. We’ll change the sheets and straighten the room while you’re up.”
“Thanks.” Johnny watched as the girl sat a tray on the table in front of him.
“I’ll be right back.”
“Does she ever slow down?” Johnny asked, watching Teresa leave the room almost as fast as she’d come.
“No. She’s always been like that. A little whirlwind,” Murdoch’s laughed before looking back to his son. “I’d better go and let you eat.”
Johnny could see the man was looking at him expectantly. What did he want? Reassurances?
Why not give him what he wants?
“Look, Murdoch…” Johnny dropped his head and then looked up again. Always look a man in the eye when you talk to him, so he knows you mean it. “You don’t have to worry; I plan on keeping my end of the bargain.”
There he’d said it. He’d hoped for some sign that Murdoch didn’t expect him to keep the bargain under the circumstances. He’d taken a bullet for the old man; shouldn’t that be enough?
All Johnny saw was relief on the big man’s face.
“That’s good. I’m glad to hear it, John. Now, eat your breakfast. Before you know it, you’ll be up and out of here.”
With that, Murdoch turned and left the room, leaving Johnny staring at an empty doorway.
What the hell had he expected? He was a hired gun and that’s all he was. This time he’d had one job and one job only.
He remembered the bargain they’d made that first day standing in the Great Room. The words left no room for doubt about what was expected of him in exchange for one-third of the old man’s empire.
‘Equal shares to each of us, but I call the tune. Agreed.’ Murdoch had looked at Scott, who nodded without hesitation.
Johnny stared at the agreement. ‘You didn’t sign it.’
‘Nothing for nothing. You get your share of this ranch when you prove to me you’re man enough to hold it.’
‘And when’s that?’
‘When you get the man that put the bullet in my back.’
‘That’s the one.’
‘Well, let me tell you, old man, you want a lot.’
‘Take it or leave it.’
Well, it was straight forward and he’d agreed to it. Johnny Madrid kills Day Pardee and Murdoch Lancer hands over one-third of his ranch.
But it didn’t happen that way. Madrid didn’t kill Pardee and there would be no third of a ranch, no family, no home.
Johnny knew going in it was all or nothing. So why then did it hurt so much? Why did losing something he never had hurt so damn much?
Teresa’s raised voice brought him back from his reverie.
“I asked you if you were ready to go back to bed.”
Johnny stared at the freshly made bed. He hadn’t heard the two women come into the room, let alone noticed they’d stripped the sheets and remade the bed. How long had he sat there musing about a life that was never going to be?
“Yeah, I’m ready.”
Maria picked up the tray of food Johnny hadn’t touched. “Juanito, you did not eat your breakfast.”
“I’m just not hungry this morning,” Johnny answered as he stood and started for the bed on shaky legs.
Teresa pulled back the top sheet and quilt. Helping Johnny to sit on the side of the bed, she put a hand to his forehead.
“You feel a little warm.”
“I’m alright,” Johnny replied, pulling his head away.
Frowning, Teresa waited until Johnny was in bed before helping to adjust the covers over him.
“It’s not like you to skip a meal.” When Johnny didn’t respond, she added, “I’m sending for Sam.”
“No need to send for him. Doc Jenkins said he’d be here sometime today. Anyway, I’m not sick, just tired. I think I’ll go back to sleep.”
“Alright, you rest. I’ll check on you later.”
Teresa bent to pick up the dirty sheets.
“No, Chica,” Maria stopped her, “you take the tray. I will take those to the washroom.”
Teresa followed Maria into the hallway, pulling the door closed behind her.
“He does not look well,” Maria said as she carried the dirty linens.
“I know, but I can’t imagine what happened. Johnny was fine when I took his tray up.”
“Was he alone?” Maria started down the back stairs to the kitchen.
“No, he was talking to Murdoch. He seemed alright.”
Once at the bottom of the stairs, Maria turned to deposit her burden into the laundry basket.
Teresa stood for a moment, trying to think of what could have happened. “Maybe he is just tired from sitting up so long,” she said aloud to no one. Shrugging, she went about her chores.
Feeling someone shake his shoulder, Johnny turned off his right side and onto his back. Blinking twice, he brought the image of Sam Jenkins into focus.
Sam’s hand went to Johnny’s forehead. Not wanting to piss the doctor off, Johnny allowed it without comment.
“I understand you didn’t eat anything this morning.”
“Wasn’t hungry,” Johnny replied as Sam’s hand went from his forehead to his right wrist.
“Not hungry? How are you feeling and I don’t mean the usual ‘I’m fine’ you give me?”
“Sore, but mainly… mainly tired. I’m always tired. I sleep but don’t seem to get enough.”
“You will be tired for some time. It’s going to take time for you to recover.”
Johnny struggled to inch up in the bed.
“Let me give you a hand.” Sam reached under Johnny’s right arm, and together, they got him high enough that Sam could put pillows behind his patient’s back. Once positioned, Sam reached in his bag for his scissors. “Lean forward.”
Johnny leaned forward while Sam unpinned the strap that held his arm in place. Once free, Johnny lowered his arm and flexed his fingers, sighing with relief.
Sam cut away the bandage around his shoulder and lifted the gauze over the wound.
“It’s looking good. Healing nicely.”
“How about leaving the strap off?” Johnny asked hopefully.
“I’m not sure that’s wise,” Sam answered as he worked on cleaning the wound and replacing the bandage. Seeming to give in, Sam said, “Flex your arm.”
Johnny did as instructed, feeling a pull in his back muscles. As hard as he tried not to show the pain it caused, it still made it to his face.
Johnny frowned. He hated it when a doctor’s only comment was ‘hmmm.’ “Well?”
“There was a lot of damage to the muscle. It’s going to take time to heal.”
“Shouldn’t be taking this long. I’ve ….”
“Don’t you dare say you’ve had worse.”
“So, when can I ride?”
“When I say so and not before! Too soon, and you’ll reopen that wound.” Sam paused. “Why are you in such a hurry?”
Johnny didn’t respond.
“There now. Let me have your arm.”
“No.” Johnny resisted, pulling away. “Don’t strap it down again.”
“Johnny, I…” Looking at Johnny’s expression, Sam sighed, “Alright, but only if you promise not to strain it.”
“I mean it. Any strain and you’ll set back your recovery.” Finishing with the bandage, Sam said, “That should do it then. You can get up and move around the room all you want. Tomorrow you can go downstairs, with help. Do you understand?”
“Yeah, I understand.”
Johnny looked at the nightshirt lying beside him on the bed.
“I planned on getting dressed.”
“If you wish, but remember this room only for today. I also want you to eat something. You need your energy.”
Johnny stood up. The only thing he was wearing was his cut-off long johns.
Sam laughed. “Would you like some help?”
Johnny begrudged him a smile and nodded. “Guess you’d better, or I’ll never get dressed.”
Scott rode in from the range for lunch. Seeing Sam’s buggy, he decided to find out how his brother was doing before going back out.
Sam Jenkins hadn’t made it to the kitchen stairwell’s last step when the entire Lancer clan stood to face him.
Sam held up a hand. “He’s fine. The wound is healing nicely. He can move around his room today and come downstairs tomorrow as long as he’s helped. Now, I’d like a cup of coffee and a piece of that apple pie I smell.”
There was a collective sigh of relief.
“I’ll get your pie, Sam.” Teresa volunteered. “Are you sure Johnny’s alright? I mean, he didn’t eat this morning.”
“I couldn’t find anything wrong with him to explain a loss of appetite. Go ahead and take his lunch to him when it’s ready.”
“So, he’s on the mend?” Murdoch restated.
“Yes.” Sam accepted the pie from Teresa and a cup of coffee from Maria.
“Good. When will he be able to ride?”
Sam lowered the cup of coffee and stared at his old friend. “That’s the same question Johnny asked. I’ll give you the same answer. When I say he can ride and not a minute before. Why are you two trying to push his recovery?”
“I’m not trying to push anything.”
“Couldn’t prove it by me.” Sam leaned back in his chair giving the rancher an appraising look. “Murdoch, Johnny’s wound isn’t minor. He almost died and it’s going to take time for him to recover. The muscles in his back and shoulder were badly damaged. If he does too much too soon, he could do permanent damage. I don’t want him on a horse until I say it’s alright.”
“I understand, Sam, really I do. It’s just that….” Murdoch stopped and shook his head. “It’s nothing.”
Scott looked at his father and frowned. “It doesn’t sound like nothing. I know you and Johnny haven’t talked much since he woke up, but….”
The sound of several riders coming into the yard in front of the hacienda stopped Scott mid-sentence. The outside kitchen door opened and Cipriano walked in.
“Patron, Senora Conway is here. Senores Driscoll and Santee, also.”
“I wonder what the devil they want.” Murdoch pushed back from the table. “Cipriano, tell them I’ll be right there.”
“Sir,” Scott started, “I…”
“We’ll discuss this later. Right now, I want to see what our ‘neighbors’ want. This is the first time either Driscoll or Santee have visited since Pardee started raiding Lancer.”
Murdoch walked out of the kitchen and into the Great Room with Scott and Sam following.
The moment Sam was gone, Johnny began pacing the room. Slowly at first, making his way across the room and then back, the more he moved, the easier it got. However, four trips across the room and back were enough to tire him out.
Collapsing into the chair near the window, Johnny leaned back and took a deep breath. He wasn’t sure how long he sat with his eyes closed, enjoying the breeze coming through the window.
Leaning against the rough-barked oak outside the hacienda, Johnny looked at the ground, trying to stop the world from spinning. The ache in his head and ribs was nothing compared to the burning pain in his back.
Looking up, he squinted at the blond-haired man he’d learned two days ago was his brother. The grin on his face made him look younger than he was.
Johnny swallowed hard and tried to push himself up. The pain stopped him cold. Looking at the man again, Johnny knew he had to say something.
“That was good shooting.”
A grinning Scott stared down at him. “We’d about given up on you, boy.”
Grimacing against the shooting pain in his back, Johnny managed, “Well, you had your plan and I had mine.”
Looking down again, Johnny didn’t voice what he was thinking. His brother had won, and he’d lost. He hadn’t upheld his end of the bargain. Well, there was no help for it now. Scott had killed the man who put a bullet in Murdoch Lancer’s back.
Now he needed to stand and face the man he’d hated most of his life. But something had changed. There was more to the story than what his mother had told him. Murdoch Lancer wasn’t the man he thought he was.
Damn, he couldn’t think. The pain was building and he had to stay on his feet long enough to… to what? He knew he needed to get away as soon as he could. The job was done. He’d gotten his pay, but… he’d hoped for more this time.
No, he hadn’t done the job. It was Scott who’d killed Pardee. Scott, who’d earned a part of the ranch.
As soon as he was able, he’d ride out and not look back.
For now, all he wanted to do was find a place to lay down. Straightening, he felt his world start to spin, and his brother’s words barely registered.
“Take your time. Take your time.”
“I can make it.”
He’d surprised himself when he heard the words coming out of his mouth. He wasn’t going to make it and he knew it. Eight short steps later and his world darkened as if someone had pulled a curtain over his eyes.
It was the sound of riders coming into the yard that brought Johnny fully awake.
Straining to look out the window, he watched the three come closer. Johnny could see two were men. He didn’t recognize them, but there was something in the way they carried themselves that put him on alert.
The third rider was a woman. He had to think for a moment before it came to him. Aggie Conway. That was her name. Johnny vaguely remembered her coming to see him after the battle with Pardee.
Pushing out of the chair, he walked across the room, opened the door and listened. Unable to hear anything, he made his way up the hall toward the main staircase.
Glancing at his bare feet, Johnny was glad he hadn’t put his boots on. It made it easier to go down a few steps without being heard. He could see and hear Murdoch greet the newcomers.
“Hello Murdoch,” the woman’s voice was pleasant. “I hope we haven’t come at a bad time.”
“Aggie, you know you’re always welcome.” Murdoch held her hand for a moment before turning to the men. “Driscoll. Santee, I didn’t expect to see you.”
Murdoch accepted Driscoll’s extended hand and then Santee’s.
From where he stood, Johnny couldn’t tell how tall the two men were, only that they were shorter than his father. Johnny smiled at that thought. ‘Hell, everyone was shorter than his old man.’
“What brings you out this way?”
Aggie stepped forward, looked at her two companions and sighed, “I came along to try and talk some sense into these two.”
“What are you talking about.” Murdoch turned to the men.
It was Santee who answered, “We’ve come to talk about Madrid.”
“If you mean my son, his name’s Lancer.”
“We mean Madrid,” Driscoll replied. “Murdoch, you have to know feelings are running high in the valley right now. When is he going to move on?”
“Johnny isn’t moving on. I’ve offered a third of the ranch to each of my sons.”
Scott moved to stand next to Murdoch. “This is my oldest son, Scott. Scott, this is Joe Driscoll and Tom Santee. You know Aggie Conway.”
“Yes, it’s good to see you again, Mrs. Conway.” Scott shook hands with the men. “Gentlemen, what’s this about wanting my brother to leave?”
“He’s a gunfighter,” Santee stated as if announcing the fact for the first time.
“Yes, I believe we’ve established that fact. Johnny is or was a gunfighter. Now he’s a rancher.”
Santee huffed. “He’s no rancher. Johnny Madrid is a cold-blooded killer. You’re new to the west, Scott. You don’t know what we know about Madrid.”
“Really, and what would that be, Mr. Santee?”
“Madrid is notorious for being fast and deadly with a gun. He’d do anything for the right price. He’s especially good at killing, and from reports, doesn’t care who he kills.”
Santee’s words hung in the air.
Scott knew very little about his brother. From what he’d heard from the vaqueros on the ranch, Johnny was well known. Beyond that, he knew nothing about his brother, but it wasn’t something he was going to admit to these men.
Little by little, Scott was learning about his father, but his brother was still a closed book. Whenever he asked Murdoch about Johnny, the man had become as tight-lipped as a Boston clam and Johnny sure wasn’t talking. He’d found out more about his brother from the ranch hands and vaqueros and that was precious little.
The men were hesitant to talk to him. At first, he thought it was because he wasn’t one of them. Soon, he realized they weren’t talking because they were afraid, not of him, but of Johnny. One day he’d cornered Cipriano and found out what everyone seemed to know already.
“Mr. Santee, I haven’t known my brother long, but I can assure you the man I know isn’t a cold-blooded killer. I’ve heard of some of the so-called exploits attributed to him. It’s obvious John is far too young to have done all he was reported to have done.”
From the stairs, Johnny smiled. ‘Hell, Boston, if you only knew the half of it.’
Santee sneered, ignoring Scott’s statement and turned to Murdoch. “The people in this valley won’t tolerate him being here. His job is over. You need to send him on his way.”
“There was never a job, Tom. Johnny isn’t a hired gun any longer. He’s my son and he’ll stay if he wants to stay.”
“And if he doesn’t want to stay?” Santee asked.
“That’s his decision to make, not mine, and definitely not yours.”
“You’ll lose business because of him. Is that what you want, Murdoch? You’ve worked too hard to build this place up to have it destroyed by that…. that….”
“Joe, I’d watch what you say if I were you,” Murdoch challenged.
“Murdoch, see reason. You know he’s not fit to be around decent people. I can’t believe you’re comfortable with him being under the same roof with Teresa.”
“Teresa is my ward. The boys will treat her as a sister.”
“You can’t be that naïve,” Driscoll laughed. “You know the kind of life he’s led. She won’t be safe with him here. None of us is safe with him here.”
Things were quiet for a few moments before Santee spoke up again, “Murdoch, we’ve heard your views on gunfighters over the years. You swore you’d never hire one. Now you’re claiming one as your son. Surely, you haven’t changed overnight.”
“You’ve said the keyword, Tom. John is my son. I don’t care what he’s been or done. The past is done and gone.”
“I don’t know what to say.” Driscoll threw his hands in the air. “We’ve come to warn you not to let him stay only to find out you’ve offered him a third of your ranch. What did he have to do to earn it?”
“Earn it? Scott and John helped save this ranch and most probably yours in the bargain. John took a bullet and almost died. He damn well earned his share of Lancer; they both did.”
Johnny dipped his head. Those were the words he wished his father could say to him but knew he’d never hear them. Did he mean what he said? No, Murdoch Lancer wasn’t going to be dictated to by anyone as to what he would do on his own ranch.
Santee joined in, “From what we’ve heard, he was riding with Pardee. We heard what Pardee did to poor Gaspar and his wife. That’s the kind of man you have under your roof.”
Scott couldn’t hold back. “We don’t care what you’ve heard. Johnny wasn’t working for Pardee. He only let Pardee believe he was working for him. He led Pardee and his men into a trap.”
“And from what we’ve heard, Scott, it was you who set the trap and killed Pardee. Isn’t that right?”
“Yes, I set the trap, but if Johnny hadn’t brought Pardee and his men in when he did and the way he did, we wouldn’t have been able to defend the ranch. Thanks to Johnny, they didn’t have time to spread out around the house.”
“Yes, I killed Pardee. I killed him before he could shoot my brother.”
Santee smiled. “There you go, Murdoch. Scott is the son who rid you of Pardee. It wasn’t the gunfighter. When he’s well enough to ride, we expect you to send him on his way.”
Johnny had heard enough. Inching his way back up the stairs, he went to his room and closed the door. The old man’s neighbors had spelled it out better than he could have. It was Scott who killed Pardee and Scott who deserved what Murdoch Lancer was offering.
Johnny knew the ranchers were saying what he’d already told himself. If he stayed, he’d only bring trouble to his family and the ranch.
Feeling more tired than he ever thought possible, Johnny sat on the side of the bed and unbuttoned his shirt. Not having the strength to take it off, he lay back on the bed and stared at the ceiling.
It wasn’t long before the sound of voices lilted through his open window. Johnny pushed himself up and went to look out. Standing to one side of the window so no one could see him, Johnny listened to the conversation.
“I’m sorry, Murdoch,” Aggie Conway said. “Tell Johnny…well, tell him I hope he’s feeling better soon. I’ll come back by in a few days.”
“Thank you, Aggie. I’ll be sure to tell him.” Murdoch helped the woman onto her horse.
Driscoll and Santee mounted their horses.
Before reining his horse around, Driscoll looked down at Murdoch. “You need to send that killer away before someone’s hurt. If you don’t, the people in this valley will take matters into our own hands.”
“Driscoll, if you or anyone lays one hand on my son, they’ll be nowhere for you to hide. Johnny is home where he belongs.”
‘You tell him, old man.’ Johnny smiled, thinking he’d hate to get on the wrong side of Murdoch Lancer.
“We’ll see about that,” Driscoll hissed.
Johnny watched the three ranchers ride away from the house and under the arch.
Walking slowly back to the bed, Johnny sat on the edge and stared at the floor. He had a decision to make. He could stay and fight for what he felt was his, or he could heal up a couple more days and then move on.
‘You’re fooling yourself, Madrid. There ain’t nothing here that’s yours, and no matter what Lancer says to anyone else, he don’t want you. A bargain’s a bargain and Johnny Madrid always keeps his word.’
From the front door, Murdoch watched Aggie, Driscoll, and Santee ride away. Stepping back inside, he closed the door and turned to see Scott and Sam staring at him.
“What? You heard what I said.”
Scott turned on his heels and headed for the drink cart. Pouring himself a whiskey, he downed it before looking at his father again
“If those two are an example of what the people of the valley are going to be like, I’m not sure I want to expose Johnny to that kind of hatred. You have to do something.”
“What do you suggest? I can’t force them to accept him.”
“Do you accept him?” Scott downed his drink in one gulp.
“Do I accept him? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means, Sir, if you don’t accept him for who and what he is, then you can’t expect anyone else to.”
“He’s my son.”
“Yes, that’s who he is. The question is, can you accept him for what he is?”
“Are you asking if I accept a gunfighter as a member of this family? The answer is no. A former gunfighter is another matter.”
Scott laughed. “Splitting hairs, aren’t you, Sir.”
“It’s the best I can do under the circumstances.”
“If your offer of a partnership was genuine, I expect you to stand behind him…regardless.”
“I plan to do just that. Johnny told me this morning he plans to live up to his end of the bargain we made. I have every intention of doing the same.”
“He told you that?”
“Yes, he did. I take it to mean we can now consider him a former gunfighter.”
Scott paused, staring at Murdoch. There was something he was missing. He just couldn’t put his finger on it.
“I’m going upstairs to check on Johnny and then going back out. Cipriano wants me to ride the south fence line.”
“Very well. I’ll see you tonight. Oh, and, Scott, tell Cipriano to set up guards on the roof and near the arch.”
“Johnny is concerned about any of Pardee’s men who may still be around. He believes Pardee was working for someone and until we know who, the ranch is still in danger.”
“What do you think, Sir?”
“I don’t know. I do know Johnny is adamant that we need the guards. I have to trust in his experience in these matters.”
“Murdoch, you and I have never talked about Johnny. All I know of him is what I’ve been able to glean from Cipriano and the vaqueros. One of these days, you and I are going to sit down and have a long talk. I don’t like being in the dark when it comes to the people in this family.”
“Yes, we do need to talk, but for now, we’ll do as Johnny asks and set up the guards.”
Scott executed a perfect about-face and headed for the stairs.
Murdoch turned to Sam. “Can you stay?”
“No, but thank you. I have patients to see in Green River. I’d better get going.” Sam picked up his medical bag. “Johnny needs to rest today. Tomorrow let him come downstairs. Some fresh air will be good for him.”
Being left alone in the Great Room, Murdoch went to his desk and sat down. Turning his chair so that he had a clear view of the ranch, his empire, he wondered how it was going to play out.
He knew going in that it was going to be an uphill battle with the neighbors. But he’d made the offer to his sons and planned to keep his promise. The neighbors be damned.
A short rap was all the notice Johnny got before seeing Scott poking his head through the partially opened door.
“Feeling up to some company?”
“Sure, come on it.”
“How are you feeling?” Scott strode across the room. “I understand Sam says you can go downstairs tomorrow.”
Johnny gave Scott a faint smile. “Yeah. If I’m a good boy.”
“And will you be?” Scott pulled up a chair and dropped into it.
Johnny’s smile broadened. He liked his new brother. “Maybe.”
“You’d better. I want you back on your feet. There’s a lot to learn and I need all the help I can get. Did you know that cows are dumb?”
Johnny laughed, gingerly swinging his legs over the side of the bed and sat up. Now face to face with Scott, Johnny’s eyes narrowed.
“Damn, Boston, you’re dirty. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you with dirt on your face.” Johnny reached out and smeared a dirty spot on Scott’s chin.
Scott’s hand shot up, rubbing the spot, a shocked look on his face.
“Don’t worry, I got it. You’re slipping. You’ve got to watch that.”
Scott laughed as he leaned back, enjoying the banter.
“Yeah, I know cattle are dumb. Probably the dumbest animals on earth. So, you’re learning all about them, are you?”
“I’m trying,” Scott sighed. “It’ll be easier when you’re with me. We can learn the business together. Truth be told, if you weren’t here, I’m not sure I’d stay.”
Johnny glared at Scott. “What’d you mean? You belong here. You earned it.”
“Earned it? No, I did nothing compared to you.” Scott sat forward. “Let’s not talk about that right now. I want to know how you’re feeling. Are you still in a lot of pain?”
Never wanting to admit weakness, Johnny shrugged, forgetting it was something he shouldn’t have done.
“Well, that answers my question.”
Johnny frowned. “It still hurts some, but I’m getting better. I can walk around now without passing out.”
“See, there is progress.”
“I thought I heard voices earlier.”
Scott paused but only briefly, “It was some of the neighboring ranchers. They came to talk business with Murdoch. Nothing for you worry about.”
Johnny lowered his head and slowly nodded. “You sure? If I could hear the old man yelling all the way up here, it must have been some talk.”
“Yes, Murdoch was quite vocal, but as I said, it’s nothing for you to worry about.”
They sat in silence for a moment.
“Murdoch told me of your concerns about Pardee’s men still being in the area. Do you think they’ll attack the ranch again?”
“If there are any still around and if someone’s paying them, then yeah, they could try again.”
“Who do you think is behind the attacks? Did Pardee ever say who he was working for?”
“No, Day always kept information like that to himself. He never wanted to share the money man with the hired help.”
“And you were the hired help?” Scott cocked his head, interested in any tidbit of information he could get about his brother.
Johnny gave Scott a faint smile. “I would have been… this time.”
“Meaning there were times you were the one in charge?”
“Yeah, Scott, there were a lot of times I was the one in charge.”
“You’re like Pardee!?” The edge on Scott’s voice was sharper than he intended.
Scott stared at his brother. The idea that Johnny led men like those who’d killed Gaspar and Maria and attacked the ranch repulsed him.
“No, not like Pardee,” Johnny hissed. “Never like Pardee.”
Johnny kept his eyes fixed on Scott. If there was one thing he needed, it was for his brother to believe him. He didn’t know why it mattered, but it did. This man’s opinion of him mattered.
“I believe you.”
Scott could see Johnny physically relax.
“I’d better get back to work. I’ll see you tonight. If you feel up to it, perhaps we’ll play a game of chess.”
“How do you know I play?”
Scott raised an eyebrow. “While you were sick, I seem to remember you telling me you played. Granted, you were delirious at the time, but you were adamant you could take me. Am I mistaken?”
“I play… some.”
Scott saw the twinkle in his brother’s eyes. “Alright then, tonight, we’ll see if you can best me.”
“Can’t wait,” Johnny smirked. “Go on now. You don’t want the old man coming up here looking for you.”
Scott stood and headed for the door.
“Don’t forget the guards.”
Scott nodded. “I’ll take care of it. Get some rest. I’ll see you tonight.”
Sighing when Scott turned to go down the hallway, Johnny listened until Scott’s footfall faded. Standing, he went to the window and looked towards the mountains. It was beautiful. The entire ranch was the most beautiful place he’d ever seen.
If things had been different, he would have grown up here with a father who cared and maybe even loved him. If…. Hell, there were too many ‘what ifs’ in his life. Frustrated, he turned back to the bed and stretched out.
“Come on, Boston, I’m not getting any younger here.” Johnny leaned his head back against the headboard of his bed.
The brothers were well into the promised chess game.
Scott glanced up at Johnny. “I’m thinking.”
“Think faster. I’m tired.” There was that slight smile again.
“If you’re tired, maybe we should finish this tomorrow night.”
Johnny shook his head. “No, let’s finish it now, seeing how you only have two moves left.”
From the hall, they heard heavy footsteps. Both brothers knew it was Murdoch coming to check on them.
“Scott, it’s time you turned in,” Murdoch announced from the doorway.
“We’re almost finished,” Johnny yawned.
Murdoch walked across the room and looked down at the board, studying it. “You’re right. You are finished.”
“I don’t believe so, Sir.” Scott reached out, moving his knight.
Scott looked at his father, then Johnny and then the board. “What?”
“He’s got you, son.”
Johnny moved his Bishop. “Check.”
“Yes.” Murdoch and Johnny answered in unison.
Scott sat another minute looking the board over before tipping his King. “I expect a rematch.”
“Sure,” Johnny said before thinking. He wasn’t sure he’d be around for a rematch. “We’ll do this again sometime, but right now….”
“Yes, right now, you need to get to bed.” Murdoch patted Johnny’s leg. “Do you need help?”
“No, I’ve got it.”
“Where did you learn to play?” Scott asked as he started collecting the chessboard and pieces.
“Picked it up here and there.”
“You’ll have to tell us about it sometime.”
“Yeah, sometime I’ll do that.”
Murdoch and Scott stepped out of the room, with Murdoch closing the door behind them.
Johnny smiled. He’d enjoyed playing with his brother. As he reached for the lamp to turn it down, the door opened again. Scott peered in.
“I wanted to say thank you. I enjoyed the game.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“Good night then.” Scott pulled the door to.
Turning out the lamp, Johnny laid down thinking life was like a chess game: moves and counter moves. He’d always tried to stay four moves ahead in the game. Johnny Madrid knew better than anyone that one wrong move, a bad decision could cost him his life.
Sitting on the veranda in front of the hacienda, Johnny leaned back, letting the sun hit his face. It felt good to be outside. He knew he’d overdone it, though. Getting downstairs that morning had worn him out, making him realize he needed a few more days before he’d be able to ride again.
“You look relaxed.”
Scott’s voice startled him enough that he jumped. Pain shot through his back and shoulder reminding him not to do that again.
“Sorry, I thought you heard me coming. Are you alright?”
“Yeah. I guess I was dozing off.” Johnny glanced up, shading his eyes with his right hand. “What brings you back early?”
“I told Cipriano I needed to check on something.”
Johnny laughed. “No need to check on me. I’m ….”
“Fine,” Scott finished with a laugh. Pulling a chair closer to Johnny, he sat down. Taking a deep breath inhaling the fresh air. He looked out over the ranch. “It’s nice out here.”
“Yeah, it is.”
“Are you supposed to be out here? I can’t imagine Sam gave his permission to be out of the house.”
“I don’t need anyone’s permission,” Johnny snapped and then dipped his head. “The old man and me came to an understanding this morning. I told him I was going outside and… well, he helped me.”
“Murdoch agreed?” Scott looked surprised. “That’s hard to believe.”
Johnny tilted his head back to stare at the sky. Scott followed his brother’s eyes to see a hawk circling above. The bird turned and banked, going higher and higher until caught on the wind. With one mighty beat of its wings and a short screech, the hawk soared toward the mountains.
Scott glanced at Johnny, who watched until the bird was out of sight. Slowly, Johnny lowered his head and sighed.
“Johnny, what’s wrong?”
There was no answer.
“You know you can tell me. I’ll understand.”
Johnny looked toward the distant mountain.
“Wishing you were going where that hawk went?”
“I’ve been where he’s gone, Scott. It’s where he’s headed next; now that I’d like to see.”
“I’ve never been that free, to go where I wanted, any time I felt like it. I’ve always had responsibilities.” Scott noticed Johnny dip his head and smiled. “You’ve always been like that, haven’t you?”
“Yeah. Haven’t had to answer to no one, not for a lot of years now.”
“Johnny, what’s really bothering you?”
“Please. I know we haven’t known each other long, but …well, you’re my brother. I want you to know I’m here for you.”
“I think I’ll go inside. Getting kinda’ tired.”
“Do you need help?” Scott was already out of his chair, reaching to give a hand in case Johnny was unsteady on his feet.
“No,” Johnny answered, waving the hand away. “I don’t need help.” Johnny turned and walked toward the French doors. He was almost there when he stopped and turned. “Scott, thanks for the offer.”
Scott smiled and watched Johnny disappear into the house. As soon as his brother was out of sight, the smile disappeared.
Looking toward the mountain where the hawk had gone, Scott had a sinking feeling. Freedom like that was hard to give up.
Following Johnny inside, Scott watched the younger man slowly climb the stairs. It was apparent he was still in pain. The battle with Pardee had only been three weeks ago and the bullet his brother took in the back had almost been fatal. Even now, Scott wondered at the strength and determination of the man who’d beat the odds and lived.
Pivoting toward the Great Room, Scott looked around for Murdoch. He wasn’t there.
Quickly turning, Scott headed for the kitchen. Finding it empty, he started to go back to the Great Room when the kitchen door opened. Teresa and Maria, chatting away, came in carrying laundry baskets.
“Scott, I didn’t know you were coming in for lunch.” Teresa sat the basket down. “I’ll get you something.”
“Thank you, but I’m not hungry right now. I’m looking for Murdoch.”
“He went into Green River to see Mr. Randolph.”
Scott looked at her questioningly.
“He’s Murdoch’s attorney. I think he’s gone to talk about the partnership agreement.”
“Did he say when he’d be back?”
“It should be soon,” Teresa answered. “Why? Is there a problem?”
“No. No problem.”
“I’m going to fix Johnny’s lunch. Are you sure you don’t want anything?”
Scott’s rumbling stomach answered for him.
“Sit down,” Teresa laughed. “I’ll make something for you.”
Sitting at the kitchen table, Scott couldn’t help but ponder all that had happened since the day he stepped off the stage in Morro Coyo. Meeting his father for the first time was in itself life-changing. To discover he had a brother was a dream come true—even one who was a mystery to him.
It bothered him that Johnny was distant and reluctant to talk. It only reinforced Scott’s fears that the man was planning to leave – something Scott Lancer wasn’t going to let happen.
Scott had almost finished eating when Murdoch entered the kitchen. Looking up from his plate, Scott could see his father was in a good mood.
“I understand you went to Green River this morning.”
Murdoch smiled. “I did. I spoke with my attorney, or I should say our attorney. He’ll have the partnership papers drawn up in a few days.”
“That’s wonderful,” Teresa spoke up. “Isn’t that wonderful, Scott. It means you and Johnny will really be part of Lancer.”
Scott laughed at Teresa’s enthusiasm. “Yes, it’s wonderful.” Standing, Scott smiled, “If you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to work. As the Boss or one of them, I wouldn’t want to set a bad example.”
Scott left the kitchen as Teresa sat Murdoch’s lunch in front of him. “I can’t wait for you to tell Johnny. I think it’s just the thing to cheer him up.”
“Cheer him up. I didn’t know he needed cheering up.”
“Oh, yes. Johnny’s been awfully moody for the last couple of days, and he’s not eating as much as he should. He’s been that way ever since you and he talked the other morning. I’m not sure what you said to him, but I wish you’d talk to him again. Maybe hearing about the partnership agreement will bring him around.”
Murdoch stared at his plate and wondered what he’d said to upset the boy.
Scott was still thinking about the brief conversation with Johnny as he made his way to the barn. He was half-way across the yard when the guard on the roof, Antonio, fired a shot in the air.
Spinning around, Scott yelled up to the guard, “What is it?”
Antonio pointed to the road. “Many riders coming, Senor.”
Murdoch threw the French doors open and hurried into the yard.
“Riders are coming in, Sir.”
“Antonio,” Scott gazed up to the roof and called out, “how many?”
“Ocho tal vez diez.”
Scott looked at Murdoch for the translation.
“8, maybe 10. Scott, get our rifles.”
Scott headed for the house and almost knocked Johnny down, who was coming out the door.
“What’s going on?”
“We’re not sure yet. Antonio says eight to ten riders are coming. I’m getting our rifles. Do you want one?”
Johnny held up his Colt. “I’m better with this.”
Murdoch turned to see Johnny walking toward him. “John…”
“Don’t say it, old man. I’m staying right here.” Looking around the yard, Johnny asked, “Where are your men?”
“Except for a handful, they’re on the range with the cattle,” Murdoch replied, noting Johnny had chosen to say ‘your men’ versus ‘our men.’ The sound of running feet answered Johnny’s next question. The available vaqueros with their rifles were taking cover around the yard and near the barn.
Scott was beside his father and brother in a matter of minutes. He tossed one of the rifles to Murdoch, who in one seamless motion caught it and levered a bullet into the chamber.
Standing shoulder to shoulder in front of the hacienda, the Lancers waited for their visitors’ arrival.
The riders slowed as they came under the arch. When Murdoch recognized the men as members of the Cattle Growers Association, he relaxed but still held his rifle at the ready.
“It’s the members of the Association.”
“What would they want here and why so many of them?” Scott asked.
“I’m not sure, but ….” Murdoch turned to look down at his youngest son. “John, I want you to go back inside.”
“I just think it would be best. At least until we know why they’re here.”
“No. If this is about me, then I have a right …”
“Will… you … just once do as I ask without an argument!” Murdoch closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Then lowering his voice, he said, “Go inside. I’ll handle this.”
Thinking to argue, Johnny changed his mind. “I’ll let you handle it, but I’m staying close enough to help if something happens.”
“Alright, but go now before they see you.”
Johnny took a step back, then turned toward the house. When he reached the veranda, he sidestepped behind one of the pillars and waited.
The Cattle Growers Association members reined to a stop and lined up in front of Murdoch and Scott.
Murdoch looked at the face of every man in front of him. Neither side said anything until Murdoch broke the silence.
Driscoll leaned forward in his saddle and looked up and down the line of riders with him. Then he turned his attention to Murdoch.
“You wouldn’t listen to Santee and me, so we brought the other members of the association.”
“Joe, I’ve said all I plan to about Johnny. That subject is closed.”
“No, it isn’t, Murdoch. I told you he’d bring trouble if he stayed and I was right.”
“What are you talking about?”
“There are two gunfighters in Green River. They rode in yesterday.”
“Don’t you see Murdoch if those two are there, more will come?”
“Were they some of Pardee’s men that haven’t moved on as yet?” Scott asked.
“We don’t know. Pardee’s men stayed close to Morro Coyo. None of us got a good look at any of them except for Pardee and the one people said was his second in command. It’s our understanding both of them are dead.”
“Yes, Pardee and Coley are dead, but I still don’t see why you’ve come out here.”
“What if they find out Madrid is here?” Driscoll asked.
“Did they ask for Johnny?” Murdoch responded.
“Well, no… but…”
“But nothing. The gunfighters in Green River may be passing through, or they could be some of what’s left of Pardee’s men. There’s nothing to prove they’ve come looking for Johnny.”
Scott saw the indecision on the men’s faces and had to know. “If they asked for Johnny, would someone tell them where to find him?”
“It isn’t like it’s a secret in the valley,” Barry Ryder spoke up. “If they start asking for Madrid, someone is going to tell them. When they do, those men will ride out here to find him or wait in town. Either way, there will be bloodshed.”
Murdoch snorted, “It’s not like we aren’t used to it at Lancer. It wasn’t three weeks ago that we fought a battle for our lives. One, I might add none of you helped with.”
“We had to defend our own property, Murdoch.” Gus Sullivan went on the defensive. “Surely, you have to know we’d have been here if…”
Murdoch cut Sullivan off, “It’s a little late, isn’t it, Gus. I asked for help when it all started. I wanted us to band together to fight Pardee. Not one of you helped. If it hadn’t been for Scott and Johnny, I wouldn’t be here now. Lancer would have fallen, and your ranches would be under threat now.”
There was no more discussion. Murdoch knew they had no defense for their actions.
“Alright, so now we know. It didn’t take all of you to bring us the news. You can go now.”
“Murdoch,” Bob Wainwright said, “we’re not leaving until we have your assurance Madrid is leaving the valley.”
Murdoch huffed, “Well, you’ve got a long wait, Bob. Johnny isn’t leaving. I’ve already explained to Santee and Driscoll, that shortly Lancer will be under new ownership. I’ve offered Scott and Johnny part of the ranch. They’ll be one-third owners of Lancer as soon as I can get Richard Randolph to draw up the papers.”
A murmur swept through the ranchers.
“Driscoll told us of your plans, Murdoch. We didn’t believe him. You can’t be serious in offering Madrid a piece of the ranch,” Wainwright replied.
“Very serious. It’s his birthright, and by God, he’s going to have it.”
“Scott, yes. I can see making him an offer, but Madrid. Murdoch, he’s a gunman, no better than Pardee.”
Scott jumped to his brother’s defense. “Johnny is nothing like Pardee, Mr. Wainwright! Any man who says differently will have to fight me.”
From behind the pillar, Johnny lowered his head and smiled. For the first time in his life, he had a brother who was defending him. As a child, he’d dreamed of having a big brother—someone who would look after him and protect him from harm. Now, even if it were for a short time, he had a brother, and it felt good.
“Well, maybe we won’t have anything to worry about. The two gunfighters in town may take care of our problem for us,” Sullivan sneered.
“And I suppose you’ll make sure they know Johnny is here?” Scott asked.
When Sullivan didn’t answer, Murdoch glared at the man. “Get off my…” Murdoch caught himself and looked sideways at Scott. He knew Johnny was within hearing of his voice. “Let me rephrase that. Get off our property, Sullivan, and don’t come back. You’re no longer welcome at Lancer.”
“What about the rest of us, Murdoch?” Robert Doyle asked. “Are we welcome, or have you decided you no longer need the support of the association?”
“Bob, you’re welcome as long as you accept my sons. Both of my sons.”
“And if we don’t?”
“Then I’ll pull out of the association. You, all of you, either take it or leave it. That’s my final word on the subject. Now, gentlemen, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”
Murdoch turned his back on the members and walked toward the house. As he got to the veranda, he glanced sideways at Johnny before going through the front door.
Scott stood alone in the yard facing the unwelcome visitors. Shrugging, he transferred his rifle from his left hand to his right and gave the men a slight smile.
“As my father stated, we have work to do. Gentlemen, the road is that way,” Scott pointed towards the arch. “Please make use of it.”
Turning, Scott followed Murdoch. The sound of horses riding away from the house told him the association members had indeed made use of the road. As he came to the veranda, he slowed his steps and waited. He knew Johnny was behind the pillar.
“Well, little brother, what do you think?”
Johnny stepped out and took a deep breath. “You did alright, Boston.”
“What do you think of our father’s stand against the association?”
“I think he’s loco.”
“I’m not familiar with the term ‘loco.’ What…?”
“It means he thinks I’m crazy, Scott.” Murdoch appeared in the doorway. Taking a few steps forward, he asked, “Would you care to tell me why you feel that way?”
Johnny turned to face Murdoch. Leaning against the pillar for support, he knew he’d been on his feet too long.
“Old man, you’re risking everything you built. That’s not a good move. You heard what they said. There are gunhawks in town now. They could be out here by tomorrow. The best thing you can do is…”
“Tell you to leave? Is that what you’re going to say? Is that what you want me to say?”
Johnny looked into his father’s eyes, wondering what game the old man was playing. Of course, he wanted him to leave. What Johnny couldn’t understand was why Murdoch Lancer was defending his gunfighter son. They’d been fine words he spouted, but they were just words. Johnny knew there was no feeling behind them. How could there be?
What confused him was that he’d already told Murdoch he was leaving. Hell, Murdoch had been happy when he said he planned to live up to his end of the bargain.
Johnny looked at Scott. Then he had his answer. Murdoch was putting on an act for his oldest son, the rightful heir to his empire. That was it. The old man didn’t want anyone, especially Scott, to think he’d kicked his youngest son out …. again.
There was nothing more to say. Johnny was too tired to do much more than hold himself up. He needed to find a place to lie down and think.
If the gunhawks in town were Pardee’s men, they already knew where to find him. If they hadn’t worked for Pardee, maybe they’d keep going. Either way, he would deal with them himself. What he needed first was time to heal up and build his strength. He’d need to practice and get his speed back. After that, he’d head back to Arizona or New Mexico and hire out again.
“You didn’t answer me, Johnny.”
Johnny realized his mind was wandering. What was the question?
“Sir, we need to get him inside.” Scott’s voice penetrated his senses, but they were as if he were miles away. “Johnny…. look at me.”
Johnny raised his head. The last thing he saw was darkness closing in on Scott’s panicked face.
“Do you think we should send for Sam?” Scott asked as he wiped Johnny’s face with a cool cloth.
Murdoch ran a hand over Johnny’s forehead. There was no sign of fever. Shaking his head, he had no idea how to deal with his youngest son.
“I don’t think so, Scott. The boy overdid it today. I wish I knew why he refuses to listen to a word I say or to obey me.”
Scott laughed. “Obey you. Sir, from what little I know of my brother, I don’t think he takes orders very well.”
“That’s exactly what he said when you rode off to track Pardee. He told me then, how did he say it, ‘I never was much good at taking orders.’ That’s when he left. I thought he’d gone to join Pardee.”
A moan and Johnny’s eyes blinking open drew their attention back to the man on the bed.
“What happened?” Johnny tried to push himself up. Failing, he laid back down, his head sinking into the pillow.
“You fainted,” Scott replied.
With his eyes still closed, Johnny snorted, “I don’t faint.”
“You did this time,” Murdoch spoke up. “You’ve overdone it. I want you to stay in bed for the rest of the day. Try to sleep.”
Johnny opened his eyes and looked at Murdoch. Seeing the concern in the older man’s face, Johnny gave a slight nod. “No argument from me. I’m worn out.”
Murdoch and Scott looked at each other. Had Johnny just agreed to do something Murdoch asked him to do and without a fight?
“That’s good, John.” Murdoch patted his leg. “Now you rest. We’ll be downstairs if you need anything.”
When there was no reply from Johnny, they realized he was already asleep.
Once downstairs, Murdoch went to the drink cart. Pouring himself a drink, he downed it and then turned to look at Scott.
“Would you like one?”
“Yes, thank you. I could use one about now.”
Murdoch refilled his glass and poured one for Scott. Handing the drink to his son, Murdoch collapsed into the nearest chair.
They sat in silence for some time before Scott spoke up, “What are we going to do about the gunfighters in Green River. From what Mr. Ryder said, they know Johnny’s here.”
“We already have guards on the house. If they come, they’ll have to get by us to get to him.”
“Don’t you mean ‘when’ they come? Sir, I think now is a good time for us to have that conversation we discussed.”
“Scott, now isn’t the time.”
“Now is precisely the time. If I’m going to fight and perhaps die for Johnny, I want…no, I need to know who he is.”
Murdoch sipped his drink and looked at his oldest son. Standing, he went to his desk. Reaching into his vest pocket, he took out a small key and unlocked the desk’s right bottom drawer. He thumbed through some papers before finding what he was looking for. Returning to where Scott was sitting, he handed him a file folder.
“What’s this?” Scott took the folder, noting its thickness and looked back at Murdoch.
“That is the Pinkerton’s report on your brother.”
“How long did you look?”
“Almost 16 years. In the beginning, I left the ranch to search for Maria and Johnny, sometimes for months. I finally realized I couldn’t do it alone and I couldn’t keep leaving the ranch. That’s when I hired the Pinkertons. Over the years, whenever I had the money and sometimes when I didn’t, I had them searching.
“Most of the reports simply say ‘Nothing to Report’ or ‘Unable to find any trace of either Maria or John Lancer.’ Others tell of almost finding them only to have Maria disappear again, taking Johnny with her.
“There’s one report I received over six years ago stating Maria was dead and Johnny had disappeared. I was stunned to find out she was gone, but at least I knew he was alive. I kept the Pinkertons looking.
“It wasn’t until a little over a year ago I received the first report where they’d found a connection between John Lancer and Johnny Madrid. Still, it took time to verify the findings.”
Murdoch stared at the drink in his hand, remembering the agonizing months he’d waited, hoping they’d found his boy and praying he wasn’t Madrid.
Murdoch looked up to see Scott waiting for more.
“In October of last year, they found everything they needed to confirm my son…” Murdoch paused. Just saying the words seemed to be painful. “They confirmed my son was Johnny Madrid. Still, I asked that they make sure before ….” Murdoch couldn’t go on.
“Before what, sir?”
“Before I approached him and asked him to come home.”
“I take it they did confirm it?”
“Yes, they confirmed it.” Scott could hear the bitterness in Murdoch’s voice.
“Murdoch, who is Johnny Madrid?”
“It’s all in there.” Murdoch pointed to the folder, not wanting to speak it aloud.
“Excuse me, but I don’t want to read report after report to get an answer you can give me in a few words.”
“Fine,” Murdoch snapped. “Johnny Madrid is a gunfighter.”
“I already know that.”
“Did you know he was 13 years old when he started selling his gun?” Murdoch saw the surprise on Scott’s face. “I didn’t think so.”
“Sir, let me tell you what little I know and you can fill in the gaps.” When Murdoch nodded his agreement, Scott continued, “I know Johnny’s a gunfighter. Cipriano told me Johnny is well known along the border and in Mexico. To the Mexicans he appears to be a hero. From our neighbor’s response, he is the devil incarnate. Other than that, I know nothing about him.”
Murdoch stood and once again refilled his glass. Offering the bottle to Scott, the younger man shook his head. “No, thank you, I believe I need a clear head.”
“Well, I need another drink and before I’m finished, I’m sure you will also.” Murdoch sat down.
“A little over five years ago was the first time any of us heard the name Madrid. It was reported he was earning a reputation as a fast gun in Mexico and along the border.
“I paid little attention to the rumors about Madrid. All my attention and energies were devoted to either the ranch or searching for your brother.
“It wasn’t long before the name became more prominent. At first, it was little things. He was in several gunfights against some of the best gunmen in the west. Then he was reported to have participated in some of the bloodiest range wars from Texas through New Mexico and into Arizona. Each time a story was repeated, Madrid became more notorious.
“Scott, Johnny Madrid is one of, if not the fastest gunfighter in the west. There is no telling how many men he’s killed in either gunfights or hired to gun down. There are rumors he’s killed twenty men; some say more. The Pinkerton report places the number closer to thirty.”
“So, he’s famous?”
“You could say that. In some circles, Johnny Madrid is considered a legend.”
Scott looked up toward his brother’s room.
“I know what you’re thinking. It’s hard to believe the boy laying up there is the same man I just described.”
“I don’t believe he is that man.”
“Scott, don’t be deceived. I’ve had to come to terms with the facts.”
“Sir, with all due respect, are you sure the facts are accurate? I’ve found there are usually two sides to every argument. You appear to be condemning Johnny based on reports from strangers. You have your son upstairs. Don’t you think you owe it yourself to find out more about him?”
“I will if he stays long enough for me to get to know him.”
“You don’t believe he’ll stay?”
“I… I don’t know. Johnny certainly isn’t opening up to us.”
“Are you having second thoughts about offering the partnership to us? Are you sorry you did?”
“I have no doubts or regrets about offering it to you.”
“But you do when it comes to Johnny?”
“I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t had doubts. Will he fit in at Lancer? Will he be able to leave his past behind and start fresh?”
“What are we going to do about the gunmen in town?”
“We don’t even know if they’ll come after Johnny.”
“But you will be keeping the guards posted on the hacienda?”
Murdoch nodded. “Yes, Johnny was convincing. There are too many unanswered questions. We don’t know who hired Pardee, and we don’t know if any of his men are still in the area.”
“And your neighbors?”
“I’ll deal with them. This my ranch and no one is going to tell me what I can and can’t do. As for your brother, I’ll have to take it one day at a time. Johnny will have to decide if this is the life he wants.”
“And if he decides it isn’t?”
“I don’t know. I just don’t know. As I said, I’ll take it one day at a time.”
“Sir, what do you say ‘we’ take it one day at a time. It isn’t going to be easy for any of us to adjust to this new life. I know it will be difficult for me. I’ve never had a father or a brother before. I would like very much to have the time to get to know both.”
Murdoch smiled. “I’m glad you’re here, Son. I’ve waited a lifetime for you to be by my side.”
“So, have I, Sir.” Scott inhaled; his breath caught. “So have I.”
Murdoch cleared his throat. “I think I’ll turn in.”
Scott stood, setting his glass of whiskey on the side table. “I believe I will also. Good night, Sir.”
Scott waited for Murdoch to join him.
“You go ahead. I’ll lock up. Good night, Son.”
Scott headed for the stairs while Murdoch began his routine of turning out the lamps and locking the doors.
Murdoch banked the fire and then went around the room, blowing out lamps. He always left one light burning in the Great Room, turned down low, in case he found himself unable to sleep and wandered downstairs to get a book as he had on many nights.
He was just about to lock the French doors when he stopped, his hand on the lock.
Call it years of living at Lancer and knowing every sound, or perhaps it was the conversation he’d had with Johnny about Pardee and his men. Whatever it was, Murdoch couldn’t shake the feeling something wasn’t quite right.
Opening the French door, he stepped outside. There was a half-moon. He could see beyond the edge of the veranda and into the yard, but no further.
Turning, he looked up, trying to see the guard on the roof. From where he stood, he could see no one. Taking several steps into the yard, he craned his neck and waited.
Trying to remember who was on duty, Murdoch realized he didn’t know who Cipriano had assigned to the roof. He looked around the darkened yard. There was still a light on in the bunkhouse, but all the other buildings were dark.
Determined to find out why the sentry hadn’t shown himself, Murdoch started to go around the house to the rear stairs that lead to the roof.
Relieved to hear the ranch hand call out, Murdoch looked up again. It took him a moment to recognize the man. He was one of the new hires. For a moment, Murdoch was confused as to why Cipriano had assigned a new man to stand guard. He was sure he’d told the Segundo he wanted only the older, trusted hands for the duty.
That was when Murdoch remembered telling Scott to have Cipriano post guards. He’d neglected to add the words ‘older trusted hands.’
“You need something, Mr. Lancer?”
Finally, remembering the man’s name. Bailey. That was it. “Bailey, is everything alright?”
“Good. Keep a sharp eye out tonight.”
“Yes, Sir. Night, Mr. Lancer.”
Heading back inside, he still couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right. He also made a mental note to talk to Cipriano in the morning about his choice of guards.
After Murdoch and Scott left his room, Johnny stayed in bed for a few more minutes. Finally deciding he needed some fresh air, he went to the window and opened it. The moment he did, the hairs on the back of his neck stood up.
Leaning out the window, he’d scanned the yard. He could see the horses in the corral nervously moving around, but nothing else seemed out of place. Johnny started to shrug it off when he realized he couldn’t hear anything. The night’s usual sounds – crickets, night birds, even the owl that usually serenaded him was quiet.
Pulling on his pants, he stomped into his boots. Struggling back into his shirt wasn’t an option; he didn’t have time. Drawing his Colt from the gun belt hanging on his bedpost, Johnny headed for the rear stairs leading to the kitchen.
Once outside, he was surer than ever that something was wrong. Making his way around the house and through the garden, he’d wondered about the guard on the roof. He stopped several times, listening for any sound that would give him the location of an intruder.
He’d started moving again when he heard the guard call out.
Johnny waited for Murdoch’s response. He heard the guard call out again, “You need something, Mr. Lancer?”
“Bailey, is everything alright?”
“Good. Keep a sharp eye out tonight.”
“Yes, Sir. Night, Mr. Lancer.”
Johnny relaxed when Murdoch went back inside.
Thinking on the situation, it made no sense. It was hard for Johnny to believe the two gunhawks in Green River would come to the ranch, especially after dark. Two men alone wouldn’t have a chance of taking over the ranch, and if they were after him, they wouldn’t be sneaking around. They’d want the fight to be out in the open where everyone could see the gunfight.
There was only one possible explanation. Some of Pardee’s men were still on the payroll of whoever was after Lancer. Johnny supposed they might try a night attack on the ranch. It would be risky, but if they had an inside man…. Johnny looked to the roof again.
Walking up the stairs and down the hallway, Murdoch stopped first at Scott’s room. He was still in awe of the fact his sons were home. Checking on them before bed was becoming a pleasant habit for him.
Seeing light coming from under Scott’s door, Murdoch tapped on the door and waited. Almost immediately, he heard, “Come in.”
Murdoch opened the door and stuck his head in.
“I just stopped by to say goodnight again and see if you needed anything before I turn in.”
Still dressed except for his boots, Scott was lying on his bed, an open book in his hands.
“That was thoughtful of you, Sir. I don’t need anything. Goodnight. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Yes, goodnight, Son.”
Murdoch stepped back and closed the door. He couldn’t suppress a smile. It was amazing what those few simple words meant to him. ‘I’ll see you in the morning.’ To have Scott with him after all these years was a dream come true.
Turning, Murdoch didn’t see a light under Johnny’s door and knew the boy was most likely asleep. Needing to see for himself, he quietly opened the door, letting the light from the hallway flood in.
Moving aside so the light would fall on the bed, Murdoch’s heart dropped when he saw it empty. Rushing inside the room, he spun around, looking into every dark corner. Johnny wasn’t there.
Leaving the room and crossing the hall, Murdoch stormed into Scott’s room.
“Sir?” Scott was just removing his shirt.
“Johnny’s gone. He’s not in his room.”
“Calm down, Murdoch. He’s probably gone to the kitchen for something to eat.”
Murdoch took a breath, trying to calm his pounding heart. “Of course, he’s just gone downstairs.”
“Would you like me to go and check on him?”
“No, I’ll go. You go to bed.”
“Are you sure?” Scott was already buttoning his shirt. “I mean, I wouldn’t mind a snack myself.”
Murdoch turned, not waiting for Scott before heading for the back stairs to the kitchen. He knew before he got to the bottom step that Johnny wasn’t there.
He went straight through the kitchen and out the side door. Stepping into the garden, he stopped and listened. Hearing nothing, Murdoch turned back to the house. Going through the dining room and toward the front door, he didn’t stop until he was on the veranda.
Still, there was no sign of Johnny. Thinking maybe the boy had gone to the barn, Murdoch started across the yard. He hadn’t gone more than a few feet when he heard footsteps ahead of him.
Stopping, Murdoch’s right hand went to his side. His heart skipped a beat, remembering he wasn’t wearing a gun.
Out of the darkness, he saw a figure moving toward him. It took several seconds for him to realize it was Johnny. Bare-chested except for the bandage around his shoulder, Johnny’s gun was in his hand.
“John, what are you…?”
Johnny’s raised hand silenced him.
Murdoch mouthed the word ‘what.’
Johnny didn’t answer right away, just looked into the darkness, his gun still at the ready.
“Did you hear something?” Murdoch whispered.
Johnny shook his head, ‘no.’
“Somethings wrong,” Johnny whispered. “I can feel it,”
Murdoch started to raise his voice when from the direction of the barn, they heard the sound of horses whinnying.
“How many men have you got standing guard?”
“One at the arch and one on the roof. I just spoke to Bailey on the roof. He said he hadn’t seen anyone.”
Johnny looked around the yard and then at the roof.
“You trust the man on the roof?”
Murdoch’s hesitation was Johnny’s answer.
“Go back inside, old man.”
“I’ll go to the bunkhouse and get some of the men.”
“No. You’ll never make it. Whoever’s out here will see to that. Now go back inside and keep Scott there with you.”
“You shouldn’t be out here. You’re in no condition…”
Johnny didn’t wait for Murdoch to finish his statement before moving back into the shadows.
The front door opened. “Murdoch. Are you out here?” Scott called out.
Murdoch walked back to the house. “Quiet, Scott. Go back inside.”
Scott followed his father inside. “Did you find Johnny?”
Scott headed for the door again. “Why? Is he alright?”
“Scott, stop.” Murdoch put a hand on Scott’s arm, holding him back.
“Murdoch, you saw him earlier. He’s in no condition to be out there.”
“What’s so funny?”
“Those are the exact words I tried to say to your brother a few minutes ago. I’m afraid it didn’t work then any more than it will now.”
Scott went back to the French doors and peered out. Turning to look at his father, Scott asked, “Did you see anything?”
“No, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t someone there. Johnny said he could feel something was wrong.”
“That’s right. John’s lived by his instincts for a very long time. If there is one thing I learned from those Pinkerton reports, it’s that he’s good at what he does. I don’t believe we should second guess him now.”
“What do we do?”
Murdoch went to the hall tree, lifted his and Scott’s gun belts, and handed Scott’s to him.
“You’re expecting trouble?” Scott asked as he tightened his gun belt.
From the shadows, Johnny watched his father usher Scott back inside. When he knew they were safe, he inched his way through the darkness like a cat searching for its prey.
A few seconds later, Johnny heard the sound of a twig breaking. Someone was walking around the side of the hacienda, heading for the garden. Johnny realized whoever it was would try to enter the house through the kitchen.
Knowing he had to stop the man before he got inside, Johnny worked his way along the garden wall toward the gate. The entire time wondering about the guard who was supposed to be on the roof.
Johnny was about to confront the intruder when a bullet pinged off the adobe wall only inches from his head. Ducking down, he threw himself to the ground and rolled. He looked up. The only place the shot could have come from was the roof.
The kitchen door flew open, and light flooded the garden. The man Johnny was following crouched, turned toward the light, and fired.
“Stay in the house!” Johnny screamed as he raised his head and fired at the man in the garden.
The man returned Johnny’s fire while at the same time trying to escape the light still coming through the door.
Two shots rang out, both coming from inside the house. The man was trapped between Johnny, still lying on the ground, and Murdoch and Scott in the house.
“You don’t have a chance!” Johnny yelled. “Drop your gun and step into the light.”
Johnny’s demand was answered by bullets, one from above and one from the gunman in the garden.
Painfully he rolled behind the wall. Johnny was pushing himself to his feet, ready to charge into the garden gun blazing, when the sound of gunfire came from behind him. He could see men running from the barn.
Faced with a known threat in front of him or the unknown across the yard, Johnny decided to finish the standoff. Pushing himself to his feet, he stormed into the garden. The gunman turned to fire at him when Scott stepped into the doorway and fired. The gunman went down.
From the roof, Johnny could see a shadowy figure moving toward the back stairs. The figure stopped and fired once, his muzzle flash giving away his position.
It was all Johnny needed. He fired. A scream pierced the night only moments before a body tumbled off the roof and landed in the yard.
At the sound of running feet, Johnny turned and crouched, ready for whoever was coming toward the garden. A moment later, faced with Johnny’s gun, a half-dressed Cipriano skidded to a halt.
“Senor, it is me. Cipriano.”
Johnny relaxed and straightened up. “What’s happening out there?”
Before Cipriano could answer, Murdoch and Scott came running from the house.
“Patron, we found men setting fire to the barn.”
The sound of continued gunfire stopped further explanation. Walt hurried to Cipriano’s side. “Cip, we figure there’s at least another four or five out there. I got some men putting out the fire.”
“The horses?” Johnny turned and headed for the garden gate, ignoring Murdoch’s orders to get inside and let the ranch hands deal with the gunmen.
“At least put a shirt on!” Scott yelled as Johnny disappeared. Turning to Murdoch, he shrugged.
“He’s going to catch his death of cold,” Murdoch grumbled.
“If he doesn’t get shot first,” Scott added.
“Walt, go with Johnny. Watch his back.”
Murdoch could see the indecision and panic in the man’s face. The ranch hands and vaqueros knew little of Johnny except for his reputation. Murdoch was sure Walt was more than hesitant with following his order.
“Walt, go with him. He’s in no condition to be out here.” When Walt didn’t move, Murdoch shook his head. “For heaven’s sake, man. He’s not going to shoot you.”
Walt swallowed hard. “If you say so, Boss,” he managed to say as he ran to catch up with Johnny.
“Just to make sure Johnny doesn’t shoot first and ask questions later, I’d better go with them,” Scott called over his shoulder as he took off after his brother.
“Scott, be careful!”
When he got no acknowledgment from Scott, Murdoch wondered if either of his sons would ever listen to him.
“Murdoch!” Teresa shouted from the kitchen door.
“Teresa, go back inside. Go to your room and stay there until I tell you it’s safe to come out.”
Teresa turned and ran back inside. Drawing a deep breath, Murdoch wondered if any of his children would ever listen to him.
Forgetting Cipriano was still there, Murdoch shook himself. “Are any of our men hurt?”
“No sé.” (I don’t know) Cipriano looked past Murdoch to the man lying in the garden.
Murdoch’s gaze followed his Segundo’s. “Scott shot him. There’s another over there.” Murdoch pointed to the other side of the garden wall.
Cipriano walked over to the other body and turned it over.
“Bailey was firing at me from the roof. It looks like he was their inside man. John got him.”
A heavy volley of gunfire echoed around the yard. Men were running and yelling. Murdoch and Cipriano retreated through the kitchen and into the Great Room. Opening the French doors, they silently slipped onto the veranda.
It readily became evident that there was no way to tell which of the running men were Lancer’s hands and which weren’t.
Two men ran across the yard heading for the house, charging the doors. Not recognizing them, Murdoch was already raising his rifle when one of the strangers opened fire. Out of nowhere, Walt and Scott headed the men off, dropping them with one shot each.
“Murdoch, are you alright?” Scott asked as he dove for cover.
“Yes,” Murdoch answered but stared past his son toward the barn, where he saw the last of the flames extinguished. “The barn?”
“I don’t think there’s much damage. The men got all the horses out.”
“I thought you were going to be with Johnny. Where is he?”
Scott shook his head. “I don’t know. We caught up with him, but Johnny made it plain he didn’t want us with him. I saw him a few times after that, but for someone in his condition, he was moving fast.”
The sound of three shots cut off Murdoch’s words.
Murdoch took a few steps into the yard, trying to stop his pounding heart. Cipriano and Scott joined him. The vaqueros near the barn stopped what they were doing and looked around. The silence was deafening.
Standing alone in the darkness, Johnny fought to catch his breath. He had no idea how long he’d been out here, only that with the last man he’d taken down, the fighting had stopped. Making his way back to the light of the hacienda, Johnny wondered if he could get there under his own steam.
Only a few feet to go, he heard one of the hands talking to Murdoch.
“Boss,” Frank said, “one of them we shot is still alive. If you want to question him, you need to do it now.”
“Where is he?”
“Near the old guardhouse.”
Scott and Cipriano ran toward the guardhouse with Murdoch close behind. As they neared the building, they could see ranch hands and vaqueros standing around a man on the ground. The men parted as Murdoch approached.
Kneeling on one knee next to the fallen man, Murdoch could see the bullet had caught him in the chest. Blood covered the front of the man’s shirt and was pooling on the ground under him.
“Who hired you?”
The man’s laugh was cut short when he coughed. Staring at Murdoch, he forced a weak smile. The expression on his face changed when Johnny stepped into his line of sight.
Murdoch looked up, surprised to see his youngest son standing next to him.
“John, do you know him?” Murdoch moved aside to let his son in.
“I know him,” Johnny knelt. Laying his arm over his knee, he showed the fallen gunman the Colt he still held in his hand. “Calhoun, isn’t it?”
“You remember…?” Calhoun coughed.
“I remember. Didn’t know you were working for Pardee.”
“Not…,” cough. “Not Pardee. You killed Pardee.”
Johnny glanced up at Scott but said nothing.
“If not Pardee, then who? Who sent you tonight?” Murdoch couldn’t help himself. He had to know who was behind the raids on the ranch.
“No one… figured we’d take up where … Pardee…” Calhoun braced himself against the pain. “Guess we figured… wrong.”
“Hang on. We’ll get you inside. We’ll send someone for the Doc.”
Calhoun tried to laugh only to have blood foam at the corner of his mouth. “Waste of time…Won’t need no Doc. The others… they get away?”
“Not so you’d notice,” Johnny answered.
Calhoun coughed. “You got Bailey?”
“Bailey was stupid. He said…” he faltered. “Bailey said you wouldn’t be … problem. Should have known we couldn’t surprise you. You always were two moves ahead of the game.”
“Yeah, you should have known.” There was no emotion in Johnny’s voice.
With that, Calhoun heaved one last breath and his head rolled to the side, his now sightless eyes fixed on Johnny.
Murdoch groaned as he pushed himself to his feet. “Cipriano, take care of him.”
Silently, Cipriano motioned to two of the hands to pick up the body.
Scott looked at Johnny, whose eyes were still on Calhoun. He could see his shirtless brother shivering in the night air.
“Johnny, you’ve got to go inside.”
When Johnny didn’t move, Murdoch stepped in. “Scott, take your brother inside.”
Scott took Johnny’s arm and silently guided him to the house. Once inside, they went straight to the Great Room. Johnny sat on the sofa in front of the fireplace while Scott stoked the flames. Then taking a blanket from the back of the sofa, he draped it around his brother’s shoulders.
“Is that better?”
Johnny stared at the flames and pulled the blanket tight around his neck. “Damn, I’m cold.”
“That’s what you get for running around without a shirt.”
Johnny snorted, “Didn’t have time for a shirt.”
“I’ll remind you of that when you come down with pneumonia.”
“You do that.” Johnny bent forward, trying to get closer to the fire.
Scott sat down next to his brother. Reaching over, he straightened the blanket on Johnny’s shoulders.
They sat quietly while waiting for Murdoch.
The front door opened and closed. Murdoch walked into the room. Collapsing into the closest chair, he looked at his sons. “Cipriano and the men will take care of everything out there. Are you two alright?”
Scott responded, “Yes, Sir.”
Johnny took his time in responding, “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“I don’t believe you.” Murdoch stood and walked over to stand in front of his son. Putting a hand on Johnny’s arm, he said, “You’re freezing.”
Turning to the drink cart, Murdoch poured a glass of Glenlivet and put it in Johnny’s hand.
“Drink this. It’ll help.”
Johnny took a sip and closed his eyes as the fiery liquid hit his stomach and started warming his blood. “Thanks.”
“Yeah, much better.” Taking a few more sips, Johnny sat the glass down. Standing, he let the blanket fall to the sofa. “I’m heading up to bed.”
Murdoch reached out a hand and put it on Johnny’s arm. “Do you believe him? Calhoun. Do you believe what he said about them working alone?”
Johnny stared at the hand and then back at Murdoch. He wanted to say that no man laid a hand on him. Murdoch must have read his son’s thought and quickly let Johnny go.
As much as Johnny resented someone laying a hand on him, he’d felt a tingling sensation that spread from the arm and settled around his heart. Having his father touch him, even briefly, left him confused and yearning for more.
Finally, finding his voice, he said, “Could be. Calhoun wouldn’t have a reason to lie to us. He knew he was dying.”
“So, it’s over?”
Johnny moved closer to the fire and stared at the flames for a long time before answering. “The men who attacked tonight were working for themselves. It don’t change the fact Pardee was working for someone else. If whoever it is has given up, we may never know who he is.”
Scott stood and walked over to stand beside Johnny. Putting a hand on his brother’s good shoulder, Scott gave it a gentle squeeze. “That’s a problem for another day. Right now, I think we all need to get some rest.”
Scott looked at Murdoch, hoping he’d take the hint.
“I agree. We’ve taken care of the threat tonight. We’ll deal with whatever comes tomorrow, tomorrow.”
From the head of the stairs a small figure stepped into the light.
“Murdoch, is it save to come out?” Teresa squeaked the words out.
Smiling, Murdoch nodded. “Yes, darling. It’s safe. Go on back to bed.”
“Will someone tell me what happened?”
“Yes, tomorrow morning. Now go on.” Reassured, Teresa turned and walked down the hall.
With that, the three weary men took the stairs one slow step at a time.
“You know, little brother, it was a good thing you were here tonight,” Scott said as they made their way upstairs.
“Yeah? You weren’t so bad yourself, Boston.”
Scott stopped on the stairs and stared at Johnny. “You know, the first time you called me that I wasn’t sure how to take it. Now, I think I like it. At least it’s better than tin soldier.”
Murdoch laughed. “If you two have finished, I want to get to bed.”
“I agree,” Scott said with a smile. “I have a feeling with Johnny around we’re going to need all the rest we can get.”
“He does seem to attack trouble, doesn’t he?” Murdoch said with a chuckle.
Johnny didn’t say anything. He knew Murdoch was joking, but there was a lot of truth in what he was saying. He would attract trouble, more than they knew.
“That was a wonderful dinner, Teresa.” Scott laid his napkin beside his now empty plate and leaned back.
“Thank you, Scott. I’m glad someone appreciates my cooking.” Teresa beamed as she stood to start clearing away the dishes.
“Yes, darling. It was delicious. I sometimes take you for granted.”
“Thank you, Murdoch.” Walking to the head of the table, Teresa leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.
Straightening up, Teresa looked at Johnny. It was his first night of joining them at the table since Pardee’s raid.
“Johnny, was your dinner alright? You didn’t eat much.”
“It was just fine, Teresa. I guess I’m just not that hungry.”
Murdoch pushed back from the table and stood. “Join me in the Great Room, boys. I want to talk to you about something.”
Scott waited for Johnny before the two of them followed their father.
Johnny quickly found a chair near the fireplace and settled back with a soft sigh. His back was hurting, a fact he didn’t want any of them to know about.
Murdoch stepped to the bar and lifted a bottle of brandy. “Would either of you care for a drink?”
Scott nodded, “Please.”
Looking at Johnny, Murdoch waited.
“No.” Johnny shook his head. “I mean, no thanks. Don’t feel much like anything right now.”
Pouring himself a drink, Murdoch sat in the chair opposite Johnny.
“I went into Green River yesterday and met with my attorney. Mr. Randolph says he can have the partnership papers ready for our signatures by Wednesday of next week.”
While Murdoch sipped his drink, his eyes went from Scott’s face then to Johnny’s. Scott was smiling. There was no reaction at all from his youngest son. Not for the first time, he wondered what the boy was thinking.
Johnny sat for a few more moments and then pushed himself to his feet. “I’m really tired. I think I’ll go on up to bed.”
Murdoch sat his drink down and quickly stood. “Johnny, did I say something to upset you?”
“No.” Johnny shook his head. “I’m just tired.”
Scott was on his feet now. “Johnny is there something about the partnership agreement that you need to talk about. I’m sure Murdoch can go into detail if….”
“No, I don’t need to hear about it.” Johnny turned and headed for the stairs. “Night.”
Murdoch and Scott watched as Johnny escaped upstairs and disappeared.
“What the devil was that all about?” Murdoch grabbed his drink and topped it off.
“I’m not sure, Sir. He’s been acting strangely for some time. Well, I assume it’s strange as I don’t know him well enough to tell one way or the other.”
Murdoch downed his drink and refilled his glass. “You don’t suppose he’s changed his mind about the partnership?”
“I don’t know. We’ve not discussed it.” Scott started to refill his glass with brandy and changed his mind. He reached for the bottle of Scotch. Giving himself a healthy measure, Scott turned to stare at the last spot he’d seen his brother. “Sir, you said you’d spoken to him a few days ago. Tell me again what exactly he said.”
“I don’t know. We were talking in his bedroom. I said something about Sam and how he’d told us Johnny was getting better. Your brother commented that he was sure he’d be out of bed in no time. Then he told me not to worry. He planned to live up to his end of the bargain.”
“I wonder why he put it like that…live up to his end of the bargain. Did you find it strange he said it that way?”
“No. I was happy he planned to stay on. I’ve been afraid he’d leave.”
Scott walked to the French doors and looked out into the growing darkness. He could barely see the outline of the mountains in the distance silhouetted against the sky. Turning back still in thought, he looked at Murdoch.
“Have you noticed Johnny takes everything literally? I have a feeling he considers the words a man uses as meaning exactly what’s said.”
“I still don’t understand. What does that have to do with the partnership agreement?”
“Sir, what did you say about the agreement? I mean on that first day.”
Murdoch shook his head, trying to remember the events of that day. There had been so many things that happened, what with both sons showing up at the same time, the confrontation with two angry young men, and then the fire. He barely remembered the words said, only the emotions of the day.
“I made the offer, and he accepted it.”
“No. No, he didn’t. Remember, it wasn’t until after the fire that he hinted at becoming a partner.”
“Alright, we were here.” Murdoch indicated the Great Room where they were standing. “I said I wanted his arms, legs, and guts if he had any. Can you believe I said that to my own son?”
Scott frowned. He’d had a hard time with many of the things said that day. “We can discuss that later. What was said next.”
“Let’s say I come up with these arms, legs, and guts you’re talking about,” Scott spoke the words Johnny had that day. “What do you come up with.”
“One third,” Murdoch repeated his offer.
“I said, ‘Everything you see out there – One hundred thousand acres, the cattle and horses’.”
“He said, ‘You wouldn’t put that in writing?’ or something to that effect.”
“Yes, and I handed him the agreement. ‘Equal shares to each of us, but I call the tune’.”
“And Johnny said, ‘You didn’t sign it’.”
Murdoch closed his eyes, trying to remember what he’d said. “I remember I said, ‘Nothing for nothing. You get your share of this ranch when you prove to me you’re man enough to hold it.”
Scott took a step forward. “I remember now. He asked, ‘When’s that?’ and you said….”
Murdoch closed his eyes, all the emotions of the day flooding back on him. “I said, ‘When you get the man who put the bullet in my back.’ And he said….”
“That’s the one.”
“Johnny said ‘you were asking a lot,’ and you ….”
“I said, ‘take it or leave it.’ Then the fire bell rang.”
“Murdoch, who were you speaking to when you said, ‘You get your share of the ranch when you get the man who put the bullet in my back’?”
Murdoch frowned. “I was talking to Johnny.”
“Don’t you see the bargain he was talking about was between you and him?”
“What of it?”
Scott sighed, “What was Johnny supposed to have done to earn his share of the ranch.”
“Fight for the ranch…”
“No. He was to get Pardee.”
“Yes, and Pardee’s dead.”
“But Johnny didn’t shoot Pardee. I did.”
“That’s ridiculous. He knows I didn’t mean it was his responsibility alone.”
“I’m afraid he doesn’t know that. The next morning, he came to my room and said he considered taking on Pardee as a one-man deal. It was him and him alone you’d made the bargain with. I have a feeling Johnny doesn’t believe he’s lived up to his end of the deal he made with you. As such, he not entitled to a share of the ranch.”
“Then why did he tell me he planned to live up to his end?”
“Think about it. In his mind, if he didn’t earn his share, his end of the bargain would be to leave empty-handed.”
“Leave? No! He can’t believe that.”
“I’m afraid he does.”
Murdoch turned. “I have to go up and talk to him.”
“I’m coming with you.”
Johnny hurried back to his room.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, he put his head in his hands. He took a deep breath, trying to release the tightness in his chest. The old man wanted to talk about the partnership agreement, an agreement Johnny knew he couldn’t sign. He hadn’t earned his share of the place. He wished to God he had, but it hadn’t happened and he didn’t belong here.
Raising his head, Johnny knew what he had to do. He wasn’t at full strength yet but thought he was strong enough to ride.
Standing, Johnny walked across the room and hefted his saddlebags. The weight told him someone had unpacked them. Going to the chest of drawers, he opened the top drawer. His fighting gun and two boxes of ammunition were the only things in the drawer. Pulling open the next drawer, he found his only spare shirt and two pair of freshly mended socks.
The sight of the socks put a smile on his face. He could get used to someone taking care of him, mending his clothes and feeding him three times a day. Another thing he could get used to was having someone fuss over him, at least a little. That’s what he always imagined when he thought of having a home and family.
Pounding feet could be heard coming up the staircase and down the hall. Before Johnny could hide the saddlebags, his bedroom door flew open.
“Going somewhere, John?” Murdoch edged Scott out as they came through the door.
Johnny looked at his saddlebags and then back to Murdoch and Scott. There was no use hiding it.
“Thought I’d take off,” he replied as he continued to stuff his few belongings into the bags.
“Just take off. Were you going to say goodbye, or was I just going to find you gone? It almost killed me sixteen years ago when I walked into this room and found it was empty.” Murdoch stormed across the room, coming face to face with Johnny. “By God, you’re not going to put me through that again.” Then calming down, Murdoch said, “I thought we had an agreement. You said you were going to live up to your end of the bargain.”
“I am living up to it.”
“How, by running away?”
“Not running. Riding away, the way I promised.”
“You promised to stay and become a partner. We had a bargain.”
“I didn’t…,” Johnny took a shuddered breath, “I didn’t live up to my end of the bargain. I didn’t get Pardee. You said…”
Murdoch looked at Scott, who gave him a slight nod and a look that said, ‘I told you so.’
“John, you more than lived up to the bargain. I know what I said that day, but what I meant ….”
“You meant for me to kill Pardee. You were looking at me. You were talking to me. Scott’s the one who….”
“My God, Son, how do I make you understand?” Murdoch turned away.
Johnny picked up his saddlebag and headed for the door, grabbing his rifle as he went. He was in the hall and down the stairs before Murdoch and Scott could catch up with him.
Once in the Great Room, Murdoch grabbed Johnny’s arm and spun him around. “I’m not letting you do this.”
“Don’t…,” Johnny hissed. “How are you planning on keeping me here? You gonna to tie me down, cause that’s what it’ll take.”
Murdoch braced himself for a battle he couldn’t afford to lose. “If I have to.”
Johnny huffed a laugh. “That’ll be the day.”
“Johnny, sit down.” Scott started toward his brother.
“No, stay there, Scott.”
“John, we need to talk.”
“There ain’t nothing to talk about. We had a deal. I didn’t hold up my end. It’s over.”
“You did hold up your end of the deal. You gave me everything I asked for and more. You fought and bled for this land.”
Murdoch could see he was getting nowhere.
“Don’t you understand? This,” Murdoch waved his hand toward the arched window, “all of this was already yours. There was never anything to earn. There was no bargain.”
“I don’t understand.” Johnny slumped into the nearest chair. “All the things you said that first day.”
“The things said that day were the unthinking words of a man facing his two grown sons for the first time. I’d rehearsed for hours what I was going to say to each of you.
“Teresa went to pick up just Scott. I wasn’t expecting to meet you both at the same time. When you walked through the door, I was at a loss. Then you were so angry with me. I didn’t know what to say, so everything came out wrong. I wanted…I needed your help, but more importantly, I needed you.” Murdoch glanced at Scott, almost afraid to take his eyes off Johnny. “Both of you.”
“Johnny, you didn’t have to kill Pardee to earn your share of the ranch. It’s been yours since the day you were born.”
Murdoch turned to his oldest son. “It’s been yours too, Scott.” Then, looking between his sons, he said, “You don’t know how many times I’ve looked out that window and imagined the three of us riding together across the range or standing shoulder to shoulder, equal partners.”
Johnny stood and turned away, taking a few steps to distance himself from his family. They had no idea what they were getting themselves into. How could he explain it to them?
“It’ll never work. The gunhawks who showed up here last night…”
“Would have come whether you were here or not. Think about what would have happened if you hadn’t been here. You made the difference between life and death for this family. Don’t you see, we need you as much as you need us.”
Scott could see they were losing him. With every step and breath Johnny took he was getting further away from them. He had to say something.
“Johnny, please give it time. We can make it work.”
“You believe that, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do.”
Johnny turned to Murdoch. “What about you, old man. Do you believe it’ll work? Can you live with having Johnny Madrid under your roof?”
“Madrid?” Murdoch slowly shook his head. “No, not Madrid, but I can see it working for Johnny Lancer. Once you leave Madrid behind, people will forget.”
Johnny laughed. “No, they won’t. Your friends aren’t gonna forget. They’ll never let you forget. I’m branded a killer, a brand as deep as the one you put on those cows of yours. Every day you’ll have to look at me and all you’ll see is the blood. It’s never gonna work. Never.”
Johnny took a breath. His chest hurt from the pain of his own words.
“Then, by God, we’ll make it work!” Murdoch declared. “I lost my sons once; I’ll not lose them again. I’ll not lose either of you again.”
Johnny lowered his head and closed his eyes. His father had said all the right words. All he had to do was accept them, and he’d have a home and family. But then nothing good had ever come his way. This was too good to last and he knew it. Still….
“I heard what your rancher friends said. They’re not gonna like me staying here.” Johnny stood up. “Hell, no one’s gonna let me stay here in peace. I’m going to be nothing but trouble to you, old man.”
“Then we face it together, the three of us.” Turning to face Scott. “Right, Son?”
“Right.” Scott took a few steps forward. “Johnny, you, Murdoch, and me. We can be a family. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy or happen overnight. Murdoch was right about that. We’re strangers to each other, but I’m willing to try if you are.”
Johnny raised his head and looked into the face of his father. For the first time, he saw a glimmer of hope that his life could be different.
“You’re sure you want me here?”
“Yes. I’ve always wanted you. Lancer is your home.”
Johnny walked to the window behind Murdoch’s desk much the same way he did that first day. The sun was just peeking over the mountain peaks. He looked out on the land; the empire being offered him. It was beautiful. So beautiful, it took his breath away. Turning to face Murdoch, Johnny looked into his father’s eyes.
“You said we didn’t have a bargain before.”
“Can we make one now?”
Murdoch cocked his head slightly and hesitantly asked, “What kind of bargain?”
“That you’ll always level with me. If I stay, I have to know you really want me here. If you change your mind …”
“I’ll not change my mind.”
“Don’t say that. Scott’s right; it won’t be easy. The ranchers in the area aren’t gonna take kindly to me being here. Those men you think are your friends are gonna show their true colors. They’re gonna turn on you just as sure as that sun out there is rising.
“There’s gonna come a time when it’ll be too much. The time will come when you’ll have to decide between the ranch and me, and I don’t mean just the Lancer part of me. I’ll always be Madrid. You can’t have one without the other.
“When the day comes, that’s when you’ve got to level with me and tell me….,” Johnny’s breath hitched. “That’s when you’ve gotta keep your word and tell me it’s time to move on. Do we have a deal?”
Scott was grinning when he walked across the room and put an arm around his brother’s shoulder.
“Just look at it this way, Murdoch. With Johnny here, it will never be boring.”
“Heaven help us, I know that’s the truth,” Murdoch said with a smile. “John, we’ll do it any way you want because I’m never letting you leave again.”
Johnny paused, looking at the two men that shared his blood. He wanted this more than anything he’d ever wanted in his life.
“I guess we can give it a try. I’ll stick around for a couple of months and see how it works out. I can’t make no promises past that.”
“Just a couple of months?” Scott asked.
“Haven’t ever stayed in one spot longer than two months unless I had a bullet in me. Like I said, it’s all I can promise. If things work out and you still want me, we’ll go from there.”
“And as I said, we’ll do it your way,” Murdoch replied, holding his breath.
“Well, I guess we got us a bargain then.” Johnny extended his hand. “I hope you don’t regret it.”
Murdoch looked at Johnny’s hand and then grasped it with both of his.
With Murdoch squeezing his hand and Scott’s arm wrapped around his shoulder, Johnny felt it might actually work. It was going to take time to get the hang of this family thing, but he was willing to give it a try as long as they would.
Looking at his father and brother, Johnny knew they didn’t understand and never would. No matter what Murdoch said, he realized when the time came, he’d have to be the one to make the decision – for his sake and the sake of his family. He’d be the one to make sure the bargain was fulfilled.
No one noticed Teresa standing in the shadows just inside the Dining Room. With tears in her eyes, she looked at the three men. One of them she’d known her whole life and loved like a father. The other two she was only just learning to know and trust and, yes, maybe love. For the first time since the boys came home, she felt as if they had a chance at being a family…a real family.
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