Word Count 78,700
My deepest gratitude to my sister, Jane, for being my editor. Every suggestion helped make the story better. She pushed me to find clarity and authenticity in my telling of this story. Thank you, Jane, truly.
Many thanks to my friend, Michol, my first, objective, non-fan reader. Her feedback and encouragement kept me writing.
And the readers who followed my story on Lancer FanFiction Facebook Page and Lancer Writers forum. I am eternally grateful for the feedback and support I received from the generous people on those sites.
Johnny Lancer felt a sense of relief as he and his brother Scott stepped out of the blazing San Francisco sun into the welcoming coolness of the hotel lobby. It would feel good to get cleaned up and relax with a drink after the grueling trip with his brother and father. A trip he would have preferred to miss.
The plaque on the building indicated it was The Essex Hotel, Ian and Jennifer McBride, Proprietors. This was the Lancers’ first visit to this establishment. The manager at The Palace, their preferred hotel, had recommended The Essex when they informed Scott their rooms were all booked for the California Cattle Growers Association meeting. They would be attending the weekend long meeting with their father Murdoch. It had been a disappointment to Murdoch that they wouldn’t be staying in his favorite hotel. But Johnny’s disappointment was that he had to make the trip at all. He disliked cities, only less than he disliked attending boring meetings. He would much rather be riding the range, coaxing wayward cattle back to the herd.
It had taken the Lancers nearly two days to make the trip from the Lancer ranch in the San Joaquin Valley to San Francisco. The easiest part of the trip had been the train ride from Stockton to Oakland, but the brothers were bored and restless as they disembarked from the train and walked to the ferry that would carry them across the bay to the city. It had been a hot, cramped ride from Stockton.
Johnny, the younger of the two, made a great show of stretching his body, arms flailing, “I feel like I’ve been in a box for two days,” he said. He not so accidentally slapped his brother in the chest.
Scott responded with an elbow jab to Johnny’s ribs. He always chastised himself when he succumbed to Johnny’s antics, as he liked to think of himself as the wiser, more mature brother, being three years older. But when he thought about how Johnny’s playfulness was probably an attempt to make up for their lost time together, Scott couldn’t resist, even if Johnny’s behavior bordered on annoyance.
Johnny continued with his complaints. “Feels good to be out of that train, but it sure is hot! I thought it was supposed to be cooler by the ocean. Whose bright idea was it to have this meeting in August?”
“Johnny, you never miss an opportunity to shut up, do you?” Scott asked. He recalled their father telling him he had chaired the planning committee that decided the time and place of the annual meeting. He was surprised when Murdoch didn’t respond to Johnny’s complaint.
Once on the ferry, seated next to their father on a bench facing the bow of the boat, the brothers resumed their bantering in earnest. Johnny nagged at Scott for waiting too late to make reservations, so they missed out on staying at The Palace, to which Scott replied, “If you don’t like the way I do it, next time do it yourself, little brother.” The ‘little brother’ usually came out when Scott was teasing him or was particularly perturbed with him, like now. He liked to stress the ‘little’ descriptor in the nickname.
As they crossed the water at an interminable speed, Johnny suddenly fell quiet. After a few minutes passed, he said, “When is this boat ride going to be over? I’m not feeling so good.” Johnny had an aversion to traveling by boat. He hated his propensity for seasickness. It was a curse he had never been able to conquer.
Scott growled, “Well, if you’re going to be sick, please get away from me before you empty your stomach on my boots.”
Murdoch looked at his sons, and in an unusually calm voice said, “If you boys don’t be quiet and quit acting like five year olds, I’m going to throw both of you overboard.” The brothers exchanged a look, nodding in agreement that it was probably no idle threat.
Johnny rose and walked carefully to the rail. Better safe than sorry with how his stomach was feeling. Scott, feeling a twinge of sympathy for his brother, joined him at the rail, placing a comforting and protective hand on his back. Murdoch smiled as he went back to admiring the spectacular views from the San Francisco Bay.
To Johnny’s relief, they finally arrived at the pier. He had made it across the water without getting sick, but his stomach was still churning. As they walked across the plank and were once again on terra firma, Johnny considered kneeling to kiss the ground, but he quickly surmised that would give his brother a ripe opportunity to kick him while he was down. So he slowly followed his brother and father to the hired carriage that would take them to the hotel.
Scott waited for Johnny to catch up, then handed him a small bundle wrapped in a bandana.
“Compliments of Teresa. Says it will help calm your stomach. Eat it now.”
Johnny looked at his brother incredulously, “Are you kidding me, Scott? I still feel like puking!”
Scott explained, “It’s salted bread. When have you ever known Teresa to give you something that would hurt you?”
The seemingly endless cups of willow bark tea whenever he was sick or wounded came to Johnny’s mind, but he kept that to himself.
As though reading his mind, Scott said, with a grin, “She couldn’t send your favorite tea, but said this would be the next best thing.”
Johnny took the bundle, unwrapped it, and took a small bite. It had a slight spiciness to it, mixed with a hint of sweetness. It reminded him of bread Teresa made at Christmas last year. After a few minutes, when it hadn’t come back up, he took some more, sending a silent thank you, to Teresa. He was touched by his sister’s thoughtfulness.
Their bags had been deposited in the back of the carriage and Murdoch and Scott climbed up to the front bench. Johnny, feeling remarkably revived, said, “How come Scott always gets to sit . . .” His voice trailed off as Murdoch sent him a stern look. He pulled himself up to the rear seat, propped his feet on the rail running under the front bench, slouched in his seat, crossed his arms over his chest, and lowered his hat over his eyes. To himself he muttered, “Don’t they know that sitting in the back seat is about the same as riding in a boat?” He took another bite of Teresa’s bread.
As they alit from the carriage in front of the hotel, a fellow rancher and friend approached Murdoch and, with a slap on his back, declared, “I see ya made it, ya big Scot! Let’s go get a drink!” Murdoch turned to his sons, “Get us checked into the hotel. I’ll catch up with you later,” leaving Scott and Johnny to pay the carriage driver.
The brothers, now laden with three sets of saddlebags, plus Murdoch’s case of documents for the meeting, trudged into the hotel lobby. The lobby was well appointed, with comfortable chairs scattered around a large fireplace to the left. The registration counter was to the right, the stairway was directly ahead. A sign on a door to the left of the desk said ‘Office’. The dim lights made the place feel cool and restful. It felt more like entering someone’s home than a hotel.
The coolness, as well as the ambiance, was welcoming, but did nothing to lighten the sour moods the brothers had been carrying since leaving the train. They both had lost their sense of humor many miles back, no doubt around the time they had to relinquish their horses for other means of conveyance.
Stepping further into the lobby, Johnny noticed the entrance to the restaurant and bar just to the left of the fireplace. “Hey, Scott, why don’t you get us registered, then meet me at the bar for a drink?”
Scott grabbed Johnny by the arm. “Oh, no you don’t, brother. We’re in this together, remember? We agreed, if we have to endure this weekend, we’d do it together.”
Johnny relented, tossed the saddlebags on a table in the lobby, and sauntered up to the registration desk beside Scott.
A young woman introduced herself, “Hello, my name is Kate Washington. How may I help you?”
Scott retrieved a telegram from his wallet and handed it across the counter. “Hello, miss. I’m Scott Lancer, this is my brother Johnny. We have a reservation for three rooms,” he said.
She reviewed the telegram and compared it to the registration book. “Yes, Mr. Lancer, we have your rooms ready for you. One single room with an extra large bed, and two single rooms on the same floor, across the hall from one another.”
Scott cleared his throat. “There must be some misunderstanding. The two regular rooms were to have had an adjoining door.”
Kate double checked the reservation. “I’m sorry, but I don’t see that as part of the request, sir.”
Scott was losing his patience. He was hot, tired, dirty, and hungry and he wanted to get to his room and relax. “Well, Miss Washington,” he said, “it was in the original telegram. Do you have it on record?”
Miss Washington stated, “No, sir, I don’t have it here.”
Johnny had been strumming his fingers on the counter. Scott took a deep breath and turned to his brother, and pleaded, “Would you please stop that?”
Johnny smiled, relaxing into the counter, “Come on, Scott, just take the rooms they have ready for us. We can survive a few days without rooms next to each other.”
“That’s not the point, Johnny!” Scott retorted. “The point is that they got it wrong!”
“Did they get it wrong Boston, or did you forget to ask for adjoining rooms?”
“No, I didn’t forget. I don’t forget details, like someone else I know,” he said, glaring at his brother. Scott silently acknowledged that Johnny had unwittingly hit the nail on the head of his real frustration: himself. He realized that the request for adjoining rooms probably was in the request he sent to The Palace, and he had failed to include it when he requested rooms at The Essex. His realization did nothing to assuage his irritation with his brother.
Johnny straightened himself slightly, placed a hand on his brother’s back, and with a mock sympathetic smile on his face said, “Wow, Boston, you’re really getting yourself in a pucker!”
Jenny McBride stood quietly in the doorway of the restaurant watching the scenario unfold. Jenny had become a good judge of character during her years as a hotel owner. She was intrigued by the men when they entered the lobby. They seemed an unlikely pair, but they appeared to have a familiarity that suggested a close relationship.
Jenny didn’t like to interfere when a member of the staff was handling a difficult situation. She preferred to have her staff learn by experience instead of being told what to do. But she could see that Kate had lost this battle. She knew it was time to intervene. She stepped behind the desk and instructed Kate to go help set up for dinner.
“Hello, gentlemen,” Jenny said, “My name is Jenny McBride and I am the owner of this hotel. How may I help you?”
Scott started to explain, but Johnny quickly stood up from his slouched position against the counter and subtly pushed Scott aside, just enough to signal he was taking charge. He ignored his now irate brother.
“I’m Johnny Lancer, ma’am, and this is my brother, Scott. It seems he may have forgotten to ask for adjoining rooms for us. Now, I would prefer to have a room next to my brother with a connecting door, but if that’s not possible, well, then,” he looked at Scott and shrugged, “I guess we’ll just have to make do.”
Jenny was momentarily stunned by this man’s expressions of understanding and capitulation. The sparkle of mischief in his beguiling blue eyes did not escape her. She suddenly realized she was staring at the two men, particularly the one who called himself Johnny, and he was staring back.
She cleared her throat and swallowed hard. “Gentlemen, I’d like to offer you an alternative. Kate was right, we do not have two adjoining rooms available. However, the suite on the third floor is available. It has a common living space and three bedrooms. I think you will be very comfortable there. You may have the suite for the duration of your stay at the rate of the single rooms.”
Suddenly, a booming voice came from behind Johnny and Scott. “If it’s all the same to you ma’am, I will take the room with the large bed that my son reserved for me. You may put these boys any place you see fit. Now, I would like my key please, so I can relax in my room before dinner.”
Johnny and Scott both looked startled. How much of their bantering had their father heard?
Jenny handed the room key to the tall man as he approached the counter. “It’s room 210, sir, just to the left, at the top of the stairs.”
Before heading to the stairs, the man turned to face the men she had been dealing with and said, “I’ll meet you boys in the dining room at 7:00. Please be on time.”
Scott and Johnny released a collective sigh as their father ascended the stairway. They noted he had collected his bags from the table where Johnny had tossed them.
Scott took advantage of the shift in the conversation to interject, “That was our father, Murdoch Lancer. I think he’s a bit tired from our journey. Mrs. McBride, my brother and I would be happy to accept your gracious offer, wouldn’t we, Johnny?”
Nodding his head like an obedient schoolboy, Johnny replied, smiling, “Yes. Yes we would. And thank you very much, ma’am.”
“Very well,” Jenny said. “I’m happy we were able to resolve this dilemma so amicably. Your suite is the only room on the third floor,” she said, as she handed the key to Johnny. “If there is anything else I can do to make your stay more comfortable, please let me know.”
Scott added, “There is one thing. Can you recommend a bathhouse in the area?”
Jenny smiled with pride, “Why yes, we have bathing facilities here in the hotel. The bathhouse is on the first floor just behind the kitchen. Shall I order two baths?”
Both men nodded in agreement as Scott replied, “Yes, please. Thank you very much.”
As the brothers walked to the stairs, Jenny could overhear their banter.
“Ya know, Boston, I think a good long soak will do ya good. You’re lookin’ a little green around the edges.”
Scott stopped briefly on the second step but decided to let Johnny’s latest jab rest. “Um, Johnny, aren’t you forgetting something?”
Johnny looked perplexed and replied, “What?”
By way of explanation, Scott briefly lifted his own saddlebags from his shoulder.
Johnny quickly glided down the stairs. With minimum strides he retrieved his bags from the table, and just as gracefully returned to Scott’s side. He stole a glance back at the registration desk and found Jenny watching him. Their eye contact was brief, but intense. With a beaming smile, he threw his arm around Scott’s shoulders and asked, “Ready, brother?”
Jenny watched them take several more steps and heard Johnny ask his brother, “So, Boston, do ya think Murdoch is ready to give us each a thousand bucks to go away?”
With a low laugh Scott replied, “I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.”
Jenny remained at the desk and having no new customers, she had time to contemplate what had just occurred.
The Lancer brothers most definitely were not her usual clientele. And how could they possibly be brothers? They looked nothing alike, in fact they appeared to be complete opposites in looks and demeanor. The only physical trait they had in common was the color of their eyes. She thought each was attractive in his own right. Despite the ongoing jostling between the two, there seemed to be an underlying affection between them.
And what was that flip her stomach did when she caught Johnny looking at her with that smile? And why was her heart racing? She had felt quite mesmerized by his steel blue eyes. She blushed slightly, recalling how he had caught her watching him. She needed to clear her head and think about something else. She wandered into the kitchen, hoping for some crisis to sort out or maybe some menu changes to approve. Anything to get the image of that exotic man out of her head. But she could not shake the feeling that her life had just made a seismic shift.
Johnny and Scott had been silent for some time. The bath attendant had explained that in the heat of August, tepid water would be more refreshing than hot water. Neither disagreed. Even if the water cooled, the chill would be welcome. Having washed off the dirt and tension of the day, Johnny felt like talking.
“Feeling better, Boston?”
“Yeah. Feels good to just sit here and soak. So what was that little show you put on at the desk earlier?” Scott asked.
“What little show?”
“The very bad imitation of your older brother, trying to sound all proper and civilized.”
Johnny laughed. “Just tryin’ to speed things up so we could get to a room.”
“More like trying to impress a pretty redhead,” Scott replied. “You seemed a bit ensorcelled from where I was standing.”
“A bit what? Speak English, Boston!”
“I don’t know about all that, but she sure is pretty, isn’t she? And look at the great room she gave us!”
“Yeah, she’s pretty, Johnny. I think she just wanted us out of her lobby.”
Johnny chuckled. “Yeah, you’re probably right. We did cause a bit of a ruckus.”
“Speak for yourself, brother! And just a reminder, according to the plaque out front, she’s a married woman.”
“Didn’t see a ring,” Johnny retorted.
Laughing at Johnny’s brazenness, Scott declared, “I’ll give you one thing, Johnny, life with you is never boring!”
“Well, I try. Sorry if I drove ya crazy today. You know I hate these meetings and I don’t feel right, all of us being gone at the same time. I think one of us should’ve stayed home.”
“And that someone should have been you?”
“You worry too much. Jelly and Cip can take care of things for a few days. Try to relax, Johnny. Think of this as a little vacation.”
“I don’t take vacations.”
“You always have to have the last word, don’t you?”
“Yep,” Johnny said, throwing his brother a mischievous grin.
Later, the brothers were with their father in the hotel dining room finishing their dinners. Johnny had kept an eye out for Jenny the entire evening. He was ruminating about the events of the day. He was trying to come to terms with his reaction to meeting Jenny McBride. She was a captivating woman. The moment she stepped behind the registration desk he felt something shift in him. What was it? Mere physical attraction? Maybe, but it felt more like a sense of recognition. It puzzled him. How could he recognize someone he’d never met? The feeling was unsettling, and it took a lot to unsettle Johnny Madrid. But the foremost question was, where was her husband?
Murdoch interrupted his thoughts by saying, “You’re unusually quiet tonight, Johnny. Something on your mind?”
“Naw, just tired, I guess,” Johnny responded. He avoided Scott’s eyes. As he and his brother had grown close over the past two years, Scott had developed an uncanny ability to read Johnny’s thoughts. He figured Scott knew exactly why he’d been less talkative than usual.
He looked up and smiled when he saw Jenny approaching their table. She moved with a sense of confidence that he found very alluring.
Jenny greeted them. “Good evening, gentlemen. I hope you enjoyed your dinners.”
Murdoch replied, “Yes, very much so. You have an excellent chef. My steak was cooked perfectly.”
Scott added, “That was the best seafood I’ve had since leaving Boston. The halibut was delicious. My compliments to the chef as well.”
Johnny smiled, but remained silent.
“Thank you. I will convey your compliments to Pierre. In the meantime, I’d like to buy you each an after dinner drink, as my apology for the confusion at registration. What can I get for you?”
Waving his hand, Murdoch said, “That’s very kind of you, but it’s not necessary. I believe my sons had more to do with the confusion than you or your staff did.”
Scott and Johnny exchanged looks, communicating their dismay that Murdoch was actually trying to talk her out of buying them drinks.
“But Mr. Lancer, I insist.”
“Well, in that case, I’ll have a Scotch, if you have it,” Scott stated, detouring any further protests from his father.
“I can offer you Oban. It’s my personal favorite.”
“The Oban will do nicely. My father will have the same,” Scott replied.
Finally she allowed herself to look at Johnny. She had felt his eyes on her since she entered the room. “And what can I get for you?”
Johnny widened his smile, “Tequila, please,” he replied.
She felt that flipping sensation in her stomach again. Feeling slightly unsteady, she took hold of the back of the empty chair in front of her. She swallowed hard, and said, “Excellent,” then headed for the bar.
A few minutes later she returned, carrying a tray of drinks. She approached Scott and Murdoch and placed their drinks on the table and said, “Two Obans.” They expressed their thanks. She walked around the table to Johnny and placed a small bowl of salt and a bowl of lime wedges near him, followed by his drink, a double shot of tequila. Her voice turned softer, more intimate, “And tequila for you, sir.”
The look of delight on Johnny’s face was all the thanks she needed. “Enjoy your drinks, gentlemen, and have a pleasant evening,” she said, before leaving the dining room.
“Very impressive,” Scott observed.
Murdoch laughed. “Well, it seems you boys made an impression on our hostess, and not an altogether bad one,” he said, taking a sip of his single malt scotch.
“Oh, I think it was only one of your sons who made an impression,” Scott added, as he watched his grinning brother enjoying his tequila. He agreed with Murdoch about Johnny’s unusual lack of dinner chatter. But Scott knew his brother and knew he was planning his next strategy for engaging Jenny in conversation, or more. But it seemed that Jenny had just checkmated him.
It was early the next morning when Johnny knocked on the door to Jenny McBride’s office. After a few moments the door opened, and Jenny stood before him. He had rehearsed what he wanted to say, but those words eluded him now. He was seeing up close just how beautiful she was. All business and style, but with an underlying restlessness. He was jolted out of his reverie when she spoke.
“Good morning, Mr. Lancer. Won’t you come in?”
“Sure,” he said, as he stepped into the office. “And please, call me Johnny. Mr. Lancer is my old man. Saves a lot of confusion,” he said with a smile.
Jenny closed the door behind him.
“Okay, Johnny, please call me Jenny. What can I do for you this morning?”
Johnny was holding his hat by the rim, turning it in circles. He shuffled his feet, then said almost shyly, “Just wanted to apologize for the little scene my brother and I caused yesterday. Sorry if we upset you or Miss Washington. And thanks for putting us up in the big room. Best sleep I’ve ever had in a hotel. The city sure does look pretty from up there.”
Jenny watched him as he got it all out, actually enjoying his display of contriteness. She guessed it didn’t come easy for him.
“Thank you, Johnny, but no apology is necessary. And I’m glad you were comfortable. Would you like some coffee?”
“Sure,” he said.
He followed her to a side table where there was a coffee service. While she poured their coffee, Johnny turned his attention to a framed picture on the credenza. He recognized the woman in the picture as Jenny. She was standing next to a man. They were standing in front of the hotel. He asked, “Is this a picture of you with your husband?”
Jenny glanced at the picture. “Yes, that’s my late husband, Ian. He died two years ago.”
Johnny saw the sadness in her eyes and almost regretted asking the question. “I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you. Let’s sit down and enjoy our coffee.” She handed him a cup and took one for herself. She sat on the couch in front of the fireplace and motioned for him to have a seat next to her.
“So tell me, Johnny, what brings you and your family to San Francisco?”
“We’re here for the California Cattle Growers Association meeting. I prefer to leave the meetings to Scott and Murdoch, but it’s part of the responsibility of owning a third of the ranch.”
“Where’s your ranch?”
Johnny hadn’t expected this degree of friendliness from her, but he had to admit he liked it. And he liked her. Very much.
“Lancer’s about fifty miles south of Stockton, in the San Joaquin Valley. Closest towns are Morro Coyo and Green River. I suppose you’ve never heard of them.”
“You’re right, I’m not familiar with the area.”
“Well, I’ve only lived there for a couple of years. Scott, too. It’s beautiful country there.”
“I’d like to see that part of the state one day. With this business, I don’t have much time to travel. Besides, I saw plenty of country just getting out here from Philadelphia. Too much in fact. My husband and I arrived here in ‘66.”
“So you came by wagon?” Johnny asked, leaning forward with interest.
“Yes, we followed the old 49er’s gold rush trail. We were told a lot of improvements had been made, but it was still an arduous journey. We had traveled with a wagon train of families coming west. They were headed for Oregon, but we turned south when we reached Idaho. From there we followed the gold miner’s route to California. We were on our own for that part of the trip.”
“That’s a lot of country you had to cross. Couldn’t have been easy.”
“The journey was challenging. I wouldn’t want to do it again.”
“I’ve heard stories about people coming West. Never understood what they meant about ‘seeing the Elephant’.”
Jenny smiled. “It’s a funny phrase, isn’t it? When Ian and I set out, we heard people mention the Elephant. We had no idea what they were talking about. We eventually came to understand it was a reference to the challenges of the adventure ahead.”
Johnny saw a mixture of regret and sadness in her eyes.
“Yeah, I’ve seen some places I wouldn’t want to see again. But I’m in a place now that I love, and going to this meeting is part of me keeping it, so I’d better be catching up with Murdoch and Scott, or Murdoch will send a posse out looking for me,” he said with a laugh, as he stood up. “Thank you for the coffee.” He returned his cup to the side table.
Jenny walked with him to the door. “It was nice talking with you, Johnny. I hope today’s meeting isn’t too dreadful for you. I’ve been to a few of those myself with the hotel association.” He turned to see a look of understanding, and possibly sympathy, on her face, and a beautiful smile. They both laughed.
Johnny gave her a warm smile, his eyes sparkling, “I sure did enjoy the tequila last night. Maybe I can buy you a drink before I have to leave.”
Jenny looked in his eyes and said, “I’d like that, Johnny. I’d like that very much.”
Jenny stood in the doorway of her office and watched as Johnny walked through the lobby to the front door. Well, it wasn’t exactly a walk. Was it a saunter, a stride, a swagger? Whatever it was, the movement of those long leather covered legs was mesmerizing. It was unsettling to feel so off balance just watching him move.
She shook her head to clear it and walked back to her desk. She picked up her pen, moved the inkwell closer to the ledger and resumed her work. Now, staring at the receipts, it was clear that her concentration had been broken. She sat back in the chair, abandoning the pen. She closed her eyes and replayed Johnny’s visit in her head. She couldn’t deny the strong attraction she felt the moment he appeared in her lobby the previous day. And again last night in the dining room, and yet again this morning. Emotions and feelings were surging through her body, sensations she hadn’t felt in a long time. Maybe she was ready to start again. Ian had been gone for two years. Perhaps that was long enough to be alone. There was something about this man that touched her deeply, despite his nonchalant attitude and mischievous behavior. He could be all wrong for her. Too unpredictable. Too dangerous. But Jenny had always believed that without an element of risk, a thing wasn’t worth doing.
Johnny stepped out onto the boardwalk and found Scott and Murdoch waiting. The clamor of morning traffic filled the air. Carriages, horses, and people crowded the streets.
“You’re late,” declared Murdoch, clicking his gold watch shut. With that, he started walking in the direction of the Palace Hotel. “We’ll get there quicker if we walk.” Johnny and Scott fell into matching strides behind their father.
It came as no surprise to Johnny that Murdoch was timing his arrival. The old man demanded punctuality. Hadn’t he already learned that lesson?
Scott interrupted Johnny’s thoughts with, “Where’d you get to? I thought we were going to get breakfast together.”
“Sorry, I had something I needed to do.”
“Did you eat anything?”
“I had some coffee,” he said, trying to hide a grin.
Scott glanced at Johnny and asked, “Your tardiness wouldn’t have anything to do with a certain Mrs. McBride, would it?”
Johnny waited a few moments before responding. “Maybe.”
“So is that where you had ‘some coffee’?” he asked, imitating his brother.
“Well, if you must know, I had coffee with Jenny this morning. And by the way, the Mr. McBride on that plaque back there? He died two years ago.”
After lunch at The Palace Hotel, Murdoch sent Johnny back to his room to retrieve some papers he needed for his afternoon meeting. Johnny was happy for the errand. The stifling heat and stuffiness of the meeting room that morning had put him in a slump. He needed to move. He took his time walking back to The Essex. Entering the lobby he did a quick scan of the room, and noted with disappointment that Jenny was not there.
He bounded up the steps to his father’s room and located the satchel he had asked for. As he descended the stairs, he saw Jenny behind the registration desk. She was having a discussion with a man standing opposite her. He heard her politely ask the man to leave. He stopped for a moment to observe, and when it was apparent the man was standing his ground, Johnny quietly stepped to within a couple of feet of the desk.
“I believe the lady asked you to leave,” he directed to the man. Johnny didn’t like to judge people by their appearances, but as he got a closer look at the guy, he knew he was trouble. He’d seen the look plenty of times before.
“Who the hell are you?” the man snorted at Johnny.
Moving a few inches closer, Johnny replied, “I’m nobody. Just don’t like seeing a man being disrespectful to a woman.”
“Well, this ain’t none of your business.”
“Maybe not, but I’m making it my business.”
Eyeing Johnny’s holster, the man barbed, “What are ya, some kinda gunfighter? I seen men wearin’ their rig like that. I betcha think you can take me, don’t cha, boy?”
“No thinkin’ about it. I know I can. And you really don’t wanna be at the other end of it. I suggest you take yourself right out those doors,” Johnny said, pointing to the entrance.
The two men locked eyes for several moments. Finally, the man turned and walked toward the door. Before leaving, he shot an angry look back at Johnny and said, “This ain’t over, fella. I’ll be seein’ you again.” Then he was gone.
Johnny stepped up to the counter. “You okay, Jenny?”
“Yes, I’m fine. Thank you, Johnny, but you really didn’t need to do that. I could have handled him.”
“What, with that pistol you’ve got hidden under there?” Out of the corner of his eye he’d seen Jenny reach for something under the counter. He assumed it was a gun.
“If I had to, yes.”
With a laugh Johnny replied, “Well, if I’d known that, I would have just kept walking!” He studied her for a moment, then said with a serious tone, “I know his kind. He’ll be back. He ain’t happy with losing the first round. I figure about the time he’s full of the cheap whiskey he drinks, say a couple hours after dinnertime, he’ll come staggering in here looking for a fight. Looking for me. And I’ll be here waiting for him.”
“But, Johnny, if you’re not here, he’ll have no one to fight,” Jenny stated.
“His kind don’t back down. If I’m not here he’ll just wait ’til I am. You need to trust me on this, Jenny. I’m gonna tell Scott and Murdoch we’re eating here again tonight.” With a smile he continued, “They won’t mind, they like the food and the service here. Murdoch even said he’s gonna stay here from now on when he comes to San Francisco. Well, I need to get these papers to him, then I’ll be back.”
“That’s not necessary. We’ll be fine. Go enjoy the afternoon in the city.”
“Not that keen on cities. Besides, the scenery here’s a whole lot prettier,” he said, a smile filling his face.
Later that evening the Lancer men had finished their dinners and were having drinks at the bar. The conversation was light and it was clear they were enjoying each other’s company. Jenny had purposefully kept herself busy all evening. She had to admit to herself that she felt nervous and couldn’t shake the feeling of impending doom. While the men were still eating, she had stepped behind the bar to see if the bartender needed anything. One look at the Lancer table and she found Johnny looking at her with an unreadable expression on his face. Just the slightest upturn of his mouth sent a surge of heat through her. Why was this man affecting her so? She felt an almost unnatural pull to him, a rush of feeling she had difficulty containing.
She stepped away from the bar and returned to the lobby. She recalled how Johnny had returned from his errand as promised and had planted himself in one of the lobby chairs for the rest of the afternoon. He had moved only to join his family for dinner. They had exchanged no words when he returned, just a slight nod of the head to her from Johnny as he took the seat facing the door. His presence had initially made her uneasy, but as the afternoon wore on, she relaxed. It had been a long time since anyone had been concerned for her safety.
Jenny was pulled out of her reverie by a commotion at the door. Just as Johnny had predicted, the angry man was back. He filled the place with his voice, “Okay, boy, where are you hidin’? I’m back for yer hide!”
From the restaurant doorway, Johnny said, “No need to shout. I’m right here.”
The man reeled on his feet to face Johnny. “You ready to dance, boy?”
Scott, standing behind Johnny, decided to offer his hand at de-escalating the situation. He walked over to the irate man and placed his hand on his shoulder.
“Now, I don’t know what your beef is with this guy, but you seem a bit unsteady and in no shape to fight anyone,” Scott said.
The man pushed Scott away. “Ain’t none of your concern, mister.”
Scott softly mumbled to himself, “Well, that may not be entirely true.”
“Now, you,” the man said, pointing at Johnny, “you are my concern.”
“Look fella, I got no reason to fight you. Why don’t you just take it easy?”
“What’s your name, boy?”
“Well, Mr. Johnny Lancer, I’m callin’ you out!”
Johnny stood still for a minute, then blew a puff of air out through his lips. Resigning himself to the inevitable, he asked, “Fists or guns?”
The man looked at Johnny’s gun. “Guns,” he stated.
Johnny heard soft murmurs of dread coming from Scott and Murdoch.
“Look buddy, there ain’t no reason for anybody to die tonight. Why don’t we both settle down and I’ll buy ya a drink?” Johnny asked.
The man laughed and retorted, “Only one man gonna die tonight mister, and that’s you.”
“You sure about that?” Johnny asked, as he let his right hand hover above his gun’s grip.
“So let’s get this dance started. Meet ya outside,” the man said, as he staggered out the front door.
Murdoch placed a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “You don’t have to do this, son.”
Taking a deep breath, Johnny stated factually, “Yeah I do, Murdoch.” He took the few steps to the door.
Stepping out into the warm night air, Johnny felt a cold shiver move down his spine. He spotted his opponent standing in the middle of the street. He stepped down from the boardwalk and walked several long strides away from him. He turned to face the man and said, “There’s still time to change your mind.”
“Nope. We’re gonna dance whether you want to or not.”
To the side, Johnny heard his brother whisper, “This poor bastard doesn’t have a clue. Or a prayer.”
“What’s your name?” Johnny asked the stranger.
“What’s it matter?”
“Well, I figure the undertaker will wanna know who he’s burying. And another thing you might wanna know. I haven’t always gone by the name Lancer. Not too long ago I went by Madrid. Johnny Madrid.” Johnny heard a collective gasp coming from the crowd that had gathered.
Denying his certain fate, the man laughed and said, “Don’t mean nothin’ to me. And my name’s A.J. Butler, if you gotta know.”
“I hope you’ve settled things with the Lord, Mr. A.J. Butler, ‘cause your time is running short.”
They both knew the talking was over. Johnny prepared himself and said, “Anytime you’re ready, Butler,” when the sudden pop of gunfire filled the air. Within seconds, Butler lay sprawled in the street. Mingled expressions of surprise and shock could be heard among the crowd. Someone walked up to the man, kicked his gun away from the body and then declared to anyone listening, “He’s dead.”
Johnny collapsed to his knees, his gun still in his hand.
Scott ran to his brother. “Johnny, are you okay?” he asked.
Around his rapid breathing, Johnny replied, “Just need a minute.” Johnny hadn’t killed anyone in a shoot-out in over three years. He felt gutted. He looked up at Scott with dread in his eyes and asked, “He did draw first, right?”
“Yes, Johnny, he drew first. It was a fair fight. Let’s get you inside,” Scott replied. He helped his brother to his feet.
Jenny watched with a mixture of horror and fascination as the spectacle unfolded. It all happened so quickly. She didn’t see Johnny draw his gun. For a moment she thought the dead man had just fainted. But when she saw the blood flowing from his chest, she understood. She saw Johnny fall to his knees. He looked like a tortured man, kneeling there in the street.
She looked up at Murdoch, “Is he okay?”
“Yes, he’ll be fine. Scott knows what to do.” Murdoch turned to the onlookers and in his bellowing tenor declared, “The show’s over folks, just move along now.” As the crowd started to disperse, he took Jenny’s arm and said, “Let’s step inside. Scott and Johnny will be in soon.”
As they stepped into the dimness of the lobby, Jenny asked, “So you’ve been through this before?” She was trying not to show how shaken she was.
“Not this exactly. I’ve seen Johnny kill men in self defense, but I’ve never seen him called out like that. I thought those days were over for him. And the damned fool didn’t even know who he was up against.”
“So he really is Johnny Madrid?” Jenny asked.
“I take it you’ve heard the name.”
“I’ve heard some of the young Mexicans on the staff talking about a famous gunfighter by that name. Seems he’s a bit of a hero to them.”
“He doesn’t talk a lot about those days, but I believe he was notorious for helping people in need.”
She turned to the door and saw Scott and Johnny entering the lobby. Johnny said, “I think I’ll sit here for a few minutes.”
Jenny stepped forward, “Come to my office. I’m sure the police will be arriving soon.”
“Thanks,” Johnny replied.
Jenny led the Lancer men to the office. “Help yourselves to drinks,” Jenny offered, as she turned to go back to the lobby.
“I could use a drink, I’m feeling a bit shaky,” Johnny said.
“It’s the adrenaline. It should stop in a few minutes,” Scott said in a reassuring voice. Johnny settled on the couch as Scott handed him a drink.
Scott looked down at his brother, and with a shake of his head said, “Well, Johnny, it seems everybody wants a piece of you, no matter what name you go by.”
“Yeah, that’s just what I need, Scott.”
The next morning Jenny found herself pacing in her office. It had been well into the night when she finally made it to bed. Someone had contacted the police and they arrived shortly after the event to investigate. They took statements from all of the available witnesses and, of course, talked with Johnny at length. The lobby had been a hub of activity until well after midnight. Deciding that the witness accounts of what happened all matched Johnny’s story of self defense, the police allowed him to return to his room.
Now it was approaching 8:00 in the morning and she had seen no sign of Johnny. She was beginning to worry. She needed to see for herself that he was okay. Then, just as that thought rested in her mind, there was a knock at the door. She opened it and saw Johnny standing there, his hat in his hand, looking as fit and healthy as he had the previous morning. Failing to hide her genuine happiness at seeing him, she managed to say, “Johnny, please come in. I’m so happy to see you looking so well this morning.”
“I must have looked pretty bad last night,” he said.
“You did look a bit shaken up.”
“It’s never an easy thing to kill a man, even when he’s asking for it. Wish it hadn’t happened in front of your place. Can’t help but feel kind of responsible for it.”
She dismissed his self-incrimination and asked, “Have you had breakfast?”
“No, thought I’d grab something later. I wanted to see you first thing.”
Her heart warmed. “Well that’s very thoughtful of you, Johnny, but a man has to eat. Come with me. We’re going to have breakfast.” Johnny happily followed her through the lobby and into the dining room. Once settled at a table, Jenny ordered their meals.
“Thanks for letting us use your office last night. It was better than being drilled by the police out in the lobby.
“I was happy to help.”
Their food arrived quickly. Johnny was impressed when he saw the plate of his favorite foods placed in front of him; a massive pile of scrambled eggs, several strips of bacon, and a basket overflowing with biscuits. The coffee was strong and hot.
“I didn’t realize you were famous,” Jenny said.
“Infamous is more like it.”
“I’ve heard the name Johnny Madrid from some of the young men on my staff. They seemed to think very highly of you.”
His eyes downcast, Johnny said, “I was Johnny Madrid. Part of me still is. I thought that part of my life was over when I went home to Lancer. But I guess it’s not always easy to escape the past.”
“I understand that. The past doesn’t disappear just because we want it to.”
Johnny nodded, then looked at her for a long moment. There it was again, that sense of recognition. An almost imperceptible smile passed over his lips, as he lowered his eyes in resignation. He looked up at her, and with a smile, said, “Yeah, it has a way of nudging you when you least expect it.”
When Johnny finished his meal he said, “I’m sorry I have to leave, but today’s meeting starts at 9:00. Thank you for breakfast. It was a nice way to start the day.” As he stood to leave, he asked, “Do you like tamales, Jenny? I know a great cantina that serves the best tamales north of Yuma. Can I pick you up at 6:30?”
Smiling, she said, “Yes, you may. But not in my office. My residence is just above the office on the second floor. Room 200.”
Johnny tossed his hair away from his face and tipped his head into his hat. He smiled and said, “See you at 6:30, Jenny. Room 200.” As he took his first step away from her, he hesitated a moment, turned, and kissed her, so lightly it could have been a feather passing over her lips. Just as quickly he was gone.
The knock on her door came at precisely 6:30. From the look on his face after she opened the door, she was sure she had made the right wardrobe choices. She wore a red brocade vest over a tailored white blouse. Her black cotton skirt was full length, with gentle folds flowing around her legs. She wore her mother’s single strand of pearls around her neck. A stylish pair of black, low heeled shoes completed the outfit. Her auburn hair cascaded around her shoulders and down her back.
Jenny took advantage of his brief silence to admire his ecru shirt, with delicate floral embroidery along the edges of the front tab and collar. Over it he was wearing a tan suede jacket. His hat had been left behind, but not the gunbelt. His raven hair, normally on the verge of being unruly, was neatly combed. She thought him the most beguiling, self assured man she had ever met. She felt her pulse quicken and her body temperature rise, just from the sight of him.
Johnny finally broke the silence, “You sure look pretty.” His smile was captivating.
“Thank you. You look very handsome yourself,” Jenny said. It was impossible not to smile back.
Johnny stepped close to her, his dark blue eyes meeting hers. “I’ve been looking forward to this all day,” he said.
“Me, too,” Jenny replied. “How was your meeting?”
“Not sure. I sorta had other things on my mind.”
“What things?” she asked.
“This, for one,” he said. He cupped her face in his hands, turned his head slightly and put his lips on hers. He moved slowly at first, savoring the discovery.
Jenny drank in his gentle touch on her skin, the tenderness of his kiss and the earthy scent of him. She parted her lips and returned his kiss. His lips were soft and warm as they drew her in. She put her arms around his neck. With her eyes closed, she lost awareness of everything around her, consumed in the pleasure of his mouth. All she knew was this moment, this man, this kiss. Her heart quickened, her breathing uneven. She could feel the kiss deepening in its intensity, Johnny holding her tighter and pressing his mouth harder against hers.
Suddenly he moved his lips away and just held her. He let out a deep sigh. They remained in their embrace for several moments, each listening to the other’s rapid breathing.
Johnny finally whispered in her ear, “I’m sorry, Jenny, I got a little carried away.”
“Please don’t apologize. It wasn’t just you,” she whispered back, her heart pounding. She wanted nothing more than to keep kissing him, but she knew she needed to keep her desire in check. A desire, long harbored deep in her soul, was so quickly awakened by a single kiss. With several more deep breaths, she felt more composed. She took a step back and she grazed her fingertips across her tingling lips, wanting to preserve the sensation.
With a forced lightness in her voice, she said, smiling, “I seem to recall you offering to feed me tonight. Shall we leave for dinner now?”
The August sun began its descent into the horizon as they made their way through the city to the restaurant. The walk was a quiet, leisurely one. As they neared their destination, a shopkeeper, standing in the doorway of his store, called out to Johnny, “Hola, Señor Lancer.” Johnny approached him and shook his hand. Others on the street nodded their heads and smiled as Johnny walked by.
“You seem very well known here,” Jenny observed.
“I’ve gotten to know some of the people here. I never come to San Francisco without a visit to Bella’s.”
“You’ll see,” he said, smiling. He took her by the hand and they crossed the street to the doorway of a cantina. A plaque placed beside the ornately carved oak door read Est. 1857 Carlos Valdez, Proprietor.
They stepped into a courtyard that was lit with low hanging lanterns. Magenta bougainvillea flowed over the adobe walls. Candlelight flickered on the small tables that were scattered around the area. Several couples were enjoying their dinners alfresco in the warm evening air. Johnny guided Jenny into the interior of the restaurant, a hand resting on the small of her back. Brightly colored murals depicting life in Mexico covered the walls. More candles and lanterns gave the place a warm, embracing glow. Beautiful blankets were draped over chairs or across tables.
Suddenly, a cry was heard from across the room, “Johnny, what a surprise to see you!” A small attractive woman with raven hair quickly approached them.
“Hola, Bella!” Johnny beamed, drawing her into an affectionate hug. He picked her up and twirled her around. They both laughed. He set her down and said, “I want you to meet a friend of mine. Bella, this is Jenny McBride.” He turned to Jenny and said, “Jenny, this is Bella Valdez, my friend and the owner of the cantina.”
Looking very pleased, Bella said, “Jenny, it is very good to meet you.”
“Thank you, Bella. The pleasure is mine,” Jenny said.
“Do you live in the city?” Bella asked. Her curiosity was piqued. Johnny had never brought a señorita to her restaurant. This woman must be special.
“Yes, I own The Essex Hotel on Market Street. I live there as well.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful! We are both businesswomen. We will be fast friends!” she said, with a twinkle in her eyes.
“Johnny, your table is free. Let me take you to it.” She led them to a table in a small, intimate alcove at the back of the dining room. The area was separated from the main room by a low wall with spindles running to the ceiling. Colorful beads hung between the spindles. She seated them, then said, “I will get some tortillas while you settle in.”
Bella knew from her many years in the restaurant business that too much tequila could destroy and break hearts. But just a little could help open one’s eyes and heart to the possibilities of life. Tonight she would treat Johnny and his guest to ‘just a little’ to help them see what she had already witnessed. She saw the change in Johnny the minute he walked in the door. And she was enchanted with Jenny. These were two souls who were just finding one another. Together they would begin a journey of discovery, awakening, and enlightenment. And if they allowed themselves, they would learn the meaning of true love. Bella was no oracle, but she did have an uncanny gift of knowing when two people were meant to be together. And she had never been as certain as she was tonight.
Jenny was mesmerized. “What an enchanting place! And Bella is wonderful! How did you find this place?”
“Well, on my first trip here on ranch business, I asked around the neighborhood where I could get good tamales. Everyone I asked said Bella’s. And yeah, Bella’s a real special person. She takes good care of me when I’m here.”
Bella arrived with a plate of tortillas and a bowl of salsa and drinks for them. Placing the bowls of salt and lime slices on the table, it was clear she was serving them tequila. Johnny’s eyes smiled as he glanced at Jenny, recalling her serving him tequila two nights ago. Jenny smiled back.
As she placed the drinks before them, Bella said, “My gift to you on a special night.”
Johnny touched her arm tenderly, “Gracias, Bella.” Jenny sensed a warm affection between them. Johnny proceeded to order their food, speaking to Bella in Spanish. Jenny was curious when she heard him mention Scott’s name. Normally she preferred to order her own food, but tonight she decided it was best to allow Johnny to order, as she was not familiar with Mexican cuisine.
Bella smiled and nodded her understanding of what Johnny had ordered and left the table.
After a toast of “Salud” from Johnny, they licked the salt from their hands, and drank the liquid in one shot. Johnny took a lime slice from the bowl and offered it to Jenny, placing it between her lips. He held it while she drew the juices into her mouth. Laughing at her reaction to the tartness, he took one for himself.
“That’s real good tequila,” Johnny said, running his tongue across his lips. “Tastes like what you gave me the other night.”
“Yes, I believe it is the same tequila I served you. It’s from the Herradura distillery in Jalisco.”
“I think it’s my new favorite,” Johnny said, in a low, soft voice. “I think Jalisco is just south of Tequila. I met some people from that area.”
“You’ve been there?”
“No, I never got that far south, not that I remember anyway. My mother probably took me places I don’t remember. I was pretty young my first few years in Mexico. The years I do recall were spent up around the border towns.”
“Where is your mother now?”
“She died a long time ago,” he said, his eyes downcast.
Johnny moved away from the topic by reaching for Jenny’s napkin and placing it across her lap, then taking a tortilla and placing one on Jenny’s plate, “Try one of these. Roll it up like this,” he demonstrated, “and dip it in the salsa.”
Jenny followed his instructions, then took a bite. She liked it, so she ate some more. After a few moments, she started to cough, and tears came to her eyes. “What on earth is that?” she asked, pointing to the salsa, barely able to speak.
“It’s Bella’s special chile salsa,” Johnny explained.
“It was mild at first,” Jenny said with another cough, “but now, my mouth is on fire!” She wiped her eyes with her napkin and coughed some more. But she was also laughing. So was Johnny. “Some water, please!” she cried.
“Water won’t help,” Johnny replied. He called for Bella. She poked her head around the partition and Johnny said, “Chocolate, por favor!”
One of Bella’s servers was there quickly with a small bowl of dark chocolate pieces. Johnny handed her the bowl. “Here, melt some of this in your mouth. It will stop the burning. I guess you’re not used to eating peppers,” he said with a mischievous grin. “Don’t worry, I ordered some food I think you’ll like. Some chicken with rice and beans. Things that Scott likes. He’s not too fond of peppers either.”
“Oh, thank goodness. I was afraid I was going to go home hungry!” Jenny teased.
“There’s a speck of chocolate, right here,” Johnny said, then leaned in closer and softly touched her lip with his finger, removing all traces of the chocolate. He licked the chocolate from his finger and said with a grin, “That sure is good chocolate.”
“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” Jenny said, grinning.
Bella reappeared with a tray laden with food.
“That’s all for us?” Jenny asked.
“Wanted to have plenty of things for you to taste,” Johnny said.
Jenny chose not to taste his tamales or the beans. She was quite happy with the mildly seasoned chicken and rice. In fact, both were delicious.
Bella served them apple empanadas and coffee for dessert. “A little sweetness to end the meal,” she said.
They finished their meal and were feeling satiated and relaxed. Neither made any move to leave the sanctuary of the cozy alcove.
“So, Jenny, if you don’t mind my asking, what kind of gun do you have under the counter?” Johnny asked. He’d been curious about it since he’d seen her reach for it the previous day.
“It’s a Derringer.”
“And you know how to shoot it?”
“Yes, I know how to shoot it. We may be in a city, but as we both saw yesterday, there are still people with bad intentions.”
Wanting to change the subject, Jenny ventured to solve her own curiosity.
“You said you’ve only lived with your father and brother for a couple of years. Why is that?”
“It’s a long story. And not a very pretty one.”
“I think we have time,” she reassured him.
“I’d been in a Mexican prison for several months for siding with the wrong side of a revolution. At least that’s how the Rurales saw it. They’d taken a wagon load of us prisoners out to a field and one by one were cutting us down. I was just a few minutes from being in front of their guns when a Pinkerton detective rode up like he was being chased by the devil himself. Said he was looking for a man named Madrid. Well, he sure got my attention in a hurry. He told me my old man wanted to pay me a thousand dollars for an hour of my time. I hated the man, but that kind of money is hard to pass up. Next thing I knew I was on a stolen horse hell bound for Morro Coyo. I met up with a stage coach about ten miles outside of town. Turns out I was sitting right next to my brother. Neither of us knew the other existed until we stepped out of that coach and Teresa had to introduce us. Teresa’s my sister. Well, not a blood sister, she’s my father’s ward. So here I am now with a family I never dreamed of having.”
“So, did Scott get the same offer from your father?”
“Yeah. The Pinkertons tracked him down in Boston. I started calling him Boston that first day. Said it kind of mean like at first, but now, well, now…”
“It’s said with affection,” she quickly said.
He looked up at her, seeing the understanding in her eyes, and simply said, “Yeah.”
“Murdoch wanted us both home to help drive off a group of land pirates that were trying to take Lancer land. That’s when he offered me and Scott each a third of the ranch.”
“You said you hated your father. Why?”
Johnny glanced at her, only to quickly divert his eyes.
“My mother told me he threw us out when I was about two years old. I found out that was a lie. She left Murdoch. Took off with some gambler with me in tow. Took me down to Mexico where we moved from town to town. Guess she lied to me ‘cause she wanted someone to help her carry the hate. And to keep me from ever seeing my father again.”
“That’s a big burden to put on a child. Your mother must have been a very unhappy woman,” Jenny said.
With a sad laugh, Johnny replied, “‘Yeah, I guess she was. We never stayed in one place very long. She was always looking for the man who could make her happy, but she never found him. I think she was unhappy and angry with the world. I’ll never understand it,” he sighed. “Well, she died when I was about ten. I was never sure how old I was. My mother never told me, never had a birthday party. After she died, I ran away from an orphanage. It wasn’t a good place. So I was on my own and had to take care of myself. I stole a gun and taught myself to shoot. I thought it was the only way I could survive. Blue eyed boys on their own don’t get treated so good down in those border towns.”
Johnny paused to breathe and consider just how much to tell her. What was it about this woman that made him want to tell her his life story? Maybe it was because he wanted to hear hers. He’d gone this far, why stop now?
As he continued, he troubled the beaded bracelet on his right wrist. “So I got good with a gun. Real good. By the time I was fifteen I was a hired gun with a reputation. A lot of men tried to take it from me and I have the scars to prove it. And that lasted until the Rurales picked me up and threw me in prison. I couldn’t tell you how many men I’ve killed, but I never killed a man who wasn’t trying to kill me. And I always tried to be on the right side of a range war or revolution. It’s not a job I went looking for, but it’s the one that kept me alive. Always felt like I lost a piece of my soul everytime I killed a man. Felt that way last night. It made me sick inside.”
He felt Jenny’s hand on his arm. “You’re right Johnny, it’s not a pretty story, but it’s your story. And I feel privileged that you would share it with me.”
Between stirring up memories and the tenderness of her voice and her touch, Johnny fought to control his emotions. He shook his head, trying to cast aside the pain. He finally looked in her eyes and said, “I’m sorry. I never meant to get this serious. Here we were having a nice dinner and I’ve gone and ruined it.”
“You’ve ruined nothing, Johnny. We’re getting to know each other. And the way we do that is by telling each other our stories.”
Johnny sat back in his chair. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Bella looking their way with a protective look on her face. He’d seen it many times; times when he sought refuge and comfort here, in the loving embrace of her arms and her cooking. During those visits she saw to it that no one disturbed him unless he wanted company, which he rarely did. Bella had learned that this was his refuge from the pressures of the ranch. The only other person he had brought here was Scott.
Having regained his composure, he leaned forward, with a look of genuine interest and said, “Tell me about Ian.”
She hadn’t expected that. What man wants to hear about a woman’s dead husband? Well, apparently this one did. She shifted a bit in the chair, and with her hands folded in her lap, said, “I’m not sure where to begin.”
“The beginning is usually a good place,” Johnny said, with a slight grin.
“Yes, I suppose it is. Well, Ian and I grew up together in Philadelphia. He was best friends with my brother, Scott, and my first husband, John.”
“Wait, you have a brother named Scott?” Johnny asked, surprised by the coincidence.
“Had,” Jenny clarified. A mask of sadness covered her face. “Ian, Scott and John all fought in the war. Ian was the only one to come home. Scott and John both died at the Battle of Cold Harbor in June ’64. They had joined the Union Army together in January of that year. John and I got married the month before they left. So my first marriage was nothing more than a honeymoon. And it wasn’t much of one at that. I was sixteen years old when he died.”
Jenny stopped for a moment. With eyes downcast, she continued. “Ian was a Lieutenant in the cavalry. He was shot in the leg in the same battle. He was medically discharged in September. We were just friends at first. But we both had lost the most important people in our lives. We took comfort in each other’s company, then eventually in each other’s arms. We were both so fed up with the politics and the war. After hearing Ian’s account of what happened at Cold Harbor, I hated Grant, I hated Meade, I hated Sheridan, and the whole lot of them, the masters of war. We got married in March ’65, then we packed a wagon and headed west. We weren’t so much running to something as much as we were running away from all of the pain and loss. It was a long journey, but we made it. We made a good life here. Then two years ago he died. I was devastated. To have come all that way, and to lose him so soon.”
She looked at Johnny, “They’re all gone now. And little Rachel, too. The only people in this world I have ever truly loved. The only family I have left is my father.”
Seeing the agony she was feeling, Johnny knew he should tell her to stop. But he needed to know. “Jenny, who was Rachel?”
She whispered, choking back the tears, “She was my daughter, from my first marriage. She died on the trip out here. She was only eight months old when she got croup. We did all we could for her, but it wasn’t enough. It nearly destroyed Ian and me. He loved her like she was his own child.” She could no longer hold back the tears.
Johnny pulled her close. “I’m so sorry, Jenny. I had no idea. I’m so sorry.” He held her until her tears stopped, but even then he shifted only slightly. He placed his hand tenderly on her left cheek, ran his fingers through the hair falling against her temple, and turned her face to his. He cupped her face in his hands, drew her in and kissed her so gently that her tears fell again.
After a few minutes she regained her composure. “Ian was very special to me and I miss him very much, but I realized I had to keep moving forward. Ian was practically raised in his father’s hotel in Philadelphia. The Essex was his dream and I couldn’t let it fail just because he was no longer here. So I threw myself into making it one of the top hotels in the city. We may not be the largest, but I’m proud of what we’ve built here.”
Her gaze still avoiding him, she sat back and sighed, “I’m sorry, I’ve talked too much. It’s been so long since I’ve had someone I could talk to. You’re a good listener, Johnny.” When she finally looked at him, she saw a mixture of interest, compassion, and understanding in his eyes. His eyes really were quite disarming.
He was quiet for a few moments, just looking at her. Caressing her hand, he said, “Jenny, I want to hear all of your stories.”
Jenny leaned into him and whispered, ”I’d like you to take me home now.”
He stood and helped her up from the table. He held her close, his arm around her waist as they walked toward the door. Johnny stopped briefly to give Bella a goodbye hug. “Gracias, Bella.”
Bella looked at him with love and tenderness in her eyes and said, “I am happy for you, Juanito.”
Johnny gave her a final embrace and whispered, “Te amo, Bella.”
Bella took Jenny’s hands into her own, “I hope to see you again soon.”
“Me too, Bella. Thank you for everything.”
Once out in the night air, the couple interlocked arms and walked until Johnny hailed a carriage to take them back to the hotel. The evening had turned cool. Wisps of fog clung to the ground and swirled around the globes of the lampposts. As they made their way through the city in the carriage, Jenny shivered.
“Here,” Johnny said, as he removed his jacket and wrapped it around her shoulders.
“Thank you.” She shifted so she could see his face. “I know things got a bit serious back there, but I want you to know I had a wonderful time. It was an enchanting evening. I could see that Bella and the restaurant are very special to you. You made me feel special by taking me there.”
Johnny smiled. “I’m glad you liked it.” He raised his hand and stroked her hair. “I’m not sorry things got so serious. I want to know all about you.” He pulled her close and whispered, “And I think you are special.” He lowered his face to hers and kissed her.
The carriage was slowing down and came to a stop in front of the hotel. Johnny said to the driver, “Go around the block. And drive slowly.”
He turned his attention back to Jenny. “Jenny, I want to tell you something. About when we met.”
“When I first saw you at the hotel, I felt like I recognized you. Which isn’t possible, because we’ve never met before. Seeing you behind the counter, well, it felt so familiar, like I’d been there before, with you. Sounds kind of crazy, doesn’t it?”
“No, Johnny, it doesn’t sound crazy.” His words emboldened her to tell him, “I had a similar feeling when we met. Not that I recognized you, but that . . . “
“I don’t know how to explain it.”
“Just tell me what you felt,” he said, softly.
It was dark in the carriage, but sitting so close to him, she was able to see his piercing eyes. The scent of sandalwood emanating from him was intoxicating. She swallowed and took a breath.
“Johnny, when I looked into your eyes that first day, I knew you were going to change my life.”
“That was your first thought about me?”
“Well, other than I thought you were the most handsome man I’d ever seen, yes. I guess it sounds as crazy as you recognizing me, but there it is.”
“Do you want your life to change, Jenny?” he asked.
“If it means having you in it, yes, I do,” she said.
A wide smile dominated his face. “I was hoping that would be your answer. In case you haven’t noticed, I like you very much.”
“Then kiss me again.”
He obliged, leaving no question about his desire for her. Everything around them dropped away, the chill in the air, the swirling mist, and the sound of horse hooves clomping on cobblestones. It was as if nothing else existed, just the two of them. In their trance-like state, neither noticed the slowing of the carriage.
“We’re here, sir,” the driver announced.
Johnny sighed deeply and touched his forehead to hers. They reluctantly moved out of their embrace. Johnny paid the driver and climbed down from the carriage, then helped Jenny down. As her feet touched the ground, she stumbled and fell into his arms.
“I’m afraid you’ve made me a bit off balance, Johnny. I could use a steadying arm.”
Johnny put his arm around her waist and they stepped up to the boardwalk. Jenny took a step toward the hotel entrance, but he held her back, pulled her into the shadow of an awning and kissed her again.
“Johnny, we have to go inside,” she whispered.
“Jenny, is that you?” came a man’s voice from behind them.
Startled, Jenny turned to see her night manager, Ben Reynolds, standing in front of the hotel.
“I heard a carriage, thought it might be you,” he said.
“Yes, Ben, what is it?” she said, sounding more impatient than she had intended.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but there’s been an incident.”
“An incident?” she asked, as she reluctantly took a few steps away from Johnny.
“Yes. The man who checked into room 205 today was found dead tonight by his wife. The police are here and they seem to think he was poisoned.”
“Ben, please give me a minute, then I’ll be right with you.” She turned back to Johnny and said, “I’m so sorry. There’s a situation I have to manage.”
“I heard. Let’s go in.” He stepped to the threshold and opened the door for her.
They walked to her office. “Seems my quiet little hotel has become a popular place for the police.”
Johnny gave her a sheepish smile, “At least it wasn’t me drawing their attention tonight.”
“Right,” she laughed, “I don’t know how long I’ll be. Will you wait here for me?”
“No, I better get out of your way,” Johnny said.
Jenny lowered her head, “I wanted this night to end differently.”
Johnny hugged her, and said, “It’s not the end, Jenny, it’s just the beginning. Now I’m going up to my room, and you’re going to take care of these people, and I will see you in the morning.”
“You’re making it very difficult for me, you know,” she said.
“Difficult how?” he asked.
“For me not to fall in love with you.” Little did he know, it was already too late. She knew she wanted this man above all others.
“I hope so,” he said, giving her a tender kiss. “Goodnight, Jenny.”
Jenny woke the next morning and looked at the clock, seeing it was a few minutes before eight. “Dammit,” she cursed. She overslept. It was well after two in the morning when she had collapsed into her bed and fallen immediately to sleep. She suddenly remembered that Johnny was leaving this morning. Please don’t let him leave before I see him! She rushed through her morning routine, abandoning most of it. As long as she was dressed, the rest didn’t matter. She bounded down the steps and out to the desk. Kate was there, processing a customer’s checkout. Jenny interrupted her, “Did the Lancers check out yet?”
She checked the book, and said, “Ben checked them out over an hour ago, just before he went home.”
Jenny sighed deeply, disappointment on her face.
Kate asked with concern, “Is everything all right, Mrs. McBride?”
“I hope so. Hand me the Oakland Ferry schedule, please.”
It seemed to take Kate an interminable amount of time to locate it. Jenny scanned it and saw that the ferry to the Oakland train station left at 7:30 and then again at 9:00. In her heart she knew they were on the 7:30 ferry. But what if they had missed it? They would still be at the pier. Within minutes, she was in a carriage and on her way to the ferry.
She arrived at the pier about thirty minutes later. The ferry would be leaving in fifteen minutes. She ran from the carriage to the pier, frantically looking for Murdoch, knowing he would be the easiest one to spot in a crowd. She saw no one of his stature and started to feel defeated. Her last chance was to take the ferry to the other side of the bay. She prayed for a train departure delay that would leave them waiting at the station.
The ferry ride was painfully slow. She stood at the rail, feeling the wind whip around her. It only deepened her sense of being adrift at sea. Her heart was aching to see his face and see the love and compassion she had seen in his eyes the previous night. That’s all she was asking.
The ferry finally reached the dock. Being a Sunday, the ferry was not crowded. She was quickly off the boat and she ran to the train station. As she got to the platform, she could see the train that had just departed, fading into the horizon. She went to the nearest bench and sat down, feeling the weight of her sadness. She wrapped her arms around herself in an attempt to hold herself together. “Johnny, I’m so sorry,” she said to the air. The wind off of the bay stung her wet face, only adding to her misery.
Johnny had been staring out the train window since leaving the Oakland Station. He was brooding and hadn’t spoken a word since boarding the train. Scott, sitting across from him, was giving him some breathing room. Murdoch, sensing his youngest son’s mood, had chosen to sit at the other end of the car.
Scott knew Johnny was upset, but he didn’t know why. Perhaps he was just worried about Jelly. They had left earlier than planned because Murdoch had received a telegram from Teresa telling him that Jelly was sick and to please come home. Scott suspected there was something more bothering his brother.
They would be in Stockton within the next half hour. Scott felt it was time to find out what was on Johnny’s mind. “So how was your date with Jenny last night? I didn’t hear you come in. It must have been late.”
Johnny glanced at his brother but didn’t respond right away, just shook his head; he didn’t know where to start. He sat back with a sigh and said with disappointment in his voice, “I couldn’t find her to say goodbye.”
“So I take it you did have a good time.”
Johnny nodded, “Yeah, we had a great time. Just wish I could have seen her before we left.”
“Sounds like you have some unfinished business.”
“Yeah, something like that. When we got back to the hotel, there was a crisis going on. Police thought a man had been murdered in his room, so she had to take care of that. So I went to bed. She was probably sleeping this morning and didn’t hear me knocking.”
“There was a murder at the hotel? Seriously? That must have happened after I went up to the room.”
“Yeah, they said his wife had just found him right before we got there. The police had just arrived. Close to ten o’clock, I guess.”
“So your night ended prematurely. Some things were left unsaid, or undone, I presume.” Scott didn’t tease, but he did try to lighten the mood. “Johnny, what’s going on, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I’m in love with her, Scott.” Johnny put up a hand, signaling his brother to hold his thoughts, “I know, I know, you’re gonna say I fall in love faster than anyone you ever met. Well, this time it’s different. Jenny’s really special. I’m going to ask her to marry me.”
Scott took his time responding. He had seen Johnny in several relationships that hadn’t survived the initial blush of love, or the girl made a choice other than Johnny, and he worried this might yet be another. But he sensed that Johnny was truly serious about this woman. “Does she know how you feel?” he asked.
“I think so. I think she feels the same. She’s probably wondering why I left without saying goodbye. I promised her I’d see her this morning.”
“Well, you did try, Johnny.”
“Sure, but she doesn’t know that.”
“Look, Murdoch and I can see to Jelly. Why don’t you take the next train back to the city when we get to Stockton?”
Shaking his head, Johnny said, “No, I need to see for myself that Jelly’s okay. If anything happened to him and I wasn’t there, well, it just wouldn’t be right.”
Scott knew Johnny and Jelly had a special friendship. It all traced back to Johnny meeting the orphaned children Jelly had taken in and cared for before he came to live with them at Lancer. The children were all living with adopted families now. Jelly had stayed on at the ranch as a handy man long after he had repaid a debt to Murdoch. He had become a part of the Lancer extended family. He understood why Johnny felt the need to go home.
“Well then, why don’t you send her a telegram from Stockton telling her why you had to leave early? I’m sure she’ll understand.”
Johnny smiled for the first time that day when he said to Scott, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
“Because you’re in love and you’re not thinking clearly,” Scott offered, smiling at his brother.
Johnny gave a self deprecating laugh and said, “Yeah, I am kind of pathetic, aren’t I?”
“Oh, maybe a little,” Scott replied, tapping Johnny’s leg with the toe of his boot.
“Thanks, Boston,” Johnny said, smiling back at his brother.
Monday dawned to a dark and rainy day. The weather matched Jenny’s mood. She was still upset with herself for sleeping so late the day before. There were things she wanted to say to Johnny before he left, and she had thrown away her chance. She grappled with understanding the powerful emotions she felt for this man she had only just met. Her mind told her it was irrational, but her gut told her he was the most important person she would ever meet in her life. She forced herself to go through the routines of the day, but her mind never engaged in the work. Memories of Saturday evening dominated her thoughts. She needed to talk with someone.
After lunch, Jenny donned her rain cloak and took a carriage to the cantina. Bella noted Jenny’s distress the minute she entered the restaurant.
“Jenny, I’m surprised to see you here. Is something wrong?”
“No, but I need someone to talk to.”
“Is this about Johnny?”
“Yes. We had a wonderful time Saturday night, but due to some things going on at the hotel, we didn’t get to say goodbye before he left. I can’t get him out of my mind.”
“Let’s sit down,” Bella said. After they were seated, Bella said, “Of course, I haven’t seen Johnny since you were here with him, but I am certain he is thinking about you, too. I can tell you what I saw that night. He is captivated by you, as I believe you are by him. I saw the connection between you when the two of you walked in the door Saturday night. Johnny looked so happy! It delighted me.”
Jenny smiled, hearing Bella’s words. “I don’t understand how I can miss someone I’ve only been with for a few hours. It seems strange, but I’ve felt lonely since he left. I wonder if it was all a dream, that I imagined it all,” Jenny said.
“The amount of time you spend with someone is not what is important,” Bella offered. “It’s what you do with that time, how you connect with another person. The time you spent together may have been brief, but it was precious. Enough for you to fall in love, perhaps?”
Jenny smiled, then tried to explain, “I’ve never met anyone like him. He makes me think of quicksilver, the way he moves through life. He has this beautiful, fluid grace about him. And he’s a very complex man.” Jenny paused to collect her thoughts. “Bella, I’ve been married twice. My first husband was killed in the war six months after we were married. I married his friend Ian ten months later. We left Philadelphia almost immediately and came west. He died two years ago. I loved both of my husbands, but I never felt the way I am feeling now. What I feel for Johnny is different. It feels so powerful. I feel like I have no control over what is happening.” She sighed and asked, “Oh, I’m not explaining this very well, am I?”
Bella touched her arm and said, “You’re doing just fine. How old were you when you first married?”
“I was sixteen when John and I got married, seventeen when I married Ian.”
“You were but a child then. It sounds like you married men you were familiar with, not necessarily in love with. They may be what you needed at the time. But you are a woman now, Jenny, and your needs have changed. You are ready for a different kind of love. One that will fulfill you in every way.” Her eyes twinkling, she said, “And I think you have met Johnny at exactly the right time.”
“But what if this was just a flirtation for him?”
Bella considered Jenny’s question for a few moments before responding. Finally, she shook her head and said, “What I witnessed the other night was not mere flirtation. There was much more going on between the two of you. And there is no need for you to feel lonely because Johnny didn’t leave you, he just isn’t here at the moment. But he is thinking about you. He will return to you.”
“How can you be so certain?” Jenny asked.
Bella replied, “How can you be so uncertain?”
Jenny fell silent, thinking about what Bella had said. With relief in her eyes she said, “Thank you, Bella. You’ve helped me clear away the doubt and uncertainty I’ve been feeling. I know Johnny and I connected. On a deep level. I do love him, Bella.”
Bella smiled, and took Jenny’s hands in hers. “Be patient. Johnny has things he must do before he can come back. Hold him in your heart until you see him again, like he is holding you in his.”
Jenny returned to the hotel. As she passed the registration desk, Kate handed her a telegram that had been delivered while she was gone. Jenny entered her office and sat at her desk to read the message. She noted it had been sent from Stockton, opened it and read: August 27, 1871. Jenny McBride, The Essex Hotel, Market Street, San Francisco, California. Emergency at home. Had to leave early. Looked for you. No luck. Sorry. Be back when I can. I love you. Johnny.
Jenny covered her mouth with her hand as tears filled her eyes. She read it again, and again, and again, each time holding her eyes on the final words of the message: ‘I love you.’ She felt ecstatic. He loved her! She had not been dreaming. Softly, she said to herself, “I love you, too, Johnny.”
It was too late in the day to send a reply, so she would be at the telegraph office when it opened in the morning. She just needed to remember the name of the town near his ranch.
She floated through the rest of the day in a trance-like state. She had to laugh at herself for feeling like a lovesick girl. Pull yourself together, Jenny, and behave like an adult! But all she could think about was Johnny’s return. Whenever it would be, she would be here, waiting.
After much haggling and pleading by Jenny, the telegraph worker was finally able to locate a map of the San Joaquin Valley. There were so many towns she feared she’d never find the right one. She recalled that one town he mentioned had a Spanish sounding name. She combed the map and finally located Morro Coyo. She was certain it was correct.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, there isn’t a telegraph office there,” the attendant told her.
“Well, what’s the nearest town to Morro Coyo that does have one?” she asked, impatiently.
The telegrapher scanned the map. Finally he told her, “Looks like Green River is the closest.”
“Yes! That’s it! Please send it right away,” she instructed, as she handed him the message.
Murdoch and Johnny watched from the great room as Scott rode up to the hacienda. He had been in Green River to do some banking and to pick up the mail.
Scott dismounted and entered the house through the front door. Seeing his father and brother in the great room, he stepped down and said, “Good, I’m glad you’re both here.” He handed the mail to Murdoch saying, “If I’m not mistaken, there’s a letter from the Lieutenant Governor in there for you.” As he approached Johnny, he handed him an envelope and said, “And this is for you. It’s from Jenny.”
Johnny, seeing it was a telegram, asked, “Did you read it?”
“Of course I didn’t read it! It’s addressed to you,” Scott answered.
Johnny walked to stand in front of the fireplace, his back to Scott and Murdoch. He took a deep breath as he read her words. August 29, 1871. Johnny Lancer, Lancer Ranch, near Green River, California. Overslept. Ran to ferry to catch you. Too late. Waiting for you. I love you, too. Jenny. Johnny exhaled and let his shoulders relax. He read the words again before he turned to face his brother and father.
Scott asked, “Johnny, is there some place you need to be?”
Beaming, he said, “Yes, there is. I’m leaving in the morning. I’m going back to San Francisco to ask Jenny to marry me.”
Murdoch stood and walked to his son. “Johnny, you’re sure about this? You’ve only known her for a couple of days. Maybe take more time to really get to know her.”
“What would you have done if someone said the same thing to you about my mother?” Johnny asked him. He knew that his parents had had a whirlwind courtship.
Murdoch laughed. His son had a point. “I would have ignored them.”
“That’s what I thought. I am sure, Murdoch. I love her and she loves me. I know everything I need to know. And I see no reason to wait.”
Murdoch, seeing the look of determination in his son’s eyes, resigned himself to his decision. He had observed a subtle change in his son since returning from San Francisco, and he knew that Jenny McBride had everything to do with it. Johnny had become more quiet and reflective, as though he was bearing the burden of a major decision. Murdoch moved to the safe behind his desk. “Well, in that case, I have something I want to give you.” He unlocked the safe and retrieved a small wooden box. He opened it and handed it to Johnny. “These were your mother’s engagement and wedding rings. You don’t need to take them, but I want to give you the option. I know you may harbor ill feelings about your mother for the lies she told you, but we were happy for a time. She wore these rings until the day she left. I found them here on my desk the morning she took you and left.”
Johnny had to blink away the tears as he looked down at the rings. It was true he resented his mother for lying to him, but he did not hate her. And he had no mementos from her. He wiped his face, then looked at his father. Softly, he said, “I will take them. Thank you, Murdoch.”
His father pulled him into an embrace and said, “Good luck, son.”
“I’m happy for you, Johnny,” Scott said, hugging his brother.
“I better go get my things together. I want to leave at first light to catch the early coach to Stockton.”
Just then Teresa walked into the room. “Are you going someplace, Johnny?”
“Yes, back to San Francisco.”
“Why so soon? You just got back.”
“Well, I have some very important unfinished business to do. And since Jelly’s fine, I thought I’d go get it done,” he said with a wide grin.
Scott and Murdoch laughed at Johnny’s attempt to tease Teresa.
“What’s so funny?” Teresa asked, looking at the men.
Grinning, Johnny said, “I’m just playing with you, Teresa. I have a girl back in San Francisco and I’m going to ask her to marry me.”
“Oh, Johnny, that’s wonderful! What’s her name? How long have you known her? Where did you meet her?” Teresa was nearly jumping with excitement.
Johnny took her by the elbow and led her toward the kitchen. “Why don’t we get some coffee and I’ll tell you all about her.”
As their voices trailed off, Scott and Murdoch heard Teresa say, “Oh, my, I’ll need to fix you some food for the trip, and pack some dried ginger for the ferry ride. Oh, Johnny, tell me everything!”
Johnny left well before sunup to ride to Green River. He wanted to let Jenny know when to expect him. He was at the telegraph office the minute it opened. He handed the clerk the message and payment: September 1, 1871. Jenny McBride, The Essex Hotel, Market Street, San Francisco, California. On my way. Will be there in two days. Johnny.
He rode hard to reach Morro Coyo to catch the first stagecoach to Stockton. After settling his horse, Barranca, in the livery, he walked up to the ticket office at the same time the stagecoach arrived. Within minutes, he was on his way.
Johnny had time to think as he made his way to San Francisco. He was relieved that Jelly was recovering from what Doc Jenkins said was pneumonia. He had been sick with a high fever, shivering, and a wracking cough for several days, sending Teresa into a panic. Usually the stalwart caretaker when any of them were sick, she had been particularly distressed because he, Scott, and Murdoch were away. When they arrived home on Tuesday, they learned that Jelly had turned the corner the previous day and was starting to improve. Johnny had been happy to see his friend sitting up, eating and returning to his irascible self.
He turned his thoughts to the events that had led him to this moment, as he barrelled ahead on a train to take him to the most important step in his life. Was he really ready for marriage? To give up his freedom? To committing to one person for the rest of his life? As he tossed these questions around over and over, the answers were always yes.
Johnny felt confident as he stepped off the ferry. The dried ginger that Teresa had given him worked to alleviate some of the seasickness. He felt only slightly queasy, so he ate some of the bread she had packed as well. The last thing he wanted was to arrive at the hotel feeling sick. He decided to walk, giving his stomach time to calm down.
As he neared the hotel, the queasiness gave way to mild anxiety, a new feeling for him. It wasn’t in Johnny Madrid’s repertoire of feelings. Until now. He knew it would dissipate the minute he saw her.
He stepped into the lobby, eyes searching for her. The clerk was busy with a customer, so he stepped into the doorway to the restaurant, only to find Jenny in the dining room in an intimate embrace with another man. He couldn’t see her face, blocked by the bulk of the man who held her in his arms. The anxiety he had been feeling was now laced with confusion and hurt. He couldn’t process what he was seeing. He turned on his heels and left.
Jenny sensed a presence and removed herself from the man’s embrace. As she looked up, she saw Johnny turn and leave. She moved quickly and ran after him. She was in the street, frantically looking for him, calling his name. He seemed to have melded into the afternoon crowd. Where would he go? Back to the ferry? He must be terribly upset. Where would he go if he was in distress? Bella! He would go to Bella’s!
She hurried through the street traffic to Bella’s neighborhood. She ran into the restaurant, hoping beyond hope that Johnny would be there. The restaurant was nearly empty. A staff member asked her if he could help her.
“Yes, is Bella here?” she asked breathlessly.
“No señorita, she is not here.”
Jenny felt at a loss. She was having a flashback of racing to find Johnny when he left a week ago. She felt just as defeated as she had then. Back on the street, she hailed the first carriage she could find, and sped to the pier. When she arrived, there were no signs of Johnny. With her heart aching, tears in her eyes, she started to make her way back to the hotel. She could only hope that Johnny would cool down and come back to her.
She dragged herself through the rest of the day, struggling to keep her emotions in check. She was glad the hotel was busy, as it kept her from running to her room and collapsing in a pool of tears.
Jenny was behind the registration counter reviewing the expected check-outs for the morning. She looked up when a guest approached the counter and asked for a restaurant recommendation. As the guest walked away, she saw Johnny leaning into the wall just inside the door, his saddlebags flung over his shoulder.
“Hi, Jenny,” he said, the fingers of his left hand twitching.
Just the sight of him jolted her. He was clad in his usual leather pants, blue shirt and a two toned leather jacket. She stepped from behind the counter, stopping a few feet in front of him.
“Johnny, I am so glad you came back,” she said.
“Yeah, I thought we better talk,” he said.
“Will you wait for me in my office? I need to get someone to cover the desk.”
“Sure,” he said. He watched her walk into the dining room before he took the steps to the office.
When she entered the office, Johnny was staring out the window. She went to stand next to him.
“Johnny, I ran after you, but I couldn’t find you. I went to Bella’s and to the pier. I was so afraid you had just left without . . .”
“I was with Bella, but not at the restaurant. We went to her house. She said what I saw must be a misunderstanding and convinced me to come back.”
“Johnny, I have to say one thing to you first, then I will explain. I love you. I don’t know how or why it happened so quickly, but I am so very much in love with you. The man you saw me with is Ian’s older brother, James. He just arrived today. I wasn’t expecting him. His wife died recently and he decided to come here for a new start. He was telling me about it. And I had just finished telling him about you. He told me he was so happy I had found someone. He said he knew Ian wouldn’t want me to be alone. You saw us at a very tender moment where we were sharing our grief for our lost loved ones and happiness for new beginnings. I do love him, but as a brother. He’s family. But I can only imagine how it looked to you. I’m so sorry you walked in at that moment.”
He was quiet for a few moments. Then, in almost a whisper, he said, “I didn’t know what to think. All the way here, I couldn’t wait to take you in my arms, and when I saw you with . . . well, I just had to get out of there. I thought about getting back on the ferry, but went to Bella’s instead. The things she told me made me see I might have made a mistake.” He took a deep breath. Finally, he looked at her, his face pleading, “I’m sorry. Sorry for running out like that. I’m sorry I didn’t trust you more.”
Jenny thought for a moment, then said, “I don’t know what I would have done if the roles had been reversed. Maybe we haven’t known each other long enough to have that level of trust. Maybe we’re moving too fast.”
Taking her hand, he led her to the couch and they sat down. “You said that you love me. Well, I love you, too. Those weren’t just words in a telegram. Jenny, I’ve never felt this way about anyone. When I got home, I missed you. I thought about you every minute of every day. It seemed crazy, after only knowing you a couple of days. But I knew I wanted you by my side. I’m sorry I doubted you. And I don’t want to slow this thing down. Time is precious and I don’t want to waste another minute of my life without you.”
Jenny looked at him and saw the love in his eyes. “Johnny, it was a misunderstanding, it’s that simple. It’s over and we can move on. I just need to be sure you have no doubts about how I feel about you.”
He looked into her eyes, “I just got confused. I’ve had so few people in my life that I could trust. It’s kind of a new thing for me. I do trust you, Jenny.” He lightly caressed her face and kissed her.
After a short time, Jenny stood and reached out her arm to him. “Come with me,” she said.
Johnny stood, took her hand and followed her to the door behind her desk.
“Would you like something to eat? I can have some food sent up.”
Johnny nodded. “Sure,” he said, remembering he hadn’t eaten anything since a light breakfast in Stockton before boarding the train.
She opened the door, revealing a staircase to her private rooms. “You can wait for me up there. I’m going to order our dinners. Help yourself to a drink if you want one.” She leaned in and kissed him lightly on the lips.
Nodding his understanding, he collected his hat and saddlebags and ascended the stairs to her living quarters. He looked around for the drinks stand. He located the small array of bottles and glasses on a table that lined the back of the sofa. The simple offering brought a smile to his face; a pitcher of water, a bottle of single malt scotch, and a bottle of tequila. He selected the tequila. After drinking a shot, he looked around the room. It was a small, intimate space, comfortably appointed. Similar to the office, a couch and two chairs faced the fireplace. A small table with four chairs sat at the other end of the room, with a sideboard nearby. He imagined she spent little time here, considering her responsibilities in the hotel. He noticed a door to what he assumed was the bedroom off the living area. As the afternoon was fading into evening, he took the liberty of lighting the lamps on the tables. A warm glow enveloped the room. Soon he heard Jenny approaching on the steps.
She entered the room carrying a tray with small bowls of salt and lime wedges. “I thought you might like these,” she said.
Johnny smiled and said, “Thank you. Scotch or tequila?” he asked.
“Tequila, please.” He filled their glass and they shared the tequila ritual, as they had done at the cantina. There was a knock on the door. “That will be our dinners,” Jenny explained. She stepped away from Johnny and opened the door.
“Hello, Miguel, please put the tray on the side table,” Jenny instructed.
Johnny greeted the server, “Hola, Miguel.”
Smiling as he recognized his boss’ guest, he said, “Hola, Señor Lancer.”
“You two know each other?” Jenny asked.
“Yes, we do. Remember the shopkeeper I said hello to on our way to Bella’s?”
“His name is Diago. Miguel is his son. He used to work for his father in his store. Diago told me he got a job at a hotel. I didn’t know which one until now.”
After setting the tray down, Miguel walked to the door. Johnny approached him and shook his hand. “Gracias, Miguel. Please tell your father I said hello.”
“Muy bien, señor,” he said, as he backed out of the room.
“Amazing,” was all Jenny could say. She moved to the side table. “We better eat before our food gets cold.”
Finished with their dinners, Jenny poured the remaining wine into their glasses. She was feeling relaxed, the tequila and wine contributing significantly.
“Thanks for dinner,” Johnny said. “Sure tasted good.”
“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” Jenny said. “You said in your telegram that you had to leave early last week because there was an emergency at home. Is everything all right there?”
“A friend of mine, Jelly, was very sick. He’s actually a friend of the family. Turns out he had pneumonia.”
“But he’s doing better now?”
Johnny nodded, “Yeah, he’s much better. When he started ordering Teresa around, I knew he was gonna be okay. But I was worried about him. He’s not a young man and infections are hard to fight even when you’re young.”
“I’m glad he’s okay. You must care a lot about him.”
“He’s a good friend,” Johnny said. “Part of the family, really. And speaking of things that kept us from seeing each other that morning, what happened with the investigation of the man found dead in his room?”
Jenny laughed and said, “What a mess that was. All that wasted time. Apparently the police never found any evidence of a murder. They think his heart stopped. I didn’t get to bed until three in the morning. I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.”
“And that’s why you overslept,” Johnny said. He laughed as he continued, “I knocked so hard on your door, I think I woke everyone in the hotel except you.” He reached across the table and took her hand. “But we’re here now,” he said.
She nodded and said, “Let’s get these dishes cleared away. If we set them outside the door, Miguel will pick them up.”
Johnny released her hand and was on his feet, moving dishes to the tray. He carried the loaded tray to the hallway. Back in the room, he took Jenny by the hand and led her to the couch. Once settled, he said, “There’s something I need to ask you. I’ve told you about my past. I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of. I need to know, does it bother you that I was a hired gun?”
Jenny, caught off guard by the question, thought for a moment. Finally she said, “Before I answer that, tell me about Scott. He was a soldier, wasn’t he?”
Surprised, Johnny said, “Yeah, he was a Cavalry officer in the Union Army. How did you know?”
“His bearing, the way he handles himself, the way he talks. He reminds me so much of Ian in that way. Both Cavalry officers. Hired by the government to kill men in order to preserve the Union. How is that different from you being hired by a rancher or a group of revolutionaries to kill their opponents? It’s all war. The same thing. The only difference I can see is you were probably paid better than Scott.”
“Maybe, maybe not. The last people I worked for had no money. When I found out why they were fighting, I wanted to help. I was never gonna get rich being a hired gun.”
“I haven’t known you long, but I know you’re a man with principles. So no, your past does not bother me. When I saw you that night in the street, I could tell you don’t take killing a man lightly.”
Johnny laughed softly and said, “Maybe you can say these things to Murdoch when we go back to Lancer.”
Jenny took a deep breath, then asked, “Are we going back to Lancer, Johnny?”
He got up and retrieved his saddlebags from the chair. He removed a small box and returned to Jenny’s side. He opened the box, revealing the two rings Murdoch had given him.
He looked at Jenny and said, “I want to take you to Lancer as my wife. Jenny, will you marry me?”
Jenny stared at the rings. She felt her eyes fill and a catch in her throat. She steadied her voice and looked at him, and said, “Yes, Johnny, I’ll marry you.”
“These were my mother’s rings. Murdoch gave them to me before I left to come here. I never knew he had them until now.” Johnny removed the small diamond ring from the box and slipped it on her finger. It was a perfect fit.
She touched the ring with her right hand. “It’s beautiful. I will treasure it always.” Her eyes pooled as she looked at him. “I love you, Johnny.”
He took her in his arms and he kissed her deeply. When their lips finally parted, he whispered, “I love you, too, Jenny.”
Johnny stirred under the covers and struggled to wake up. For a moment he was unsure where he was. He was in an unfamiliar room, in someone else’s bed. As his head cleared, he turned to see Jenny sleeping next to him. Her beauty astounded him. Her long, auburn hair flowed around her face and her skin was iridescent in the morning light. He propped his head in his hand and watched her sleep. Smiling, he marveled that this beautiful, brave, bold woman wanted to spend her life with him and he couldn’t recall a time he’d been happier.
When he saw her eyelashes flutter, he bent his head to hers and kissed her. “Good morning, Corazón,” he said.
“Good morning,” she replied with a smile. She stretched and asked, “What time is it?”
Johnny retrieved his pocket watch from the bedside table. “It’s almost 8:30. Do we have an appointment?” he asked, with a laugh.
Jenny laughed, “No, I’m used to getting up long before now. Running this place usually starts very early in the morning.”
“I’m sure everything’s fine,” he said, as he took her left hand in his. He raised it to his lips and kissed the ring on her finger. “I don’t want to wait until we’re home to get married. I want to do it here, now.”
Jenny shook her head and laughed.
“What?” Johnny asked.
“I’m not sure I want a husband who can read my mind,” she teased.
“So you’re okay with us getting married here?”
“Yes, the sooner the better.”
Grinning, Johnny said, “I do love you, Jenny McBride,” as he took her into his arms.
“What was that word you just used, when you said good morning to me?”
“You mean Corazón?”
“It means sweetheart,” he said, running his forefinger down the length of her nose. “You are my sweetheart, aren’t you?”
She rested her lips softly against his and whispered, “Yes, Johnny, I am your corazón.”
It was a clear, stunningly bright day in San Francisco the day Padre Luis Alvarez officiated the small wedding at the Mission San Francisco de Asis. He and Johnny had become friends over the course of Johnny’s visits to the neighborhood and he had been more than willing to adjust his schedule to accommodate the ceremony. Two witnesses had been invited to attend, Bella Valdez and James McBride. Each took great joy in being asked to bear witness to the couple’s union.
Most of Sunday and Monday had been spent making plans and coordinating schedules for the wedding. Jenny had spent several hours with Bella in search of a wedding dress. She eventually found one in a dress shop near Bella’s restaurant. She selected a light weight dress with layers of white and ecru lace, perfect for the still warm September weather. Bella loaned her a lace shawl and the veil she had worn at her own wedding. Jenny was very touched by Bella’s generosity. And of course, she would wear her mother’s pearls.
Johnny and James were waiting with Padre Luis near the altar inside the Mission when they heard the carriage arrive. James went out to meet Jenny at the door, as Bella entered the church to join Johnny at the altar. Johnny had a moment of regret that his family wasn’t with him. His anticipation grew. He took a deep breath as he saw the door open. He didn’t recognize the figure shrouded in sunlight, but it wasn’t Jenny or James. As the figure stepped out of the light, Johnny felt his chest expand when he saw his brother walking toward him. He met him halfway.
“Boston, what are you doing here?” he asked, grinning at his brother.
“Now that’s a silly question. Do you really think I’d miss the opportunity to be your best man?” Scott asked.
“But how did you know?”
“Oh, I have my ways,” Scott replied, as he winked at Bella.
Johnny turned his head to look at Bella, who was smiling widely.
“I can’t believe you’re here. I was just thinking . . .oh, never mind,” he said, as he gave Scott a warm embrace. “So you saw Jenny out there?” he asked, appearing uncharacteristically nervous.
“Oh yes, and she’s very anxious to see you. I asked her to give us a couple of minutes.” Scott took a few moments to scrutinize his brother’s appearance.
“You’re looking very dapper, brother,” he said, as he admired Johnny’s white shirt with intricate black embroidery, and a bolero jacket of black leather. Scott grinned as he admitted to himself that his brother looked dashingly handsome.
“You actually spent money on some new clothes!” he teased.
“Well, a man wants to look his best on his wedding day,” Johnny said, smiling.
“You’ve done well, little brother. I imagine Jenny’s ready to join us. Shall we get on with it?” Scott asked, as he escorted Johnny back to the altar and took his place next to him.
The door opened again and Johnny saw a rush of sunlight fill the entrance followed by what looked like an apparition, a cloud of ethereal light. Once over the threshold, the apparition dissolved, revealing his bride, dressed in a simple yet elegant lace dress, her auburn hair cascading down her shoulders, her smiling face shielded behind a sheer veil of lace. She was a sight to behold in the eyes of Johnny Lancer.
She seemed to glide down the aisle toward him, the lace of her veil and shawl moved gently as she stirred the air around her. She was carrying a bouquet of white calla lilies, which she handed to Bella as she approached the altar. James, who escorted her, went to stand next to Bella. Johnny’s eyes were glistening as she came to stand by his side. He managed to find his voice and whisper, “You are beautiful.”
Padre Luis led them through the marriage vows, complete with the placement of an el lazo, a string of flowers and rosary beads, around their necks to signify everlasting love and unity.
After a short mass was completed, the garland was removed and Johnny lifted the veil from Jenny’s face. Her eyes shining, Jenny whispered, “Tell me this isn’t a dream.”
Johnny pulled her close and said, “This is not a dream.” With a tender and passionate kiss, they sealed their future together. Padre Luis presented them as husband and wife to their teary eyed witnesses. A joyous exchange of hugs and kisses followed.
As a surprise gift for the newlyweds, James had arranged for a photographer to memorialize the event. “I know you want to get to the celebration, but trust me, one day in the future, you’ll be glad you took the time to do it,” James told them. He looked at Jenny, his eyes glistening.
Jenny knew he was thinking of his own wedding. She hugged him and said, “What a thoughtful gift. Thank you, James.”
The wedding celebration was winding down. Guests were beginning to drift away from Bella’s courtyard, pleasantly fatigued and satiated from the dancing and dining. Bella had organized a generous party, replete with meat dishes, enchiladas, tortillas, mole poblano, and tamales. Women from the neighborhood had contributed an array of wedding cookies. Liquor had flowed freely from the drinks bar all evening. It was a small gathering of Johnny’s friends from the neighborhood and friends of Jenny’s from the hotel. Music and laughter filled the celebratory air for hours.
Jenny was dancing with James to a lovely ballad. She looked across the room and saw Johnny, sitting alone at a table, watching her. Without taking her eyes off her husband, she said to James, “We’re going to need a carriage in about ten minutes.”
”Say no more. I’ll take care of it,” he said.
Jenny kissed him warmly on the cheek. “Thank you, for everything you’ve done today.” She left him and walked to Johnny, reaching out to take his hand.
He stood and asked, “Are you having a good time?”
“Of course I am. Why are you sitting over here alone? Where’s Scott?”
“I’ve been watching you,” he said, swaying with her to the music. “Scott’s over there talking to Bella,” he said, nodding to the corner of the courtyard.
“But you’re having a good time?” she asked.
“Sure. I could sit and watch you all night,” he said, as he nuzzled her neck.
Jenny laughed and said, “But I gather there are other things you’d rather be doing.”
“Well, since you mention it, I am having a growing desire to be with my wife,” he said, drawing her close.
“Then it’s a good thing I just asked James to get a carriage for us,” she said.
“Let’s go say goodnight to Bella,” Johnny said.
They walked over to where Scott and Bella were huddled in conversation.
“You two look too serious for a wedding party,” Jenny observed.
Scott turned to the couple and said, “Are you getting ready to leave?”
“Yeah, it’s time I took my bride home,” Johnny said, holding Jenny close to him. “James is getting us a carriage. Bella, you really outdid yourself with this party. Thank you,” he said, kissing her on the cheek.
“Yes, Bella, it was a beautiful celebration. Thank you for everything,” Jenny said, as she embraced their friend.
“I’ve had a long day, so I’ll be right behind you. James said he thought he could scare up a room for me at the hotel,” Scott said teasingly.
“I can guarantee there is room for you, Scott. There’s always room for family!” Jenny replied.
Scott escorted them out of the courtyard and onto the street where James was waiting with a carriage. Scott saw another carriage down the street and hailed it as well.
“James, are you ready to head back to the hotel? I’m taking that carriage if you want to join me.”
“Sure, sounds great,” James concurred.
Johnny and Jenny were in their carriage when Scott stepped to Johnny’s side and said, “I’ll see you in the morning, okay?”
“Sure, but don’t look for us too early,” he said, with a grin.
“Understood. Good night.”
“Thanks for coming. I’m glad you were here.”
“I’m glad I was here, too, brother,” Scott said.
A few moments later, both carriages were on their way to the hotel. None of the passengers had noticed the tall, black clad figure watching them from the shadows outside Bella’s restaurant.
Johnny awoke first. He hadn’t slept much, but he felt remarkably rested. The beauty of the previous day had been surpassed only by the wonderment of their wedding night. But now in the light of day, he let the seed of concern he had ignored last night enter his mind. He cursed it for interfering with his memories of the night, but ever since he and Jenny had interrupted Scott and Bella talking at the party, he’d felt that something was wrong. It was the look in their eyes and how they abruptly stopped their conversation when he and Jenny approached them that fed his concern. He needed to find out what they were talking about.
He decided he would let his wife sleep, while he went in search of coffee so they could drink it in bed when she woke up. He dressed quickly and went out to the hallway. He was startled to see Scott sitting in a chair about ten feet from their door.
“Scott, what are ya doin’ out here?” Johnny asked.
“Just keeping an eye on things,” said Scott.
“Up here, in the hallway?”
“Didn’t want anybody bothering you.”
“You weren’t out here all night, were you?”
“No, James and I took shifts.”
“You did what? Why? Scott, what the hell’s going on? You were acting strange last night and you’re still acting strange.”
“Truth is, I need to talk to you and Jenny, as soon as you’re available.”
“Okay, now you’ve got me worried. I knew something was up with you and Bella last night. What is it?”
“Is Jenny awake?”
“Not yet. I came out to get us some coffee.”
“Let me do that for you. I’ll get you some breakfast to go with it. Then after you’ve eaten, maybe you could come down and talk with me in the office.”
“Scott, tell me right now what’s going on!” Johnny said, raising his voice more than he intended.
Scott stood and said calmly, “Not here.”
They both heard the door open and Jenny appeared in the doorway. “What’s going on out here? What are you two arguing about?” she asked, looking confused.
“Jenny, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to disturb you,” Scott said.
“Scott says he has to talk to us about something,” Johnny said, moving to Jenny’s side.
James had now joined them in the hallway. “I could hear you down in the office.”
“James, do you know what’s going on?” Jenny asked.
“I don’t know the details. Let me have some food brought up for you, then you and Scott can talk.”
“Okay, fine,” Jenny said firmly. Looking at Scott she said, “Come back in an hour.”
She and Johnny went into their rooms and closed the door.
“Johnny, do you have any idea what they’re talking about?”
“No, but Scott and Bella were talking about something last night. And then Scott leaving right behind us like he did was odd. It’s like he didn’t want us out of his sight. I think there’s something they didn’t want to tell us. Like they didn’t want to ruin our wedding night.”
“It must be serious.”
“Yeah, I think it is. I know Scott. He can be pretty protective of me, but this is way beyond the usual. He was sitting out there like he was guarding the door.”
“I’ll get dressed. Breakfast will be here soon. The quicker we get to this the better.”
“That brother of mine sure can be a mood killer,” Johnny bemoaned.
“Okay, out with it. What’s going on?” Johnny asked Scott, his patience running short. He, Jenny and Scott were sitting at the dining table in Jenny’s rooms.
“Last night Bella told me that at least two man have been coming around the neighborhood, asking about Johnny Madrid.”
Johnny and Jenny exchanged concerned looks.
“She also said that some of her staff have heard whispers about Johnny Madrid being someone who visits the neighborhood. They’re all trying to guess who it is. If someone guesses correctly, whoever is looking for you will be on your trail.”
“Why didn’t she tell me?” Johnny asked.
“She didn’t want to worry you on your wedding day. Johnny, she’s had some friends watching you for the past couple of days to make sure no one bothered you, even at the Mission. These rumors have been going on for a few days. I didn’t tell you last night because I thought you had the right to enjoy your wedding night. And I was here to watch your back.”
“Did you know about this before you came here?”
“No, I came here to be at your wedding. I didn’t know anything about it until Bella told me last night.”
“This is ridiculous. Who could be asking about me up here?” Johnny asked.
“Johnny, you gave that guy you shot in front of the hotel your old name. There were people on the street who may have taken an interest,” Scott said.
“Yes, I remember how people reacted when you told him you were Johnny Madrid,” Jenny said. “He didn’t seem to know the name, but people in the crowd did.”
“I think we have to make the assumption that whoever it is means you harm,” Scott interjected.
“Well, it’s not like I’ve ever tried to hide who I was. It’s not a secret. If somebody wants to find me, they will.”
“But what could they want?” Jenny asked.
“I may be gone from the border towns, but I doubt I’ve been forgotten. I escaped from the Mexican Rurales and I probably killed some men in the process. They have long memories,” Johnny explained. He took her hand and said, “I am so sorry this is happening. I guess you’re learning the hard way what it means to be the wife of a former gunfighter.”
“Were you planning to take a honeymoon?” Scott asked.
“Yes, a couple of days on the coast, not too far from here. We were going to leave this afternoon,” Jenny said.
“Well, I’m sorry to have to say this, but I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Scott said.
Johnny slid back in his chair and let out a sigh of exasperation.
“I’m sorry, Johnny, but you know I’m right. Staying in the city right now is too risky. I think we should leave for Lancer in the morning.”
“Look, I’ve never run from a threat before, why should I now?”
“I don’t like the fact that there are at least two men, maybe more, looking for you. At home we have a better chance of identifying any risk. And you have more than yourself to worry about now,” Scott said, nodding at Jenny.
“I agree with Scott. I can be ready to leave in the morning,” Jenny said.
Johnny looked at her, and said, “You don’t mind canceling our plans?”
“No. We can take a honeymoon later. We need to be where we’ll be safe.”
“I am so sorry, Jenny. This is no way to start a marriage.”
Her hand on his arm, Jenny said, “This isn’t your fault, Johnny. It’s not like I didn’t know about your past. We talked about this, remember? It doesn’t matter to me. I love you. I am with you now, for better or for worse.”
Johnny wiped his hand across his face and looked at his wife. “I will make this up to you.”
“I know you will. Now, let’s start packing.”
Johnny was in front of the hotel standing next to the carriage that would take them to the pier. A wagon with Jenny’s trunks had been sent ahead to the pier for preloading. Jenny was still inside saying goodbye to her staff. As he waited, he was watchful for any suspicious persons or activities. He saw James McBride step out to the boardwalk and approach him.
“Johnny, just wanted to say goodbye and wish you a good trip,” James said, as he extended his hand to Johnny.
Johnny smiled, shaking McBride’s hand. “Thanks, James, I appreciate it.”
“I hope you and Jenny will be very happy. Don’t let her worry about this place. I’ll take good care of it.”
“I’m sure she knows that,” Johnny replied. “She really appreciates how quickly you agreed to manage the hotel.”
“I’d do anything for her, Johnny. I know she loves this place, but she loves you more. She gave my brother a reason to keep living after the war. She deserves some happiness and I’m happy to do my part.”
Scott approached them as he returned from the telegraph office. He had sent a wire to Murdoch informing him of their return to the ranch.
“Well, that’s done,” he said to Johnny. “I asked him to have Jelly meet us with a wagon in Morro Coyo tomorrow afternoon.”
Scott shook James’ hand and said, “Thanks for all of your help. I hope you can come visit us at the ranch sometime.” He climbed up into the rear seat of the carriage.
Johnny looked up and saw Jenny coming out the door. She looked stunning, dressed in a beige linen travel suit. She stopped to give James a goodbye hug, then Johnny lifted her up to the carriage seat. He jumped up and sat next to her. Taking her hand, he said, “Let’s go home.”
Johnny stepped down from the stagecoach and stretched his arms and legs, tired from the cramped ride from Stockton to Morro Coyo. Scott was already out of the coach and gathering their bags. Johnny helped Jenny from the coach and looked around for Jelly. He saw him leaning against the porch post in front of the ticket office.
“About time ya’ll got here. Been waitin’ around all afternoon!” Jelly exclaimed.
“It’s good to see you, too, Jelly. Looks like you’ve fully recovered from being sick,” Scott said, laughing.
Johnny stepped forward, Jenny by his side. “Jelly, meet Jenny, my wife.”
“Well, I’ll be danged. Never thought I’d see the day ol’ Johnny boy got tied down. But I sure can see why he married you,” Jelly declared.
“Jelly, a nice how do ya do would suffice,” Johnny said, grinning.
Jelly shook Jenny’s hand and said, “How do ya do ma’am, er, Mrs. Lancer.”
Jenny, reclaiming her hand, said, “Please, call me Jenny. It’s nice to meet you, too.”
Scott and Johnny had everything in the wagon and were ready to go. Jenny had packed minimally, only the clothes she thought she would need on the ranch. She brought only a few possessions with her. She learned on the trail west that possessions only slow you down.
“I hope ya’ll are ready for a grand welcome when you get to the ranch,” Jelly said.
“I hope no one has gone to any trouble,” Jenny said.
“You haven’t met Teresa yet. She likes any excuse to throw a party!” Scott explained.
Johnny and Jenny sat on the bench of the wagon, Johnny driving the team. Scott and Jelly rode the horses Jelly had brought for their ride home. They rode alongside the wagon for the first few miles out of town.
“Ya know, Johnny, you’re in some hot water with Teresa for not lettin’ her put on a big wedding for ya,” Jelly said.
“So she’s throwing a party instead?” enquired Johnny.
“Oh, yeah, she’s gonna give you a big shindig whether you want one or not,” Jelly said.
“Well, I think that’s very sweet of her. I can’t wait to meet her,” Jenny said.
Jelly continued, “Teresa would never let Johnny get married without having a party to celebrate it! Oh, almost forgot, she packed a food basket for your ride home. She knew Johnny would be hungry. Jenny, it’s right under where yer sittin’.”
Jenny leaned over and retrieved the basket from under the bench. Opening it, she exclaimed, “Oh my goodness, it smells delicious!” She unwrapped pieces of fried chicken, bread and dried fruit. She took a bite of chicken and let out a small moan. “This is sublime!”
“You two enjoy your picnic. We’re going to ride ahead to let everyone know you’re on your way. We’ll see you there. Come on, Jelly,” Scott announced, as he and Jelly rode off.
Johnny and Jenny rode along for several miles, enjoying the food, with Johnny occasionally pointing out landmarks to Jenny. They had been on Lancer property for some time. When they reached the main overlook, Johnny brought the wagon to a stop.
Johnny gave Jenny a few minutes to take it all in. The vista of miles and miles of green meadows, clear lakes, hillsides, and mountains bathed in the fading afternoon sunlight lay before them. The hacienda could be seen off in the distance. Johnny never tired of seeing his home from this hilltop.
“This is the best view of the entire ranch,” Johnny explained.
“It’s magnificent!” Jenny said. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, but certainly nothing of this magnitude.” She looked at Johnny and asked with amazement in her voice, “You own all of this?”
“Well, I own a third of it. No, we own a third of it. As far as the eye can see is Lancer land.”
“It’s a bit overwhelming,” she whispered. “I had no idea. I feel like I’m in a fairy tale.”
Johnny took her in his arms and said, “I have so much to show you.”
Jenny sat on the bench in the courtyard waiting for Johnny to emerge from the bathhouse. Upon arrival, Teresa had whisked her away for a bath, while Johnny and Scott caught up on ranch matters with their father. She was thinking about her first impression of her new home. In spite of its massiveness, the Lancer home felt very inviting. She had received a warm welcome from the family patriarch, and she and Teresa had bonded immediately. Her life long wish to have a sister figure in her life had come true.
Her reverie was broken when Johnny walked out of the bathhouse. “You look refreshed,” Jenny said. “And very handsome, if I may say so.”
He joined her on the bench and took her hand in his. “I’m sorry we didn’t get any time alone before dinner. Murdoch had a lot to fill us in on.”
“That’s okay. I enjoyed spending time with Teresa. She really is a sweetheart!”
“Yes, she is. Well, we better head in to dinner,” he said, as he stood and pulled her to her feet. He took a step back and admired her. Grinning, he said, “You’re wearing what you wore on our first date.”
“You mean our only date?” she laughed.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right about that,” he chuckled. “Anyway, you look beautiful,” he said, kissing her lightly on the cheek. He led her out of the courtyard. “Let’s walk around to the front,” he suggested.
As they walked, Jenny asked, “Has there been word of anyone asking about you as Madrid around the ranch?”
“No, nothing. Scott and I talked to our lead hands. No reports of unusual visitors or activities. But they know to be on the alert for anything or anyone out of place.”
“So they all know about your Madrid years?” she asked.
“Sure, my past is common knowledge around here. I’ve never kept it a secret,” he explained. They reached the French doors.
“Don’t worry, we’ve got lots of people here looking out for us,” Johnny assured her. He stopped and checked his pocket watch. “We’re two minutes early. Murdoch will be shocked!”
“Why?” Jenny asked.
“Because I’m notoriously late for dinner,” he admitted to her.
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” she asked, smiling.
Johnny opened the door and they stepped into the great room.
“There they are now,” Murdoch exclaimed. “Perfect timing!” he added, smiling at Johnny. He and Scott were standing at the fireplace, each sipping an aperitif.
Murdoch continued, “Welcome to your first family dinner, Jenny. I’m sure Johnny has told you that we have dinner every evening at 6:00. It’s my favorite time of day, particularly when everyone is home. Welcome to your new home, my dear,” he said, bending to kiss her on the cheek.
“Thank you, Murdoch. Yes, Johnny told me how important family dinner is. I think it’s a wonderful tradition.”
“It looks like Maria and Teresa have everything on the table, so, let’s eat,” Murdoch said.
Johnny took Jenny’s elbow and steered her to the table, pulling out her chair for her. He sat to her right, with Teresa across the table from him. Scott sat to Teresa’s right, directly across from Jenny. At the head of the table to Johnny’s right sat Murdoch.
Jenny surveyed the table. She saw platters of beef, roasted chicken, several vegetables and two kinds of potatoes and what appeared to be a couple of Mexican dishes. “Do you always eat this lavishly at dinner?”
Teresa laughed. “Heavens, no! I’m afraid Maria and I got a little carried away. We wanted your first dinner here to be special.”
“Well, thank you. This is certainly a memorable feast,” she said. She felt Johnny take her hand and squeeze it. She looked at him and was rewarded with his beautiful smile.
Serving dishes were passed around the table as everyone filled their plates. Scott reached across the table, handing Jenny a platter. “Wait till you taste Maria’s tamales!” he said, with a sly grin.
Johnny leaned over and took the plate from his brother. “I believe those are for me,” he said. It was a ritual for Maria to make him tamales whenever he returned home from a trip. “Corazón, would you like to try them?” he asked.
“No, thank you, sweetheart. I wouldn’t want to deprive you of your favorite treat,” Jenny said, grinning.
Murdoch released a hearty laugh. “Well, Jenny, you may not have known him long, but you certainly have my son’s passion for food figured out! Maria’s been our cook and housekeeper for over 20 years. She doted on him when he was a baby and she started right up again when he returned home. I think she’s still making up for lost time. She’s been working nonstop, along with this one,” he said, nodding to Teresa, “making preparations for your wedding celebration on Saturday.”
Teresa added excitedly, “We’ve invited all of our neighbors and all of the ranch hands and their families, and Val and Sam, of course. Everyone is so anxious to meet you, Jenny!”
“Val and Sam?” Jenny asked.
Johnny put his arm around her shoulder and leaned into her. “Val Crawford is the sheriff in Green River, and a good friend of mine. Sam Jenkins is the local doctor. Val usually joins us for Sunday dinner.” He gently rubbed her shoulder as he was talking. “You’ll be seeing a lot of both of them.”
Scott chimed in. “Well, we see a lot of Doc Jenkins because Johnny gets hurt so often.”
“Oh, thanks, Boston, for making my wife think I’m accident prone or something,” Johnny said.
“Well, Johnny, you have to admit, most of his visits are to see you, for one injury or another,” Scott said.
“All right, boys, Jenny doesn’t need to hear your brotherly banter at her first
dinner here,” Murdoch said, a laugh in his voice.
Jenny couldn’t contain her laughter. “Oh, I’m quite familiar with their bantering. If you’ll recall, that’s how I met these two. Actually it was more like bickering, come to think of it.”
“She has a point, Murdoch,” Scott said, giving his sister-in-law a nod and a smile. “We weren’t on our best behavior when she met us.”
“Hey, speak for yourself, brother!” Johnny said, with a laugh.
“Well, good. Since you’ve seen them on their worst behavior, things can only get better from here,” Murdoch said, causing laughter around the table.
Dinner proceeded pleasantly. Jenny felt a warm sense of belonging, of having found her place in the world. She hadn’t felt like this since family dinners back in Philadelphia with her father and brother, and one or more of his friends usually present at the dinner table. The memories surged up, bringing tears to her eyes. She shook them off before anyone could notice. Or so she thought. Once again, she felt Johnny’s hand on hers with a gentle squeeze.
“The food was delicious, Teresa. Thank you. You’ve made me feel very welcome.” Johnny’s arm was around her and she leaned into him. He kissed her lightly on the cheek.
“There’s still dessert,” Teresa said. “I’ll go get it.”
Murdoch looked at the newlyweds. “I’m sorry you had to cancel your honeymoon. But I agree with Scott. It’s better that you’re here. It’s no honeymoon suite, but we prepared the large bedroom in the back for you. I hope you’ll be comfortable there.”
Johnny said, “Thanks, Murdoch. I appreciate it.”
Teresa and Maria returned with dessert, which consisted of blueberry pie and a two layer leches cake.
Jenny let out a small gasp of pleasure. “Those look delicious! What kind of cake is that?” Jenny asked, admiring the iced cake bearing fresh strawberries and blueberries on top.
“It’s milk cake, one of Maria’s specialties. Can you guess which is Johnny’s favorite?” Scott asked Jenny.
“Well . . .” She looked at Johnny, squinting her eyes as if to glean an answer from his expression. His eyes twinkled back at her. Smiling, she said with conviction, “The cake.”
“Very good,” Scott said. “You didn’t already know that, did you?”
“No, I still have a lot to learn about my husband,” she said, giving Johnny an affectionate kiss.
“Jenny, I’m sorry, we didn’t know what your favorite dessert is,” Teresa said.
“Actually, it’s apple pie, but blueberry pie is a close second!”
With dinner concluded, Johnny felt the need to move. His body was stiff and tired from traveling. He took Jenny by the hand. “We’re gonna get some air,” he announced to the others, as he led Jenny out to the veranda. He folded her arm into his. “Let’s walk. We can circle the hacienda,” he said.
Dusk was falling and the outer rims of the ranch were darkening. The distant lowing of cattle provided a soft lullaby to the evening. The crickets offered their own serenade. Johnny and Jenny walked without speaking for a few minutes, each with their thoughts.
“It feels so peaceful here,” Jenny said.
“It can be. It’s not so peaceful during the day. Running a ranch can be a noisy business.”
“I’m sure I’ll get used to the rhythm of life here. It may take some time. I expect it will be very different for me.”
“Do you think you’ll miss the city?”
“I don’t know. I’m sure I’ll miss some of the conveniences of living in a city, but none of them would be worth having if I wasn’t with you.”
“Did something upset you at dinner?”
“No, dinner was lovely. That was just me being sentimental. I was thinking about dinners back home, with Daddy and Scott. Being here with your family gave me the same feeling of belonging.”
He pulled her closer, his arm around her waist. “Good. I want you to feel like you belong here.”
“I already feel that way. I know we’ve only been here a few hours, but it feels right to me. I don’t feel like a visitor. But that’s because of you,” she said, leaning into him. “My home is wherever you are.”
He stopped walking and turned to face her. Darkness was falling quickly, but he could still see the features of her face. He placed his hands on her neck and kissed her gently on the lips. “It feels like a dream, you being here with me.”
“If it’s a dream, let’s pray we never wake up.”
He took her hand. “We better get back while we can still see our way,” he said, as they continued on the road circling the house. They reached the front door and entered the house. Stepping down into the great room they found Murdoch and Scott seated near the fireplace, quietly talking. The couple stayed near the doorway.
“How was your walk?” Murdoch asked.
“It was lovely. But it’s very dark out there!” Jenny exclaimed.
“Yes, it gets quite dark here. No city lights to hide the night sky. All the better to see the stars!” Murdoch said.
“Has Teresa gone to bed?” Johnny asked.
“Yes, she and Maria have a big day ahead of them tomorrow. A lot of baking, I suspect,” Murdoch replied.
“Well, we’re saying goodnight, too,” Johnny said.
“Will we see you at breakfast?” Scott asked, teasingly.
Johnny looked at his brother, knowing Scott knew the answer to that question. Regardless, Johnny responded, “Maybe,” with a wide smile on his face.
They continued up the stairs to their new bedroom. Johnny stopped at the door and lifted Jenny off her feet and into his arms.
Jenny laughed. “You could have warned me!”
“Where’s the fun in that?” He carried her over the threshold and into the room. “Here you go, Mrs. Lancer, your new private quarters!” he declared. He gently lowered her to her feet.
Jenny stepped forward and looked around the room. A large bed with ornately carved oak head and foot boards dominated the room, yet the room still felt spacious. To the left, a beehive fireplace was in the corner, flanked by a large wardrobe. A door to the right that led to the terrace stood open, welcoming the gentle evening breeze. A dresser stood just inside the main door with a washstand beside it. There was seating for two at a small table in the center of the room. A small sofa at the foot of the bed and a reading chair near the terrace door completed the room. Jenny noted the fine details of lace doilies on small tables and fresh flowers in vases. “It’s lovely.”
“You know, I’ve never been in this room. I thought it was a storage room,” he said, with a laugh. “I’m impressed.”
“Well, it’s quite grand. But the most important question remains unanswered,” Jenny said, a glimmer of mischief in her eyes.
“Oh, and what’s that?” he asked, tilting his head.
“Does the bed squeak?”
Johnny threw his head back in laughter. He grabbed Jenny and lifted her to the bed. Leaning over her, his lips on hers, he stopped only long enough to say, “We’re about to find out.”
“Johnny, the people in your life sure know how to throw a party!” Jenny declared, hugging her husband. “First Bella, now this. It’s quite spectacular!”
They were standing on the terrace outside their bedroom, watching the activities in the yard below. Friends from neighboring ranches, towns and Lancer employees filled the yard, enjoying the food, music and dancing, all lovingly arranged by Teresa and Maria.
The wedding party had been underway for several hours and the couple had sought a moment of privacy away from the guests. Plus, Johnny wanted to get a wider view of what was going on around the hacienda before darkness fell. Scott had assigned a number of the Lancer ranch hands to positions around the house to ensure no uninvited guests joined the party. Johnny thought it was a step too far, but appreciated his brother’s concern. He wished whoever was hunting him would show his face so he could put an end to the threat. Things had been quiet the three days they had been home, but he knew all too well how quickly that could change.
“Johnny, have you heard a word I’ve said?” Jenny asked.
“Sorry, what did you say?” he said, shaking his head to clear it.
“Never mind, it wasn’t important. Should we get back to our guests?”
“Sure,” he said, guiding her to the stairway to the back of the house, though his natural inclination was to pull her into their room, close the door and shut the world out. He preferred his celebrations small and intimate, but the party was important to Jenny and his family, so he did his best to engage in the festivities. As they approached the crowd, he led his wife to the dance floor to the cheers of his friends and family.
As they danced, Jenny said, “You’re a wonderful dancer, Johnny.”
“It’s easy when I have a beautiful partner. All those hours in border town dance halls weren’t a total waste of time.”
“Well, I don’t want to know about the girls who taught you. Let me live with the fantasy that I married a natural born dancer.”
He laughed out loud. “Whatever you want, Corazón!”
Later, Johnny was standing on the sidelines watching Jenny dance with Murdoch’s segundo, Cipriano. Both partners made the steps seem effortless. His wife appeared to be making new friends with each dance. He smiled brightly as she caught his eye.
“No regrets, brother?” Scott asked, suddenly at his side.
“No regrets. I’ve never been happier. Other than Murdoch saving me from the firing squad, and learning I have a family, meeting Jenny is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Look at her, Scott. She fits right in.”
Scott nodded and said, “She’s having a good time. The ranch hands are waiting in line to get a dance with her.”
“So I noticed.”
“They want to meet her, Johnny. It’s out of their respect for you. They want to meet the girl that turned you on your heels.”
Johnny grinned. “Well, when you put it that way . . .”
They were interrupted when Aggie Conway approached them. Aggie was the widowed rancher’s wife who lived just south of the Lancer ranch. She and Murdoch had been friends for years.
“Now, why aren’t you two dancing?” she asked, sounding like a scolding mother. “Scott, there are a few eligible young ladies here who wouldn’t mind a turn with the only single Lancer brother left. Maybe help them get over their sadness about Johnny being out of the running,” she said. She turned her attention to Johnny. “And you, young man, are going to take this old woman for a spin on the dance floor,” she said, as she hooked her arm through Johnny’s.
Smiling, Johnny guided her to the dance floor. “You’re hardly an old woman, Aggie. I know for a fact that none of the men here see you that way.”
“Well, that’s very kind of you to say, Johnny, but you always have been a charmer. You certainly charmed your bride off her feet.”
“More the other way around,” Johnny said, with a happy laugh, as he and Aggie glided across the dance floor.
“I like her, Johnny. She seems very bright, and much more worldly than most girls her age. I think you two make a good match. I look forward to getting to know her. It’s wonderful to have another woman in the valley!”
“Thanks, Aggie. I’m sure she’ll enjoy getting to know you, too. I have a feeling you have a lot in common.”
As the dance ended, Johnny saw Jenny talking to one of the ranch hands from Aggie’s ranch. He knew him by face, but not by name.
“Aggie, who is that man talking to Jenny?”
“That’s Rusty Franklin, one of my new hires.” As Aggie watched, the man leaned into Jenny, placed his hand on her arm, leaving very little space between them. He appeared to be whispering in her ear. Jenny’s face pinched slightly, her eyes cast downward. Aggie watched with concern. She glanced at Johnny and saw anger smouldering in his eyes.
“Excuse me, Aggie,” he said, as he stepped away. In a couple of strides he was next to Jenny, steering her away from the man, to the other side of the dance floor. “What did he say to you?”
Jenny heard the tension in his voice, his eyes dark with ire. Trying to calm him, she said, “It was nothing, Johnny, he’s just an obnoxious drunk.”
More emphatically, Johnny asked, “What did he say to you?”
“Johnny, please don’t make a scene.”
“Tell me,” he insisted.
Reluctantly, Jenny said, “He told me I was a real looker and wouldn’t I be a good roll in the hay,” she said, regretting the admission immediately.
With the speed of a well bowed arrow, Johnny was across the dance floor, grabbed Franklin and decked him with a punch to his nose. Franklin grabbed his face, doubled over and moaned. “Nobody insults my wife!” Johnny shouted. The music stopped and the dancers backed away from the sudden altercation. Scott was on Johnny in an instant, pulling him away right as he was about to land another punch. “Come on, Johnny, I think he got the message.”
“Get him outta here,” Johnny seethed. He looked up and saw Aggie standing next to Jenny, her arm protectively around her shoulders. He couldn’t read the look in his wife’s eyes. He moved to go to her, but Scott pulled him in the direction of the house. “Let go of me!” Johnny yelled at his brother.
“Need some help, there, Scott?” asked Johnny’s friend Val, as he approached the struggling brothers.
“Nope, I’ve got him. Just get that guy out of here, will ya, Val?” Scott said, tightening his grip on his squirming brother. Val nodded his head and walked away.
Scott forced Johnny through the courtyard and into the kitchen and pushed him into a chair. “Cool off, little brother.”
Jenny appeared in the doorway. Scott walked to her and said, with a trace of sympathy, “Give him a few minutes, he’ll be fine.”
Jenny stood looking at her husband, eyes glaring, hands on her hips, prepared for battle.
“What was that display all about? Do you think I’ve never received unwanted advances from men before? For heaven’s sake, Johnny, I ran a hotel. This isn’t my first encounter with drunkards. I don’t need you to rescue me from every foul mouthed man who comes my way.”
Johnny ran his hand through his hair. Without looking at her, he said, “I’m your husband. It’s my job to protect you.”
She inhaled deeply, then slowly released the air from her lungs. She dropped her arms to her sides and silently took in the man sitting before her. He was looking calmer, his breathing less labored. His eyes were lowered, his lips pursed. She recognized contriteness when she saw it. Gradually, a smile formed on her face.
“You could have at least waited until he was leaving and punched him when he was out of sight of the other guests. Now all anyone will remember about our wedding party is you losing your temper.” She sat in the chair next to him.
He looked up at her, his eyes clear blue. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t stand seeing him touch you like that. He shouldn’t have said those things to you.” Then, after a few moments, he added, “Sorry I spoiled the party.”
“I know. I don’t mind that you put him in his place, just where you did it,” she said, smiling at him.
He smiled. “How do I fix it out there?” he asked, nodding in the direction of the party.
She took his hand in hers. “We’ll go back to the party, you’ll say you’re sorry for the disturbance, then you’ll dance with every girl out there who wishes she was me. That’s what they’ll remember. They got one last dance with Johnny Lancer.”
With a wide grin, he said, “I can do that.”
Two days after the wedding party, Jenny reluctantly kissed Johnny goodbye as he and Scott headed out with the crews to oversee Murdoch’s assignments for the day. She was about to face her first day at Lancer without him by her side. She missed him already.
She was in the kitchen helping with the cleanup after breakfast. Teresa helped her put the newly dried plates away, then grabbed the towel from Jenny’s hands.
“Enough of this. Let’s go get you unpacked. We can’t have you living out of trunks forever!”
Jenny gladly followed Teresa up the back staircase to the bedroom, thankful for an activity that would distract her for a while. There had been so much going on over the past couple of days, she had not taken the time to unpack, simply pulling out what she needed at the moment. It would be good to have all of her things organized.
“Which trunk do you want to start with?” Teresa asked, surveying the four trunks lining the hallway.
“Let’s start with the largest one. It has the things that will go in the wardrobe.”
“Oh, I can’t wait to see your clothes!” Teresa gushed. “You have such a beautiful style!”
Jenny laughed and said, “Well, I don’t know about that. You might be disappointed.”
“Oh, I doubt it. The suit you were wearing when you arrived is beautiful.”
Jenny pulled garments out of the trunk and handed them to Teresa, who then hung them in the wardrobe.
“Your clothes are so unusual! They’re beautiful and suit you perfectly,” Teresa said.
“Well, I designed most of them myself. I have a tailor in San Francisco who makes them for me. I loved the clothes he made for Ian, so I hired him to make my clothes, too. He has a wonderful seamstress who does the fine details like buttons and embroidery. I don’t care much for the fashion coming from Europe or the east coast. I hate feeling constrained by what I’m wearing. A lot of my work at the hotel was physical, so I needed clothing that was practical. Besides, keeping up with what’s fashionable is so tedious!”
Teresa spontaneously hugged her new sister-in-law and said, “I’m so happy you’re here!”
Jenny, momentarily caught off guard, stiffened, then relaxed into Teresa’s embrace. Suddenly touched by Teresa’s show of emotion, her eyes glistened as she felt a warm affection toward this remarkable young woman.
“Well, I’m happy to be here! Shall we tackle the next trunk?”
Teresa grabbed the top item in the trunk. “What are these?” she asked, holding up a pair of denim pants.
“Oh, I had those made by a tailor in Reno. A couple from there stayed at the hotel a few years ago, and the gentleman was wearing a pair of trousers made of denim with copper rivets on them. See, here, they’re placed where the fabric usually tears from wear over time. The rivets reinforce the fabric. I ordered the denim from Mr. Strauss’ dry goods store in San Francisco and sent it with my measurements to Mr. Davis, requesting he make me a pair of pants using the copper rivets. I wore them when I did heavy cleaning at the hotel. I’ve had them for about three years, and they’re still like new!”
“How ingenious! I love them!”
After a couple of hours, the women had found places for all of Jenny’s possessions, mostly clothing. A small trunk remained unopened, which Teresa found intriguing. “What about this trunk?” she asked. She noted it bore the name and cavalry unit of Jenny’s late husband, Ian McBride.
“Oh, I’ll take care of that one later,” Jenny said. Seeing that it would fit in the bottom of the wardrobe, she said, “I’ll store it in here until I need something from it. It’s just a few personal items.”
Teresa pushed away her curiosity and let the matter rest. “Very good. Then it looks like we’re finished here,” she said. “We can put the empty trunks in the hallway and I’ll have Jelly put them in storage. Jenny, can I ask you a question?”
“Of course you can.”
“You and Johnny got married so quickly after meeting, how did you know he was the right person for you?”
Jenny smiled at her sister-in-law. “Come, sit down for a minute,” she said, as she led Teresa to the small sofa at the foot of the bed.
“The minute I met Johnny I knew he would change my life. I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I looked into his eyes. He had me then. I really had no choice in the matter.”
“So it was love at first sight?”
“I suppose you could call it that, but it felt like much more. After spending some time with him, I came to understand that I felt I was home when I was with him. I had found the place where I’m supposed to be,” she said, feeling her eyes fill.
“That’s so romantic,” Teresa said.
“Yes, it is that as well. I loved my first two husbands, John and Ian, but what I have with Johnny is so different, so new to me. It’s like I’m only now discovering who I really am.”
“I’m so happy for both of you. I’ve never seen Johnny this happy. So how were you able to just walk away from your business?”
“Well, it was a case of perfect timing. My brother-in-law James arrived the same day Johnny got back to the city. I wasn’t expecting him. His wife recently died, and he decided to leave Philadelphia for a new start in San Francisco. So his first stop, of course, was to see me. To make a long story short, he was more than willing to take over the management of the hotel. He grew up in the hotel business alongside Ian, so he was prepared to step in and run the place. I still own it, but I don’t need to be there anymore. James’ arrival left me free to come here and start my life with Johnny. It’s quite amazing how perfectly it all came about.”
“I hope someday I find someone to love the way you love Johnny,” Teresa said.
Jenny took Teresa’s hand and said, “Sweetheart, you will. Be patient, but be ready.” Laughing, she said, “You never know when you’ll fall into a pool of blue eyes and be lost forever. Thank you for your help unpacking. I feel much more settled now. Now, would you mind showing me Johnny’s old room?”
“Sure, but it’s only an empty room now,” Teresa commented.
“I know, but I’d still like to see it,” Jenny explained.
“Okay, it’s this way,” Teresa said, as she led Jenny around the corner and a couple of doors down the long hallway.
“Here it is,” she said, as they stepped into the furnished, but unused room.
Jenny stepped into the center of the room and looked around. She envisioned Johnny being there, his things scattered across the room. She could imagine him sleeping peacefully in bed. She felt an unexplainable warmth fill her body. She turned around and noticed a door in the corner.
“Does that door lead to Scott’s room?” she asked.
Teresa smiled and said, “Yes, it does. Their connected rooms have become a bit of a running joke around here. Every morning, Johnny would barge into Scott’s room, never knocking, not giving a care what Scott was doing. I think at first Scott was irritated by it, but he soon came to expect a morning visit from Johnny. When Johnny was recovering from being shot by Pardee, Scott turned the tables on Johnny and checked on him first thing every morning. I think they both came to enjoy starting the day with some teasing or joking. I think it helped them get to know each other.”
Jenny laughed at the memory of the brothers wanting adjoining rooms when they checked into the hotel. “Well, it explains some things. The day I met Johnny at the hotel, he and Scott were pretty insistent about having connecting rooms. I ended up giving them the V.I.P. Suite so they could be together.”
Teresa smiled. “Yes, I heard that story from Johnny. He couldn’t stop talking about how well you treated them.”
Jenny enjoyed hearing the story, but a troubled look settled on her face. She realized this special ritual between the brothers had been abandoned with her arrival. To shake her concerns, she turned back to Teresa.
“Thank you for sharing that with me. It helps me understand the bond that Johnny has with Scott. I find it amazing they have such a close relationship after such a short time together. And being such opposites!”
“Oh, isn’t it wonderful?” Teresa exclaimed. “Neither knew the other existed until the day they arrived here. Now they’re inseparable!”
“Until I showed up,” Jenny said, laughing.
“Oh, Jenny, it’s obvious how much Johnny loves you. Scott and I are thrilled to have you as our sister-in-law. Scott would gladly give up some of his time with Johnny to see his brother so happy,” Teresa said.
“Thank you, Teresa. And thank you for making me feel so welcome. I had no idea what to expect coming here. It’s all been such a pleasant surprise!”
They heard the lunch bell being rung by Maria.
“I think we’ve had a productive morning. Now, let’s go eat lunch!” Teresa said.
The rest of the afternoon had been spent with Teresa showing Jenny around the house and outbuildings. After running a hotel for several years, helping run the Lancer house would almost feel like a vacation. In time she would need to find other activities to keep her occupied, but those thoughts were for another day. Today she was learning what it took to keep the Lancer household humming. She was eager to find where her talents could be best put to use.
They were walking from Teresa’s vegetable garden behind the house when they heard horses approaching at the front of the house. When they reached the veranda, they saw Johnny, Scott and several vaqueros arriving at the fence to the barn corral. Johnny dismounted and tethered Barranca to the fence. As he turned to the house, Jenny ran to him, flinging herself into his arms.
“God, I missed you today!”
Johnny laughed, untangling himself from his wife’s grip. “I missed you, too.”
“You’ve turned me into a schoolgirl waiting for her beau to come calling!”
“You do know the entire crew is watching us, right?”
“I don’t care. Do you care?”
In answer to her question, he kissed her passionately on the mouth, then picked her up and twirled around with her in his arms.
Setting her back on her feet, he asked, “Does that answer your question?”
“Yes, quite nicely,” she said, a satisfied smile on her face.
“Come with me while I take care of Barranca and you can tell me about your day,” Johnny said. Arm in arm they walked to the barn.
Conversation at dinner was lively, and not without a bit of ribbing at the expense of the newlyweds about their public reunion at the end of the work day. They joined in the good natured fun by displaying a passionate kiss at the table, instantly quieting their tormentors.
“All right, you two, we get the message,” Murdoch said.
Johnny pursed his lips for a moment, then said, “Well, we should be on our honeymoon, but here we are with an audience for our first days of married life. So get used to it!” he teased.
“Okay, but you can expect a fair amount of ribbing from the hands tomorrow,” Scott said.
“And I’ll accept it proudly,” he said, grinning.
“Not to spoil the fun, but is there anything new to report on this most recent threat to Johnny?” Murdoch asked.
“No sir, we haven’t seen or heard anything to suggest someone is looking for Johnny since we got home,” Scott replied.
“Val is keeping an eye out in town and we’ve heard nothing from him,” Johnny added.
“Well, it’s early yet since you came home. Let’s not drop our guard,” Murdoch said.
“Agreed.” Scott said.
Johnny nodded his concurrence.
Early one morning a couple of weeks later, Jenny yawned as she stretched her arms above her head. Getting up at dawn seemed like a good idea the night before, but it was the only way she would accomplish her mission without Johnny knowing about it. She quietly slid out of bed and began her morning routine.
She managed to wash and dress without disturbing Johnny. She wore black leather riding pants. Under a cropped suede riding jacket she wore a perfectly pressed white blouse, carefully adorned with pearl buttons. Her long hair was pulled back in a braid, tied at the end with a black ribbon.
Before heading to the door, she bent over and gave Johnny a quick kiss on the forehead. Before she was able to make her getaway, a warm hand grabbed her by the wrist and gently pulled her down to the bed. She found herself sitting on the edge of the bed, nestled against his hip, amazed at the speed at which her exit had been foiled.
In a soft voice he asked, “Is that all I get for my wakeup call?” He pulled her close and kissed her full on the mouth, gripping her shoulders so she couldn’t pull away. Not that she wanted to. Johnny’s morning kisses were things of legend, often leaving her wondering how she was supposed to get anything done when the start of the day left her weak in the knees. This morning was no different, but she had her mind set on other things, determined not to let Johnny waylay her plans.
“So why are you up so early?” Johnny asked, as he rubbed his eyes and squinted at her. “And why are you wearing your riding clothes?”
“Do you have to know everything I’m doing? Can’t a woman retain a little bit of mystery?” she responded, trying to avoid making eye contact.
“You will always be a woman of mystery to me,” he said, with a sly grin.
She worked up the resolve to break loose of his embrace and pushed herself off the bed. She darted out the door before he had a chance to delay her any further, proclaiming over her shoulder, “Don’t you dare go back to sleep, Johnny Lancer.”
She bounded down the back stairway to the kitchen. Walt was probably already waiting for her behind the barn. She needed to hurry before she lost the opportunity to complete her goal before drawing an audience. The men would be coming down for breakfast in about thirty minutes.
She found Teresa standing at the stove turning the bacon on the griddle. She realized she was famished.
She glanced at Teresa and offered, “I’ll get the eggs going. How about a batch of scrambled eggs today?”
“Good morning, Jenny. Scrambled eggs would be fine, and thank you for the help. I really miss Maria when she isn’t here.”
Jenny poured herself a cup of coffee and began sipping it as she set about cracking the eggs into a large bowl. As soon as the eggs were ready, Jenny grabbed a plate and served herself a small helping and pilfered a rasher of bacon off the griddle. She scooped the remaining eggs onto a serving dish and placed them on the warmer. She moved quickly to the table and sat down to eat her breakfast. While she ate, she watched Teresa remove the biscuits from the oven and top them with butter and honey before slipping them onto a serving platter. She deposited one on Jenny’s plate.
“You seem to be in a hurry this morning,” Teresa said.
”Yes, I have something I need to do this morning and I want to get it done before Johnny comes down.” She rose and took her plate to the sink, grabbing the biscuit and a napkin and walked to the door. “I’ll see you later Teresa. Oh, and please tell Johnny I went for a walk,” she said, giving Teresa a wink and a smile.
Johnny turned onto his stomach and stretched his legs across the bed, seriously thinking about falling back to sleep. If his wife was going to abandon him in his hour of need, he might as well be sleeping. But something was off about Jenny’s behavior this morning and he was curious about what she was plotting. “All right, damn it, I’m getting up,” he declared, as he threw back the covers and leaped out of bed. He took his time getting dressed, knowing he had plenty of time before the food would be placed on the breakfast table. Teresa was a creature of habit and breakfast was served at precisely 6:30 a.m. everyday.
As Johnny descended into the kitchen he saw Scott and Murdock already seated at the table. Teresa was serving them coffee. “Where’s Jenny?” he asked, to no one in particular.
“She said to tell you she went for a walk,” Teresa replied.
“Went for a walk? Who goes for a walk before breakfast?” he retorted, as he simultaneously grabbed a plate and sat in the chair next to Scott.
“Oh, she already had her breakfast,” Teresa explained.
“How long has she been gone?”
“Not long.” Teresa was purposefully vague with her response. She liked having secrets with her sister-in-law, even if she didn’t really know what the secret was.
Johnny finished loading his plate and started eating with his usual gusto. Teresa placed a large glass of milk next to his plate, then filled his cup with steaming coffee.
Scott eyed his brother and declared, “You are the most spoiled man I know. You don’t even have to ask for what you want, it just magically appears before you.”
The sides of Johnny’s mouth turned up slightly as he continued to chew his food.
“These eggs are great, Teresa. Thanks.”
“Yes, they are exceptionally good this morning,” Scott offered.
“Don’t thank me, Jenny made them.”
Johnny shot Teresa a big smile, communicating half surprise, half satisfaction. He recalled how Jenny had declared, almost proudly, her lack of skill in the kitchen. She had told him her time on the trail west had cured her of any interest in cooking. But it seemed she had conquered the art of making scrambled eggs, no doubt under Teresa’s careful instruction.
Murdoch broke his silence with, “So, Johnny, Scott and I were discussing the priorities for the day before you came down. I’d like the two of you to ride into Green River to pick up the mail and check on the lumber order for the new line shack on the South Line.”
Johnny was about to respond when the sound of gunfire erupted from somewhere outside. The three men jumped from their seats and were out the door in seconds, guns drawn.
The weight of the gun and holster against her right leg felt familiar yet strange. It had been some time since she had reason to wear her rig. Living in the city she relied on others to provide her protection when needed. But she was no longer in the city. She now lived in a wild and often dangerous land, no matter how civilized it may seem from the confines of the hacienda. She felt a bit guilty about not discussing her plan with Johnny, but she was afraid he would be overprotective and try to talk her out of it. She felt the need to establish her independence and show her new family she could carry her own weight. She needed to be able to protect herself, it was that simple.
As promised, Walt had arranged to have an area behind the barn set up for target practice. An array of tin cans and bottles were lined up across the fence rail that enclosed a small corral. He handed her the rig she had asked him to store in the barn until today. By way of thanks, she handed him the biscuit, which he devoured in one bite. Teresa’s butter and honey biscuits were highly coveted by the ranch hands.
Jenny buckled the gun belt around her hips and stood to get her bearings. She couldn’t remember the last time she fired a gun. It had to have been when she and Ian had taken a day off to go riding just north of the city. They had taken advantage of the location to do some target practice as well. So at least over two years ago by her estimation.
She spent a few minutes gripping the gun with her hand, but not removing it from the holster. Then she removed the gun and held it in the palm of her hand, gauging its weight. Holding the 1860 Colt Army revolver that Ian had given her brought memories crashing into her brain. She didn’t have time for them today, so she pushed them away. She curled her fingers around the walnut grip and she could feel her muscle memory responding to the feel of the thing.
She returned the gun to the holster. She straightened her body and took a deep breath, drew the gun, aimed and rapidly fired toward the targets. She was amazed to see only two targets still standing. She looked at Walt and they exchanged wide grins. Walt ran to the railing and quickly set up the targets for another round. This time, before drawing her gun, she ran the scenario through her head, visualizing each target bouncing in the air. Then she was ready. She turned her back to the fence, took a deep breath, then rapidly turned to face the mock threat and drew her gun and fired in a seamless motion. Only one bottle was left standing on the railing when she was finished. She nodded to Walt and he set the targets up again.
This time she would shoot from a sideways stance to test her peripheral vision. She stood with her right side facing the targets. From that stance, she could not see the small audience that had gathered at the corner of the barn.
Johnny stood in shock as he saw the tableau before him. Jenny stood straight and flexed her fingers as they hovered above the gun. A reflection off the hilt of the gun blinded him for a moment. His senses were on full alert. He had barely registered what he was seeing, when Jenny suddenly reacted to a stone thrown by Walt to the area of the targets. He watched her as she turned slightly to her right, drew her gun, aimed and fired at the targets in a sweeping cascade. When the dust and smoke had settled, not one target remained standing.
Jenny sensed the eyes on her and turned to see Johnny, Scott and Murdoch staring at her like they’d just seen a magic trick. As she approached them, she quipped, “You’d better close your mouths or you’ll be eating flies for breakfast,” she said, with a laugh. “Haven’t you ever seen a woman shoot a gun before?”
Scott swallowed hard, as he said, “Not like that, I haven’t,” shaking his head and revealing a look of admiration.
“Well, I guess the threat is over and we can all get back to what we were doing,” Murdock declared as he re-holstered his gun. “I need another cup of coffee, or maybe something stronger.” He turned away from the small gathering and headed back to the hacienda. Over his shoulder he called to his sons, “The business in Green River won’t wait all day.”
Scott took a couple of quick steps and shouted, “I’m right behind you, Murdoch.”
Jenny turned to Walt, and said, “Thanks for your help.”
“My pleasure, Mrs. Lancer.” He turned and walked toward the barn.
Johnny remained uncharacteristically quiet. He stood still, his head bent down, his hands on his hips.
Jenny looked at him. “I assume you have something to say?” While she’d gotten much better at reading his moods, she was clueless as to what he might be thinking. She stood nervously waiting for some reaction from him.
Inside Johnny’s head a maelstrom of questions and emotions were competing for his attention. Why didn’t she ask me to help her with target practice? Where did she get the gun? And how did she learn to shoot like that? He tried to quell the fear he felt in his gut, not fully understanding its source.
He finally looked up. “I would have helped you, you know.”
“I know Johnny, but I wanted to do this for myself. It’s been a long time since I had to protect myself, and I wanted to prove that I am still capable of doing just that. There are going to be times when I will be on my own here, and I don’t want you worrying about my safety. I need you to know I can take care of myself.”
“You can never convince me not to worry about you. You never told me you were so good with a gun.”
“You never asked. So I was able to hold on to a little mystery after all,” she said. She slipped her arm through his as they walked toward the hacienda.
As they walked, Johnny leaned his head toward Jenny’s and softly said, “I want to hear all about how you learned to shoot like a professional. And where you got the Colt, but it’s going to have to wait because I have to go to Green River with Scott on some errands for Murdoch.”
They had reached the back door to the kitchen. Jenny heard the unease in his voice. He wasn’t angry, but she knew her actions had unsettled him. “I will tell you everything you want to know,” she said.
Scott and Johnny were approaching the town of Green River to carry out their assignment of collecting the mail and checking on a lumber order..
“You haven’t said two words since we left,” Scott said.
“Not sure what to say,” Johnny said.
They rode on for a few more minutes. Johnny looked over at his brother.
“So, Boston, what did you think when you saw Jenny out there this morning?” Johnny asked.
“She’s very skilled with a gun. Suggests to me she’s been good for a long time.” Scott said.
“I didn’t even recognize that woman as my wife. I didn’t even know she had a gun other than the Derringer she kept behind the hotel desk. Kinda took me by surprise.”
“Well, brother, I think you’ve got a lot more surprises in store for you. It’s not like you took a long time to get to know each other. And would it have made a difference if you’d known she was that good with a gun?”
“Of course not.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“I’ve just got a bad feeling about it. Like it could put her in danger, being my wife.”
“Sounds like you need to talk to her about it. And soon.”
“Yeah, soon as we get back,” Johnny vowed.
Jenny was in the bedroom, standing at the window, looking out at the vista that rose to the west. Minutes before, while in the great room, she had seen Johnny and Scott approaching the Lancer arch. It appeared they had been racing, but both riders reined their horses in so they passed under the arch side by side. Once in a while the brotherly competition gave way to the bond of mutual respect. She loved watching the camaraderie between them. It reminded her of the close relationship between her brother, Scott, and his friends (and her eventual husbands), John and Ian. Warm memories from another time.
Jenny’s thoughts were now on the conversation she and Johnny would be having as soon as he reached the bedroom. She knew his routine. First he would take care of Barranca, getting him settled in his stall. He would wash the road dust from his face at the washbasin in the courtyard. Once in the house, he would pass through the kitchen in search of a morsel left from lunch to ease his hunger before dinner. But the sound of his spurs on the stairway told her Barranca had been left in the care of someone else and the afternoon snack had been forfeited. The tightness in her neck and jaw increased, anticipating his arrival.
She turned around as the door opened and Johnny stepped into the room. He was still wearing his holster, hat hanging down his back by the stampede strings. Without a word, he removed his gun belt and hat and placed them on the back of one of the chairs. He had not yet looked at her. Jenny’s anxiety rose. She recalled the morning events had ended on a sweet note, but Johnny had held back in his reaction to her unannounced target practice. He’d had all day for his emotions to stew.
Johnny lowered himself into the chair, his hands gripping the arms. His left hand went to the table top where he started a rhythmic beat with his fingers. Jenny had known him long enough to recognize the sign of his tension.
She moved to the chair opposite him and sat down. “Please say something,” she said.
He gave her a quick glance, then removed his hand from the table. She saw the tip of his tongue run across the corner of his mouth. A look of distress settled on his face. Finally, he took a deep breath. In his soft voice he said, “Jenny, you nearly scared me to death this morning.”
She saw him relax a bit, having said what he had been holding inside. She allowed herself to simply breathe for a minute. “I’m so sorry, I never meant to scare you,” she said, lines of regret creasing her face. “I wanted to practice without an audience. I’m sorry if the racket alarmed everyone.”
Johnny responded, “It wasn’t the gunfire, Jenny. Hell, people are shooting at things around here all the time. What scared me was seeing you there, so fierce, so focused and so damned good.”
“Johnny, you can’t be afraid of me,” she said.
“Of course I’m not afraid of you,” he said, raising his voice. “I’m afraid for you!” he said, as he rose from the chair.
He stood in front of her, reaching out to touch her face. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to raise my voice.”
She moved quickly, standing up and putting her hands in front of her, palms toward him. “No, please don’t touch me, Johnny,” she said. “We aren’t finished with this conversation and I can’t have you touching me right now.” She knew the power his touch had over her. She had to stand her ground. “You don’t have to be afraid for me, Johnny,” she said. “The main reason I want to practice is so you won’t have to worry about me.”
Johnny had taken a step back, giving them some breathing room. After taking a cleansing breath, he placed his hands, overlapped, on his belt and looked to the floor. “Do you have any idea what seeing you out there this morning did to me?” he implored. “I felt like I was coming unraveled, right there in the corral. You pretty near destroyed me. When I came around the corner of the barn, I froze in my steps. I saw a woman I didn’t even know. My heart stopped beating. I couldn’t breath. My God, Jenny, you looked so strong, so capable, so sure of yourself.” With that, he let his arms fall to his sides and he moved to the edge of the bed and sat down. In a whisper, he said, “I felt like I was looking in a mirror.”
Jenny thought, so there it is. He thinks he’s met his match and he doesn’t know what to do. She let his statement rest for a minute, then asked, “And that scares you?”
“Yes, it scares me. I haven’t been out of the game that long. My reputation is still out there. I never know when someone will come looking to take it from me. You know the threat from San Francisco is still out there. If word got out that I have a wife who’s nearly as good as I am, well, it could make us a double target.”
Jenny voiced her confusion, “But Johnny, that doesn’t make sense. I don’t have a reputation. It’s not like I’m a hired gun. I learned to shoot to protect myself. That’s it. Lots of women are good shots. I’m not that unusual.”
“Oh, yes you are,” he said, stealing a glance at her. “Sure, lots of women can shoot a gun, but not drawing a gun with that speed and accuracy. I don’t want you to be in danger because you’re my wife.”
“I’m not sure you can control that, Johnny. The world’s a dangerous place. Look at what happened to you in San Francisco. Trouble walked in the door, and it had nothing to do with your past.”
“I guess you’re right about that,” Johnny said.
“Johnny, my father put a gun in my hand when I was ten years old. He owns a mercantile in Philadelphia. I worked there after school and on weekends. He never wanted me in the store alone without knowing how to protect myself. And my skill was invaluable on the journey out here. Ian gave me the Colt on our trip west. It was his Cavalry pistol.” Jenny took a deep breath, exhaled and relaxed into the chair. “A month or so into the trip Ian injured his arm helping a family pull their wagon out of a swollen river. His shooting arm, of course. There was a young man, fifteen or sixteen years old, traveling with his family from Missouri, who was pretty good with a gun. His father had died in a terrible accident and he became the sole protector of his mother and sister. I approached him one day when he was at target practice and I asked him to teach me how to draw. Someone had to be able to protect our family and it fell to me. We practiced everyday after dinner. I was already a pretty good shot, but I learned to react more quickly and accurately. I’ll always be grateful to that kid for teaching me. I let myself get lax in my practice while in San Francisco. I’m correcting that now.”
Johnny watched her as she talked. He had no reason to doubt her story, but wanted to know more. “Did you ever have to use it to protect yourself?”
Jenny looked up and gave Johnny a smile of regret. “Yes, several times. The trail was a dangerous place, Johnny. I did what I had to do for me and Ian to survive. From rattlesnakes to thieves to Indian raids, my gun became a necessary thing. It took several weeks for Ian to get full use of his arm back.” She smiled slightly before proceeding. “He never asked me to give him back the Colt. He said it was being put to much better use in my hands. Johnny, I never set out to be able to shoot like a professional gunfighter. I mean, why would I? That was the farthest thing from my mind. My father taught me accuracy, the kid on the trail taught me speed.”
“Where do you think he learned?” Johnny asked.
“I believe he taught himself. I remember his mother constantly telling him to put the gun away and get his chores done. But the kid was good.”
“What became of him and his family?”
“I don’t know. I think they were headed to San Jose, California, but they didn’t follow us when we turned south from Idaho. Maybe they took a different route.”
Johnny processed what he had heard. He knew from previous conversations that Jenny’s trip west had been harrowing. He believed what she told him. He let his arms relax as he let out a deep sigh. “You know I won’t stop worrying about you being safe, right?” he asked.
“Sure, Johnny, I know. And I love you for it.”
The air in the room suddenly shifted, feeling lighter. Jenny stepped to the window and opened it, letting in the late afternoon air. She heard Johnny rise from the bed and step toward her. She remained at the window, not turning around. His hands were on her hips in seconds, and he pulled her against him. He pulled her hair away and kissed her lightly on the neck. “You were beautiful out there this morning.”
She slowly turned around to face him and said, “Will you forgive me for not talking to you about it first?”
“There’s nothing to forgive,” he said. Then with a kiss, they let the tension go and found relief in each other’s arms. There would be more to say later, but they were comfortable leaving it here for now. As the kiss grew more urgent, Jenny gasped a breath and said, “Shouldn’t we be getting ready for dinner?”
“I’m not too hungry right now, at least not for food,” he said, as he led her to the bed. They were going to be late for dinner. Again.
The next morning Johnny and Scott were riding out to check grazing conditions and water sources. They expected to find some downed branches from the storm that had passed through during the night. It gave Johnny time to think. Murdoch was probably upset that he and Jenny had missed dinner the night before. Johnny decided he needed to find a way to balance his need to be with his wife and not disappoint his father.
Johnny recalled yesterday’s conversation with Jenny and what preceded it. When he and Scott had arrived home from Green River, he had stopped at the corral gate and called out to Walt who was nearby.
“Hey, Walt, will ya take care of Barranca for me?” he asked, as he dismounted his horse in a fluid motion. “I need to get up to the hacienda.”
“Sure, Johnny,” Walt had responded, avoiding Johnny’s eyes. “I’ll take good care of him.” He had taken the reins from Johnny and turned back to the barn.
Johnny had called after him, “Hey, Walt, I wanna thank you for helping Jenny today. I know she didn’t want a bunch of hands watching her practice, and I know you saw to that.”
“So you’re not pissed at me?” Walt had asked.
“No, Walt, I would have been pissed if you hadn’t helped her,” Johnny said.
“Well, okay, Johnny. I’ll see you later then,” Walt said, as he led Barranca to the barn. With a turn of his head he added, “Hey, Johnny, your wife’s a real nice lady. She treats people real good.”
“Thanks, Walt,” Johnny said, with a smile.
Johnny had gone to the house and entered through the front door. He had stepped into the great room and found Teresa preparing the table for dinner. “Hey, Teresa, do you know where Jenny is?”
“She went upstairs,” Teresa had said.
“Thanks.” He had taken a couple of long strides to the stairway and bounded up the steps.
He had quickly found himself standing at the door to their bedroom, not entirely sure he was ready for the confrontation. But he had known that putting it off would only increase the strain he’d been holding. Never in his life had he felt as nervous as he had felt before entering that room. He still hadn’t fully understood why seeing her firing that gun had frightened him so. He had braced himself and entered the room.
Now, he wasn’t sure what, if anything, had been resolved. He still needed to talk about how his fear, which he was starting to come to grips with, was coming from a concern for her safety. He was sure she didn’t fully appreciate how dangerous it could be to be the wife of Johnny Madrid. He had an overpowering need to protect her.
Scott interrupted his thoughts, “Hey brother, I can hear you thinking way over here. What’s got you so preoccupied?”
Johnny sighed without replying.
“Still stewing over what happened yesterday?”
“Yeah, just tryin’ to sort it all out,” Johnny explained.
“You did talk to her about it, didn’t you? When you didn’t come down for dinner I figured something was going on up there,” giving Johnny a knowing look. “But I didn’t hear any shouting or gunfire, so I figured no one got hurt.”
“Yeah, we talked,” Johnny said, laughing.
They came upon a creek where a tree had fallen, slowing the flow of water.
“Well, Johnny, looks like it’s time to get to work,” Scott quipped. They dismounted, ground tied their horses and started clearing debris from the creek.
Several days later, the sun was approaching its zenith when Johnny and Jenny rode into Green River. They were on schedule for their planned lunch with Scott and Val. Scott had left the hacienda right after breakfast to take a message from Murdoch to Aggie Conway on his way to town.
The pair rode up to the sheriff’s office, dismounted and tethered their horses. Johnny stepped up to the door, fully expecting to find Val dozing, with his feet propped up on the desk. But Val was not there.
“Maybe he’s already at the restaurant,” Jenny offered.
“Maybe,” Johnny concurred, “but I’ve never known Val to be early for anything. Well, let’s find out,” he said.
They turned in the direction of the hotel, as they planned to eat at the hotel’s restaurant. They had walked a short distance when suddenly Val emerged from an alley just ahead of them, running at breakneck speed. He nearly collided with Johnny.
“Whoa there, Val, what’s the rush?” Johnny asked as he put a hand on Val’s chest to slow him down.
“Oh good, you’re here,” Val said, gasping for breath.
“Well yeah, Val, we’re havin’ lunch, remember?” Johnny said.
“That’s gonna have to wait. Quick, come with me back to the office.”
As the three of them headed to Val’s office they saw Scott approaching. With a nod of the head, Johnny signaled him to meet them there. They quickened their approach and met Scott at the door.
“What’s going on?” Scott asked.
Johnny shrugged and said, “Wish I knew.”
Val opened the door and pulled them inside.
“Okay, Val, what the hell’s going on?” Johnny demanded.
Jenny had been silent since they had met up with Val. She gave him a look that communicated that she, too, wanted an explanation, and fast. He was delaying her enjoyment of her lunch.
“Okay, okay. Last night some nasty lookin’ fellas road into town. There’s five of ‘em. Ben at the Diamond Saloon came by this morning to tell me they got pretty rowdy last night and didn’t leave until closin’ time.”
“Nothing unusual about that, Val,” Scott said.
“I know, I know,” Val continued, “but Ben said their tongues got pretty loose and he heard one of ‘em say somethin’ about a bank and a long overdue payday.”
“So you think they’re gonna rob the bank,” Johnny said.
“Hell yeah, I think they’re gonna rob the bank! I just poked my head in the saloon and there they were, playin’ cards all nice and quiet like,” Val explained.
“The calm before the storm,” Jenny said.
The three men all stared at her.
“What? They’re probably just killing time, waiting for orders from their boss,” she added.
None of them disputed her argument.
Val continued. “So I went over to the hotel and Cal told me they paid for only one night, an’ that was last night. They ain’t got plans for sleepin’ in this town tonight.”
“So we have to assume the heist is planned for today,” Johnny reasoned.
“That’s the way I figure it, Johnny,” Val said.
Scott asked, “What can we do to help?”
“I’m gonna deputize you and Johnny. Figure the three of us with our skills can take the five of them,” Val said.
Johnny protested, “Now wait a minute, Val. We don’t know who these guys are or how good they are. I think another person would help us improve our chances. Have better coverage of the town. Where’s Frank?”
“He’s in Sacramento visitin’ his sick mother. Won’t be back ‘til tomorrow afternoon,” Val said, explaining the whereabouts of his deputy.
“Give me a gun,” Jenny said, looking at Val.
Val laughed out loud. “You want me to do what?” he asked.
“You heard the lady. Give her a gun,” Johnny said.
“But Johnny, she’s a woman, I can’t . . .“ Val began, but he was cut off by Johnny.
“A woman, Val? What’s that got to do with it?”
“But if I give her a gun, I have to deputize her.”
Johnny took a deep breath, gathering his patience, before replying. “So give her a gun and deputize her,” he said, more as a direction than a suggestion. Johnny started opening drawers in the desk and said, “Come on, Val, I know you’ve got some extra guns around here someplace.”
“Well, I never heard anything so crazy in all my days,” Val mumbled, as he rummaged through a drawer to find the key to the gun cabinet. He knelt in front of the cabinet and unlocked the bottom door. As he opened it, a cascade of guns and rigs toppled to the floor.
Scott, Johnny and Jenny all stared in dismay.
“Val, what are you doing with all those guns?” Johnny asked, shaking his head.
“Just collected them over time,” he said. With a wide smile he added, “Dead men don’t need no guns.”
With shrugs of agreement, the three moved closer to the pile of guns. Jenny knelt down and started sorting through the mass, looking for one that suited her. Suddenly she let out a small gasp and placed her hand on a silver clad gun. She knew instantly what it was.
“Johnny,” she whispered, “look at this.”
Johnny knelt beside her and said, “Wow, that’s a beauty.”
Scott stepped closer, and upon seeing the object of their attention, said, “Let me see that.” Jenny carefully handed the gun to Scott. He looked at the ornate silver plated gun with the gold grip and saw the depiction of a Union soldier on the left side of the grip. “It’s a Tiffany-gripped Union Colt pistol.” He turned the gun over in his hand and caressed the gold grip. “Val, you should try to find its rightful owner.”
“Now, how the heck would I do that?”
“I can help you with that later, but in the meantime, handle it with care.” He handed the gun back to Jenny. “Right now we have a bank robbery to prevent,” Scott said, with his usual military bearing.
Jenny gently placed the gun on the shelf of the cabinet. As she continued her search, she spotted a Whitney Second Model Navy in a tan holster. A shiver ran down her spine as memories of a similar weapon flooded her head. She momentarily felt dizzy and her stomach did a flip. To quash the memories, she quickly stood up with the rig in her hand. She braced herself with a hand against the cabinet.
Johnny was instantly by her side. “Are you okay?” he asked, as he helped steady her.
Nodding her head, she assured him by saying, “I just stood up too quickly.” She handed him the gun and asked, “Will you check this one for me while my head stops spinning?” She tossed the holster onto the desk.
“Sure,” Johnny said, as he directed her to the chair. “Sit for a minute ‘til you get your bearings.”
As Johnny inspected the weapon, he covertly kept an eye on Jenny. He was sure that her unsteadiness was more than a rush of blood to the head. He had heard the small gasp and change in her breathing when she picked up the gun. Satisfied the gun passed initial inspection, Johnny collected ammunition from the gunbelt and headed for the door. “I’ll be right back,” he said.
A few minutes later the group in the office heard a round of gunshots. Johnny soon rejoined them, and said, “This will do.” He handed the gun back to his wife.
Jenny had since rummaged through the pile of guns and selected the smallest holster she could find. It was loose, but it wouldn’t fall off her hips. She found herself regretting not wearing her own rig today. But then she never anticipated needing it while in town with Johnny. She was quickly learning that she needed to expect the unexpected in this new place she called home.
Val watched her as she slipped the gun into the holster and readjusted the belt. “You really know how to shoot that thing?” he asked. Doubt filled his face.
“Don’t worry, Val. Jenny can shoot that gun better than most men in this town,” Johnny said.
Val saw Scott nod in agreement. Clearly they knew something he did not.
“Okay, that’s settled. You boys have rifles?” he asked the brothers. He received twin nods from Johnny and Scott. Val stepped to the rifle cabinet and selected one for himself. Jenny appeared at his side and put her hand out to Val, signaling him to give her a rifle. Val shrugged, abandoning any argument, and placed the rifle in her hands. Eyeing the Winchester, she said, “This will do as well.”
Val looked at Johnny with an expression that seemed to say, “I hope she knows what she’s doing.” Val took another gun from the rack, then closed and locked the cabinet.
Scott returned the guns still strewn on the floor back to the cabinet and locked it. He stood and joined the others.
“Y’all raise your right hands,” Val said. Hands raised, he continued. “Do you swear to uphold the laws of the town of Green River and the state of California?” he asked.
In unison, they said, “Yes.”
“Okay, deputies,” Val declared, “now all we need is a plan,” he said, looking into the expectant faces of his friends.
Johnny, Jenny and Scott each independently walked by the saloon in order to catch a glimpse of the men Val believed were planning the robbery. Val assigned them each to a strategic location in town that allowed them to observe the bank from multiple perspectives. Val, Johnny and Scott were scattered along Main Street. Jenny stood sentry on the side street, with a view of the rear of the bank down an alley.
A few minutes after one o’clock, they saw a man ride into town and stop in front of the saloon. Johnny thought he looked familiar, but couldn’t place him. Shortly after he entered the saloon, the would-be thieves casually exited the bar.
Johnny whistled a tune, loud enough to alert Jenny that the men were on the move.
Jenny made a show of window shopping, while carefully watching the rear exit of the bank. She noticed a horse tethered just outside the rear door. As she was keeping her watch, she heard a couple of shots fired from the direction of Main Street. She assumed the robbery was underway. Jenny saw a man run out of the rear of the bank and quickly untether and mount the horse. Bulging saddlebags were draped over his shoulder. He turned the horse in her direction and took off for the street. As he turned out of the alley, Jenny drew her gun and shouted at the man, ”Hey, moneybags! Stop, or I’ll shoot!”
Taken by surprise, the man turned in her direction and fired his gun, but Jenny was faster. He tumbled out of the saddle and fell to the ground, one foot still in the stirrup. The horse was still in motion, so Jenny ran into the street and was able to grab the reins and control the horse. The man’s gun had fallen out of his reach. She kicked his foot out of the stirrup and placed her foot on his chest. “Don’t move!” she said, her gun pointed at his head.
Johnny was suddenly at her side. “Do you need a hand, Deputy Lancer?” he asked.
“Well, no, sir, I think I have things well in hand,” she said, with a smile. “I believe you’ll find evidence of a robbery in those bags,” she said, nodding to the saddlebags lying in the street. “Did you get the rest of them?”
“Yeah, I wounded a couple of them, Val and Scott are taking them to the jail.”
The man on the ground let out a moan. “I suppose we should get him to a doctor,” Jenny said. Blood was coming from his right shoulder area, but the wound did not appear to be fatal.
“Somebody go get Doc Jenkins,” Johnny said to the crowd that had gathered.
Johnny looked closely at the man’s face. With a look of dismay, he shook his head, then said, “Andy Logan, when did you turn to robbin’ banks? You should have stuck with what you were good at,” Johnny said.
“You know him?” Jenny asked.
“Sure I know him. Ran into him a few times along the way, even worked with him a couple of times.”
The man blinked to clear his eyes and looked at Johnny. “Madrid, is that you?” he asked.
“Yeah, Andy, it’s me. Only it’s not Madrid. It’s Lancer. Been out of the game for a while. Took back my real name.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” the man said. “So who’s she?” he asked, nodding at the woman who had a gun pointed at his head.
“She’s my wife,” Johnny said, smiling.
“Well, I’ll be double damned,” the man said.
Dr. Sam Jenkins came running down the street. The crowd parted to allow him through. Val was right behind him. “Fix him up good, doc, so I can haul his ass to jail along with his hombres,” he said.
Johnny was surprised when Val arrived early for Sunday dinner. He usually rode up to the hacienda about the time the food was being put on the table. Being a good hour early, Johnny suspected he wanted to talk. They hadn’t had a chance to discuss the events of the previous day.
“Hey, Val, you’re a bit early, aren’t ya?”
“Want to talk to ya before dinner. Let’s go talk in Teresa’s garden. Don’t want anyone to overhear us.”
“Okay, Val. Whatever you say.” Johnny said, looking amused.
They entered the garden behind the kitchen, and feeling comfortable that no one was around, Val began. “The town folk want to recognize all three of you for what ya did yesterday, with a public commendation.
“A what?” Johnny asked.
“They want to have a little ceremony and thank you. Probably give ya some kinda written proclamation or something. It’s a special honor, Johnny,” Val said.
“Forget it Val, I don’t want no public commendation.”
“Well, ya see, Johnny, that’s not up to you to decide. It’s up to the good folks of Green River, including me. I couldn’t have stopped that robbery on my own,” Val said.
Johnny placed his hands on Val’s shoulders and said, “Look, Val, I don’t want Jenny paraded in front of the whole town like she’s some sharp shooter heroine.”
“Well, ain’t that what she is? The folks see you as a fast shooting hero on the good side of the law, and ain’t she just the female version of you?” Val asked.
Johnny pursed his lips and pointed his finger in Val’s face. Raising his voice to match his anger, he said, “Now that’s exactly what I’m talking about. We don’t need to give people any ideas. She is not the female version of me! I’m a professional gunfighter with a reputation, at least I used to be. She’s a highly skilled woman who shoots to protect herself. And if you have her standing there beside me, all people are gonna see is Johnny Madrid and his fast shooting wife. It ain’t gonna happen, Val,” Johnny said.
“What’s the matter, Johnny, afraid of sharing the limelight?” Val teased.
Fire flared in Johnny’s eyes. “Now, Val, you know that’s not true! You, of all people, should know how I hate being hailed the gunfighter hero.”
“Oh, Johnny boy, I seem to remember the days you didn’t shun the cheers and applause when you rode into town,” Val said.
Johnny, not backing down, gave Val a serious glare and said, “I’m not that boy anymore and you know it.” Johnny took a deep breath and continued, “Besides, you’re supposed to be helping me put those days behind me.”
Val looked at his friend for a brief moment and he saw the dark eyes of Johnny Madrid. He had overstepped the line. He paced a few minutes, letting the tension dissipate.
“I’m truly sorry, Johnny,” Val said. “I guess I was so excited about my friends being recognized by the town, I forgot to think about how it might look. I didn’t think it through.”
Johnny relaxed his shoulders and considered Val’s apology. “It’s okay, Val. Just glad you talked to me about it first. Look, I’m not against the town doing something. I’d love to see Jenny be recognized for her bravery, but not in some big public way.”
Val, relieved to see Johnny calming down, said, “Sure Johnny. We’ll find another way of doing it.”
“Good. And I have a favor to ask. I wanna talk to Andy Logan. Find out if he’s heard about anybody asking about me. He might have heard something in his travels.”
“Sure. They’re all being transferred to Sacramento for trial, so better do it soon. Come in tomorrow if you can.”
“Thanks, Val. And do me another favor, don’t mention the commendation thing at dinner.”
Val nodded his agreement.
“Now, let’s go enjoy some of Maria’s fine cooking,” Johnny said.
“Oh, one more thing, Johnny,” Val said. “Your wife sure did herself proud yesterday. Sorry I doubted her the way I did. Shoulda known you wouldn’t let her get into something she couldn’t handle.”
With a laugh, Johnny said, “Not much she can’t handle, Val.”
“Say, you wouldn’t mind if I asked her to be my permanent deputy, would ya?”
“Not gonna happen, Val. Not gonna happen,” Johnny declared, as he threw his arm around his friend’s shoulder and guided him to the kitchen door.
The following day Johnny rode into Green River to have a chat with his old acquaintance, Andy Logan. Val walked him into the jail behind his office and gave him a chair to sit on while talking to Logan through the cell bars.
“Hey, Andy, how’s it going’?”
“Not so good, Johnny. Nice of you to come see me.”
“It’s not a social visit. I need to ask you some questions.”
“Sure, what about?”
“I need to know if you’ve heard anybody asking about me, as Johnny Madrid.”
“Can’t say that I have. It was a shock to see ya, thinking you were dead and all. I can tell ya there was a whole bunch of people who were sad to hear you were gone.”
Johnny let Logan’s comment pass. “Have you been to San Francisco recently?”
“Ain’t never been to Frisco, Johnny. Why do ya ask?”
“Rumor is going around that some men are looking for Johnny Madrid. I’m trying to find out who they are and why they want me. Of course, I can think of a whole bunch of people who might want to see me again. You know, the bunch that wasn’t so sad to hear I was gone,” he said, with a wry smile.
“I wish I could help ya, Johnny, but like I said, I haven’t heard a thing.”
“Okay. Thanks for talking with me.” Johnny stood up to leave, but hesitated.
“What made you think robbing banks was a good idea, Andy?” he asked.
“Seemed like an easier way to get money than sitting around waiting for something to happen. You know what it’s like being a hired gun. There’s a lot of waiting between jobs, and more waiting when you do get a job. Just got tired of getting nowhere fast.”
“Well, now you’re on your way to State prison and it seems you’re gonna get there pretty fast,” Johnny said.
“I know. Guess it’s not the best idea I ever had.”
Johnny looked at his old friend and saw what he could have become had he not returned to Lancer. A shiftless drifter, looking for the easy mark. He silently counted his blessings for being extracted from the world of Andy Logans.
“Okay, well, good luck, Andy.”
Johnny walked out of the jail with his head down, disappointed that Logan had no helpful information. It had been a longshot.
“How’d it go?” Val asked, as Johnny entered the sheriff’s office.
“It went okay. He doesn’t know anything. I think he’s really sorry he robbed the bank. He knows it’s gonna cost him some time. Well, Val, I’ll see ya Sunday if not before.” He set his hat on his head and walked to the door.
“Wait up a second, Johnny,” Val said. “The town business owners wanted you to have these,” he said, handing Johnny three envelopes. “And this is for Jenny, for helping us stop the bank heist,” he added, as he handed Johnny a package.
Johnny took the envelopes, seeing they were addressed to him, Scott and Jenny. “Sure, Val, I’ll deliver them. Thanks,” he said, giving his friend a smile and a light punch to the arm.
That evening, dinner was over and everyone was gathered in the sitting area.
Johnny said, “Since everyone’s here, I have something to tell you.” He walked to the book shelves and retrieved three envelopes and a package wrapped in brown paper.
“When I was in town, Val gave me these.” He handed one to Scott, one to Jenny, and kept one for himself. Grinning, he continued, “These are letters of commendation from the Green River Business Association for our works of valor in preventing the bank robbery.”
“That’s a nice gesture. Thanks, Johnny,” Scott said, with a nod to his brother.
“I’m impressed. I didn’t even know there was a Green River Business Association,” Jenny said.
Johnny laughed, “Neither did I. I’m not sure there was one until the business owners wanted to present us with these. Oh, and one more thing.” He handed the package to Jenny. “Val wanted you to have this as his way of saying thanks for your help.”
Jenny, looking perplexed, slowly unwrapped the package, revealing the Whitney pistol she had used the day of the robbery attempt. She held her breath and didn’t move. She felt the room start to spin. “Jenny, what’s wrong?” she heard Johnny ask.
She thrust the gun into his hands, “I don’t want it. Please get it out of the house.” She ran out of the room and up the stairs to the bedroom.
A few minutes later, Johnny joined her in the bedroom. He found her sitting in the corner chair, staring into space. He knelt in front of her and took her hand.
“Jen, what was that all about?”
“Is the gun out of the house?”
“Yes, I put it someplace safe. It’s not in the house.”
“Thank you. I’m sorry I made a scene.”
“I saw how you reacted when you saw the gun at Val’s, but you used it anyway. I don’t understand why you’re so upset now.”
“I can’t explain it, Johnny. I don’t want to see it again. Either give it back to Val or sell it.”
“Okay, I’ll take care of it.”
“Let’s go to bed. It’s been a long day,” Jenny said, signaling the conversation was over.
Jenny’s scream woke Johnny from a deep sleep. She was thrashing about in the bed next to him, sobbing. He put his hand on her shoulder to calm her, but she flung herself off the bed and crawled on the floor to the corner.
“Don’t you touch me, you son of a bitch!” Jenny screamed. She protectively wrapped her arms around herself and cowered there.
Johnny was stunned. He quickly realized she was not awake. He leapt to his feet and rushed to her. He crouched in front of her, and without touching her, said, “Jenny, wake up. It’s me, Johnny.”
Her eyes downcast, she appeared to not hear him. She trembled with fear.
Louder, he said, “Jen, wake up, you’re dreaming.”
A knock on the door was followed by Scott’s voice. “Johnny, is everything okay in there?” he called through the door.
“No, it’s not. Come help me,” Johnny replied.
Scott was quickly by Johnny’s side.
The light of a full moon cast an eerie light across the room. Seeing Jenny shrouded in shadow, huddled in the corner, Scott asked, “What’s going on?”
“She’s having a nightmare and I can’t get her to wake up,” Johnny replied, with a trace of panic in his voice. “Light the lamp. That might help,” he said. “She won’t let me touch her.”
Jenny continued to cry. “I’ll kill you, you bastard, if you don’t get away from me!” Her wild eyes were looking past Johnny, into the vacant air.
“She’s obviously reliving something. Talk to her softly, like you did with me, remember?” Scott said.
Johnny looked up at his brother, recalling how Scott’s nightmares had similarly woken him in their early days at Lancer. His soft voice and gentle touch always brought Scott out of his torment. It wasn’t working with Jenny.
Johnny turned back to Jenny and said, “Wake up, Corazón, it’s only a bad dream.” He was jolted back when Jenny suddenly screamed, “Ian, no! He’ll kill you!”
“Pinch her,” Scott said.
”A pinch might wake her up. I’ve seen it done in cases of hysteria on the battlefield. And that’s where she is right now.”
Johnny reluctantly took her arm and pinched the skin. When her eyes shot open, Johnny saw despair and confusion. He gathered her into his arms.
“It’s over, Jenny. I’ve got you. You had a bad dream. No one’s going to hurt you.”
She trembled in his arms, gasping for breath, then finally whispered, “Johnny.” She released a sob and relaxed into his arms.
Johnny heard Scott move toward the door. “Let me know if you need anything else,” Scott said.
“Thanks, Scott.” Johnny heard the door close as Scott left them alone. He shifted his body so he was sitting with his back against the wall and he pulled Jenny close. He held her tight, as her gasping sobs began to ebb. He could feel her heart pounding against his chest. He only then realized his own heart was pounding. His heart ached to see her in so much pain. He would hold her forever if that was what it took to make the pain stop.
Some minutes later Jenny was calmer, but still shivering. Her breathing was more even and she was slowly recovering from the trauma caused by the nightmare.
“Let me help you back to bed,” he said.
Back in bed, Johnny took her into his arms again. He desperately wanted to know what had traumatized her.
“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked.
Jenny inhaled deeply, then sighed. “I’m not sure I can,” she said, her voice raspy from crying. “How did I end up on the floor?”
“I tried to wake you up by putting my hand on your shoulder and you jumped off the bed like my hand was a branding iron,” Johnny said.
“Sorry. Guess I didn’t know what I was doing. Did I hear Scott’s voice?” she asked.
“Yeah, he helped me get you to wake up.”
“He told me to pinch you.”
“And you did?” she asked, looking up into his eyes.
“I sure did, and it worked.” He rubbed the small red spot on her arm where he had pulled the skin tight. “Sorry if I hurt you.” He kissed the top of her head.
“I thought the nightmares were over. I haven’t had one in a long time.”
Johnny asked, “Who hurt you, Jenny?”
She moved out of his embrace and looked up at him. “It was something that happened a long time ago.”
“I have to ask, does it have anything to do with the Whitney pistol?”
“Yes. Seeing it again must have brought the memories back to the surface. I thought they were forgotten,” she said, with a sigh. “I’ll tell you about it, but can it wait until tomorrow? I suddenly feel very tired. Though I’m a bit afraid to go back to sleep.”
Johnny pulled her close. “Try to sleep. I’ll be right here.“ Peaceful sleep was what she needed right now. She would feel stronger tomorrow and hopefully would be willing to talk.
At the first light of dawn, Johnny rose from the bed and began his morning routine. Unlike Jenny, he had been unable to go back to sleep. He had remained alert, ready to respond should her disturbing memories make a return visit.
He had just finished shaving when he heard Jenny stirring. Now out of bed, she walked up to him and hugged him from behind, resting her head on his bare back.
“Thank you for taking care of me last night. And for not pressing me for details.”
Johnny turned to face her, placing his hands on her shoulders.
“How about we take a ride after breakfast? Clear our heads and maybe talk some.”
“I like that idea, but don’t you have work to do?”
“Sure, but Scott can spare me for a couple of hours.”
“Okay. I’ll get dressed and meet you in the kitchen.”
He kissed her on her forehead. “Take your time.” He grabbed his blue shirt from the back of the chair and quickly finished dressing. As he walked to the door, he looked back and saw Jenny watching him intently.
“What?” he asked, his brows arched.
Her face was tender, eyes glistening. “I love you, that’s all,” she said.
Johnny responded with a wide grin, then he was out the door.
As Johnny pulled the door closed, Jenny let out a deep sigh and sat in the chair. She was grateful he was giving her some time to herself to sort out the events of the previous night. She had felt uneasy since Johnny brought home the Whitney pistol. She recalled how confused he had looked when she told him she didn’t want it, but he promised her he would return it to Val.
When she initially saw the gun at Val’s, she was able to push the memories aside, but seeing it here, in their home, rattled her. It was a stark reminder of that awful day. She remembered having the gun, like the one she used in preventing the bank robbery, in her hand, ready to kill the man. Only Ian prevented her from pulling the trigger. There had been days since that she regretted not killing him, because he had continued to haunt her dreams long after he had tried to kill her.
She knew she had to tell Johnny about it. They had promised to always tell each other the truth, even if it was painful to do so. She dreaded having to conjure up the images of that day, but there was no avoiding it. With resolve, she took a deep breath, stood up, straightened her back, ready to face the day.
After breakfast Johnny and Jenny rode out to Oak Grove, one of their favorite spots on the ranch. It was a secluded grove of oak trees near a small lake south of the hacienda. This was a place where they enjoyed the quiet and privacy, and of course, the beauty of the lake and the surrounding hills and mountains. They walked hand in hand along the lake, breathing in the fresh air.
“I’m glad you picked this spot. It’s so peaceful here,” Jenny said.
Squeezing her hand, he asked, “Do you want to talk about last night?”
“Yes,” she said, as she led him to the nearest tree and sat on the ground, shaded by the long reach of the branches. The gentle swaying of the leaves calmed her. She looked out to the lake and the mountains beyond.
“Ian and I had taken a month long job as caretakers at a stagecoach waystation west of Reno, near a town called Truckee. We needed money and Ian needed to rest his leg, so it seemed like a good solution. One morning a man traveling alone didn’t show up for the stage when it was due to leave. They left without him. We assumed he either went to town or changed his mind and wandered off someplace. Anyway, Ian left for town to get supplies after the stagecoach left. About an hour later the man appeared out of nowhere and came crashing into the house. It was clear he had been drinking. He wanted money, but Ian had taken what little we had with him. He got angry when I told him there was no money. He slapped me in the face, then he grabbed me by the arm and dragged me to the bed.” She stopped to take a deep breath.
Johnny moved closer and put his arm around her, feeling her body tremble. He dreaded what he was about to hear.
Jenny stared at the mountains, afraid to close her eyes. In a soft, halting voice she said, “He broke my arm dragging me to the bed.” With a sob, she added, “Then he forced himself on me. I’ve never felt so alone and scared.”
Johnny held her close, rocking her in his arms, as she cried. He knew there was nothing he could say to ease her pain. The release of his own tears was all he had to give her.
After a few moments, she was able to continue. “I guess he thought I was fighting him too much because he put a knife to my throat. I knew he was going to kill me. Then Ian came through the door and pulled him off of me. It was all a blur, but while they fought, I grabbed the gun from behind the headboard. I was ready to pull the trigger when the man fell to the ground. Ian managed to grab a pan and hit him on the head. I remember Ian taking the gun out of my hand. I don’t remember much of what happened after that.”
“It was a Whitney pistol you had in your hand,” Johnny stated.
Jenny nodded her head. She was regaining her composure and sat up straight.
“The next thing I knew I woke up in bed and Ian was holding me. I never saw that gun again, or one like it until that day in Val’s office.”
“But you used it then.”
“I needed something I was familiar with and we didn’t have a lot of time. I forced the memories aside and did what needed to be done. For some reason seeing the gun when you brought it home stirred up the memories again.”
“I’m sorry, Jenny.”
Jenny turned to look at him and placed her hand on his face. “No need to apologize. You had no way of knowing.”
“I hope the end of the story is that Ian took the bastard deep in the woods and showed him some Whitney justice.”
Jenny forced a smile. “No. He tied him up and tossed him in the shed and went to get the sheriff. The bastard was able to escape from jail and he never got to trial.”
“So he’s a free man?”
“As far as I know. I had nightmares about him coming back for me for quite a while, long after we got to San Francisco. But eventually they faded, until last night.”
“Does the bastard have a name? In case I ever run into him?”
“He said his name was Tom Campbell, but I doubt it’s his real name.”
“God, Jenny, I’m so sorry you had to relive all of that in telling me,” Johnny said, pulling her close again. “But I’m glad you told me. I’m just sorry you never got justice for what he did to you.”
“For a long time I wished Ian hadn’t stopped me from killing him. It took quite some time for me to feel safe again,” Jenny said. “I really thought I had put it behind me and it was buried in the past. But I guess that’s not how memories work.”
“Well, you’re safe now, here with me. You’re not alone anymore. And you can talk to me about anything, you know that, right?”
Jenny smiled and said, “Yes, Johnny, I know that.”
“You know, talking about his nightmares helped Scott get rid of his, so maybe this will help you get rid of yours.”
“Scott had nightmares?”
“Yeah, about things that happened to him in the war. His was in a Confederate prison camp for a year or so. He experienced some pretty bad things.”
“Poor Scott. So he doesn’t have nightmares anymore?”
“None recently that I know of. Course I’ve had my share, too. From my own time in prison. Scott and I helped each other. A fun way for brothers to get to know each other, right?” he said, with a wry smile.
Jenny studied his eyes and asked, “What were your nightmares about?” She watched as he lowered his head, his eyes downcast and his jaw muscles tightened. She wasn’t certain she wanted to hear the answer.
“Sometimes they were about the beatings I took in prison, but mostly about being in front of the firing squad and no Pinkerton man in sight. Just as the gun was fired I’d wake up screaming.” He stopped there, not disclosing the host of other ghosts that still made visits to his dreams.
Her eyes pooled as she processed what she had just heard. Through her tears she asked, “But you don’t have them anymore?”
“No, not since I spilled my guts to Scott one night. He wouldn’t leave my room until I told him. I’d done the same with him when he’d woken the whole ranch up with his screaming, so I guess I had no choice.”
Jenny leaned her head in and touched her forehead to his. “Maybe all of this explains the passion we have for each other. Maybe the pain we’ve endured makes our love more precious.”
“You are more than precious to me, Jenny,” he said, as he cupped her face in his hands. He kissed her deeply and moved his hands deep into her hair, pulling it loose from the braid, letting it fall around her face. He whispered, “You are the reason I breathe.”
Several weeks later, Jenny was in the kitchen helping Teresa clean up after Sunday breakfast. They were idly talking about plans for the rest of the day. Jenny was also thinking about how much better she had been sleeping since telling Johnny about why the Whitney pistol upset her. He had been so tender and understanding, as moved as though it had happened to him. Her thoughts were interrupted by the sudden appearance of Johnny at the door to the courtyard. He burst into the kitchen, clapping his hands, looking excited.
“Jenny, go change your clothes, we’re going riding.” Johnny said.
“We are?” Jenny asked.
“Yep. Teresa, can you pack us something for lunch? We might be gone until supper time.”
“Sure, I’ll make you some sandwiches,” Teresa said.
Johnny kissed Teresa on the cheek and said, “Gracias.” He stepped over to Jenny and put his arms around her waist, hugging her from behind. “Meet me out front when you’re ready.” With a whisper in her ear he added, “And don’t forget your gun.” Then, with a kiss on her neck, he was gone, heading for the front door.
“What was that all about?” Teresa asked.
“I have no idea,” Jenny said, “but I guess I’d better go change my clothes.”
They had been riding for a little over an hour. Jenny was enjoying the sense of freedom she felt when riding on the open range. She hadn’t realized how much she missed riding until she arrived at Lancer. Johnny had captured and broken a wild horse and trained it for her as a wedding gift. He named the horse Cisco, which Jenny loved. He was a spirited palomino, a bit darker in color than Johnny’s beloved Barranca. She could have thought of no better wedding gift from her husband. For her, the best part of the gift was watching Johnny work with the horse. He had a real gift for breaking the animals and it was obvious he loved the work. She loved sitting on the corral fence and watching him as he took new horses through the paces of breaking them for riding.
Now as they rode alongside each other, she took delight in watching him ride. He had an ease and grace when he was on horseback that she rather envied. She noticed Johnny reining in Barranca, so she did the same with Cisco. They came to a stop at the top of a rise. They had been steadily climbing into the foothills. Below them was a small cluster of buildings near a pond. The occasional oak tree provided shade to the tableau.
“Where are we?” she asked.
“We’re near the northern boundary of the ranch. Those buildings are a cow camp that the hands use when they’re working this part of the range. It’s not in use at the moment. We use it in the summer when we move the cattle to the mountain ranges. Race you to the barn!” Johnny yelled.
They took off down the hill, pushing their horses to full speed. Jenny felt her hat fly off her head, but the stampede strings around her neck held it to her back. Her hair was coming loose from the braid, flying in wisps around her face. She saw Johnny steal a glance at her and took the moment of his distraction to outpace him. She arrived at the barn just seconds ahead of him. Smiling to herself, she suspected he had purposely let her win.
They dismounted, both breathing hard. Johnny started removing Barranca’s bridle and saddle. Assuming they would be staying awhile, Jenny began the same process with Cisco. They led the horses into the corral, guiding them to the water trough.
“Did you let me win?” Jenny asked teasingly.
Johnny looked at her askance, “No I didn’t let you win, but you mighta cheated.”
“Cheated? Now, how did I cheat?”
Smirking, Johnny explained, “You distracted me.”
“And how did I do that?” she asked, with a laugh.
“You kinda took my breath away back there. You won the race, fair and square.”
Jenny looked around and surveyed the camp. Not far from the barn was a building she assumed was a bunk house. There were some out buildings behind the structure.
“So why are we here?” she asked.
Johnny grabbed his saddlebags, then took her hand and led her out of the corral and to the other side of the barn. A smaller paddock was at the back of the barn.
“I thought we could get some target practice in while we’re out here with nobody watching us. What do ya think?”
“Okay,” she said. She noticed a rain barrel holding discarded bottles and cans in the corner of the corral. “Let’s line them up!”
When they had set up two rows of six bottles each along the fence, they walked the same number of paces to their shooting positions.
Johnny said, “On my count of three, okay?”
“I’m ready when you are,” Jenny said.
Johnny said, “One, two, three.”
They both drew and fired, each hitting all of their respective six bottles.
“Again?” he asked.
They moved in unison to the fence and lined up the next set of targets.
Back in their positions, Jenny said, “I’ll do the countdown. Let me know when you’re ready.” They both reloaded their cartridges.
Johnny nodded when he was ready.
“One, two, three,” Jenny called.
Again, each drew and fired, hitting all targets.
“Best out of three?” Johnny asked, laughing.
“Why not,” Jenny said, smiling.
The set up was repeated, Johnny suggested they start with their backs to the targets.
Johnny did the countdown. They turned, drew their guns and fired in unison. No target was left standing.
“Again?” Jenny asked.
“Yeah, but just you,” Johnny said.
Jenny raised her eyebrows and said, “Okay. Any particular reason?”
Johnny had walked to the fence and was setting up new targets for her. “Do I need a reason?” he asked.
“No, I suppose not, but I am curious.”
He walked back to her and kissed her briefly. “I like watching you, that’s why.” He walked to the side fence and leaned against it, one heel on the lower rung, elbows on the fence. “Want me to do the count?”
“Yes,” she said. To shield her eyes from the noon glare, she placed her hat on her head, angled over her eyes. She nodded to Johnny that she was ready. She regretted the glance immediately. He looked incredibly provocative, leaning against the fence, his eyes boring through her. His hat was tilted over his brow, but she could see his penetrating eyes.
Johnny started the countdown.
Jenny heard the number three and reached for her gun. She drew, aimed and fired at each target in turn. Her heart was pounding and she was breathing hard as she stared at the results. She had missed two targets.
He was suddenly by her side. He took the gun from her hand and placed it in her holster, his hand coming to rest on her hip.
“You cheated,” she whispered.
“And how did I do that?” Johnny asked.
“You threw me off.”
“By standing there, looking the way you do.”
“So I guess we’re even.” His lips were on her mouth as he pulled her close, his hands moving to draw her hips to his.
“You don’t play fair,” Jenny gasped.
“Who said we were playing?” he asked, resuming the kiss.
Jenny was quickly losing herself to his touch and passion. “Are you going to take me right here in the dirt?”
“Well, I did have something more civilized in mind,” he said.
“I think now would be a good time to show me.”
Johnny took her hand and they headed for the bunkhouse. As they entered, Johnny led her to a room off the main bunk room. The room was small, with a bed and dresser. She was beginning to suspect he had carefully crafted their afternoon visit to the camp.
“You are a clever man, Johnny Lancer. Your seduction has been well executed and it’s time you finished it,” she said. She walked to him, placed her hands on the buckle of his gun belt and placed her lips on his mouth.
Later, as they headed back to the hacienda, Johnny felt uneasy. As they were leaving, he had noted track marks and other signs that someone had been to the cow camp, and recently. Knowing no crew had been sent there to work, he vowed to investigate further in the morning.
Johnny and Walt came to the top of the ridge and stopped. They looked across the valley to the east, puzzled looks on their faces. Something was out of place. The fence they had repaired the previous week had several posts down. They rode down the hill to the open area.
“The wires look like they’ve been cut,” Walt said.
Johnny dismounted and examined the wire. He had a bad feeling in his gut. This was the second cut wire they had found in recent days.
“It’s a clean break. Definitely cut. Or intentionally, I should say.”
“We haven’t moved the herd up here yet. Why would anyone do this?” Walt asked.
Johnny shook his head. “Don’t know, Walt. But something’s going on. Scott’s crew found cut wire in the northeast pasture last week. Some cattle got through, though Scott wasn’t sure how many were lost.”
“Doesn’t that pasture bump up against Dan Marshall’s land?” Walt asked.
“It sure does. And so does this one. I think it’s time we had a talk with old man Marshall. Bring a crew up here tomorrow and fix this fence. I’ll talk with Scott and Murdoch about this tonight,” Johnny said, as he remounted Barranca. The men headed back to the hacienda.
Later that day, Johnny, Scott and Murdoch were in the great room having after dinner drinks. Jenny and Teresa had both retired early.
“Murdoch, how well do you know Dan Marshall?” Johnny asked his father.
“Not well. He bought the Driscoll ranch about a year ago. I heard he acquired the Nelson place shortly after that. He’s been a pretty quiet neighbor. I called on him when he first moved to the area to introduce myself. I invited him to attend the Cattle Growers Association meetings, but he hasn’t attended a single one.”
“Don’t you find that strange? He is running a cattle ranch over there, isn’t he?” Scott asked.
“Yes, as far as I know. Why all the questions about Marshall?” Murdoch asked.
“Because all of the fences we’ve found cut border his property,” Johnny said. “Something strange is going on up there. I think he’s planning for a land grab, or pilfering our cattle a little at a time.”
“How many have we lost?”
“We don’t have an exact count, but I’d estimate fifty to one hundred head,” Scott explained.
“Well, this can’t continue. I will pay Marshall a visit in the morning. We need to get to the bottom of this,” Murdoch said.
“I think one of us should go with you. The Marshall ranch could be hostile territory,” Johnny offered.
“Oh, I doubt that. No reason we can’t have a neighborly discussion,” Murdoch said.
“I agree with Johnny, Sir. It can’t hurt to have a second set of eyes to see what the situation is up there.”
“All right, it seems I’m not going to win this one. Johnny, you may go with me, but you have to promise to curb your temper,” he said, with a slight grin.
“Me, a temper?” Johnny asked with a laugh. “I’ll be on my best behavior, whatever that is.”
“Scott, I want you and Cirpriano to ride up to that fence line to see if there’s been any more damage.”
“I already told Walt to take a crew up there in the morning to fix the cut fence we found today,” Johnny said.
“Good plan. In that case, Scott, you go with Walt and the crew. We’ll be at the Marshall place around the same time. If there are any new areas, you can ride over there to tell us. And I want any cattle near the Marshall border moved south.”
“Very good, sir. If there’s nothing else we need to discuss, I’m going to bed,” Scott said.
“Nothing else from me,” Johnny said. “I’m going up, too.”
“Yes, we should all get a good night’s sleep,” Murdoch said.
As Johnny and Scott stood, Mudoch added, “Boys, this feels much like the early days of the Pardee takeover attempt. I can’t tell you what it means to me that you’re both here with me to face this one, if that’s what it is.”
Johnny and Scott looked at their father, then at each other, exchanging a look of mutual surprise.
“We’re glad we’re here, too. Goodnight, sir,” Scott said.
Grinning, Johnny said, “Goodnight, Murdoch. See you in the morning.”
“You’re sure they were hired guns?” Scott asked his brother, as they walked into the great room from the veranda. They found Murdoch sitting at his desk.
“Yeah, I’m sure, Scott. I didn’t recognize any of them, but they were doing all the things a hired gun would do. Lurking around, keeping an eye on visitors, generally standing around waiting for some trouble, or for orders to make some.”
They each took a chair in front of the desk. “So you think the hired guns set the fire?” Scott asked, referencing the patch of scorched land he and the crew had found that morning.
“That’s my guess,” Johnny said.
Murdoch joined the conversation. “Yes, Scott, the situation has definitely moved to a new level of concern. Marshall became very defensive when I mentioned the cut fences, said I was accusing him of cattle rustling. And the fire today near Cedar Canyon is of great concern. That’s key grazing land and Marshall knows it. It’s no wonder he hasn’t formed any relationships in the valley.”
“Except with gunfighters,” Johnny added.
“Right,” Murdoch said. “I believe we’re being targeted in a range war. Marshall wants our land and it appears he’ll stop at nothing to get it.”
“None of the hired guns I saw today stood out as the leader. There has to be someone running the show, and I’m going to find out who it is,” Johnny said.
“Does it matter who it is?” Scott asked.
“It does if I know him,” Johnny said.
“It didn’t help much that you knew Day Pardee,” Scott said.
“True, but he didn’t know I was a Lancer. I wasn’t even sure I was a Lancer back then,” he said, looking apologetically at his father. “I won’t be hiding the fact this time.”
They stopped talking when they saw Jenny in the doorway to the kitchen.
“Teresa said dinner will be ready in five minutes,” she announced.
Johnny stood and walked over to her and kissed her on the cheek.
“What’s going on?” she asked him.
Johnny hesitated, running his tongue along his lips.
With a laugh, she said, “You look like the kid who got caught with his hand in the cookie jar. You all clammed up the minute I walked in. I know you’re keeping something from me and Teresa. I sensed it this morning at breakfast. What’s going on?”
“We’re not keeping anything from you. We weren’t sure until today that there actually was something going on. Let’s have dinner, then we’ll tell you and Teresa everything,” Johnny said.
Murdoch rose from his desk and said, “Johnny’s right. We’ll enjoy our dinner, then bring you into the conversation. You and Teresa both need to know what’s happening.”
“It’s serious, isn’t it?” Jenny asked.
“Yes, dear, it is. And it will take the whole family to deal with it.” Seeing Teresa at the door, Murdoch announced, “Let’s eat.”
Following dinner, the family retired to the sitting area in front of the fireplace. Murdoch started by relating to Jenny and Teresa what had transpired over the past couple of days. In essence, the ranch was under threat by gunfighters and rustlers, apparently under the hire of their neighbor, Dan Marshall.
“What could possibly be Mr. Marshall’s motivation? Surely he can’t think he can take over Lancer land?” Jenny asked.
“We don’t know what’s driving him. It could be as simple as pilfering off some of our unbranded calves to grow his herd,” Murdoch speculated.
“You don’t need hired guns to do that,” Johnny said. “Just some skilled cowboys. Besides, I think Marshall seems more like a puppet than a leader of a land takeover. He didn’t impress me as a man of any strength or power. Certainly not of your caliber, Murdoch.” Johnny looked at his father, seemily surprised at himself for offering such a strong compliment to him. “What I’m saying is, I think someone else is pulling the strings. Marshall was planted there to cover for whoever it is.”
“I agree with Johnny,” Scott said. “I’ve only met the man a couple of times, but he didn’t strike me as the type who could instigate a range war on his own.”
“Well, who owns the land the other side of Marshall’s ranch?” Teresa asked. Everyone looked at her, all impressed with her question.
“The Santee ranch is just north of Marshall’s, next to Santee is the Poe ranch. They’re both old friends and I can’t imagine either of them are behind this. But it’s a good question, Teresa,” Murdoch said, smiling at her.
“I’m gonna ride into Green River tomorrow. Find out if any of the hired guns have been hangin’ around. See if Val has seen anybody who looks familiar,” Johnny said.
“I’ll go with you,” Scott said.
“That’s fine, boys. I’d like to get this resolved sooner than later. I have to leave for Sacramento in a few days to testify in the hearings on the proposed riparian rights and irrigation legislation. I prefer not to be away with this hanging over our heads. I’ll have Cipriano and Toledano take charge while you two look into this.”
“Do you think there’s a threat to the hacienda?” Teresa worried.
“I don’t sense that yet, but we need to be on our guard at all times,” Murdoch said. “I don’t want you girls leaving the house unescorted.”
Teresa and Jenny nodded their understanding.
Johnny and Scott arrived in Green River midday, and invited Val to join them for lunch at the hotel. Johnny went through the recent events with Val.
“Well, I ain’t seen nobody out of place lately. Marshall’s hired guns must be stayin’ someplace else. Spanish Wells is closer to the Marshall place. Better check over there,” Val said.
“Oh, we will. Thought you should be our first stop,” Johnny said.
“Ya know, from what you’ve told me, this sounds a lot like the Pardee attempt to take over Lancer. I’ve never been convinced he was actin’ alone. When I knew Day Pardee he didn’t care about ownin’ land. His specialty was gettin’ paid to terrorize people. No, somebody was bank rollin’ him, I’m sure of it.”
“I don’t disagree with you, Val. I’ve always thought the same thing. Just wish I’d had a chance to ask him before Scott put a bullet in him,” Johnny said, grinning at Scott.
“I could have just let him kill you, little brother, but for some reason I believed you were worth saving,” Scott said, smiling at Johnny.
“If we’re gonna find any of them in town, it will probably be at night. I’ll take a close look at the saloon tonight,” Val offered.
“Thanks, Val,” Johnny said. “We’ll ride over to Spanish Wells, maybe hang around for dinner and have a drink at the saloon there.”
“You be careful, Johnny. If any of those pistolaros recognize you, you could be askin’ for trouble you don’t want,” Val cautioned.
“Yeah, well, you and I are the only ones who might recognize them, so it’s not like I have much choice,” Johnny said. “Besides, my big brother has my back,” he said, as he grabbed Scott’s shoulder and squeezed it.
Jenny and Teresa took turns lining up the targets along the fence. They were practicing in the small holding corral behind the barn, the scene of Jenny’s first early morning target practice. Jenny had approached Murdoch after breakfast, suggesting she spend some time with Teresa on how to shoot a handgun, a measure of extreme caution. He had acquiesced, but wanted them to stay close to the house.
“Have Johnny or Scott helped you with target practice?” Jenny asked her sister-in-law.
“No, I don’t think it would ever occur to them that I need to be able to shoot with any accuracy.”
“Well, shame on them. Men think women are totally dependent on them. In my experience, they’re often nowhere to be found when you need them the most,” Jenny said.
“How did you get so good at shooting?”
“Hours and hours of practice. My father made me practice several times a week. He wanted me to be able to defend myself when I was working alone at his mercantile. He taught me that you only get one chance to stop someone, so the first shot is the last shot. Johnny says the same thing. Ian taught me to shoot a rifle. I’ve had four great teachers. My father, Ian, a young man we traveled with on our trip west and now Johnny. “
“So you were already good when you met Johnny. What have you learned from him?”
“That accurate shooting is the result of mental clarity and muscle memory. That’s why practice is so important. So, let’s see what you can do,” Jenny said, smiling at Teresa.
They practiced for a couple of hours. They took turns watching each other, then lined up the targets for some good natured competition. Jenny complimented Teresa on her efforts and perseverance.
“You’ve made great progress today, Teresa. You should be proud of yourself,” Jenny said.
Teresa beamed from ear to ear. “Thank you! I know I can do better. When can we do this again?”
“Tomorrow. The threat isn’t going to wait for us to be ready.”
It was late afternoon when Johnny and Scott rode into Spanish Wells. They had stopped in Morro Coyo, but gained no information helpful to their investigation. Stops at the Santee and Poe ranches had gleaned nothing. Both men denied having any trouble from Marshall. So they rode on to Spanish Wells. Due to its proximity to the Marshall ranch, this is where they were most likely to encounter any newcomers to the area.
“Let’s get an early dinner, then hang around the saloon for a while,” Johnny suggested.
“Sounds like a good plan,” Scott said. “The cantina?”
“You read my mind!” Johnny said.
“Well, that’s not too difficult to do when it comes to food!”
They tied their horses to the hitching post in front of the cantina and walked into the dimly lit restaurant. The dinner crowd hadn’t arrived yet, so they had their pick of tables. Johnny selected one where he could sit facing the door, his back to the wall.
“Hola, Johnny, Scott, we have not seen you here for some time,” the waitress said, greeting them with a smile.
“Hola, Martina,” Johnny said. “Yeah, we haven’t had much business in Spanish Wells recently. We’re on our way home and decided to get something to eat.”
“What can I get for you?”
“Tamales and beans for me,” Johnny said.
“Chicken and rice for me, no peppers,” Scott said.
“Si, I remember, no jalapeños for you!” she said, laughing.
“Muchos jalapeños para mi!” Johnny declared, as Martina headed for the kitchen.
“Some day you’re going to burn a hole in your stomach with those things,” Scott teased.
“Hasn’t happened yet,” Johnny said, as he rolled one of the tortillas Martina had placed on the table when she greeted them.
“I’m anxious to hear if any of the crew found anything new today,” Scott said.
“Yeah, me too,” Johnny said, talking around his mouthful of tortilla and salsa.
They both looked up as they heard the door open and close. Three new guests seated themselves near the door. Johnny lowered his hat over his eyes so he could observe the newcomers undetected.
“Anybody you know?” Scott asked in a near whisper.
“No, but they don’t look like they’re from around here. They’re lookin’ around like they don’t know the place.”
Martina arrived with their food. Johnny thanked her, then quietly asked her, “Martina, do you know those men over there?”
“No,” she said, shaking her head, “but we’ve had a few newcomers here lately.”
“Do you know if they work around here?”
“No, Johnny, I don’t know. They don’t talk to me.”
They ate their food as they silently observed the men at the table, straining their ears to pick up fragments of their conversation. But no words of enlightenment were forthcoming. The men did nothing to draw attention to themselves.
Finished with their meals, Johnny and Scott headed for the saloon. Again, due to the early hour, they found a table to their liking. Johnny ordered a bottle of tequila and two glasses. He poured them each a shot and raised his glass to his brother, and said, “Salud!” They clinked glasses and drank.
“Another?” Johnny asked.
“No, I want to keep my head clear, but you go ahead.”
“Naw, the night’s still young,” Johnny said, grinning at his brother.
A short time later, the three men they had seen in the cantina entered the saloon. One of them gave a nod in the direction of Johnny and Scott. Scott gave a polite nod back.
“Maybe we’ll make some new friends tonight, Johnny,” Scott said.
Johnny poured fresh drinks and handed one to Scott, “Here ya go, brother, we need to make a good show of joining in the fun. Don’t worry, it’s not a full shot. I’m not gonna get ya drunk,” he teased.
They continued to sit, watch and drink, slowly consuming the contents of the bottle. So much for not getting drunk, Scott thought. He watched Johnny watching the room as more people joined the evening revelry. The noise level increased steadily as more and more liquor was consumed. Several games of poker were underway. Cigar smoke mingled with the scents of hard worked bodies, leather and the remnants of spilled alcohol. So far, no one had approached the brothers and they hadn’t initiated conversation with anyone. Scott was growing weary of the scene and was ready to call it a night. He sensed Johnny’s restlessness matched his own.
“You fellas okay over here?” asked Mack, the evening bartender, as he approached their table. He had just started his shift, relieving the daytime keeper of the spirits.
“Yeah, we’re fine, Mack,” Johnny said. “Say, Mack, we noticed a bunch of unfamiliar faces in here. You know any of these new guys?”
“Sure, most of them are new hires over at the Marshall place. Hear old man Marshall’s tryin’ to stir things up. Though he doesn’t seem like that kinda guy to me. These boys mostly behave themselves, but can’t help but feel something’s brewin’.”
“Stirring things up? How, Mack?” Scott asked.
“Word is he’s wanting to expand his stake here. Or maybe just defending what’s his. All I know is he’s hired on a bunch of guys that look like they know nothin’ about cattle.”
“Good eye there, Mack. You hear who the leader of this bunch is?” Johnny asked.
“Heard the name Black mentioned.”
“Luke Black?” Johnny asked, failing to conceal his surprise.
“Yeah, I think that’s it,” said Mack.
“Has he been in here?” Johnny asked, sitting straight up in his chair.
“Yeah, a couple of times. But mostly it’s his crew.” Mack could see that Johnny was growing more tense. “Now, Johnny, I don’t want no trouble in here tonight, so let’s keep it a friendly evening, okay?”
“Sure, Mack. You won’t be gettin’ any trouble from us,” Johnny reassured him. “Thanks for the information.”
Johnny stood and adjusted his hat. “Come on, Scott, let’s get outta here,” he said, patting his brother’s arm.
“Right behind you, brother.”
They stepped out into the street and saw another group of three men approaching the saloon on horseback. They ducked under an awning, into the shadows. As the riders drew closer to the saloon, Johnny recognized Luke Black immediately as one of the three. Dressed in his usual black rancher’s coat, white shirt, black tie and vest stretched over his girth, looking every bit the professional gunfighter. Scott recognized him, too, as one of the thugs who beat him up in the haberdashery his first day in Morro Coyo. He also remembered shooting him during the siege on Lancer by the Pardee gang, but his body wasn’t found among the dead.
The three men dismounted and tied their horses to the rail.
Johnny stepped out of the shadows. “Black, are you looking for me?”
Black turned around and sized up the man before him. “Johnny Madrid. I knew I’d run into ya eventually,” he sneered.
“It’s not Madrid anymore, it’s Lancer, but I guess you know that.”
“Don’t care what you call yourself, I’m still comin’ for you, Johnny.”
“Why now? Pardee died two years ago.”
“Just waited for the right opportunity. See, this way, I can kill you under the guise of a range war. I get paid and I get my own sweet revenge in the process.”
“Your name sure suits you, Black. You do know it wasn’t me who killed Pardee, right?”
“Sure I do, it was that yellow bellied brother of yours. The one hidin’ there in the shadows.”
Scott stepped forward, “I’m not hiding. Just watching my brother’s back. Come on Johnny, we’re not going to accomplish anything here.”
“Listen to your brother, Madrid. Havin’ it out here will just spoil the fun,” Black said.
“Just answer me one question, Black. Who’s really behind this land grab attempt? I’m pretty sure it’s not Marshall. He’s somebody’s go-between.”
“You’re pretty smart for a dead man, Madrid. But I guess you’ll have to find that out all on your own. Come on, boys, I need a drink. See ya soon, Madrid,” Black said, as he tipped his hat to the Lancer brothers and led his companions into the saloon.
Johnny moved to follow them, but Scott held him back. “No, Johnny, not like this. We’ll find another way to settle this.”
“How, Scott? We’re just gonna let him attack us and steal our land? I don’t think so. He’s the head of the snake. We kill him, the rest of it dies.”
“Not if there’s someone bigger and richer than him at the helm. Black’s an opportunist, just like Marshall. I say we keep digging until we find who’s behind this. You said yourself you didn’t think Pardee was interested in the land. It’s my guess that it’s the same person bankrolling the takeover now as it was two years ago. Now come on, let’s go home.”
Johnny stood a few minutes considering Scott’s words. He had to admit, he made sense, as usual. It wasn’t the first time his brother had kept him from making an impulsive move that could quickly go south. Besides, they were outnumbered by Black’s crew.
“Okay, Scott. Let’s go.”
When Johnny and Scott arrived back at the house it was late. They handed their horses off to a ranch hand and entered the house through the front door. Stepping into the great room, they found Jenny and Teresa standing in front of Murdoch’s desk waiting for them.
“Why are you still up?” Johnny asked, looking around the room. “Where’s Murdoch?” He walked to Jenny’s side and gave her a quick kiss.
“We’re waiting for you. Murdoch left shortly after you did this morning for the afternoon stagecoach to Stockton,” Teresa explained.
“Wait, he wasn’t supposed to leave for Sacramento for another two days,” Scott said.
Teresa turned to the desk and picked up an envelope. “He left you a note,” she said, handing it to Scott.
Scott opened it and read it aloud.
Scott and Johnny,
I received an urgent wire after breakfast from the Lieutenant Governor. They’ve moved my testimony up two days. Must leave today for Sacramento. Please try to hold off any confrontation with Marshall until I get back, but if you can’t, I place the future of Lancer in your hands. I trust you both to do the right and necessary thing to protect our home.
“Oh, brother,” Johnny moaned.
Jelly walked in from the kitchen, “I thought I heard ya ride up. Where ya been?” he asked.
“Trying to find out who’s behind this latest dust up,” Scott said.
“Well, did ya find out anything?”
“Yeah, we did, Jelly,” Johnny said. “We know the leader of the hired guns is a guy who rode with Pardee. Scott actually shot him during the attack on the hacienda, but he got away with the others. His name’s Luke Black.”
“We’ll tell you all about our day, but first, Jelly, go get Cip and Walt and have them post sentries around the house. We’re not going to take any chances,” Scott said.
“Sure, Scott, right away,” Jelly said, as he headed for the door.
“Do you really think they’d attack us at night?” Jenny asked.
Johnny rubbed his chin. “He’s a disciple of Pardee, so he’s capable of anything. I agree with Scott. We can’t let him get the upper hand.”
Teresa, in an attempt to squelch her rising fear, interjected. “You must be hungry. Let’s continue this in the kitchen and I’ll fix you something to eat.”
“Excellent idea,” Scott said.
“So, what happened around here today?” Johnny asked. He took Jenny’s hand and they followed Teresa to the kitchen.
They talked until nearly midnight, sharing the events of their day and debating the next steps to be taken in defending their home. Agreeing a good night of sleep was necessary, they all retired, taking care to keep their weapons at the ready.
“How did Teresa do with target practice?” Johnny asked. Jenny, already in her nightdress, pulled Johnny’s boots off as he sat on the edge of the bed. Jenny had preceded him to the bedroom, as he lingered a few minutes in the kitchen with Scott.
“She did great. I think she’s a natural. She listens well and puts what she learns into practice. I hope she won’t find the need to protect herself, but like you and Scott said, we don’t want to take any chances. I’m surprised you’ve never spent time teaching her to shoot a pistol.” She sat on the bed next to him.
“Never saw the need to. She’s pretty good with a shotgun. Never thought she’d need a handgun,” Johnny said. “Besides, she has plenty of men around to protect her.”
Jenny smiled at her husband’s confirmation of her belief of men in general.
“And I suppose you feel the same way about me? I need a man to protect me?” she said, knowing she was goading him.
Johnny pursed his lips and looked at her with a twinkle in his eyes. “Well, now, you’re not a typical woman, are you?” he said, placing his arm around her shoulders. “I wouldn’t dare say that about you and expect to live to see tomorrow.” With that, he kissed her fully on the mouth, quickly communicating his full intentions.
“Take your clothes off, Johnny,” Jenny murmured, as she broke from him and climbed into bed.
The following morning Johnny and Scott rose early and were riding north toward Marshall Ranch before sunup. They wanted to have the element of surprise on their side, hoping to talk with Marshall before the hired guns started showing up for the day. Their aim was to get him to tell them who he was taking orders from.
The sun crested above the eastern range, bringing a startling clarity to the sky. The brothers hastened their speed, feeling an urgency to get to the ranch. As the spread appeared on the horizon, they noted a rider coming toward them, seemingly running a one man race. The rider came into view and the brothers looked at each other, both perplexed.
“That looks like Will Preston,” Scott said.
“Sure does. He left Lancer about a month ago to work for Marshall. Said the pay was better. I’m sure that’ll be short lived. Wonder where he’s headed in such a hurry.”
As Preston neared them, they pulled in the reins and stopped. Preston reined up in front of them.
“Am I ever glad to see you guys!” Preston said, gasping for breath.
“What’s goin’ on, Will?” Johnny asked.
“Marshall’s dead. Luke Black killed him. I was in the kitchen helping get provisions ready for today. The cook quit a week ago, so I’ve been helping out. I was gonna come back to Lancer and ask for my job back. What’s goin’ on here ain’t right.”
“Get on with it, Will,” Scott urged.
“I was coming to warn you. Black and his crew are headed for Lancer for a showdown with you. He and Marshall argued about that not bein’ the plan, but Black said it was his show now. That’s when he shot Marshall.”
Tamping down his alarm, Johnny yelled as he turned Barranca, “Will, you got your job back, now ride into Green River and tell Sheriff Crawford and Doc Jenkins to get to Lancer as soon as they can. You ride back to Lancer with them. We need all the help we can get. How many were with Black?”
“About fifteen I’d say.”
“Okay, now go!”
Will cut dirt in the direction of Green River. The brothers spurred their horses to top speed, no words necessary between them.
Johnny knew that most of the hands were out on the range guarding the livestock, or standing sentry at vulnerable parts of the ranch. Walt, Jelly, Cipriano, Toledano and several vaquaros remained at the hacienda. He and Scott raced back to the ranch, neither voicing their fear that they would not be in time to save Jenny and Teresa. They pushed their horses hard, gaining valuable time. As they finally neared the hacienda, they heard gunfire and saw smoke billowing south of the house. They were suddenly receiving fire from some of Black’s men. They took cover behind a grove of trees, trying to determine the source of the shots. More shots rang out from a crag to their left. As they set to exchange fire, two horsemen approached, firing at the attackers.
“It’s Cip and Toledano!” Johnny cried.
The cross firing stopped, and Johnny and Scott emerged from the trees.
Cipriano yelled, “”We’ll go head off any other banditos. You go to the hacienda!”
“Thanks, Cip! Be careful!” Johnny yelled, as he and Scott made for the house.
Jenny was on the second floor gathering laundry from the bedrooms. Keeping busy with daily routines was her way of coping with the fear in the pit of her stomach. When she watched Johnny and Scott leave that morning, all she could do was pray they’d make it home safely. She looked out the window and saw five men on horseback galloping toward the house.
“Jenny, what’s wrong?” Teresa shouted up the staircase.
“Come up here, quickly, and bring the shotgun,” she yelled down to her sister-in-law.
As a precaution, and anticipating shooting practice with Teresa, she was already wearing her rig. She knew Teresa was wearing hers, too. She ran to Johnny’s old room.
“In here!” she yelled, as she heard Teresa approaching.
Teresa entered the room, a startled look on her face. “What’s happening?”
“We’re being attacked. Five men are heading for the house from the north. From Johnny’s description of them, it’s Black and his men. Now, don’t panic, just do as I say. Close the door and sit in this chair,” Jenny said, indicating the chair she had positioned a few feet from the door.
“Now aim the shotgun at the door. Shoot the first man who comes through. I’ll be in the wardrobe and I’ll shoot the next one. Use your handgun for backup if you need to.”
Jenny climbed into the empty wardrobe, leaving the door slightly ajar.
They heard the men enter the house. The man they assumed was Luke Black yelled, “Madrid! Show yourself! It’s time to settle this thing.” They heard the men stomping through the house, kicking in doors, searching for Johnny.
Teresa sat, shaking from the tension. She heard steps approaching the door, then they stopped. She cocked the rifle. Suddenly the door was kicked in, and a man entered, only to be met with the scatter from Teresa’s gun. A second man entered and Jenny jumped out of the wardrobe, firing. He went down with a bullet between the eyes. A third man was heard to stop outside the door. The only sound was his heavy breathing. Teresa, now in the corner with her handgun drawn, stood ready. Jenny, controlling her breathing, had her gun trained on the door. After a few moments, the man stepped through the door, firing his gun. Jenny’s aim was faster and more accurate, fired just seconds before she heard the click of Teresa’s gun. Her bullet caught him in the chest and he fell to the ground. The man looked familiar to her, but she couldn’t place him. Jenny let herself breathe. She stepped over the dead men and kicked their guns away. She grabbed Teresa’s shoulder and squeezed it, and asked, “Are you okay?” Teresa nodded her head.
Jenny surveyed the hallway before stepping out. She had seen five men approaching the house. The remaining two must be outside because she heard no activity in the house. Then she heard Johnny calling her name at the top of his lungs.
“Jenny!” Johnny screamed, fear in his voice.
“We’re up here, Johnny! Three men down. There are two more. I think they’re outside.”
She hurried down the back staircase and headed for the great room. As she entered she saw Johnny by the French doors.
Profound relief on his face, Johnny exclaimed, “Thank God you’re okay!”
A man stepped out of the side hallway with his gun aimed at Johnny. “I’ve waited a long time for this, Lancer.”
It took a second for Johnny to recognize the man. “Davy Stryker. What are you doing here? You workin’ for Black?”
“Got nothing to do with Black, and everything to do with you. I’m here for you, Lancer. For killing my brother.”
“Stryker, that was a fair fight. He drew on me first.”
“Don’t matter. He was my brother and you killed him.”
“Put the gun away or this won’t end well for you,” Johnny said. He realized that Stryker was not aware of Jenny standing in the doorway to the kitchen.
“Not gonna happen, Lancer,” Stryker said, as he raised his gun. Johnny drew and fired. Stryker dropped to the ground. Johnny approached him, kicked his gun aside, and checked for a pulse. The man was dead.
He jumped up and ran to Jenny, grabbed her shoulders, then hugged her tightly with a sigh of relief. “Teresa?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” Teresa said from behind Jenny.
They all heard a gunshot. “Where’s Scott?” Jenny implored.
“The roof!” Johnny said, as he ran out the French doors to the outside stairway.
“Stay in the kitchen,” Jenny said to Teresa. She ran out through the courtyard to the back stairway to the second floor terrace. As she reached the top of the steps she saw Scott with his back against the wall, his right hand holding his bleeding left arm.
“Where is he?” she whispered to Scott. He nodded his head to the right to indicate the fifth man was around the corner.
They heard Johnny yell from the front, “Drop it, Black!”
Luke Black ran to the corner, aiming to make a getaway down the back stairs. He stopped hard when he saw Jenny at the top of the steps, her gun drawn on him.
“Johnny, I’m at the back staircase. We have him cornered,” she yelled. Black looked every bit the villainous man she had expected.
“Get out of here, Jenny. This is between me and Black,” he yelled back.
“No, I’m not leaving. Scott is hurt. I won’t leave him,” she responded.
Luke Black recognized he was in a jam. He tried to stall things by making conversation.
“Hey Madrid, I heard you had a wife,” he said, leering at Jenny. “She sure is a pretty thing.”
“Keep her out of this, Black. Your quarrel is with me,” Johnny said.
“Then tell her to put her gun away,” Black said.
“Can’t do that, Black. She wouldn’t listen to me anyway,” Johnny said.
“So who wears the pants in your family?” Black asked.
“We both do,” Jenny said.
“That’s enough talking, Black. Let’s make this a fair fight. We all holster our guns and the fastest man, or woman, wins,” Johnny said.
“But you got me out numbered. Nothin’ fair about that,” Black complained.
“You shoulda thought about that before sending your posse in ahead of you,” Johnny declared. “Scott, can you hear me?”
“Sure can, brother,” Scott said.
“Okay, you count to three and we draw. Jenny, Black, holster your guns with me now.” He watched Black holster his gun, his hand never leaving the hilt.
“Whenever you’re ready, Scott.”
Scott took a deep breath and began, “One, two, three.” He heard one shot fired and saw Black drop to the ground, his gun falling from his hand.
“Jenny, you okay?” Johnny yelled.
She approached the corner, kicked Black’s gun away, verified he was dead, then turned to see Johnny at the end of the terrace.
“Yes, I’m fine, but Scott needs help. He’s been shot and he’s bleeding.”
Johnny ran to her, then saw Scott slumped against the wall. They both ran to him.
Johnny pulled a bandana out of his pocket and wadded it against the gunshot wound on Scott’s shoulder. Jenny was beside him.
“Here, hold pressure on this and keep his arm as still as you can. Help me get him down to the kitchen.”
Johnny supported Scott under his good arm and helped him stand. Jenny on the other side, supported the injured arm. Slowly they made their way down the steps, through the courtyard and into the kitchen. Teresa was there, standing in the corner, still holding the handgun.
“Is it over?” she asked.
Johnny looked at her and could see she was shaking.
“Jenny, help calm her down, I’m gonna need her help,” Johnny instructed. He lowered Scott into a chair and began removing his shirt to assess the damage to his arm.
Jenny went to Teresa and took the gun from her. “It’s okay, they’re all dead. We’re safe now. Sit down for a minute. Try to take some deep breaths. I’ll get you some water. And some for Scott, too.”
She returned to the table with two glasses of water. Teresa drank some and settled back in her chair. Her breathing was becoming more even.
Scott on the other hand was looking ashen. Johnny was probing his wound to determine how deep the bullet went. There was no exit wound, so the bullet was probably lodged somewhere in the muscle. Johnny had seen enough gunshot wounds to know how dangerous they could be.
“Let’s get the area cleaned. Try to reduce the chance of infection. Teresa, you feeling okay? Can you put some water on to boil?” Johnny asked.
“Yes, Johnny, I’m fine. I can do it,” she said, as she stood and walked to the stove.
Jenny sat down next to Scott and gave him a sip of water.
Johnny said in a calm voice, “Doc Jenkins and Val should be here soon. We sent one of Marshall’s hands over to Green River to get them. Doc’s gonna have to get that bullet out of there. I’d try, but I’m afraid I’d hurt him worse,”
“How did you know Black was headed here?” Jenny asked.
“The same hand, Will Preston. He used to work for us. Well, I actually just rehired him. He had some friends over there who convinced him to join them. But he’s still a friend to us. Said he doesn’t agree with what Marshall is trying to do. Or was trying to do. Black killed Marshall, according to Preston.”
“Thank goodness he was there to tell you where Black was,” Teresa offered.
Jelly and Walt came running in from the front door.
“What in tarnation is going on around here? I was headed back to the barn and heard gunshots!” Jelly yelled.
“Where have you been?” Johnny asked sternly.
“Well, me and Walt was trying to put out a fire in the south barn. Then we got into a gunfight with a few comancheros. Musta been the ones who set the fire. Got them all, but had to let the barn burn. What happened here?” Jelly asked.
“They created a diversion to get you away from the house. How many do you think you killed?
“There were four of them,” Walt said.
Teresa interjected. “The water’s ready, Johnny. Let me take care of Scott. Jelly’s here to help me. You and Jenny go watch for Val and Sam.”
“Will you stop talking about me like I’m not here?” Scott complained.
“Sorry, Boston. Bet you’d like a shot of whiskey,” Johnny offered.
“Not a bad idea, brother. Bring the bottle. If Sam’s on his way, I might as well be good and ready for him,” Scott quipped.
Jenny went to the sideboard and grabbed a bottle and a glass. She poured a shot and handed it to Scott.
“Thanks, Jenny, but I’ll take the bottle,” Scott said.
“No, we have to keep track of how much you drink so we can tell Sam. You know he’ll ask,” Jenny explained.
“Johnny, sometimes your wife is too smart for my own good,” Scott said, with a slight laugh.
“Well, I’m glad you can laugh about it,” Johnny said, grinning at Scott.
Johnny turned to Walt and said, “Cip and Toledano rode north to see if anybody along the sentry line needed help. Go check on them, but be careful, there may be a few of Black’s men still out there. Bring some of our men back here. Val’s gonna need some help.”
Johnny heard horses approaching so he headed for the front door. As he opened it, Val, Dr. Jenkins and Will Preston rode up.
“What’s the status?” Val asked as he dismounted.
Johnny looked at Sam, “Scott has a bullet in his shoulder, Doc. Teresa’s cleaning it, but guess you’ll have to remove the bullet.”
Sam Jenkins nodded, then entered the house to see his patient.
Johnny turned to Val. “Nine dead. Four in the house, one on the terrace and four more over by the south barn that got torched,” Johnny reported. “Several more, not sure how many, on the road in from the north. Cipriano can tell you where they are when he gets back.”
“Will said Luke Black was the ring leader. Where is he?” Val asked.
“He’s the one on the terrace. And the guy in the great room is Davy Stryker. Should have known that would come back to haunt me. Wonder what took him so long,” Johnny said.
“Heard his father died a few months ago. He mighta been the one holding him back. Probably didn’t want to lose another son,” Val offered. “Well, I better get busy with seeing to the dead and takin’ statements. Come on, son,” Val said, turning to Preston, “you can give me a hand.”
Scott was resting in his bed, exhausted from the ordeal of the bullet removal. Sam had convinced him to take some laudanum, even though he detested the stuff. He would stick with whiskey once the initial pain subsided.
Val entered his room and asked if he was up for some questions. Scott offered a nod, but clarified, “I’m not sure how coherent I’ll be.”
“Do your best. We can finish later if we have to,” Val said.
“Go ahead, what do you need to know?” Scott asked.
“You were the first one on the roof?”
“Yeah, when Johnny and I rode in I saw Black running up the back staircase to the terrace. Johnny went around to the front, so I went up the back. Black must have seen me coming because he ambushed me from the corner. He was crouched down so I didn’t see him until he had sent a bullet into my arm. I dropped my gun. He told me to stay where I was, that he wanted Madrid, not me, which surprised me, since I’m the one who killed Pardee.”
“So, what happened next?”
“Well, I thought Johnny would be at the front, but I heard a gunshot downstairs, so I knew something else was going on. Next thing I knew, Jenny was at the top of the stairs. Then I heard Johnny tell Black to drop his gun. Jenny and Johnny were at opposite ends of the terrace, around the corner from each other. Jenny yelled out to let Johnny know that she and I were there and that I was hurt. It eventually came down to the draw. Johnny, Jenny and Black all holstered their guns and Johnny had me count to three. I heard one shot and Black was down. Pretty sure it was Jenny who shot him.”
“You heard only one shot?” Val asked.
“That’s right. One shot.”
Val looked puzzled.
“Val, what’s up? You look confused,” Scott said.
“It’s peculiar, Scott. You’re sure you didn’t hear Johnny’s gun fire?”
“No, Val, I heard one shot. I saw smoke coming from Jenny’s gun.”
“Black died from two bullet wounds. One to the right chest, one between the eyes,” Val explained.
Scott let the details sink in, which wasn’t easy with the medication clouding his head.
“So you’re saying, two guns were fired at exactly the same time, which is why I heard only one shot?”
“That’s the only conclusion I can come up with,” Val said.
“At exactly the same time.” Scott repeated, trying to make sense of it. “So that means…”
“Yeah, Scott, that means Jenny is as fast as Johnny,” Val said.
“Does Johnny know?”
“I haven’t told him yet. I needed to talk to you first, get it straight in my head,” Val explained.
Scott was holding his head in his hands, part out of discomfort, but more out of concern for his brother.
“How do you think he’ll take it?”
“I don’t know Scott. He’s never met anyone who could beat him. And the one person who can is not only a woman, but also his wife.”
“So, Val, let me get this straight. You think Jenny and I shot Black at the exact same time? Is that even possible?” Johnny asked, looking at his friend in disbelief.
“All I can tell ya is that Scott heard only one gun shot, but Black had two fatal wounds. One to the chest, one between the eyes. You both hit your target.”
Val looked from Johnny to Jenny, trying to assess how they were processing the information. He had met them in the great room to talk about the event, holding the final shootout for the end. They were sitting side by side on the couch.
Johnny stood up, placed a hand on Val’s back, and asked, “Val, can I talk to ya outside for a minute?”
“Well, sure Johnny, but . . .”
Jenny interjected, “Johnny, I don’t think we’re done here.”
“I’ll be right back,” Johnny said, steering Val to the French doors.
Once outside, with the door closed, Johnny looked at Val and said, “You’re sayin’ she’s as fast as me?”
“That’s not what I said.”
“Well, what else can it mean? Both shots at the same time? We drew and fired at the exact same time! You’re sure she had her gun holstered?”
“Yeah, Johnny, she said she holstered it when you gave the instructions right before Scott did the countdown. Scott saw her do it. I don’t know why you’re makin’ such a big deal outta this.”
Johnny paced a few steps, hands on his hips, and asked his friend, “Don’t you think it’s a big deal?”
Val shook his head. “No, Johnny, I don’t. You told me yourself she was good with a gun. You should be proud of her. The way I see it, she saved everybody’s life today. Why does it matter to you that she’s as good as you?”
“I don’t know, Val, it just does!” Johnny retorted.
“Well, amigo, I think you and your wife need to come to an understanding about this whole shootin’ thing. You were right there with her when she wanted to help with the bank heist, but today, when she really showed what she can do, you get yourself all twisted up. Johnny, boy, you’re not makin’ good sense.”
“I never said it made sense. I’m just telling you how I feel.”
“Well, I ain’t the one you should be tellin’. Now get back in there and settle this with your wife,” Val said, as he turned and walked away. Looking back at Johnny, he added, “And Johnny, remember the guy you punched at your wedding party?”
Johnny looked perplexed. Why was Val bringing that up? “Yeah, I remember him.”
“His name was Rusty Franklin. He’s one of the men that Jenny and Teresa killed upstairs. He musta gotten hired on at Marshall’s place when Missus Conway fired him.”
Johnny stared at the ground, kicking his boot toe in the dirt. “Val, does everybody want to kill me?”
“Some days it seems like that, don’t it?” his friend mused. Val then left Johnny with his thoughts.
Johnny returned to the great room and found Jenny pacing in front of the fireplace.
“What was that all about?” she asked, not sounding happy.
“I’ll tell you upstairs,” he said, taking her hand. They ascended the front staircase to their room. They entered the room and Johnny began, “I’m sorry I walked out like that. I needed to ask Val something.”
“Is this about us shooting Black at the same time?”
“Yeah, it is.”
“Well, I figured as much. So, what if we did fire at the same time?”
“It made me realize just how good you are. I knew you were fast, but it never occurred to me you were as fast as me.”
“Johnny, I’ve been shooting a gun for a long time. I’ve told you that. We’ve practiced together. Today was nothing more than a coincidence. I don’t see how it matters.”
Johnny took a few paces, trying to sort the thoughts in his head. With a sigh, eyes downcast, he finally admitted, “It matters to the part of me that’s Johnny Madrid.”
Jenny walked to the window. After a few minutes she turned back to face Johnny.
“Look, for our own purposes we both learned a skill during the years before we met. We’re both very good with a gun. And the results from today suggest we are equally good. So what? No one needs to know, Johnny. It doesn’t put me in danger. In fact, today it saved our lives. So you, me, Scott and Val are the only ones who know we shot Black at the same time. It seems the only person bothered by it is you. And I’m trying to understand why.”
“To tell you the truth, I don’t know why I’m havin’ such a hard time with this. I guess I never expected the person who could possibly beat me to be . . .”
Jenny interrupted him before he could finish. “A woman? So you think men and women can’t have equal skills?”
“No, that’s not what I’m sayin’ at all. Of course they can be equals. Anybody can get good at something if they put their mind to it. It doesn’t matter if they’re a man or a woman.”
“You really believe that? So you do see us as equals?”
“Sure I do, Jenny. I never meant to suggest I don’t. When I went by the name Madrid I was the best at my trade. I took pride in it. It took a lot of hard work and practice. It’s what gave me a place in the world. So maybe it’s a pride thing. Maybe it hurts my pride a little to know you’re as good as me,” Johnny admitted. He blew air out through his lips and said, “Boy, I never dreamed I’d ever say that to another person,” he said, running his hands through his hair.
Jenny let out a soft laugh and said, “I think I’m beginning to understand. Rest assured, Johnny, I think your pride is perfectly intact. It might be a bit bruised, but nothing more. You’ve let your skill with a gun define who you are for so long. The only person who can change that is you.”
“So why do I still hold on to it, when I have all this?” Johnny asked, opening his arms wide.
Jenny thought for a few moments before responding. “You’ve been here, what, just over two years? That’s not long when you’re trying to change who you are. Time will take care of it. I believe that one day in the future your pride will come from being Johnny Lancer, successful rancher, loving husband, father, brother, and son. Gunfighting will be a distant memory. But you’ll always be a mix of Johnny Madrid and Johnny Lancer.”
He stood facing her, his hands on his hips, considering her words. “How did you get so smart?”
“It’s not being smart. It’s simply how I see you.”
“No one has ever seen me the way you do. Well, maybe Scott. It’s usually either Madrid or Lancer people see, not both. If I let go of the Madrid in me, I lose half of who I am.”
“I would never want you to do that. Do you know how much Johnny Madrid is a part of the man I love? I admire so many things about you; the things you had to overcome, how you managed to survive on your own, how you learned to live your life without love or trust and still grow to be a remarkable man with a set of ethics. You’re the most caring and compassionate man I’ve ever known. I love you for all of those things and so much more. Being Johnny Madrid made you the man you are.”
He looked at her intently, a glimmer of surprise in his eyes. “You’ve never said those things to me before,” he said softly.
“Well, I’m saying them now. Johnny, I don’t want my skill with a gun to be an issue for us. I’ve worked too hard to be good at it. And it’s saved my life and the lives of others more times than today. I can’t change who I am and I don’t think I’d want to even if I could.”
“Jenny, I’m not asking you to change. It was just a bit of a shock, you know, that we fired at exactly the same time. But now that I think about it, I shouldn’t be surprised. Because I know you’re that good, I just haven’t been willing to admit it to myself.”
“Then we’re okay? Can we move on from this?”
He went to her and put his hands on the waist. “Yes, we’re okay. In fact, I’m a bit in awe of you. I know how much discipline and hard work it takes to be as good as you are. Well, as good as we both are,” he added with laugh. “You are a rare woman, Jenny.”
Smiling, Jenny said, “Thank you for that. Now, I think we should go check on Scott.”
“Wait,” Johnny said, “I want to talk to you about what happened before Scott and I got back here.”
“You know what happened. We all gave our statements to Val.”
“I know, I know. But Jenny, it’s no small thing to take a man’s life. And you killed three men this morning.”
“They were going to kill us. I had to stop them.”
“So, what you said a minute ago about saving yourself and others, have you ever killed anyone before today?”
Jenny looked him in the eyes, then nodded her head. “Yes, Johnny, I have.”
When Johnny saw the tears start to gather in her eyes, he took her in his arms. “It’s okay. We don’t need to talk about it right now.” Still holding her, he said, “I’m so proud of you. It took a lot of courage to do what you and Teresa did today. You really did save us all.”
“Thank you,” Jenny said, as she took a step back. “All I know is that we’re all still alive and it doesn’t matter to me who shot who or when. All I wanted was for you to come home to me. Nothing else matters.” She kissed him ardently on the lips, then took his hand and led him out into the hallway toward Scott’s room.
Halfway down the hall, Johnny stopped. “You go check on Scott, tell him I’ll see him later. I want to go talk to Teresa. A lot has happened today and I want to make sure she’s okay.”
Jenny placed her hand on the side of his face. “You’re a sweet man. I’ll see you later.”
Johnny took the rear staircase to the kitchen. The debris from earlier had been cleared away. Maria was at the counter rolling dough. Johnny walked over to her and put his arm around her shoulder.
“Everything okay, Maria?” he asked.
“Si, Juanito, I am fine.”
“I’m glad you weren’t in the house when we were attacked this morning. Do you know where Teresa is?”
“Si, she went to the garden.”
“Gracias,” he said, and he kissed her lightly on her cheek.
He walked through the courtyard to the garden. Teresa was sitting on one of the benches snapping green beans into a bowl.
She looked up and smiled. “Hello, Johnny.”
He walked to the bench and sat next to her. “Are you fixing those for me?” he asked, teasingly.
“Yes, and I expect you to eat all of your vegetables at dinner tonight,” she said. “Did you need me for something?”
“No, I just wanted to make sure you’re okay. It’s been a pretty rough day.”
“That’s sweet of you, Johnny, but I’m fine. I need to go check on Scott,” she said, as she started to rise from the bench.
Johnny placed his hand on her shoulder. “Stay and talk to me. Jenny’s with Scott. He’s fine for the moment.”
Teresa settled back on the bench, resigned to having the conversation.
“Teresa, you and Jenny were very brave this morning. I sure am proud of you.”
She didn’t respond at first, seeming to concentrate on her task of preparing the beans for cooking. Then her hands stopped moving. “It all happened so fast, Johnny,” she said, her lower lip trembling. “There wasn’t time to think about anything. I was so scared!” she said, as the tears flowed and she leaned into him.
Johnny took the bowl from her lap and placed it on the ground, then pulled her close and held her while she cried. “I’ve never killed anyone before. It was just awful,” she said, with a sob.
“I know it’s a hard thing to accept, but you did what you had to do.”
After a few minutes, Teresa regained her composure and sat up straight. “Jenny saved us. She knew exactly what to do. I just did what she told me. If she hadn’t been upstairs and she hadn’t seen them coming, I don’t know what would have happened. She didn’t hesitate a minute. By the time I got upstairs she had a plan and it worked. She seemed so confident, I knew I had to be brave, too.”
Johnny smiled at his sister. “Honey, you don’t give yourself enough credit. You’re brave enough all on your own. Look, I know it’s not an easy thing to take a man’s life, but trust me, Teresa, those men would have done whatever it took for them to get to me. By killing them, you and Jenny saved yourselves, me and everyone else and the ranch. I was terrified that Scott and I wouldn’t get here in time.”
“I know it was self defense. It was only after it was all over that I realized what I had done.”
“That’s the way it usually works. Believe me, I’ve experienced it more times than I like to remember.”
“How do you live with it, Johnny?”
“You remember that you wouldn’t be here to even think about it if you hadn’t done what you did to save yourself.”
She nodded her understanding. “I’m so happy we didn’t lose anyone. Now, I would like to go check on Scott, if that’s okay.”
“Yes, that’s okay,” Johnny said, with a smile. “In fact, I’d like to see him myself.” He handed her the bowl of beans and they walked arm in arm back to the house.
Two days later Scott was recovering well enough to join the others for family dinner. Murdoch had returned from Sacramento earlier in the day and had been fully briefed by Johnny and Scott on the events of two days ago.
“It’s good to have everyone back at the dinner table,” Jenny said.
“Yes, it is,” Teresa said, a satisfied smile on her face.
Murdoch smiled, as he said, “From what I’ve been told, we have you brave girls to thank for making sure everyone came through this alive.”
“It was a team effort, Murdoch,” Jenny said. “We did what we had to do.”
“Well, in any event, I’m more than grateful for how all of you handled the situation. I couldn’t have managed a better outcome myself. I’m proud of all of you.”
“Thank you, sir, I’m just glad it’s over,” Scott said.
“But we still don’t know who was behind it. With Marshall dead, and most of the hired guns dead or gone, there doesn’t seem to be anyone left to ask,” Johnny said.
“There may be some legal means of finding out. Property records may reveal who the true owner of the ranch is. I don’t think it was Marshall. The Lieutenant Governor owes me a favor. I want to know whose name is on the deeds of the Marshall properties. I’ll wire him tomorrow.”
Life had returned to normal at Lancer Ranch. There had been no word from the State’s investigators looking into the deed holders of the Marshall properties. With the return of their cattle, the Lancers had moved on to other priorities. Many of the ranch hands from the Marshall Ranch who had no allegiance to Dan Marshall were now Lancer employees, or worked on other ranches in the area. A few stayed on at the Marshall ranch and were now employees of the State. Marshall left no will, and no heirs could be identified, therefore the Marshall Ranch was being held intestate pending the State’s decision on how to distribute the land, or the true deed holder was identified.
Johnny was riding next to his father along the main road into Morro Coyo, headed for a lunch meeting of the local chapter of the California Cattle Growers Association.
“You’ve been unusually quiet this morning. What’s on your mind?” Murdoch asked.
“Don’t you think if someone else was behind Marshall’s takeover attempt, we’d know by now? I’m a bit tired of having this shadow following us around all the time.”
“Not necessarily, son. It took two years for the attempt to resurface, so whoever it is may be plotting the next step. Unfortunately, I don’t think we can assume it’s over.”
“Well, that’s reassuring, Murdoch,” Johnny groaned.
“I know it’s not what you want to hear. And you know, there is a chance that this land grab had nothing to do with why someone was looking for you in the city.”
“Boy, Murdoch, you’re full of happy thoughts today, aren’t you?”
Murdoch laughed. “Sorry, Johnny, I’ll try to be more optimistic. Maybe it is over. I think we’ll have a better sense of what’s going on when we get a report from the State. I don’t understand why the investigation is taking so long.”
“Can’t you give your friend the Lieutenant Governor a nudge to speed things up?”
“Well, I don’t want to push my luck. He is doing this as a personal favor to me.”
“I know. Guess we’ll have to be patient a while longer. Not one of my strong suits,” Johnny said, glancing at this father with a grin.
They rode in silence for a few minutes, then Johnny turned to his father. “Murdoch, there’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you.”
“What’s that, son?”
“Remember the kid who led the attempted bank robbery a couple of months ago? His name was Andy Logan.”
“Sure. I remember.”
“Well, I went to talk to him after he was arrested to find out if he had heard about anyone looking for me as Madrid during his travels. He said he hadn’t, but talking with him made me realize something. I looked at him and saw what I might have become if you hadn’t lured me back here. I would have been a drifter just looking for the next score. You saved my life and gave me a future. I’ve never said thank you, so I’m doing it now. Thank you, Murdoch.”
Murdoch swallowed hard, then his face relaxed and his eyes glistened. He looked at Johnny and reached out to place his hand on his shoulder. With a gentle squeeze he said, “You’re welcome, son.”
Johnny grinned widely, feeling the warmth of his father’s hand and the sincerely in this voice. He felt a great pressure release from his chest.
Murdoch returned the grin and spurred his steed on for the last leg of their trip.
Johnny watched Murdoch ride ahead of him. He let out a loud whoop and sped up to catch up with his father.
Several days later, Johnny had drawn the short straw at breakfast and was sitting at his father’s desk working on the bookkeeping. He had to admit that it wasn’t nearly the daunting task it had been when he first became part of the family business. Under Scott’s patient tutelage, he had learned the system and his confidence had grown. He appreciated his brother for not treating him like a pupil, but as a peer, the same as Johnny had treated Scott when teaching him to rope a cow during branding season. He smiled at the memory of Scott’s first attempt. Johnny seriously thought he would find Scott packed and heading back to Boston the next day, but matching his brother in stubbornness, Scott had headed out with the crew the next morning to do it all again. In time, he became quite skilled at roping and tying cattle, quieting the doubters among the ranch hands. They both had to learn new skills when they came to Lancer.
Johnny’s concentration was interrupted when he sensed Jenny entering the room from the kitchen hallway. He had recognized the sound of her footfall on the wood floors. Welcoming the distraction, he stood up and met her in the center of the room.
He was surprised to see her dressed in a brown skirt, a crisp white blouse with a flattering trim of lace at her chin, and a green cropped jacket. She rarely wore a hat, except for when she was riding, but today, she was wearing a stylish hat the color of the jacket, with an accent of small feathers. Johnny tilted his head and gave her a once over. He had never seen her in these clothes.
“What’s this all about?” he asked, his eyes drinking her in, trying to memorize every detail.
“What do you mean?” she asked coyly.
“You, all dressed up, and looking so pretty.”
Jenny gave him a smile of satisfaction. “Oh, this? I have a lunch date and I felt like wearing something special.”
“A lunch date,” he said, as a statement, not a question. “Do I know him?” Johnny asked, a wry smile on his face.
“Don’t be silly. I’m having lunch with Aggie Conway.”
“Well,” he said, as he put his hands on her arms, “do give her my best.”
Jenny placed her hands on his chest, and said, “No, I think I’ll keep your best for myself. But I will tell her you said hello.”
Before Johnny could respond, Jenny kissed him, tenderly at first, then with increasing passion. His breathing quickened and his heart began to race.
“Jen . . . ,” he moaned.
Just as quickly, she left him stranded and gasping, and she was at the door.
“That was to let you know I’ll miss you while I’m gone,” she said, as she whisked herself out the door.
Several weeks later on a Saturday morning, Jenny rose from the breakfast table, gave Johnny a quick kiss and said, “I’m taking Cisco for a ride.”
“Where are you going? I’ll go with you,” Johnny said.
“No, that’s not necessary.”
“Well, when will you be back?”
“Before dinner. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”
Johnny rose and followed her to the front door, missing the raised brows and the grins on the faces of Scott and Murdoch. No one noticed that Teresa had left the room.
As Johnny entered the front hall, Jenny was buckling on her holster.
“Okay, Jen, what’s going on?”
“My goodness, Johnny, you can’t allow me a moment of privacy, can you?”
“That’s not true!”
“All right! I’m going over to Aggie’s, if you must know,” she said, feigning anger.
They stepped out onto the veranda where Johnny saw Cisco and Teresa’s horse tethered to the rail. At that moment, Teresa came around the wall of the courtyard.
“I’m ready if you are, Jenny,” Teresa said, ignoring Johnny.
“You’re going with her?”
“That’s right. Don’t worry, Johnny, Maria is making your lunch,” she said, laughing.
Jenny and Teresa, now atop their horses, headed away from the house.
In unison, they called, “Bye, Johnny!”
Baffled, with his head shaking, Johnny returned to the kitchen. His brother and father were still at the table. He poured himself a fresh cup of coffee. He recalled Jenny meeting Aggie Conway for lunch a few weeks before. Was this becoming a regular thing? And how was Teresa involved?
“Jen and Teresa just left for Aggie’s. Do either of you know what’s going on?”
Murdoch chuckled. “Relax, Johnny. The girls are allowed to have some secrets.”
“Well, I don’t like it,” Johnny stated stubbornly.
Scott laughed. “You don’t have to like it, brother, you just have to accept it. And it looks like we’re on cleanup duty this morning,” he said, as he stood and started clearing the table. I’ll wash, you dry,” he said, as he lightly slapped his disgruntled brother on the back.
“Well, where’s Maria?” Johnny asked.
“She left yesterday for San Jose to visit her sister, remember? She’ll be back next Saturday,” Murdoch said.
“All right, but I’ll wash, you dry,” Johnny said, taking long strides to the sink.
The following Saturday the same scenario played out. Jenny and Teresa set out for the Conway ranch after breakfast. Johnny bit his tongue and refrained from asking any questions, but he knew something was up. He strongly suspected they weren’t going to Aggies to sip tea and make doilies.
The three Lancer men lingered after breakfast, discussing various ranch matters. When Johnny heard the girls ride off, he said, “That’s it! I’m going to find out what’s going on over there at Aggie’s.”
“Whoa, Johnny, I’m not sure that’s a good idea. I’m sure it’s something quite innocent. I mean, how much trouble can they get into with Aggie?” Scott said.
“Scott’s right, Johnny. It’s ill advised to go checking up on your wife.”
Johnny knew he’d get no support from Scott or Murdoch, so he ended the conversation. “Come on, Scott, let’s get the dishes done.”
“Thank you, boys, I know the girls appreciate your help,” Murdoch said, grinning ear to ear.
Later that morning, as Johnny approached the Conway ranch, his conscience began to nag at him. He’d had plenty of time to reconsider, since Murdoch asked him to mail some letters in Morro Coyo on his way to Aggie’s. Maybe Murdoch and Scott were right. This could be a big mistake. He couldn’t define the force that led him here; it wasn’t jealousy, or distrust. All he could point to was curiosity. He wanted to know everything there was to know about his wife. He was beginning to think he might be taking his desire to know her a bit too far. Pushing such thoughts aside, he continued to climb the low rise in front of him.
As he reached the summit, he pulled Barranca to a stop and scanned the ranch below. He was in the direct line of sight of the barn and surrounding corrals of the Conway Ranch.
What he saw astounded him. Jenny was walking back and forth behind a row of women, Teresa included. All of the women had guns in their hands, aiming at targets lining a fence rail. In unison they fired. Some missed their targets, others were dead accurate. He continued to stare, taking in the remarkable scene below. He watched Jenny turn in his direction, as though she had sensed him there. She was staring back at him.
As he felt his stomach churn, Johnny cursed himself for being so stupid. He should have listened to his father and brother. He couldn’t see the details of her face, but he didn’t need to, to know she was displeased. He turned Barranca around and lit off down the slope. He pushed his horse hard, thinking if he rode fast enough, her fury wouldn’t catch him.
After seeing Johnny watching them, Jenny called the class to an abrupt end. She told Teresa she was riding ahead and would see her at home. Her ride back to the hacienda was swift, Cisco sensing her mood and need for speed. From under the arch, she raced to the corral and dismounted. Several hands working in the area saw the look on her face and made themselves scarce. Johnny couldn’t have been very far ahead of her, so she stormed into the barn. She found him brushing a wet and snorting Barranca in his stall.
“How dare you follow us! What Teresa and I do in our spare time is none of your business! Spying on us! Johnny, that’s beneath you!”
He looked up to see Jenny standing ramrod straight, hands on her hips. Her eyes were wide orbs, her jaw set in anger. Feeling duly chastised, Johnny hung his head and toyed with the strings of his hat. He had never seen his wife this angry.
“I wasn’t spying,” he said, sounding a bit like the injured party. “I was curious, that’s all.”
“No, it was more than curiosity that made you ride all the way to Aggie’s. You were checking up on me! Well, I’ll tell you what I was doing, since you’re so damned intrigued! I’m testing out a business idea for a shooting school for women. A few of the ladies agreed to help me test my teaching approach. And you know what? They love it! They told me their husbands never took the time to teach them. Just expected them to figure out on their own how to shoot a gun. Or it never even occurred to them their wive’s might need to defend themselves. You men think women are helpless little creatures who need your protection. Well, that’s not the real world, Johnny. We live in a dangerous place and time. You of all people know that.”
Realizing she had been vigorously pacing, she came to a stop and looked at Johnny. He had left the stall and was leaning against a post, his arms hanging loose at his sides, his fingers twitching. His eyes twinkled, the corners of his mouth turned up slightly.
She remained still and let out a sigh of exasperation. She was totally disarmed and her resolve quickly evaporated. She relaxed her shoulders in surrender.
“Damn you, Johnny! How am I to stay mad at you when you look at me like that?”
Johnny approached her and put his hands on her shoulders.
“You’re not really mad at me, are you?” he asked.
“Yes, I am. Well, I was. I don’t need your permission to do this, you know.”
“Of course you don’t. But as you said, I am intrigued. So you’re gonna make these ladies pay you to teach them how to shoot?”
“I don’t know yet. Nothing’s official.”
“We don’t need the money, you know.”
Jenny broke out of Johnny’s grip.
“For heaven’s sake, Johnny, it’s not about the money!” she cried, once again exasperated. “It’s about doing something meaningful to help others. There’s a need out there and I can fill it. You don’t really think I’m going to be content scrubbing floors and changing your linens, do you? If you wanted a traditional rancher’s wife, well, I’m sorry to disappoint you!”
“Whoa, Jenny, hold on! You don’t have to defend yourself to me! I get it. I’m actually very proud of you.”
“You are?” she asked, looking stunned.
He shook his head, dismayed she would think otherwise.
“Of course I’m proud of you. And for your information, I don’t expect you to scrub floors all day. But I do recall that we agreed to be partners in everything. I’m here to help you, remember?”
“Yes, I remember. I wanted to test the idea before talking to you about it.”
“And Aggie helped you?”
“The idea actually came from her after I told her I was teaching Teresa to use a handgun. She told me she would like to practice with us, and maybe invite some of her other lady friends. She offered her place as a practice site.”
Johnny laughed. “That doesn’t surprise me. Aggie Conway’s an enterprising woman. Look, Jenny, I’m sorry if you felt I invaded your privacy. It wasn’t my intent.”
“Oh, you’re forgiven,” she said, tossing her head. “The truth is, I’ve always dreamed of doing something like this. Creating something of my own.”
“What about the hotel? You created a successful business.”
“No, that was Ian’s dream. I learned it well enough and loved working alongside him, but I wouldn’t have chosen that without Ian.”
“And this would help fulfill your dream?”
“Yes, it would.”
“Then how can I help?”
Jenny sighed and sat down on a bale of hay.
“You can be the most exasperating man one minute, then the sweetest man the next.”
Johnny shrugged. “Just part of my charm,” he said, grinning at her, as he sat next to her.
“I’ll let you know if I need your help. It’s sweet of you to offer.” She looked at him thoughtfully. “Johnny, what’s your dream?”
“I’m living it. Though I never actually dreamed I’d ever have all of this. A family, a ranch, a woman I love more than anything,” he said, kissing her on the cheek.
“Okay, so beyond all of this, there must be something you’d like to do. If you could do anything in the world, what would it be?”
He didn’t hesitate. “I’d start a horse ranch.”
“What’s stopping you?”
“I’ve talked to Murdoch about the idea a few times. He always dismisses it. Says we’re in the business of cattle, not horses.”
“That sounds a bit shortsighted. You’ve never pressed him on it?”
Laughing, he said, “I’ve learned to pick my battles with him. Can’t think how I’d win that one.”
Jenny thought for a moment. “Do you really think it would be a prosperous business?”
“It would take time, but, yeah, good horses are in high demand. And I know how to break them and train them. We could breed some fine horses. We’ve got plenty of wild horses roaming the property to get started. But it doesn’t matter. Murdoch will never go for it.”
“Johnny, do you think we’re here to fulfill our parents’ dreams or our own dreams?”
Johnny shrugged. “Never given it much thought. What’s so wrong with helping Murdoch, well, now me and Scott, have a successful ranch?”
“There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m just suggesting that maybe there’s room for Murdoch’s dream and your own. My mother once told me to find a man who would love me like a woman, but treat me as a partner. Of course, I was only nine years old when she told me that, so I didn’t think it was anything I needed to worry about. She died the next year, so I remember that as one of the last pieces of advice she gave me.”
Johnny turned so he could look her in the eyes. “It sounds like your mother was a wise woman.”
With a smile, Jenny said, “Yes, I suppose she was. I wish I’d had her in my life longer. Look, Johnny, I know you see me as a partner, I don’t question that. I just want you to know I’ll do whatever I can to help you realize your dream, if that’s what you want.”
Johnny stood up and pulled Jenny into his arms. “You remind everyday of what a lucky man I am,” he said. “Come on, we can’t spend all day dreaming. Let’s go get some lunch.”
“Okay, but we’re not finished talking about this,” Jenny said. “I think there may be a way to convince Murdoch. Diversification is going to be important in the years to come.”
“Sounds like you’ve been talking to Scott,” Johnny said, taking her hand and leading her out of the barn.
On a Sunday morning in late March, the Lancers were finishing breakfast in the dining room when Murdoch saw Val ride up to the front of the house in a buggy. He had a man with him Murdoch did not recognize.
“Were we expecting Val before dinner?” Murdoch asked.
“Not that I know of,” Johnny said, as he rose from the table. “I’ll find out what he needs.”
Johnny went out to the veranda to greet Val. Val and the stranger jumped down from the buggy, “Hey, Johnny, sorry to barge in on ya like this, but this man is here to see you. Said it was urgent.”
“Hello, Mr. Lancer. My name is Jack Morgan and I work for the Pinkerton Agency. I’ve been looking for you for a long time.”
“Let’s go inside,” he said, showing Val and Mr. Morgan into the great room, closing the door behind him.
“You say you’ve been looking for me. Why?”
“A client hired us some months ago to find a man who went by the name Johnny Madrid. It took me a while to put the puzzle together that you and Johnny Madrid are the same person.”
“Well, I haven’t used the name Madrid for over two years. Who is this so-called client?”
The Pinkerton Agent surveyed the room. Everyone had left the table and moved to the sitting area. “Perhaps we should have this conversation in a more private place.”
“No need for that. This is my family. They can hear whatever it is you have to say,” Johnny replied.
“As you wish.” He removed a packet from his wallet and handed Johnny a piece of paper. “This will give you the name of the client and the message we were asked to deliver. And there’s a letter here marked personal.”
Johnny scanned the paper. He moved to the table and sat down.
“This doesn’t make any sense,” he mumbled to himself. He opened the letter and read to himself:
August 30, 1871
I was devastated when I heard you had been killed while in a Mexican prison. Then I heard recently that you might still be alive. I have hired the Pinkerton Agency to find you. If you are reading this they have succeeded. My father died shortly after you left for Mexico. I know you made a promise to him to help me if I ever needed anything. Well, I have a favor to ask of you. If you are able, please come to Nogales as soon as you can.
Jenny joined him at the table. “What is it, Johnny?”
Johnny looked up, startled to see her next to him. Memories from the past were rushing into his head like a swarm of bees. He inhaled deeply. “The client is someone I knew a few years ago in Nogales. I worked for her father for a short time. This says her father died and she needs to see me.”
“Why would she need to see you?” Jenny asked.
“I have no idea. Last time I saw either of them was before I joined the revolution down in Mexico.”
Johnny stood and faced the agent.
“How long have you been looking for me?”
“Several months. The trail led me to San Francisco in September. There was a rumor that Johnny Madrid had been in a gunfight up there in late August. I started asking around, but couldn’t get a good lead on where you had gone from there.”
“You were looking for me in the city in September?”
“Yeah, that’s right. I thought I had found you. But the next day I got reassigned to a case involving, let’s just say, a more prestigious client. I lost the lead I had on you.”
“And what lead was that?”
“That you were now going by the name Lancer and you were a guest at the Essex Hotel. And that you were getting married to the owner of the hotel.”
Scott was now standing beside Johnny.
“Well, I’ll be damned. We heard there were two of you asking around about Johnny.”
“And you are?” the agent asked.
“I beg your pardon. I’m Scott Lancer, Johnny’s brother.”
“Nice to meet you. Yes, you’re right, at that time I had an assistant helping me. He was reassigned along with me to the other case. I only recently was able to pick up this case again. I recently learned you live here.”
“Who did you learn that from?” Jenny asked.
“We prefer to keep our informants confidential, ma’am.”
Jenny stood and faced the man.
“My name is Jenny Lancer. I’m Johnny’s wife. I know for a fact that only a handful of people could make that connection. I want to know who gave you that information.”
“She’s right. It must have come from someone close to us,” Johnny said.
“I’m terribly sorry, but it’s against company policy to reveal our sources. I’m sure the person didn’t mean you any ill intent.”
“In any event, Agent Morgan, I will need some time to think about this,” Johnny said.
“Well, this actually concludes my assignment. My job was to find you and deliver the message. I don’t need to know what you do with the information. I will simply inform the client that I have found you and the message was delivered.”
“Yes, I’m quite familiar with how it all works,” Johnny said, the irony clear in his voice.
“I beg your pardon?” Morgan asked.
“You could have saved yourself a lot of time and trouble if you’d checked your own records. It was a Pinkerton Agent who found me as Johnny Madrid in Mexico a couple of years ago and gave me a message my father wanted to talk to me. That’s how I came to be Johnny Lancer, which is my birth name.”
“And I’m his father, Murdoch Lancer,” Murdoch said, stepping forward from the sitting area. “I paid the Pinkerton Agency a lot of money over the years to find my son. So now you’ve found him again. I do hope your assignment hasn’t put him in jeopardy in any way.”
“Well, I certainly hope that isn’t the case as well, Mr. Lancer.” He turned to Johnny and handed him a card.
“If there is ever anything I can do for you, please let me know. I will now take my leave, if Sheriff Crawford would kindly take me back to town.”
“Yeah, sure, I’d be happy to. Why don’t you go wait for me outside? I’ll be with ya in a minute.” After Morgan had left, he turned to Johnny. “What kinda hairbrained story is this, Johnny? Who is that message from?”
“You gotta be kiddin’ me! Frank Grant’s little girl?”
“She wasn’t a little girl, Val. She was seventeen years old. She’d be twenty-one now.”
“And you were what, eighteen?”
“Yeah, that’s right. This doesn’t make any sense. Why would she need to see me? It’s been four years since I’ve seen her. And Frank’s dead, so it’s not like he has any unfinished business with me.”
Val looked over Johnny’s shoulder and saw Jenny looking very confused and concerned.
“Ah, Johnny, I think you better fill your family in on the details.”
Scott concurred, “Yes, Johnny, considering we’ve made a lot of adjustments to our lives to head off the so-called threat looming out there, we need to hear what this is all about.”
Johnny nodded his head. “Everybody relax. I could use a drink, then I’ll tell you the story.”
“I’ll get Agent Morgan out of your hair. I’ll be back for dinner,” Val said.
“Okay, see ya then. Thanks, Val.”
Scott poured tumblers of scotch for the men. Jenny and Teresa declined. They settled in the sitting area, Murdoch in his chair, Scott on one of the ottomans, Teresa on the small sofa next to the fireplace. Johnny sat on the couch with Jenny next to him. Johnny looked up to see the expectant faces of his family. He waited for the alcohol to settle in his stomach, then took in a deep breath.
“About four years ago Frank Grant saved my life when he found me bleeding by the side of the road outside of Nogales, Arizona. I had been shot in the chest in a gunfight. How I made it out of town I’ll never know. I would have died there in the ditch if he hadn’t come along. He didn’t know me, but he took me to his place and sent for a doctor. He put me up for a couple of weeks while I healed. Then he gave me a job.
“I worked for him for a short time as a hired gun to protect his ranch during a range war. I didn’t take any pay from him, felt I couldn’t after he took me in and saved my life. Well, the range war didn’t last long, so I took up with the revolutionaries across the border. That’s when I got captured by the Ruralies and ended up in prison. Before I left for Mexico, Frank Grant asked me to stay on to be a ranch hand, but at that time I wasn’t interested in that kind of work.
“I suspect he knew he was sick, maybe knew he was dying. ‘Cause when I Ieft, he asked me if I ever got word from Melissa that she needed help, I would help her. Being in his debt, I said yes.”
“May I read the letter?” Jenny asked.
Johnny shifted in his seat, then said, “Sure,” as he handed the letter to her.
Jenny took her time, studying the letter. She made no comment.
Scott reached out his hand, “May I?”
Johnny nodded. Jenny handed the letter to Scott. Scott in turn handed the letter to his father after reading it.
“Do any of you remember what night the gunfight in San Francisco occurred?” Murdoch asked.
“It was the second night we were there. Friday night I think,” Scott offered.
“Yes, it was a Friday. I think the date was August 25th,” Jenny recalled.
“Well, news certainly traveled fast. The date on this letter is August 30th. How could news about the gunfight get to Nogales so quickly?” Murdoch asked.
Johnny laughed sadly. “News of an infamous halfbreed gunslinger thought to be dead miraculously appearing in a gunfight would travel like wildfire. Word of mouth all the way down to the border.”
“Johnny, I don’t like hearing you talk about yourself like that. You’re not a halfbreed. You’re of mixed ethnicity,” Murdoch said.
“Yeah, well, lots of people don’t see it that way. Trust me, if the right ears heard me say I was Johnny Madrid that night, then word was on it’s way before the smoke cleared. I’m not surprised it reached her that quickly.”
“So you were close to this girl?” Scott asked.
“We became friends,” Johnny replied, looking uncomfortable with where the discussion was going.
“Son, what are you thinking?”
“I made a promise. I don’t see how I can’t follow through on it.”
“But Johnny, your life has changed completely since you made that promise,” Scott offered.
“I gave my word, Scott.”
Jenny said, “It doesn’t feel right, Johnny. There are no specifics about what favor she needs. She could have easily put that in the letter. And it worries me that Nogales is so close to Mexico.”
“It’s more than close. Nogales is in Arizona and Mexico. The border runs through the center of town,” Johnny explained.
“Then you have no idea what could be waiting for you down there.”
“I can’t disagree with her, Johnny,” Mudoch said. “I think you need to think this through carefully.”
“And Johnny, it’s been six months since she wrote that letter. What if she no longer needs the favor?” Scott asked.
“Look, I hear everything you’re all saying. None of it changes the fact that I made a promise to her father. He was a good man. He treated me better than most people I met down there. It doesn’t feel right to ignore it.”
“You already worked for him for free. That sounds like a debt repaid to me,” Jenny said.
Johnny turned to her and said, “It’s just something I need to do, Jenny. I don’t want to leave you, but I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t find out what she needs.”
As tears swelled in her eyes, Jenny said, “It sounds to me like she thinks it’s you she needs, not some favor.” She stood quickly and ran to the stairway.
They all sat quietly as they heard her go up the stairs and close the bedroom door.
“If you go, you realize you’re probably making the biggest mistake of your life, don’t you?” Scott asked.
“It can’t be helped,” Johnny said.
“Some promises can’t be kept, Johnny. This one might cost you too much. Jenny is a patient woman, but even she has her limits.”
With every step he took toward the bedroom, Johnny’s dread grew. He knew he owed Jenny the full story, but he knew she wouldn’t take it well. He was puzzled by her emotional reaction to the letter. Usually so even tempered and reasonable, her outburst seemed out of character. Now, as his past was being thrown back in his face, he struggled with how to explain it to his wife. He would much rather be confessing something about his professional past, but this was personal.
When he entered the room, Jenny was standing at the terrace door. Before he could say anything, she turned to him. “Johnny, I’m begging you, please don’t go. You don’t know what’s waiting for you down there. It’s too close to Mexico. Your life could be in danger.”
“That’s nothing new to me. I can take care of myself. Look Jenny,” he said, as he went to her and put his hands on her shoulders, “I know you don’t understand this, but it’s something I have to do.”
“How close were you to this girl?”
“She helped take care of me when I was recovering from the gunshot. We became friends,” he turned his head dismissively, “maybe we were a little in love, at least what we thought was love at the time.”
“I have to ask . . . ”
Johnny braced himself, knowing the next question.
“Did you . . .”
Johnny interrupted her, sparing her the pain of asking the question. He looked her in the eyes and said, “Yes.”
Jenny dropped her head and turned away from him.
“Jenny, it was a long time ago. We were young. It was only one time. It was a mistake. I got caught up in the revolution right after it happened, then I ended up in prison. I never saw or heard from her again. Until now.”
“Why now? What on earth could she need from you now? After so many years of no contact.”
“I don’t know. Remember, she thought I was dead. Jenny, I have to find out what this is all about.”
“Then send the Pinkerton Agent back and get the details.”
“I have to go myself.”
“What you really mean is you won’t send someone else. Because you most certainly can. You are the most stubborn man I’ve ever known.”
“I made a promise.”
“And what about the promises you made to me? To love and honor me? What’s more important to you, Johnny, a girl you knew four years ago, hundreds of miles away, or your wife who is standing right here, and who happens to be carrying your child?” Jenny asked, her voice shaking, her face awash with tears.
Johnny looked stunned. After taking a few moments to process what he just heard, he asked, “How long have you known?”
“Not long,” she said, choking back tears.
“Come here,” Johnny said, as he reached for her and pulled her into his arms. “God, Jenny, why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
“I tried to. We kept getting interrupted. This was supposed to be a happy day for us, and here we are arguing over something that shouldn’t even be concerning us.”
“Except it does concern me. Come on, let’s sit down.” he said, leading her to the sofa.
“How do you know for sure? Have you seen Doc Jenkins?”
“I feel the same way I did when I was pregnant with Rachel.” She looked into his eyes, “You’re going to be a father, Johnny.”
His eyes pooling, he placed his forefinger under her chin and raised her lips to his and whispered, “This is a very happy day for us.” His kiss was soft and deep as their tears flowed together. “You’ve made me a very happy man, Jenny,” he said, his face beaming with joy.
“Does this change your mind about going?”
He nodded his head. “I’ll talk to the Pinkerton man. See what more he can find out. Maybe he can send a wire. I’ll only go if absolutely necessary.”
Jenny feared knowing what an ‘absolutely necessary’ situation could be, but she refrained from asking. She was happy for the moment that her news had easily dissuaded him from leaving.
“You didn’t answer my other question. Have you seen Sam Jenkins yet? Has he examined you?”
“No, I was thinking I should go soon.”
“Then we’ll go tomorrow. Make sure everything’s okay.”
“Johnny, I’m sure everything’s fine. He’ll just confirm that I am indeed pregnant.”
“Should we wait to tell everyone until after we’ve seen Sam?” Johnny asked.
“Yes, that’s probably a good idea. To be absolutely sure before we tell the whole world!”
“While we’re in town we can talk to the agent. I’m going to send Walt with a message to him that we want to see him tomorrow. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” He stood and kissed the top of her head before leaving. When he reached the door he looked back and said, “I love you, Jenny.”
Johnny paced in the small waiting room in Dr. Jenkins’ office. Sam had been examining Jenny for what seemed like hours. He couldn’t imagine what was taking so long. She was either pregnant or she wasn’t. How long could that take? He knew he was probably annoying the two patients who were waiting to see Sam, but he couldn’t sit still.
At long last the exam room door opened and Sam motioned for him to join them. Jenny was sitting on the exam table, putting on her jacket.
Sam faced Johnny. “Johnny, I’m happy to tell you that Jenny is about three months pregnant. Everything looks fine. She’s in good health, so I don’t anticipate any difficulties along the way.”
Jenny stepped down from the table and walked into Johnny’s arms, as he said, “That’s the best news I’ve ever heard! Boy, I can’t wait for us to tell Murdoch he’s going to be a grandfather! Can you imagine the look on his face when he hears it?”
Jenny and Sam laughed along with him. “I’m very happy for the two of you,” Sam said. “Now, Jenny, I know you’ve been through this before, but if you have any questions or concerns, you come see me right away. Now get out of here so I can take care of my sick patients! And tell Murdoch I said congratulations!” he said, as he ushered them out the door.
“We will. Thanks, Sam,” Johnny said, the smile never leaving his face.
As they stepped outside, they nearly collided with Val as he was entering the door.
“Hey, I didn’t expect to see you two here! Nobody’s sick, are they?”
“Wouldn’t ya know we’d run into you!” Johnny said, laughing.
“Should we tell him?” Jenny asked, looking at her husband.
“Guess we better, or he’ll make me pay for it later,” he said. He looked at Val. “Now, you can’t tell a soul about this. Promise?” Johnny asked.
“Well, sure, Johnny, I promise. What’s going on?” Then he noticed the glimmer in Johnny’s eyes and blurted out, “Holy cow, you’re gonna be a papi!”
“Yeah, Val, very good!”
“Well, I’ll be damned! Congratulations!” He studied Jenny for a moment, “You feelin’ okay? Everything’s all right?”
“Yes, Val, everythings perfect.” She laughed at his exuberance, but was touched by his concern.
“Well, this calls for a celebration!”
“Just make sure you’re at Sunday dinner,” Johnny said.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world. Boy, is Murdoch gonna be happy!” Val exclaimed.
“Then we’ll see you Sunday,” Johnny said. He pointed a finger at Val and added, “Not a word to anyone!”
“Cross my heart,” Val said, making an X mark across his chest.
Johnny looked at Jenny, his grin still infectiously wide.
“Do you feel as happy as I do?” he asked.
“I’ve never been happier!” she exclaimed, returning his brilliant smile. “I’ve been waiting months for this to happen.”
“Let’s go get this meeting over so we can get some lunch and go home and make our big announcement!,” he said, taking her by the hand.
The couple walked on to the hotel to keep their appointment with the Pinkerton agent. They found him sitting at a table in the restaurant. Johnny approached him and shook his hand.
“Mr. Morgan, thank you for staying over to meet with us.”
“No problem, Mr. Lancer, Mrs. Lancer,” he said, as he nodded at them. “Please, sit,” he indicated. “What can I do for you?”
“We’d like to hire you to get more information from Miss Grant. I can’t leave my family right now. It would help to know what the favor is she needs from me. Since it took you so long to find me, she may not even need it anymore.”
“Couldn’t you contact her on your own?” Morgan asked.
Johnny glanced at Jenny. “I prefer not to. Will you do this for us?”
“Of course. I’ll need my expenses paid as well as the fee for the service.”
“Understood. Send the bill to me at the ranch.”
“Very well, I will send a wire today.”
The celebratory Sunday dinner was over and everyone was relaxing before the fire. The meal had started with a round of champagne and a boisterous toast to the parents to be. Lively conversation and laughter had dominated the meal. The effects of champagne and after dinner drinks mellowed the group, their postprandial conversations more subdued.
Johnny was relieved that no one had mentioned the Nogales matter, but it weighed heavily on his mind. He was anxious to hear if the Pinkerton agent had received a response from Melissa.
“Isn’t that right, Johnny?” he heard Murdoch ask.
Looking at his father, he said, “What? Sorry, you caught me in a bit of a daydream,” he said.
“That’s okay, son. I remember how overwhelming it was both times I learned I was going to be a father. I couldn’t focus on anything for days. Anticipating your arrivals were some of the most exciting days I’ve ever had,” Murdoch said, looking at his two sons fondly.
Val stood and walked to the window.
“Are you expecting company?” he asked.
“No one other than you. Why?” asked Johnny.
“There’s someone in a buggy coming under the arch. Looks like that Pinkerton guy.”
Johnny quickly joined Val at the window. His heart started pounding. He knew instinctively the man was bringing him news he wouldn’t be able to ignore. He felt Jenny’s hand on his arm. He placed his arm around her waist as they watched the buggy approach the house.
Murdoch stepped out to the veranda as the buggy came to a stop.
“Hello, Agent Morgan. It’s a bit late in the day for a visit.”
“I apologize for the late hour, but I received information that I thought Mr. Lancer would want to have right away. And I’ve been called back to the San Francisco office. I must leave in the morning.”
“Please come in,” Murdoch said.
Johnny stepped forward. “Morgan, you got a response?”
“Yes. It came over the wire this afternoon. But it’s not from…well, here’s the message,” he said, handing Johnny a document. “I’ll let you read it yourself.”
Upon reading the first few lines of the wire, Johnny felt his heart sink. He sighed deeply and rubbed his forehead.
“What’s wrong?” Jenny asked.
He only shook his head, then looked up at his brother.
“Will you read it, Scott?”
Scott took the letter. “Aloud?”
Johnny nodded. He moved to stand at the window behind Murdoch’s desk, looking out at the ranch.
Scott lifted his eyebrows, looking perplexed. “Okay.” He began:
My name is David Newman. I am the caretaker and overseer of the Grant Ranch in Nogales, Arizona. I am sorry to report that Miss Grant died last October.
Scott paused to glance at Johnny. Clearly the news had hit him hard.
She had been sick and she knew she was failing, which spurred her urgency in initially contacting you. I am pleased to hear you have located Mr. Madrid, now Lancer. Miss Grant’s dying wish was that Mr. Lancer…
Scott hesitated to continue as he saw the next words.
“Johnny, are you sure you don’t want to read this yourself first?”
“You might as well all hear it at once. Finish it, Scott.”
“All right.” Scott continued.
Miss Grant’s dying wish was that Mr. Lancer take custody of their son and raise him.
“Oh, God,” Johnny moaned. Jenny gasped beside him. He quickly found the chair at the desk and sat, still facing the window.
Val, standing by the door, murmured, “Holy cow.”
Scott cleared his voice and continued.
I am sure it will come as a great surprise to Mr. Lancer that he has a son. When the child was born, Miss Grant believed him to be dead; otherwise, she would have searched for him earlier. She understood that she was asking a difficult thing from a man with no roots, but she felt the boy deserved to know his father. She knew Mr. Madrid to be a good man and was confident he would do right by the boy. I, too, came to know the young man during his brief stay at the ranch, and I agree with her assessment.
The boy’s name is Francis John Grant (we call him Frankie) and he is three years old. He was born on January 2, 1869. (I am providing this in case Mr. Lancer has any doubts about his parentage). The boy is currently being cared for by the ranch’s housekeeper.
I trust you will convey this information to Mr. Lancer. I will await your confirmation of such.
David Newman, Caretaker
Scott gently placed the letter on the desk next to Johnny. He saw that his brother was awash with emotion, his face buried in his hands. Scott approached Jenny, who was standing next to the desk. “Let’s give him a few minutes,” he said, as he guided her away from Johnny. She hesitated at first, then went with Scott. As he passed the others, he nodded to them to follow him to the kitchen.
Sensing he was alone, Johnny sat up straight and took in a cleansing breath. He picked up the letter and with blurred vision read through it. Seeing the words didn’t make it any easier to absorb the meaning of it all. His body was trembling. He needed some fresh air. He went to the door and stepped out onto the veranda. Breathing in the smells of the ranch helped steady him. He read the letter again. The same words kept leaping off the page. Miss Grant died. Take custody of their son. Francis John Grant. 3 years old. He paced along the side of the house.
“My God, I have a son,” he said to the air. He ran his bent arm over his
face, wiping the tears. Looking skyward, he murmured to himself, “Why did she have to die?” He felt a sense of loss, but also acknowledged he hadn’t given the girl much thought since he left her father’s ranch. He had pushed thoughts of her aside with the other memories of his past. Sensing a presence, he turned to see Jenny standing at the door. He walked over to her and took her hands in his.
“I don’t know what to say,” he said. He gathered her in his arms. “I sure didn’t see any of this coming. I assumed it had something to do with the ranch, anything but this.”
“Johnny, you’re shaking,” Jenny said, tightening her arms around him.
“Guess I’m in a bit of shock.”
Jenny took a step back and looked at him. “I think we’re both feeling overwhelmed at the moment.”
Johnny studied her for a few moments, then said, “But you don’t seem all that surprised.”
“Well, I’m certain Melissa had plenty of people around her to help with ranch or business problems, so I figured it had to be something personal. And what could be more personal than having your child? I am sorry that your friend died, Johnny.”
“Thanks for saying that. This is a lot to take in.”
“Johnny, the only thing that really matters is that there’s a little boy who needs his father. He has to be our first concern.”
“He’s going to need a mother, too.”
“Then we better go to Arizona to get him and bring him home.”
Johnny pulled her into his arms again and said, “What would I do without you?”
They were interrupted when Scott stepped out the door. “Sorry to intrude, but Morgan needs to get back to town. He wants to know if you need anything more from him.”
“No, tell him thanks. He can go,” Johnny replied.
“I’ll take care of it. And Val’s leaving, too,” Scott said, as he returned to the house.
“Let’s go back inside, say goodbye to Val,” Jenny suggested.
“Okay,” Johnny agreed.
In the kitchen the others were seated around the table. Conversation halted when Johnny and Jenny joined them. Murdoch stood. “You’ve had quite a shock, son. Why don’t you sit down?”
“No, I don’t need to sit down.” He looked to Val, “I’ll walk you out.”
Outside he looked at his friend, “Can you believe this?”
“Oh, I believe it, Johnny. But you must be bowled over.”
“I was only with her once,” Johnny said, a baffled look on his face.
“Well, Johnny boy, that’s all it takes. I’m sure sorry she died. It doesn’t say how she died. Wonder what happened.”
“Yeah, I want to know, too. I have a son, Val! And Jenny’s pregnant! How is this all gonna work?”
“Well, nothin’ like having an instant family!” Val quipped. He placed a reassuring hand on Johnny’s arm. “Look, you and Jenny will figure it out. I don’t think you have to worry.”
”I hope you’re right.”
Val mounted his horse and looked down at Johnny. “You know where to find me.”
Johnny smiled, nodding his head, “I appreciate it Val. I’ll see ya.”
When he turned back to the door, Scott was standing there.
“You okay, brother?” Scott asked.
“No, Scott, I am not okay. I’ve sure created a mess, haven’t I?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t call it a mess, more like a wrinkle you’re going to have to iron out. So you downplayed how close you were with this girl for Jenny’s benefit?”
“At first, sure I did. Wouldn’t you?”
“Yeah, I suppose I would. Well, she sure knows now.”
“I told her the night I got the first wire. The night she told me she was pregnant.”
Scott shook his head in dismay. “Seems you have no choice but to go down there now. How’s it feel to be a father?” he teased.
Johnny swatted Scott on the chest. “This isn’t funny, Scott!”, he said, although he was smiling. “It’s gonna take some getting used to. I feel like I’ve been hit with a brick. What am I gonna do?”
Scott put his arm around Johnny’s shoulder and led him into the house.
“Once the shock has worn off, you’ll figure it out.”
The following day Johnny and Jenny began making plans to travel to Nogales. They had maps spread over the dining room table and were debating the best route to take to Arizona.
“As much as I want you with me, I’m worried about you taking such a long trip. It’s not all easy going to get down there,” Johnny said.
“I traveled two thousand miles with a wagon train. There’s nothing to be worried about.”
“Well, I can’t help it. You weren’t pregnant when you made that trip. I do worry about you.”
“And that’s very sweet, but end of discussion. You can’t bring Frankie back here on your own. I’m going with you,” Jenny said.
“I’d still feel better if we checked with Sam.”
“Okay, if that will put your mind at ease. We’ll do it tomorrow.”
Just before dawn the next morning, a twinge of pain woke Jenny from a sound sleep. As she stirred in bed, she felt a warm moisture between her legs. She pulled the covers back and saw her gown red with blood. Trying not to panic, she jostled Johnny.
“Johnny, wake up. I need you to get Teresa for me.”
He jolted upright, fully awake. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m not sure. I’m having some bleeding.” She saw the fear in his eyes. “You are not allowed to panic! Now go get Teresa, please.”
Teresa was quickly by her side. “Show me.” Seeing the amount of blood, she struggled to hide her concern. “Johnny, send someone to get Sam.”
By this time Scott and Murdoch were up and in the hallway.
“Johnny, do you need some help?” Scott asked.
“We need Sam out here. Tell him Jenny’s bleeding.”
Scott knew his brother was putting on a good show of stoicism.
“I’ll go myself,” Scott said.
Several hours later, Johnny was sitting in a chair next to the bed, a book in his lap. He was drinking coffee and watching his wife sleep. He was relieved the impending crisis was over. He had been terrified when Jenny woke him up, but he heeded her demand that he not panic. The bleeding seemed to have stopped shortly after she woke up. Teresa helped her get cleaned up and encouraged her to sleep until Dr. Jenkins arrived at ten o’clock that morning.
His examination detected no further bleeding, but he instructed Jenny to stay in bed for several days. He sternly instructed Johnny to let her rest and that she could not travel. Johnny understood the instructions and needed no further explanation.
Johnny saw Jenny open her eyes and placed the unread book aside.
“That coffee smells delicious,” she said, smiling at him.
“I’ll go get you some.”
“No, it can wait. I want to talk first. I’m sorry I can’t go with you.”
“I know. I’m disappointed, too, but Sam was pretty clear about you not traveling.”
“How are you going to travel with a three year old on your own?”
Johnny shrugged. “I’ll have to figure it out. I’ve been in worse jams,” he said, grinning. “I’m going to wait a few days before I go. Just to make sure you’re okay.”
“No, Johnny, please don’t wait. The sooner you go, the sooner you’ll be back. It will give me time to rest, so I’ll be back on my feet when you come home with Frankie.”
“You really want him here, don’t you?”
“Of course I do. He’s your son, why wouldn’t I want him?”
Johnny moved to sit on the bed and took her in his arms.
“I love you,” he said.
Jenny laughed softly. “I love you, too. Now, I’d like that coffee, please. And maybe something to eat.”
Johnny pulled on the reins, bringing Barranca to a stop. Scott pulled up beside him. They surveyed the rocky landscape, taking in a small pond, a grove of trees and a small area of flat ground.
“A good place to camp?” Scott asked.
“Yeah, we’ve made good time today. The horses could use a rest. Still lots of daylight, but I don’t want to push them too hard,” Johnny said.
“Great, let’s see if that pond over there has any fish in it,” Scott said. He saw his brother’s look of concern. He remembered his brother’s disdain of fishing. “Don’t worry, little brother, I’ll do the fishing!” A satisfied smile appeared on Johnny’s face. They dismounted and got to work setting up camp.
The brothers had left the ranch the previous morning. Johnny was reluctant to leave Jenny, but knowing Teresa and Murdoch would take good care of her, he felt more comfortable leaving. Also, he was eager to meet his son. Scott had insisted on going with him.
He was enjoying traveling with his brother. He could count on Scott to remain calm in stressful situations and provide sound advice when things got complicated. And, boy, was his life complicated right now. Scott’s steady presence helped keep him balanced and focused.
“Thanks for coming with me, Boston. I know you don’t like long trail rides. I appreciate it,” Johnny said, pouring his brother a refill of coffee.
“Oh, I’m not minding so much. It’s a nice chance to spend time with you.”
“Yeah, things have changed since I got married, haven’t they?”
“I’m not complaining. I know you’re happy, so I can’t begrudge you spending time with Jenny.”
“Thanks. Ya know, Scott, I never dreamed my life would be like this.”
“You mean having people who love you?”
“Yeah, I used to think I was better off on my own, but now that doesn’t sound like such a good idea.”
Scott grinned and said, “Well, I’m glad to hear that. Murdoch and I used to strategize on how to make it impossible for you to leave. But you figured that out all on your own. Well done, brother!” Johnny was quiet for a few minutes. “What’s going on in that messy head of yours?” Scott asked.
“I never really loved her, ya know.”
“You mean Melissa?”
Johnny nodded his head. “Oh, I liked her well enough, but I didn’t love her. She was a sweet girl, real pretty, and she took good care of me. I suppose she thought she loved me. I had nothing to offer her even if I had loved her.”
“Johnny, what matters is what you do now, for Frankie,” Scott said.
Johnny was silent for a few moments, then said, “I don’t know how all of this is going to work out, but I know I need to get home to Jenny as soon as possible. I hope it doesn’t take more than a couple of days to get things sorted out so we can head home with Frankie.” Johnny shot Scott an inquisitive look. “So, how are you with kids, brother?”
Scott laughed and said, “Probably as good as you are. How hard can it be, right? So, do you think we can make it there tomorrow?” Scott asked.
“Maybe, thanks to you for keeping us at cavalry speed! I think we can make it, if the weather holds out and the trail doesn’t slow us down too much.” He stretched his arms and yawned. “Let’s get some sleep so we can start early tomorrow.”
“Sounds like a good plan,” Scott said.
The brothers arrived at the Grant Ranch late morning on a mild, sundrenched day. Johnny had wanted to press on when they rode into Tucson the previous afternoon, but Scott had convinced him that a bath, a hot meal and a night of sleep in a real bed would recharge them after the long journey. Johnny had quickly acquiesced.
As they approached the ranch house, Johnny felt the sense of familiarity of revisiting a place from the past. It wasn’t a bad feeling. He had good memories of the place. But his guard was up. The ranch was only fifteen miles from Mexico.
They were greeted at the door by David Newman.
“Well, I’ll be damned, Johnny Madrid,” he said, as he shook Johnny’s hand. “I never thought I’d see you again!”
“Hello, David. Good to see you. And it’s Lancer now, not Madrid. This is my brother, Scott.”
“My goodness, things have changed for you! I seem to remember you saying you didn’t have any family.”
“Back then I didn’t,” Johnny said.
“Well, come on in. You’re a bit early for lunch, but I can scare up some coffee for us.”
“Thank you,” Scott said.
Settled in David’s office, Johnny listened intently to David as he described all that had transpired since Johnny left the ranch. Francis Grant’s illness and death, Melissa’s pregnancy, news of Johnny’s death, the birth of Frankie and finally Melissa’s illness, at which point, Johnny interjected. “How did she die?” he asked.
“Malaria. We weren’t able to get any quinine to help her. There’s been a shortage since the end of the war. Any supply of the medication making its way this far west is used up by the Army before it can reach remote places like Nogales. She knew she was dying. She barely had the strength to speak, but she convinced me to hire the Pinkertons to find you. Her only concern was Frankie. She was very firm in her desire for you to raise him.”
“I can’t imagine why she thought that was a good idea, knowing how I lived my life back then.”
“After hearing you were still alive, I think she hoped your life had changed. It appears she wasn’t wrong.”
“Yes, my life has changed, much to my surprise. I have a home and a family. I’m part owner of a large cattle ranch. And I’m married.”
David raised his eyebrows and said, “Now, that’s a surprise! Never thought anyone would tie Johnny Madrid down, not even Melissa.”
Johnny let his comment slide.
David added, “So it sounds like you’re in a good position to give Frankie a secure home.”
“Mr. Newman, if you don’t mind my input, I can vouch for my brother. He has a very stable life and can provide for the boy in every way. I can tell you that everyone at Lancer is anxious to welcome Frankie into our family.”
David looked at Johnny, and said, “I know it’s none of my business, but I do care about the boy. How will your wife feel about raising another woman’s child?”
Johnny’s first reaction was to agree, it was none of his business. But he understood that Newman had the boy’s best interest at heart.
“We’re actually expecting a child of our own soon. Jenny has a lot of love to give. I don’t see any problem where she is concerned.”
“I’m happy to hear that. There are some legal issues we’ll need to address, but we can take care of those in town tomorrow. Melissa’s lawyer is anxious to see you. Now, are you ready to meet your son?”
“Sure,” Johnny responded, feeling his heart flutter.
David led them into the main living room where the boy was on the floor playing with his toy horses.
Inside the entryway, Johnny stopped where he was and stood motionless. Everything around him fell away. All he could see was the small, dark haired boy. His heart was racing, his pulse quickening.
Scott, noticing his brother’s stillness, put his hand on Johnny’s back. “Johnny, take a breath.”
Johnny nodded his head, acknowledging Scott. He inhaled deeply.
“Look at him, Scott,” he said.
Laughing softly, Scott said, “There’s no denying he’s your son, that’s for sure.”
David nudged Johnny and said, “Come on, he won’t bite.”
As the three men walked into the room a woman emerged from the corner.
“Señor Madrid!” she said upon seeing Johnny. She ran to him and gave him a hug.
Surprised by the rush of affection, he said, “Hola, Carmen. It’s good to see you.” He remembered Carmen well. She was an attractive woman, approximately ten years older than him. Her husband had been a vaquero on the ranch, but had died several years before Johnny met her. She and Melissa had been good friends, despite Carmen being an employee.
“Johnny, we thought you were dead! Melissa so hoped she’d see you before . . .” she said, unable to finish as tears pooled her eyes.
“I’m sorry, Carmen. They didn’t find me until a couple of weeks ago. I’m sorry I didn’t get here in time.” He gave her a warm hug. “I know you must miss her.”
“Yes, I will always miss her. But Frankie keeps me very busy,” she said, smiling.
They both turned to look at the boy.
“This is your hijo, Johnny.”
Johnny stepped forward and knelt in front of the boy.
“Hello, Frankie. My name’s Johnny.”
Carmen knelt down and said, “Frankie, Johnny was a friend of your mama.”
The boy looked up from his toys and eyed Johnny curiously through clear, deep blue eyes. He reached for a small horse carved out of wood and held it up so Johnny could see it.
“Papa,” he said.
Johnny gasped and felt his eyes water. How on earth could the boy know?
Carmen placed a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “I think he’s telling you that his papa made that horse. Do you remember?”
Speaking with strained effort, he said, “I carved that and gave it to Melissa.”
“Yes. She talked to him about you all the time. He knows his papa made the horse.”
“Oh, for a minute there I thought . . .”
“No, he doesn’t know what you look like, but he proudly shows that horse to everyone he meets.”
Johnny centered himself. “That’s right, Frankie, your papa made that horse for your mother,” he said.
Frankie jumped to his feet and wrapped his arms around Johnny’s neck. Johnny, again taken aback at the rush of affection, held the boy close and unabashedly let the tears flow.
Frankie broke the embrace and said, “You sad?”
“No, Frankie, I’m not sad. I’m very happy. Happy to meet you,” he said, a lump in his throat.
At that, Frankie smiled and resumed his play.
“He’s a very affectionate boy,” Carmen offered.
Johnny, regaining his composure, mused, “I can see that!”
Johnny lifted himself from the floor and sat in the nearest chair. He continued to stare at Frankie in amazement. Scott, sitting in a chair across from him, grinned at his brother, indicating his own amazement at what he had just witnessed.
“It’s close to Frankie’s naptime, so why don’t we go to the kitchen and have some lunch?” David suggested. “We can talk about what needs to happen next.”
Scott saw Johnny’s reluctance to leave. He went to his side and said, “Come on, Johnny. He’s not going anywhere.”
“Okay,” he sighed. He followed Scott to the kitchen, but glanced back at his son as he left the room.
The following morning the three men rode into Nogales to meet with Melissa Grant’s attorney.
“That concludes the transfer of custody of Master Grant from his temporary guardian David Newman to his birth father, John Lancer. The child’s legal name is now Francis John Grant Lancer,” attorney Raymond Moody said, as he gathered the papers and placed them in a file. “I will file this with the court this afternoon. Now, there is one more piece of business related to Melissa’s will,” he said, looking up at Johnny.
“When Frank Grant died, he left all of his property, land and all assets, to Melissa. Melissa bequeathed all of it to you, Mr. Lancer. You are now the sole owner of Grant Ranch.”
Johnny was stunned. He swallowed hard and took a deep breath. “Mr. Moody, no offense to your acumen as a lawyer, but I’m beginning to question Melissa’s mental state when she made these requests. The custody of Frankie is one thing, but this is something else.”
“I assure you, Mr. Lancer, she was of sound mental capacity. I knew Melissa her entire life. I would not have executed her wishes had I believed otherwise.”
Johnny was frustrated by this new development. All he wanted to do was get Frankie and head home to Jenny. He rose from his chair and began to pace in the small office.
“Well, what am I gonna do with the ranch? I live eight hundred miles away!”
Scott interjected, “Johnny, I think what we need to think about is Frankie. I’m sure Melissa put the ranch in your hands knowing you would protect it for him. It doesn’t mean you have to live here, correct Mr. Moody?”
“That’s correct. You can manage the ranch anyway you see fit.”
Johnny stopped pacing, but remained standing, hands on his hips, “Does that include selling it?”
Mr. Moody hesitated before responding. “Selling the ranch is not precluded in the will; however, I believe doing so would be in violation of Melissa’s intent, which was to leave the ranch as a legacy to her son. You can understand that, can’t you Mr. Lancer?” he asked.
“Sure. I get it. So what do I have to do to make sure these assets, as you call them, are properly managed if I can’t be here?” As if to answer his own question, he looked at David Newman and studied him for a minute.
“Did you know about this?” Johnny asked.
“No, I’m learning about it today, same as you.”
“How long did you work for Frank?”
“Since the beginning. I was a cowhand all those years ago. My role grew as the ranch grew. I’ve considered it my home for the past twenty-five years.”
“Then you would stay on as manager?”
“I thought you’d never ask!” David said, breaking the tension in the room.
“Mr. Lancer, may I suggest you allow me to draw up a legal document memorializing the arrangement? I can draft language describing other minor considerations for the oversight of the ranch. All subject to your approval, of course.”
“Look, we need to head back to California as soon as we can. We can’t hang around waiting for some legal papers to sign.”
“And, of course, Johnny would want our attorney to review the document before agreeing to anything,” Scott said firmly.
Johnny looked at his brother and gave him a grateful nod.
“I understand. Where is your attorney located?”
“In San Francisco. I can write down his name and address,” Scott offered.
“Very good. I will have the papers couriered to him. In the meantime, I can add a rider on the designation of Mr. Newman as the operating manager from Mr. Grant’s will to extend his appointment until the new papers are executed. That will take only a few minutes, if you can wait.”
“Yeah, fine. Thank you,” Johnny said with a deep sigh. He stepped to the door. “I need some air.” Scott followed him out.
Stepping into the street, Johnny said, “We have to get out of here before any more surprises drop in my lap. And let’s not forget, if we cross the street, we’ll be in Mexico.” The edge in his voice was palpable.
“I agree. As cruel as it sounds to whisk the boy from his home so quickly, things are too unpredictable here. When do you want to leave?” Scott asked.
“In the morning,” Johnny replied.
The office door opened and Mr. Moody motioned them back inside.
Johnny and Scott read and approved the document and Johnny signed it.
“I hope that’s it. No more surprises?” Johnny asked, his voice absent of humor.
“That concludes the business of Miss Grant’s will. Thank you for your patience,” Mr. Moody stated.
“Sure,” Johnny said, shaking the lawyers hand and quickly exiting the office.
“I could use a drink,” David said, as they approached the horses tethered nearby.
“Feel free to get one. We’re heading back to the ranch,” Johnny said.
“What’s the rush?”
“We’re leaving in the morning,” he said, as he untethered Barranca.
“Well I’ll be damned, if it ain’t Johnny Madrid!” came a shout from the other side of the street.
Johnny and Scott turned as one, hands on their guns.
A tall figure, clad in black from head to toe, and sporting a mustache that obliterated his upper lip, strutted across the dirt road to greet them. “Whoa, Johnny,” he said, showing his opened palms. “Just a friendly hello from an old friend,” the man called as he neared them. “I heard you had left us, amigo. But here ya are, resurrected from the dead!”
Johnny nodded to Scott and they put their guns away. “Yeah, I’m still breathing, Ringo.” He extended his arm to shake the man’s hand. “Good to see you’re still alive, too,” Johnny said, though he felt no joy in seeing the man.
“Ringo, meet my brother, Scott Lancer and my friend David Newman. Scott, David, this is Johnny Ringo, a former acquaintance of mine.”
“What, you gotta brother? Since when?” Ringo asked, looking dumbfounded, pulling on one end of his mustache.
“A couple of years ago. I’ve been out of the game for about that long. My name’s Lancer now.”
“So what are ya doing in Nogales?”
“Had some personal business to take care of, how about you?”
“Passin’ through, just bidin’ time. You know how it goes,” Ringo said, eyeing Johnny. “Come on, amigo, I’ll buy you a drink.”
Johnny was growing more uncomfortable as the conversation went on. He signaled to Scott it was time to go. “Thanks for the offer, Ringo, but Scott and I are running late,” Johnny said, as he jumped onto Barranca’s back. “Take care of yourself,” he said, as he turned the horse into the thoroughfare.
“Farewell! God knows when we shall meet again, Johnny Madrid!” Ringo called out.
Riding next to Johnny, Scott quipped, “The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman,” offering his own Shakespearian quote.
“And a deadly one at that,” Johnny said. Johnny turned and yelled, “David, are you coming?”
“I’ll catch up with you later,” David replied.
Johnny spurred Barranca into a gallop and Scott followed suit. They left a bemused Johnny Ringo standing in the street.
David Newman stood next to his horse and watched Johnny and Scott ride away. “Don’t know what the big rush is all about,” he mused to himself. He turned to see Johnny Ringo watching the brothers ride out of town. David cleared his throat. “Um, Mr. Ringo, can I interest you in a drink?”
Having reached the outskirts of town, the brothers slowed down enough to talk.
“Okay, that was not a good thing. Ringo has the biggest mouth of any gunfighter I ever knew. I’m sure he’s in a saloon right now braggin’ how he just saw Johnny Madrid. I didn’t need this. Not now.”
“He looked quite menacing. Don’t see the two of you in the same league. He has the eyes of a cold blooded killer.”
“Good read, Boston. I’d been in the game a couple of years when he arrived on the scene, though I think we’re about the same age. He hires out to the side that pays the most. No regard for the cause or the tactics. Haven’t heard about him since I came home, so I’m not sure what his current situation is. Didn’t want to hang around to find out either.”
With a dour laugh, Scott said, “Well, he surely will be dead before he’s thirty.”
Johnny grinned at his brother’s reference to a previous exchange between them. Back when Johnny was still deciding whether to stay at Lancer or return to his gunfighting ways.
“What do you want to do?” Scott asked.
“I think we better leave tonight. Put as many miles between us and this place as possible.”
“You think Ringo will come after you?” Scott asked.
“He’s too unpredictable to assume he won’t. And we have to assume there are men who will hear I’m still alive and want to dance with the infamous Johnny Madrid.”
“Brother, you sure have some colorful characters in your past.”
“Yeah, and that’s where I want to leave them,” Johnny said.
“Then we’ll leave tonight. Do you have a plan for traveling with Frankie?”
“I need to talk to Carmen about that. I want her to come with us back to Lancer. I hope she’s willing. We can take a wagon and provisions from the ranch. It all belongs to me now, afterall,” he said with a slight laugh. “If we get as far as Tucson tonight, we can catch some sleep west of the city, then leave before first light in the morning. Let’s get to the ranch.” The brothers urged their horses back to a gallop.
Shortly after arriving back at the Grant ranch, Johnny found Carmen in the kitchen as she was preparing a snack for Frankie for when he woke up from his nap.
“Hey, Carmen, how are you doing?”
“Hola, Johnny. I’m fine, except for thinking about you taking Frankie with you when you leave.”
“Well, maybe I can ease your mind about that. Something has come up and we’re going to need to leave tonight.”
“Tonight? Why so soon?” Carmen asked.
“It’s a long story. But here’s the thing. Scott and I don’t know how to take care of a small kid. And Frankie doesn’t know us, so what I’m hoping is that you’ll . . . “
“Yes!” Carmen explained.
Laughing, Johnny said, “You didn’t let me finish.”
“You want me to travel with you back to California to help take care of Frankie.”
Johnny nodded. “That’s right, but there’s more. My wife is pregnant.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful, Johnny!”
“Yes, it is, but, she had some troubles right before I left to come here. I don’t know if she’s going to be up to taking care of Frankie when we get home. I would like you to consider coming to Lancer and staying on as Frankie’s ninera.
“Oh, Johnny, you have answered this old woman’s prayers.”
“Carmen, you are hardly an old woman. And I take that as a yes,” he said, smiling widely.
“Yes, Johnny! I will stay with you at Lancer for as long as you want me.”
“Okay, then. We have a lot to do if we’re leaving tonight. If you can gather up what you and Frankie will need, Scott and I will see to the rest. We’re going to ride as far as Tucson tonight, then get an early start tomorrow heading north.”
“But why north, Johnny? Wouldn’t it be easier to go west to Yuma?”
“Well, sure, but I have my reasons for wanting to avoid the border towns.”
Carmen took in Johnny’s meaning. “I understand. Yes, I’ll pack our things right away. I can pack some food, too.”
“Thank you, Carmen. We’ll leave as soon as we have the wagon loaded.”
They followed Johnny’s plan and were riding northwest out of Tucson the next morning. They stopped for the night midway to Casa Grande, in the shadow of Picacho Peak. Johnny had been tense since midday, when they had stopped to rest and eat lunch. He knew in his gut they were being followed.
“I’m gonna take a little ride,” Johnny said to Scott. “Someone’s watching us and I’m gonna find out who it is.”
“Be careful, Johnny. You sneak up on someone you’re apt to get yourself shot.”
“Don’t worry, big brother, I’ll be back before you can get supper ready,” Johnny said, with a grin. “Besides, if whoever it is wanted to harm us, they’d have done it already.”
Some time later, Johnny found the source of the smoke he had detected, a small campfire about a quarter of a mile from their camp. He tethered his horse in a small grove and proceeded on foot. As he approached the camp, he saw the lone camper tending to his horse.
“Hello the camp!” he called. He watched Johnny Ringo turn to face him.
“Hey, Madrid, guess you got me good,” Ringo said, with a sly grin
Johnny glared at him. “What are you doing here, Ringo?”
“Just doing my job.”
“And what job would that be?”
“Looking after you and your family,” Ringo said, smiling at his old acquaintance.
Johnny removed his gun from the holster. He held it by his side, not aiming it at Ringo. “Okay, drop your gun belt.”
“Sure thing, Johnny,” he said, as he unbuckled his belt and dropped it to the ground. “I’m not here to kill you. If I was, you’d be dead by now.”
Johnny kicked Ringo’s gun out of reach. “Explain yourself.”
“Your pal back in Nogales hired me to make sure nobody followed you out of town, and to make sure you get to California.”
“Who are you talking about?”
“David Newman. He approached me right after you and your brother rode outta town. Said he’d pay me to watch your back.”
“Come on, you expect me to believe that? Since when do you take jobs on your own? And to protect me, no less.”
“I’m not pulling your leg, Johnny. It’s just as I said.”
“But why? Why would you take a job like this? Newman must be paying you too much.”
“Yeah, he’s paying me well. But it’s more than that.”
“Madrid, there aren’t many people I’ve liked in this world, but I’ve always liked you. Wish I could be more like you, but that ain’t never gonna happen. And I think a man should be able to change his life if he wants. I can see you’ve changed and have a good thing going on. So I’ve got your back until you get to California whether you like it or not.”
“How do I know I can trust you?”
Ringo shrugged his shoulders. “You don’t. But sometimes you just gotta trust a man is telling you the truth. Your quick visit to the border didn’t go unnoticed. And I suspect there are folks south of the border who will find it interesting that you’re still alive. I’m gonna help keep you that way until you’re safely to California.”
Johnny holstered his Colt Peacemaker and ran his hand over his face. “Well, Ringo, I guess I got two choices here. Believe what you’re telling me, or shoot you dead. And I’d rather not shoot you. But you’re camping with us. You, me and Scott will take turns keeping watch. Better than all of us losing sleep. Come on, Scott should have supper ready. And stop calling me Madrid. It’s Lancer now.”
“You don’t have to ask me twice . . . Lancer!” Ringo said, as he started gathering his things together.
They traveled north to Phoenix to avoid the border towns, then they headed west. They stopped for what would be their last night in the desert before reaching California. With great relief to Johnny, it had been an uneventful trip, except for one instance. One afternoon they noticed a cloud of dust to the southeast, indicating a group of riders moving toward them. Ringo rode in that direction to investigate. Johnny and Scott kept moving west. Several hours later Ringo was back in their company.
“So who was it?” Johnny asked Ringo when he returned to camp.
Ringo hesitated before answering. Avoiding eye contact with Johnny, he said, “Just some ranchers rounding up some stray cattle,” he said.
Johnny scrutinized his protector. “Is that right? All scattered out to look for strays, yet they managed to form a big cloud of dust like they were all riding together. Very interesting.”
“That’s all I can tell you,” Ringo said. “So, what’s for supper?”
Johnny knew Ringo was hedging, but realized it might be best to not know what had transpired. He still had a trust issue with Ringo, enough so that he or Scott remained awake when Ringo was on watch. But in this case, he had to trust that Ringo was doing his job, whatever that entailed.
Ringo had been an entertaining travel companion and he had taken his job of protecting them very seriously. When Scott wasn’t entertaining them around the campfire by reading from his book of essays by Emerson, he and Ringo were exchanging Shakeperian barbs. Johnny had to admit that he had gained a new respect for the man, but stopped short of totally trusting him.
They had established a bit of a ritual as they camped for the night. Carmen took it as her responsibility to cook dinner as well as see to Frankie’s needs. Every evening after dinner, she encouraged Frankie to spend time with Johnny. They would take short walks together and Johnny would tell Frankie stories of life at Lancer. Before putting him to bed, Johnny would show Frankie a picture of Jenny, explaining that she was his wife and that she was at home waiting for them to return.
On this evening, Johnny was holding Frankie on his lap as he reached into his saddlebags and removed the picture.
“Jenny,” Frankie said.
Johnny laughed and tousled Frankie’s hair. “That’s right, son, this is Jenny. And she’s very excited to meet you.”
Frankie seemed to study the picture more seriously than on other nights. “You love Jenny, Papa?”
Startled by the question and by his son calling him ‘Papa’ for the first time, Johnny hugged Frankie tightly and said softly, “Yes, son, I love Jenny very much. Just like I love you very much.” He looked up and saw Scott smiling at him from across the fire.
“Fatherhood suits you, brother,” Scott said.
Johnny, momentarily at a loss for words, simply said, “Thanks.”
After a few minutes, Carmen rose from her seat next to Johnny and announced it was time for Frankie to go to sleep. “Frankie, say goodnight to your papa and Scott.”
“‘Goodnight, Papa, goodnight, Scott,” Frankie said. She lifted Frankie from Johnny’s lap and carried him to the boy’s bedroll. As she left, Johnny Ringo joined Johnny and Scott at the fire, taking a seat between the brothers.
“So, Lancer, that’s a picture of your wife?” he asked, pointing to the picture in Johnny’s hand.
“Yes, it is,” Johnny said.
“May I see it?”
Johnny hesitated, then shrugged and said, “Sure,” as he handed the photograph to Ringo.
Johnny Ringo looked at the picture closely, gently stroked one end of his mustache, then said, “You’ve got good taste, Lancer. She’s beautiful. You’re a lucky man.” He handed the picture back to Johnny.
“Yes I am,” Johnny said, as he secured the picture back in the saddlebag.
“How long have you been married?” Ringo asked.
“We got married last September.” Johnny glanced at Scott, signaling a change of subject was in order. Johnny felt he had given Ringo enough information about his personal life.
“Johnny, you’re taking watch tonight, right?” Scott asked.
“Yep,” he said. He stood and stretched his arms above his head.
Ringo stood and said, “Let me take watch tonight. I might as well earn my last night with you, for tomorrow I shall bid you adieu.”
“Sure, Ringo, if that’s what you want,” Johnny said, knowing he would remain awake, watching the watcher. “I’m turning in. See you in the morning, Ringo.”
They parted ways early the next morning near Blythe, California. Scott headed out driving the wagon, agreeing he would wait for Johnny before crossing the Colorado River. Johnny held back to say goodbye to Ringo.
“So where are you headed next?” Johnny asked.
“Back to Texas for a while, I guess. Thought about riding north with you and visiting my family in San Jose, but they’re well rid of me. Decided no good can come of me showing up there.”
“Don’t be so sure. Going back to my family turned my life around. It could happen for you too, if you want it to.”
“No, Johnny, you got a lot going for you. I’ve got no one waiting for me to return. Only skills I got are with this,” he said, as he tapped the hilt of his gun.
“I appreciate what you’ve done for us, Ringo, even if you were overpaid.” Johnny said, grinning. Johnny reached out and shook his friend’s hand. “Take care of yourself, I’ll be seeing you around.”
“Oh, I doubt that, Johnny Lancer! If we do meet again, why, we shall smile; if not, why then, this parting was well made,” Ringo recited, as he turned his horse to the east and rode away.
Johnny sat a moment, watching him leave, shaking his head at the irony of Johnny Ringo becoming his friend and protector. He turned Barranca to the west and spurred him on to catch up with his family.
Over a week later, after a long and often difficult trip, involving torrential downpours, flooded roads, and the many moods of a three year old, the Lancer brothers finally had the hacienda in their sights. Scott was on horseback, Johnny and Carmen sat on the bench of the wagon. Frankie was sitting between them. They stopped at the usual juncture and looked out over the sprawling vista.
“Home, at long last,” Scott said.
“Home,” Johnny repeated happily, and said to himself, “and Jenny.”
Frankie tugged on Johnny’s sleeve, and asked, “Are we home, Papa?”
“Almost, son.” Johnny lifted Frankie onto his lap to give him a better view.
“See all of that land out there?”
Frankie nodded his head.
Johnny pointed off to the distance and said, “See the big white house down there? That’s where we live.”
Frankie stood up and looked to where Johnny was pointing. “I see the house! I see cows!” he said.
Johnny laughed, “Yes, there are plenty of those!” Johnny set Frankie back on the seat and said, “Let’s go home.” He looked at Carmen, who was smiling, taking it all in.
“Muy grande,” she said.
“Si, Carmen, muy grande,” Johnny said.
Teresa and Murdoch were waiting for them on the veranda when they arrived at the house. Johnny was puzzled when they didn’t look particularly happy to see them.
He jumped down from the wagon and gathered Frankie in his arms as Scott assisted Carmen to the ground. Grinning, he turned to his father. “Murdoch, meet your grandson.”
He saw his father’s face soften and tears form in his eyes. Murdoch stared at the boy for a few moments. “I can’t find the words,” Murdoch said.
“A simple hello might be a good start,” Johnny suggested, with a laugh. He had never seen his father so openly emotional.
Murdoch stepped closer and took one of Frankie’s hands. “Hello, Frankie,” he said. “My God, Johnny, he looks just like you!”
Johnny, still grinning, said, “Frankie, say hello to your grandpa.”
“Hello,” came a timid voice from the boy.
Johnny turned to Teresa, “And this, Frankie, is your Tia Teresa.”
Teresa’s tears flowed freely down her face, but Johnny saw anguish as well as joy in her eyes. He looked around quickly, then felt a sudden phantom gut punch. “Where’s Jenny?”
“She’s not here, Johnny,” Teresa replied through the tears.
“What do you mean she’s not here? Where is she?”
“She’s in San Francisco. She left two days ago.”
Johnny shook his head, like he wasn’t hearing correctly. “Teresa, you’re not making any sense.”
“Johnny, come into the house. We need to talk,” Murdoch said.
Johnny felt his heart racing. He knew there was bad news coming and it was about Jenny. He felt Frankie leaving his arms, as Scott took him.
“Carmen and I will look after him. Go with Murdoch,” Scott said.
Johnny walked into the great room, all the while trying to tamp down the fear in his gut.
“Sit down, son,” Murdoch said, as he led him to the couch.
Johnny didn’t sit. He simply said, “Tell me.”
“Two days after you left for Nogales, Jenny had a miscarriage.”
Confusion clouded Johnny’s head. He was having difficulty processing what Murdoch said. “But why isn’t she here?” he asked, his face awash with anguish.
Murdoch touched Johnny’s arm to calm him.
“She’s fine. At least physically. But she was devastated by the loss. As soon as she was physically able, she left for San Francisco. She said she couldn’t stay here.”
“Didn’t you try to stop her?”
“Of course I did, son. I pleaded with her not to go. We all did. But she’s a grown woman. We couldn’t exactly lock her in her room.”
“I’m going to get her. I’ll need a fresh horse.” He headed for the door.
“Johnny, hold on. You just got home from a long trip. You need to rest,” Murdoch said.
“No, Murdoch, I won’t be home until I’m with Jenny,” Johnny replied. “I’m going to be on the first train out of Stockton in the morning.”
“But you’ll have to ride all night to do that,” Murdoch said.
“Then that’s what I’ll do,” Johnny declared, with conviction.
He entered the kitchen and saw Frankie at the table enjoying a snack, Teresa and Carmen doting on him. Scott stood up when he saw Johnny.
“I need to talk to you,” Johnny said, as he stepped out to the courtyard. Scott followed him.
“Johnny, Teresa told me. I can’t believe it. I’m so sorry.”
“Thanks. I have to bring Jenny home. I’m leaving now. Will you look after Frankie until we get back? I know Carmen will take care of him, but you’re the only one he knows other than me. And please explain to Carmen why I’m leaving.”
His distress was threatening to overpower him, but he had to stay focused. The only thing that mattered was Jenny.
“I know it’s a lot to ask after spending . . .”
Scott interrupted him. “Johnny, stop. You don’t need to say any more. Go get your things together.”
Johnny went back into the house and ran up to his room. Jenny’s absence in the room was palpable and he nearly collapsed with the aching he felt for her. With lightning speed, he shed his clothes, washed, and dressed in clean clothes. He frantically pulled clothes from the dresser and shoved them in the extra saddlebags he kept in the bottom drawer. When he turned to leave, Teresa met him at the door.
“Johnny, let me help you,” she pleaded.
“I have what I need. I have to go,” he said, pushing past her. He got halfway down the hall, then turned around. “I’m sorry Teresa, I’m going out of my head with worry.”
His sister’s eyes were filled with compassion.
“Johnny, please bring her home. I’ve been so worried about her.”
“I won’t come home without her,” he said. He paused for a moment before continuing. “Teresa, what happened? Sam said she’d be fine with some rest.”
“Johnny, pregnancies can be unpredictable. Sam couldn’t have known. She followed his instructions and it still happened. Sometimes we don’t understand the ways of nature.”
“I don’t understand why she left.”
Teresa’s eyes filled. “I don’t know, Johnny. All I know is that her heart was broken.”
Johnny rubbed the nape of his neck with his hand. “I should have been here,” he mumbled. “I have to go now,” he said.
“Johnny, wait,” Teresa said. “Please be patient with her. Give her some time. She may not be thinking clearly. We’ll take good care of Frankie.”
Johnny embraced his sister. “I know you will. Thank you.”
He stopped in the kitchen and said a quick goodbye to Frankie, leaving the boy crying in Carmen’s arms. He received a brief embrace and a “good luck” from Scott, then went to the great room.
“Ah, there you are,” Murdoch said. “Walt has a horse out front ready for you. He says the steed has endurance and speed. I’ll send someone to pick up the horse in Stockton. I know I can’t talk you out of this, so I’ll wish you safe travels. Bring Jenny home to us,” Murdoch said, as he embraced his youngest son.
Teresa came running into the room from the kitchen. She thrust a bundle into Johnny’s hand.
“It’s not much, but there’s some food and dried ginger,” she said. Frankie’s cries wafted into the room. “And don’t worry about him. Children are resilient. He’ll be fine.”
Johnny kissed her forehead and said, “Thank you, Teresa.” Then he was gone.
As Johnny approached Bella’s cantina, his mind was consumed with confusion. He had expected Jenny to be upset, but he never anticipated the rebuff he had received when he arrived. She let him into their rooms at the hotel, but she would not look at him or talk to him. He was stunned at how pale and fragile she looked. Her only words were, “Johnny, go home.” And worst of all, she wouldn’t let him touch her. He walked out of the rooms feeling lost and abandoned.
His inclination was to go back and not take no for an answer. He wanted to remind her that she was the one who told him to leave right away to get Frankie. He had wanted to delay the trip a few days, in which case he would have been home when she lost the baby. But his gut told him that bringing that up wasn’t a good idea. He recalled that Teresa had said to be patient and give her time. While sound advice, it was difficult to do. But he had to trust that his sister knew more about these things than he did.
When he entered the cantina, Bella was up front, talking with her lead waiter. She saw him and cried, “Johnny! Thank God you’re here! Have you seen Jenny?”
So she knew Jenny was here. What else did she know?
“She won’t talk to me Bella. I don’t know what to do.”
“Come with me,” she said, leading him to the alcove in the back.
“Now tell me what’s happened.”
“You don’t know? But you know she’s here.”
“Yes, James came to me a couple of days ago. He said Jenny arrived in a distraught state and closed herself in her rooms. He asked me to try to talk with her, to find out what was wrong. She refused to see me. I’ve been so worried, Johnny. James has been, too. You got his wire?”
“He sent one to you a day or so ago.”
Johnny shook his head, “That doesn’t matter. I’d been away and when I got home yesterday, Jenny wasn’t there. Murdoch told me she lost the baby right after I left and she was devastated and said she couldn’t stay at the ranch. So I rode all night then got the first train here. I don’t know why she left, but I think she’s really angry at me for not being there when it happened. I….” He gasped for breath and put his head in his hands. He felt Bella’s hand on his arm.
“Slow down, Johnny. Just concentrate on your breathing for a couple of minutes, nothing else,” she instructed him. He did as told, and his breathing soon leveled out and he became calmer.
“Now, let’s start at the beginning,” she said. She sat quietly as he told her what had transpired the past few weeks. When he finished, she took his hand.
“My goodness, you’ve gained a son you didn’t know existed and lost an unborn child. No wonder you’re both distraught,” she said.
Johnny looked up at her. “I always figured it would be a bullet that would kill me, but, my God, I feel like I’m dying right now. I can’t live without her, Bella.”
“I know it feels like you’re dying, but you are very much alive. Stop thinking about what you think you’ve lost, and focus on how to move forward.”
“How do I do that? I don’t know what to do. What can I possibly say to her to get her to forgive me for not being there with her?”
“You’re exhausted, Johnny. You need to eat, then rest. I’m going to get you some food, then you’re going to sleep at my house tonight. Tomorrow you will feel stronger and have a clearer head.”
“I will? I feel pretty lost right now.”
“Jenny feels broken, too. You need each other to heal. It’s really very simple. Just love her.”
Johnny listened to her words, trying to understand. It did sound too simple, just love her. But that was all he knew how to do.
The following morning, Jenny opened the door after the fourth knock.
“Why are you here, Johnny? I told you to go home.”
“I am home. My home is where you are. And in case you’ve forgotten, I don’t always do what I’m told,” he said, forcing a slight grin.
She stepped aside, letting him enter. What little strength she had was waning. She didn’t have the energy to argue with him.
Johnny gently touched her arm and led her to the table. “Breakfast will be here in a minute,” he said, pulling out a chair for her.
“I’m not hungry,” she managed to say.
“You should try to eat something.”
As she sat, she heard another knock on the door. Staff entered and quickly placed food on the table and poured coffee. Johnny sat next to her. He unfolded her napkin and placed it on her lap. She had a flashback to being in the cantina with him on their first date. She pushed the memory aside.
Johnny began to eat. “I’d forgotten how good the eggs are here,” he said, obviously savoring the food.
Jenny took a couple of bites, surprised when her stomach didn’t revolt. She couldn’t remember the last time she had eaten. She avoided eye contact with Johnny, but allowed herself a quick glance at him. He appeared to be his usual affable self. If it was an act, which she suspected it was, he was doing a very good job. With a pang of guilt, she asked, “Where did you sleep last night?”
Not looking at her, his full concentration on his food, he said, “Bella let me sleep on her couch.”
She started to say she was sorry, but was interrupted by a sudden flurry of activity in the apartment. Staff were bringing in clean linens and cleaning supplies, even a bathtub.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
Johnny shrugged, “Oh, don’t mind them. Just eat.”
Jenny knew she was trapped. Still in her nightclothes, she couldn’t exactly flee the room. It was embarrassing enough to have staff in her rooms in her current state. But from where she sat, they couldn’t really see her. She was beginning to realize that Johnny had seated her here as part of his strategy. She decided that ignoring the activity was the best advice. She resumed her meal, acknowledging the food tasted good and was stimulating her appetite. Sipping her coffee, she stole another look at Johnny. She set her cup down. “Johnny, I’m sorry…” she started, but he silenced her with a raised hand.
He shook his head at her. “No talking. We’re just eating. We’ll talk later, tomorrow maybe, if we’re ready. Today we’re going to take care of ourselves. Eat, bathe, sleep. We’re both exhausted.”
Jenny felt her eyes well up, but she admonished herself not to cry. She returned her focus to her food, biting into a piece of the croissant on her plate. Only then did she notice that on Johnny’s plate were biscuits, not a croissant. He had arranged for every detail. She detected in her chest a sense of thawing around her heart.
“I believe that’s everything, Señor Lancer,” Rita, the head maid said. Johnny rose and saw the staff members to the door. He offered them a generous gratuity.
“That is not necessary,” Rita said, “we are happy to take care of you and Mrs. Lancer.”
“Por favor, I am very grateful,” Johnny said.
“Muy bien, gracias, Señor Lancer,” Rita said, accepting the money. “I will see that the staff each receive their share.”
Johnny returned to Jenny and said, “I believe your bath is ready.”
He guided her to the tub that had been placed in front of the fireplace. A fire had been lit to ward off the morning chill. Jenny dutifully followed him, now fully acquiescing to his instructions. She had felt a sense of relief, or at least reprieve, when he told her they would not be talking today. How they were going to manage that, she didn’t know, but she brushed off her doubts.
She was again relieved when he didn’t offer to help her remove her robe and nightclothes. She removed her clothes and stepped into the soothing water.
“Where are your clean gowns?” he asked.
“In the second drawer.”
He retrieved a gown from the bedroom and placed it on the table next to the tub. He avoided looking at her directly.
“I’m going to go downstairs and have a bath myself. Is there anything you need before I go?”
“No. Thank you, Johnny,” she said, unable to avoid the crack in her voice.
He grabbed his saddle bags and was gone. When she heard the door close, she surrendered to her emotions and released the sob she’d been holding all morning. It had been so easy to be angry with him when he was miles away. And the longer they were apart, the more seeded the anger became. But now, all she could think about was how much she had missed him. And wasn’t that at the root of it all? She needed him, more than anything or anyone in her life. For all her self-perceived inner strength, she so easily fell apart when he was away from her. She tried to deny it, but simply seeing him the night before had sparked the first inkling of her forgiveness. When she opened the door this morning, she knew he was the only one who could help her heal. She just didn’t know how to let that happen.
Johnny returned to the room a couple of hours later. It felt good to be clean and freshly shaven, but his body was still tired. He had slept deeply at Bella’s, from sheer exhaustion, but only for a few hours. The bedroom door was ajar; he looked in to see Jenny sleeping. He was grateful she had gone back to bed. He knew she needed restful sleep, like he did. He went to the couch, sat to remove his boots, then stretched out. He was asleep in seconds.
Later, a knock on the door awoke him. He shook himself awake to the realization that it was evening. He lit a lamp and saw the time. It was after 6:00. He had slept all afternoon. He went to the door.
“Good evening, Mr. Lancer,” Miguel said, a wide smile on his face. “It’s good to see you!” He was carrying a large tray of food.
Johnny smiled. “It’s good to see you, too, Miguel. How have you been?” he asked, as he allowed Miguel to enter.
“Very well, thank you.”
“And your padre?”
“Oh, he is well. Working hard as always. He will be happy when I tell him I saw you!”
“Please tell him hello for me.”
“I will, sir.” Miguel smiled and added, “I am practicing my English!” He proceeded to place the food and dishes on the table.
It pleased Johnny to see Miguel and to learn he was working to improve himself. He was certain the boy could accomplish many things with his drive and determination.
“Before I leave I will bank the fire for you.”
“Thank you, Miguel,” Johnny said.
As Miguel tended the fire, he asked Johnny, “Mr. Lancer, did the man who was looking for you find you?”
Johnny looked perplexed. “What man?”
“The man from Pinkerton. He was here asking for Johnny Madrid. He asked me if I knew him. I told him that was your old name, you were Johnny Lancer and you were married to Missus McBride, er, Missus Lancer, now.
“How did you know I was Madrid?”
“I was here the night you had the gunfight. I heard you say the name.”
Johnny breathed deeply. It all made sense now. “You told him my real name and where I live?”
“Si. He asked me. I could not lie to him. I hope I did not do anything wrong,” he said.
“You did fine, Miguel. Thank you for telling me. And to answer your question, he did find me.”
Miguel rose from his task. “And that was a good thing, not a bad thing?”
“It was a very good thing. Now, don’t give it another thought.”
Johnny walked with Miguel to the door. “Goodnight, Miguel.”
Johnny closed the door and said, “Well, I’ll be damned.” He looked up and saw Jenny standing in the doorway to the bedroom.
“Did you hear that?” he asked.
She nodded, “I did. So it was Miguel who gave you away. Well, we knew it had to be someone close to us.”
“That mystery is solved at least. He brought us dinner.”
“I can’t believe it’s so late. I slept all afternoon.”
“So did I. His knock on the door woke me up.”
“You slept? Where?”
Johnny nodded toward the couch.
“Oh,” Jenny said, with a trace of disappointment.
“Let’s see what Chef made for us. Probably something with a French name that I can’t pronounce,” he mused. “Looks like beef stew,” he observed.
“It’s actually Beef Bourguignon,” Jenny said, with a smile. “It’s made with wine.”
“Sounds like my kind of stew. Let’s eat,” he said, offering her a chair. “Would you like a drink?”
“No. Coffee is enough for me.”
“Me, too,” he said, as he sat next to her. He served their food into the bowls and passed her the bread plate. He took a bite of the stew, licked his lips, savoring the richness of the flavors. “This is the best stew I’ve ever eaten. We have to get the recipe for Teresa.”
“I’m not sure Pierre will easily share it.”
“We could both hold him at gunpoint!”
Jenny laughed out loud. That felt good. When was the last time she laughed? The day they had visited Sam to confirm she was pregnant. The thought brought her back to reality and she felt a stab of loss in her heart.
Johnny noticed the sudden change in her mood. “This not talking about it is hard, isn’t it?”
She nodded. “It feels like a cloud hanging over us.”
“I know. Let’s enjoy our dinner and see how we feel later.”
They finished the meal in companionable silence. Johnny cleared the table and placed the tray in the hallway. Jenny moved to the living room and stood facing the fireplace. Staring into the fire, she was mesmerized as the flames flickered and spit. Suddenly, she felt heavy with fatigue and wanted to lie down.
Jenny turned to face Johnny and said, “I’m suddenly very tired. I need to sleep.”
“So am I. That dinner hit me like laudanum. I’ll take the couch.”
“Johnny, wait. That’s not necessary.”
“It is for me,” he said.
Jenny woke out of a dream with a start, the fleeting remnants dissipating in a sense of loss. Her heart ached. She had lost someone and she knew it was Johnny. Her eyes teared, not understanding it hadn’t been real. It felt real. Like he was gone, never to return. She sat up, grasping for the edges of reality. Fully awake, she sighed heavily, oh, it was only a dream. Thank God. Johnny was still there, sleeping on the couch. As her despair evaporated, she realized the absurdity of him not sleeping in their bed. They hadn’t hurt each other that much, had they? None of what had happened had been intentional. No one was to blame. She could see that clearly now. In a rush of clarity, she threw the covers back and ran to the living room. He was sleeping soundly. He looked beautiful to her, his dark hair partially covering his face. It was a rare thing to see him so relaxed and at peace. Maybe she should let him be. But the ache was too strong.
“Johnny,” she whispered. “Johnny, wake up.” She knew better than to touch him or startle him.
He stirred and his eyes flickered. He opened them wide, seeing her standing over him.
She reached out for his hand. “Come to bed.”
He sat up, while his brain caught up with what was happening. He followed her to the bed. She pulled her gown over her head and let it fall to the floor. She kissed him gently, testing the waters. He returned the kiss, slowly at first, then more urgently. Her body filled with a rush of heat, her longing consuming her.
He gently touched the side of her face, and said, “Jenny, are you sure . . .”
She hushed him with her forefinger on his lips. “No talking,” she said, pulling him down with her on the bed.
The next morning they moved cautiously around one another, each fearful of disturbing the fragile peace they had found during the night.
Johnny suggested they have breakfast in the dining room. He knew Jenny hadn’t been out of the rooms since she arrived. She easily agreed. They enjoyed their breakfast, with members of the staff stopping to say hello. Jenny greeted them graciously and was happy to see them.
“It looks like a nice day. Let’s go for a walk,” Johnny suggested, as they finished eating.
“Sure,” Jenny replied, “I’ll go up and get my cloak.”
While he waited for Jenny, Johnny stepped out to the boardwalk. It felt good to be outside, breathing in fresh air. He didn’t know what the day would bring, but he felt buoyed by having spent the night with Jenny in his arms. The love and the tears they had shared in the night seemed to have brought them to a place of understanding, a beginning of moving forward in their shared grief. While the sting of finding her gone when he arrived home had not lessened much, he felt open to hearing what she had to say. He hoped she was ready to talk.
The early April sun felt warm, but there was still a chill in the air. Johnny and Jenny held hands as they walked the familiar city streets. They weren’t talking, merely taking in the fresh air.
Johnny silently recalled memories of their whirlwind courtship and thought about how fragile a love can be, even one as strong as theirs. Wondering if he was again given the choice between staying with Jenny or going to get his son, he realized there was no correct answer. Choices had to be made in life and you had to live with the consequences. God knows he’d made some bad ones, but this choice had been made in good faith and with good intentions. His thoughts were disrupted when Jenny stopped, realizing they were across the street from the Mission where they had shared their wedding vows a few months earlier. He looked at her and asked, “Do you want to go inside?”
“No, let’s go to the garden,” Jenny said.
They crossed the street and took the path beside the Mission to the small garden behind the building. Jenny led him to a small bench below an oak tree. They sat quietly for a few minutes, then she spoke.
“I know you came here to take me home, but I can’t go back to Lancer, not yet,” she said, avoiding Johnny’s eyes.
Johnny turned to look at her. “Jenny, why did you leave? I was so scared when you weren’t there. The whole time I was gone, all I could think about was getting back home to you,” Johnny said, his voice betraying his hurt.
Jenny took a deep breath, knowing this was the moment she had to tell him the truth, even if he hated her for it.
“I tried to find a way to get beyond the hurt, but all I could think about was how I lost our baby, while you were off to meet your child from another woman. I know I sound selfish, but I can’t help the way I feel. I couldn’t be there when you came home with him. It would hurt too much. And I was upset that you weren’t with me when it happened.”
Johnny looked at her, hurt and confusion in his eyes. “Do you believe I would have left you if I thought you or the baby were in danger? Doc said you were okay, you just needed to rest. I’m sorry I wasn’t there, but you encouraged me to go.”
Jenny took a deep breath and said, “I know. I felt so confused when it happened. I can see now that I turned my pain into anger. I was jealous that you had a child just when I was losing ours. I resented the boy without even knowing him. I’ve been very unfair to you, and to Frankie. I’m truly sorry.”
“Frankie’s not a replacement for our child. You can’t think I believe that.”
“Of course I don’t think that. I see things more clearly now.” She placed her hand on his arm, and said, “And, Johnny, I do want to hear all about Frankie.”
“And I want to tell you about him, but for right now I want to focus on us.”
“I’m so sorry I hurt you. If I could do it over, I would. I think I panicked. I didn’t trust myself and I thought it would be less painful if I wasn’t there when you got home. I’ve faced loss like this before and I always found a way to get through it. I don’t understand why this was different. Please forgive me,” she said, as she began to cry.
Johnny pulled her into his arms and held her as she cried. He worked to get his own emotions under control. “There’s nothing to forgive, Corazón. Neither of us had control over what happened,” he said. He kissed her forehead. “I’m sorry I wasn’t with you. I’m here now and I’m not leaving you. I’ll be here until you’re ready to go home.”
They sat under the oak tree, letting their emotions settle. While full understanding remained elusive, Johnny was grateful she had been honest with him. The thought that she could resent Frankie troubled him, but she had acknowledged she had been unfair to think it. He had some resentment of his own to work through.
Jenny’s sobs had subsided, but she remained wrapped in his embrace. He tightened his arms around her and said, “We’re going to find our way through this.” He felt her nod her head against his chest. After a few more minutes he said, “Let’s go inside,” as he nodded toward the church. “I want to light a candle for my mother.”
Jenny nodded her head and rose with Johnny from the bench. He caught her when she staggered as she took a step.
“Are you okay? Want to sit a bit longer?”
“No, I’m fine, just a little shaky on my legs. A good cry always does that to me,” she said, with a forced smile.
Johnny held her at the waist and guided her to the side door of the mission. As they entered, their eyes adjusted to the dim light. They stepped over to the devotional candle stand. Johnny lit a candle and said a silent prayer for his mother. He had no idea if his prayers were heard by anyone, but he liked the ritual of remembering his mother. Each candle he lit moved him closer to forgiveness.
Jenny watched him, touched by the gesture he made for a mother he easily could have hated. When he finished, she whispered, “Let’s light one for our baby.”
He placed the long match in Jenny’s hand and placed his own over hers. Together they lit a candle for the cherished child they would never hold.
Johnny looked around the church and saw no else there. “Come with me,” he whispered. He led her to the altar and they stood in the spot where they had exchanged their wedding vows. He took Jenny’s hands in his and looked into her eyes, and said, “The most perfect day of my life took place right here with you. I love you, Jenny.”
She smiled and said, “I’ll never forget that day. When I walked down the aisle and saw you standing there, I knew I had found my home. I love you, Johnny, and nothing will ever change that.”
They came together in a passionate kiss.
“The Lord rejoices!”
Startled by the voice, Johnny and Jenny turned to see the source.
“Padre Luis,” Johnny said. He stepped forward to shake the hand of his smiling friend. “It’s good to see you.”
“Hello, Father,” Jenny said, accepting the padre’s embrace.
“It’s wonderful to see you. What brings you to the city?” the padre asked.
“Just a short visit,” Johnny said, as he looked at Jenny and pulled her close. “We’re going through a difficult time,” Johnny said, struggling to find the right words to explain their loss.
Jenny said outright, “We lost a child, Father. I was just over three months pregnant and I lost the baby,” she said, choking on the final words.
Padre Luis took Jenny’s hand in his. “My dear, I am sorry to hear this. How can I help?”
“Please pray for our baby’s soul,” Jenny replied.
“Of course, of course,” Padre Luis said. “Please, sit for a minute,” he said, as he led them to the nearest pew. Johnny and Jenny sat and Padre Luis sat to face them. “I am truly sorry for your loss. I can see this is indeed a difficult time for you. God will give you the strength you need to move forward. And I see you are drawing strength from one another.” He again took Jenny’s hand in his, and said, “Jenny, know that your child’s soul is safe in the hands of a loving God.”
“Thank you, Father,” Jenny said, swallowing an unreleased sob.
“How recently did this happen?” Padre Luis asked.
“A few weeks ago. I was away when it happened,” Johnny said.
“I see. Jenny, that couldn’t have been easy for you. What’s important is that you are together now to grieve together and comfort one another. And remember, we all move through grief in different ways. Be patient with yourselves and with each other.”
“We will, Padre,” Johnny said.
“Is there anything else I can do for you?” Padre Luis asked.
“No, Padre, it was good to see you,” Johnny said.
“It was very good to see you, too,” the padre said, as he stood and reached out to shake Johnny’s hand. “Adios, mis amigos. Vaya con Dios,” he added. He said a silent prayer for his friends as he watched them walk to the door.
“I feel like eating and sleeping is all we’ve done the past couple of days,” Jenny said, as they entered Bella’s cantina. They had napped most of the afternoon, both too emotionally drained to do anything else. Faced with the need for yet another meal, they decided to pay a visit to Bella.
They stepped into the interior of the restaurant and felt the usual embrace of the place and it’s owner. It felt like a home of sorts to them, knowing there was always delicious food and sage words waiting for them whenever they were needed.
“I am delighted to see you!” Bella said, as she hugged them each in turn. “Please wait here while I prepare your table.” She left them standing near the door and disappeared into the kitchen. After a few minutes, she returned and led them to the alcove. The table had been set with a chilled bottle of champagne and glasses.
“We don’t feel much like celebrating, Bella,” Johnny said.
“Nonsense!” Bella said. “You’re alive and you’re together. That’s reason enough to celebrate. Please, sit. I will bring you food.”
“Okay, “ Johnny said, smiling. “Go get yourself a glass, Bella.”
“No, Johnny, this is for you and Jenny.”
“I insist. If we’re going to celebrate, you will join us.”
Bella acquiesced and returned with another champagne glass. Johnny filled their glasses, raised his, and said, “To you, Bella, our friend, who seems to know what’s in our hearts before we do.”
Jenny echoed his words, “To you, Bella.”
Bella’s face flushed as she sipped her drink. “You are too kind. I only know what I see. And tonight I see you have started to heal and it fills my heart to see you together.”
Jenny set her glass down and pulled Bella into an embrace. “Thank you for taking care of Johnny the other night. I wasn’t myself when he got here.”
“I understand completely. Now, it’s my turn to insist. Pease sit! I’ve already ordered your food,” she said, giving Johnny a teasing look.
“Is there any part of this night we will have a choice in?” Johnny asked.
“Only what you do when you leave here!” replied Bella, her laugh drifting off as she entered the kitchen.
After finishing their meals, Johnny and Jenny lingered at the table, sipping the last of the champagne.
“This was a good idea. Thanks for suggesting it,” Johnny said.
“You took care of me yesterday. Today it was my turn to take care of you.” Turning slightly in her chair, she smiled at Johnny, and said, “Tell me about Frankie.”
Johnny looked at her, smiling affectionately. Whether the affection was for her or for Frankie, Jenny didn’t care. It was time she asked him about his son.
“Oh, he stands about thigh high to me. He has a messy mop of black hair,” he chuckled. “His skin’s a bit lighter than mine. Eyes the color of the lake at Oak Grove.”
”So, he looks like you,” she said, smiling.
“Yeah, I couldn’t deny he’s mine even if I wanted to. Murdoch cried when he saw him. Said he was me all over again. Made me rethink how Murdoch felt about me when I was a kid.”
“You have to know by now that Murdoch loves you. He always has.”
“I know. It’s different though to see him show it. I’ve not seen much of that.”
“You love Frankie already, I can see that,” Jenny said.
“It’s impossible not to. He’s a precious, sweet boy.” With an upturn in the corners of his mouth, he continued. “He can be a bit wild, but he is my son after all. I fell for him the minute I saw him.”
“Does he understand that you’re his father?”
“Yes, we talked about it on the trip home. Carmen was a big help.”
“Carmen?” Jenny asked.
“Right, I haven’t told you about her yet. She was the housekeeper at the Grant Ranch, and she took over as Frankie’s caretaker when Melissa died. She came back with us to Lancer and she agreed to stay. Anyway, she compared us to fathers and sons he knew on their ranch. The first time he called me ‘Papa’, boy Jenny, that was something!”
Jenny’s eyes filled and she struggled to keep her composure. The swirl of emotions around losing her child threatened to resurface.
Johnny rescued her by leaning forward and taking her hand. “We’ll have plenty of time to talk about Frankie, but for now, I have an idea I want to talk to you about.”
Her interest piqued and she said, “Please, tell me.”
“I think we should go away for a few days. Get out of the city.”
“Really? What did you have in mind?”
“What about that place we were going to go for our honeymoon?”
“My friend’s place on the coast.”
“I’m surprised. I thought you would want to be getting home. Doesn’t Frankie need you?” she asked.
“Sure he does, but Carmen is there to take care of him. And I’m sure everyone else is spoiling him. He’ll be fine until we get home.”
“Okay, are you thinking about a couple of days, a week?”
“I guess two or three days. All I know is we need more time before we go home. I just want time alone with you, some wide open spaces. I’m starting to feel boxed in here.”
Jenny leaned forward and placed her hand against his face. “Then we’ll go. Let’s leave in the morning.”
They arrived on the coast late afternoon the following day. Before leaving, Johnny had sent a wire to Murdoch informing him they would be away for at least another week. He assured his father that they were fine.
Jenny’s friend gave them a room facing the ocean. The hotel sat on a bluff overlooking the shore. Jenny loved the ocean view and the salt scented air blowing in the window. Johnny had to agree it was a beautiful sight.
This was their first full day at the coast. The hotel manager had directed them to the nearest stable where they could hire horses for the day. Jenny had arranged to have a lunch packed for them which she put in Johnny’s saddle bags.
At the stable, they selected two handsome steeds named Romeo and Hamlet. Johnny rode Romeo, leaving the gentler Hamlet for Jenny. They followed a trail for a couple of miles. The trail eventually led to a stretch of beach, snuggled between two large rocky outcrops. When they reached the sand, they urged their horses to run the length of the beach until they reached the rocks, where they turned around and galloped back to the trailhead.
“That felt great!” Jenny exclaimed. “Let’s do it again.”
“I’ll race you to the end!” Johnny yelled above the crashing waves, and took off on his horse, flying down the beach.
But Jenny was more interested in watching him ride. He had such graceful and fluid movements, it was almost like watching a dance. There was no way she could outrun him, so why not enjoy the view for a moment. She knew Johnny needed wide open spaces to clear his head. It was good to see him enjoying the day, but it concerned her that he hadn’t had much to say. There were things weighing on his mind, this much she knew. Despite his show of playfulness, he wasn’t his usual carefree self. It bothered her that she was probably the source of his unsettled demeanor.
She saw him reach the outcrop, then turn around, looking for her. She waved and laughed. He came galloping back toward her and reined in abruptly beside her.
“Why didn’t you race with me?”
“Because I was having more fun watching you. You know I love to watch you ride.”
“Well, I love watching you ride, too. It’s my turn,” he said. “Now, go!”
Jenny kicked her horse into motion and urged it to a gallop. It was exhilarating to feel the power of the beast beneath her and to feel the salt kissed wind blowing through her hair. Where the sand met the rock, she spun the horse around and rode back to Johnny, this time riding out into the waves as they touched the shore. She slowed as she neared him. He jumped down from his horse and grabbed the reins from her. He helped her out of the saddle to the sand.
“That was beautiful. I could watch you ride all day,” he said, and kissed her. “Let’s walk for a bit.”
He held the reins to both horses in one hand, allowing them to trail along the beach behind them. They walked for a while, hand in hand, each lost in their thoughts.
Breaking their silence, Johnny said, “I haven’t spent much time on beaches. I have to say the idea is growing on me. It feels so different from the open range.”
“The beach has a unique feel about it. I find it very refreshing. Can we sit for a minute?” Jenny asked.
“Sure, how about over there?” Johnny said, nodding his head in the direction of a flat rock formation. He ground tethered the horses at a cluster of seagrass near the base of the cliffs and they walked to the rock.
“It’s nice just to sit and watch the waves. Did you hear the waves last night?”
“Yeah, the sound put me to sleep.”
“Did you sleep well? You seem tired.”
“Yeah, I slept some. Just have a lot on my mind. Trying to sort things out.”
Jenny was ready to urge him to talk to her, but he continued before she could say anything.
“Remember what Padre Luis said about our baby’s soul being with God?” he asked.
“Sure,” she said, wondering where he was going with his question.
“Do you believe it?”
“I have to believe it, Johnny. I can’t think of her being anywhere else.”
Johnny’s eyes went wide. “Her? You know it was a girl?”
“Well, Sam said I wasn’t far enough along to know for sure, but in my heart I knew we were having a girl.”
“You never said anything. Why not?”
Jenny hung her head slightly, feeling she had disappointed him once again.
“Johnny, I’m only now feeling I can talk about it. I really lost myself when it happened. I couldn’t think clearly about anything. But now, with some time, and being with you, things are much clearer. I know I’m not making any sense. I’m sorry. What I’m trying to say is that it’s getting easier for me to talk about it.”
“It’s okay. I like thinking we were having a girl,” he said. “What I don’t understand is, if this is all God’s doing, why did he have to take our baby?” he asked, tears gathering in his eyes.
Jenny took his hand in hers. “I don’t know. We will never know the answer to that question.” She stopped to swallow her sorrow and wipe her tears before going on.
“When Ian and I traveled west, we met a family with eight children. The mother’s name was Martha. She’s the one who took me under her wing when we lost Rachel. Soon after we set out from Missouri, she told me she was pregnant. She lost the baby early in the trip. She wasn’t sad at all. I guess the idea of another mouth to feed was more of a burden than a joy. I asked her why she didn’t mourn for it, and she said God takes care of the ones who would have a difficult time surviving. She believed something was wrong with the baby, and it was God’s mercy to not let it be born.”
Johnny looked troubled. “Do you believe that about our baby?” he asked.
“No, I can’t think of her as anything but perfect.”
“Neither can I,” he said, seeming relieved, “though I guess believing that would make it easier to accept.” He thought for a few moments, then, no longer able to keep his composure, he cried, “Why take our perfect daughter? What purpose does that serve?” He slid down to the sand, pulled his knees to his chest and cried into his crossed arms.
Jenny moved down to sit next to him on the sand. She let him cry, not yet touching him. She had been in that place in her own grief, angry at God, questioning how he could be so unfair. There had been no solace for her then. Seeing him so distraught brought her own feelings of loss back to the surface and she cried with him, leaning against his shoulder. She felt his arm reach around her and pull her tight. She reached across him to complete their embrace. This is what she had missed. Someone to hold on to, someone to help bear the pain. She had already released her anger and resentment toward him for being away, and now, she finally forgave herself for her irrational feelings, knowing they were the product of grief, not of her heart.
She closed her eyes and and listened to Johnny’s jagged breathing and the waves hitting the shore. This is what healing feels like, she said to herself. After they had both stopped crying, they sat in their embrace for some time, neither moving away. Eventually, the neighing of one of the horses interrupted their thoughts.
With a small laugh, Johnny said, “Sounds like someone wants some attention. I have some apples I can give them.”
“It’s okay, go,” Jenny said.
Johnny went to the horses and whispered to them affectionately, as he got the apples out of the saddlebags. Each happily accepted their treat.
He went back to Jenny and pulled her to her feet, gathering her into his arms.
“Will we ever stop crying?” he asked.
“We will. It just might not be any time soon.”
“Well, it’s wearing me out,” he said.
“I know. So, while we’re at it, what else is on your mind?”
He stepped back from her and placed his hands on her shoulders. He was looking at the woman who could help him fulfill his dreams, or destroy him in an instant and he understood that was what was behind his fears. He was already on shaky ground with his emotions, he might as well press forward.
“There is something else.” He stepped away and paced along the sand for several minutes, his fingers twitching at his sides. He finally stopped moving a few paces away from her and faced her.
“I thought I‘d lost you, Jenny. When Teresa told me you had left, I could barely breathe. When I got here and you wouldn’t talk to me, I felt lost. I didn’t understand what was happening and it scared me. I thought you had left me.” Jenny started to speak, but he stopped her.
“Please, let me finish. I know we’ve found our way back to each other, but I’m still a bit in shock about how quickly it could have all fallen apart. Before this happened, the only reason I could imagine you would leave me was if I was with another woman. And I knew that was never going to happen.”
“Johnny, I wasn’t leaving you. I left to avoid a situation I wasn’t ready for. I know I keep saying it, but it’s true. I wasn’t thinking clearly. I was despondent and confused.”
“What did you expect me to think? You didn’t leave a note, no message, you were just gone. I rode all night to get the first train out of Stockton to get to you. And when I got here you pushed me away.” He hung his head, looking at the sand. In a voice so low Jenny could barely hear him, he said, “I thought you didn’t want me any more.”
Jenny walked up to him, “Look at me.”
He raised his head and took a deep breath.
“I never meant to hurt you, Johnny. And it never crossed my mind to leave you. I should have left a note. I’m sorry I scared you. But you have to know that I love you. Now, tomorrow, forever.”
“I love you, too, but how can I trust that you won’t leave again when the next bad thing happens?”
Jenny was immediately struck by the irony of his question. She took a couple of paces away from him, considering how to respond.
“Aren’t you going to answer me?” Johnny implored.
She swung around to face him. “You know Johnny, that works both ways.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I don’t suppose you even remember.”
“Remember what?” he asked, his hands on his hips.
“It wasn’t long after we got to Lancer. A month or so. You had an argument with Murdoch and stormed out of the house. You ran right past me, didn’t stop to say anything. Next thing I knew you were flying out of the corral on Barranca. I had no idea where you were going or if you’d come back.”
“But I did come back. I apologized, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you came back. But only after I’d spent several hours wondering if I would ever see you again. And yes, you apologized, but for coming home late, not for running off without a word.”
“It had nothing to do with you, Jenny. I was upset with Murdoch and I wasn’t thinking straight. I had to get away to clear my head,” Johnny said.
It took a few seconds for him to realize that those were the same words she had been saying to him for the past few days. He hung his head low and shuffled his feet. He walked a few feet away from her. Needing to cool off after an argument with Murdoch was commonplace to him, but it never occurred to him to think about how it might look to Jenny.
While his relationship with his father had improved considerably since his return to Lancer, there were still times when, due to fatigue or frustration, they both reverted to their behaviors of the early days. He was grateful the clashes were now rare, but when they did occur, the intensity harkened back to the early, more factious times.
He knew that now his father understood he was not running away, simply giving them both time to cool their heels. Johnny recalled the instance Jenny had referenced. Murdoch had questioned, quite vehemently, his decision to reroute a herd of cattle from water slogged grazing land to higher, dryer ground, contrary to Murdoch’s instructions. His father had criticized him for making what he thought was a rash decision. The argument struck a nerve after a long, tense, frustrating day in the saddle. He had stormed out of the house, apparently unknowingly passing Jenny on the way.
He acknowledged to himself that he still had a lot to learn about what it meant to share his life with another person. He didn’t have the luxury of acknowledging her as part of his life only when it was convenient or easy. She was part of all of it, even the parts he would prefer to keep to himself. Which was no more than what he expected from her.
When he turned back to face her and finally looked up, Jenny had narrowed the space between them.
“Jenny, I will always come back to you.”
“But you don’t trust me to do the same.”
He sighed deeply. “I haven’t had much experience with women staying.”
She touched his arm, and said, “I know. They must have been fools. You said when you ran off after your argument with Murdoch, it had nothing to do with me. Well, that’s where you’re wrong. Everything you do has to do with me. And that works both ways. I was wrong to run off without leaving a message for you. I didn’t stop to think about your feelings, just like it didn’t occur to you that running off might scare me.”
Jenny wrapped her arms around his neck, “I’m not going anywhere. We’re like swans, you and me. We’re together for life. We made that promise to each other. And I think we both pride ourselves in keeping our promises.”
He took a long look at her and thought about what she had said. She was right, he hadn’t thought about her in his rush to put some distance between him and his father. He couldn’t base his distrust of her on something he had done himself.
“You’re right. I’m sorry I scared you then. Maybe it’s time we both stopped running.”
Then he kissed her, tentatively at first, as he let his fears and doubts evaporate like the morning fog. He stopped kissing her long enough to take her hand and lead her to a secluded spot behind the flat rock. He gently lowered her to the sand, then on his knees, bent his head to her ear. “Together for life,” he whispered.
Jenny looked up to see his beautiful eyes, clear and bright, and said, “Yes, Johnny, together for life.”
Hello to all of my readers! This is the final chapter of Quicksilver Part I. I will be on a writing hiatus for several months working on Part II. It is a work in progress. So think of this chapter as the final episode of Season 1 of Quicksilver. Season 2 will be back sometime this year with answers to all of the unanswered questions in Season 1, or at the least, most of them. There may be a few dangling issues, just in case it is renewed for a Season 3! I want to thank everyone for your support of my writing and for the wonderful, helpful feedback you have given me. Your readership is a beautiful gift to this new writer. Thank you and Happy New Year! Anita
It was the morning of their third day at the coast. Jenny awoke to find Johnny gone, but he had left a note on his pillow: I promised Romeo we’d go for a ride this morning. I’ll be back for breakfast. Apparently he had formed an attachment to the horse he had ridden the previous day. The hour must have been very early when he left. She hadn’t heard a thing. As she rose from the bed, someone knocked on the door. She put on her robe and went to the door.
A waiter from the dining room greeted her. “Good morning, Mrs. Lancer.”
“Good morning,” she replied.
“I have the coffee you ordered.”
“But I didn’t order coffee, though someone must be reading my mind.”
“Oh, my apologies. Your husband ordered it to be delivered at 8:00. He stopped in the dining room for coffee before he stepped out this morning.”
“What time was that?”
“Around 6:30, ma’am.”
“Thank you. You may bring it in.” The waiter rolled a small cart into the room which held coffee service and a plate of croissants. She thanked the waiter and poured herself a cup of steaming, dark coffee. She sipped it and sighed. She eyed the croissant and realized how hungry she was. She tore the pastry in half and took a greedy bite of the buttery treat, only then discovering there was chocolate in the center.
Savoring the croissant, she took the coffee cup and stood at the window, gazing out at the ocean sparkling in the morning sun. She thought back over the past couple of weeks.
Mostly, she had been consumed with overwhelming grief over the loss of their child. She had feared her own reaction when Johnny arrived home with Frankie. To not trust herself was unsettling to say the least. She had struggled to understand why she had such a dramatic reaction to the loss. She’d experienced plenty of losses over the years, and was always able to keep moving forward. This one had shaken her to her core.
Her thoughts were forgotten as she heard the door being opened with a key. She turned to see Johnny in the doorway, gasping at the sight of him. His chest was rising and falling in rapid succession. She could almost feel the heat coming off of him. In his eyes she saw longing and hunger and love. Her heart raced at the beauty of him.
He kicked the door shut with his boot, then in movements so quick she could barely keep up, he flung his hat and jacket to the side, not caring where they landed. His belts were off quicker than he could draw his gun, and tossed in a chair. Next came the boots, and he was walking to her. Before she could take a breath he put his mouth on hers and kissed her. His hands caressed her hair as he pulled her close to him. He smelled of sweat and leather and horses and salt air. She breathed in the intoxicating fragrance.
He picked her up and carried her to the bed, his mouth still on hers.
Gasping, she whispered, “Johnny, slow down.”
He pulled back instantly. “Am I hurting you?”
“No, I just need to catch my breath.”
“Sorry,” he said, gasping himself, “I ran all the way from the stables. I couldn’t wait to get back to you.” He untied her robe and removed it from her shoulders, letting it fall to the floor. In seconds he shed his own clothes. “Are you breathing okay now?”
“Yes,” she said, smiling up at him.
“Good,” he said, as he lifted her onto the bed. “Anything else you need to tell me?” he asked, a sheepish grin on his face.
“No, Johnny, you may now proceed,” she replied, as she welcomed him into her arms.
Later, as they lounged in the bed, Jenny said, “That must have been some ride you and Romeo took this morning,”
Johnny chuckled and tightened his hold on her. “He’s a good horse. Well trained. I enjoyed riding him. I think he and Barranca could be friends,” he mused.
“Are you thinking about buying him? Hamlet would be so lonely without him,” she teased.
“No, but the idea did cross my mind.” He suddenly jumped out of bed. “Do you think the coffee is still hot?” Not waiting for an answer, he brought the coffee pot and the cup to the bed, then retrieved the plate of croissants. He poured the coffee and sipped it. “Not stone cold. It’ll do.” He handed her the cup and returned to her side. Jenny took a sip, then handed the cup back to him. He gulped it down, then refilled the cup.
“It was very sweet of you to order coffee for me. You have to taste the croissant,” she said.
He took it from the plate and bit into it, sending flakes of pastry onto his chest and into the bed. They both laughed. “That’s very good. I prefer a biscuit with honey, but this isn’t bad.” He finished it in one bite. “Did you enjoy the chocolate?” he asked, as he brushed the crumbs from his chest.
”What do you think?” she replied, leaning in to kiss him.
“Anyway, back to Romeo. I usually prefer to ride horses that I’ve trained myself, but this one’s an exception. So I asked Reynolds, the stable owner, who his trainer is. He said it’s a guy by the name of Matthew Ringo with a ranch near San Jose. He’s been in the horse business for a long time and he’s retiring soon. He told Reynolds he’s selling his ranch ‘cause he has no one to leave it to.” Johnny turned slightly to face Jenny. His eyes sparkling, he said, “So I was thinking, maybe I should ride over to San Jose and talk to this guy. He might have some good advice about starting a horse ranch, and might even sell us some horses to help us get started. What do you think?”
Jenny had sat up straight and was staring at him.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Nothing’s wrong, but did you say Matthew Ringo?”
“Johnny, I know him. His family and his brother’s family traveled with us on the wagon train. It was his nephew who taught me to shoot. His name was Johnny Ringo.”
Johnny looked dumbfounded. “What?’
“Matthew Ringo’s nephew taught me how to shoot.”
Johnny shook his head in disbelief. “Well, I know Johnny Ringo. In fact, he just road protection for us on our trip back to California.”
“How on earth do you know Johnny Ringo?”
“Jenny, he’s a gunfighter. I met him a few years back when we both signed up for the same side in a range war. I didn’t exactly consider him a friend until last week when David hired him to make sure we got out of Arizona without anybody bothering us.”
Jenny jumped out of the bed, retrieved her robe from the floor and wrapped it around herself. She stood and stared at Johnny. “Johnny Ringo is a gunfighter?”
“Yes, and he’s a good one. Jesus, Jenny, no wonder you’re so damned good. Tell me again how old you were then.”
“I was seventeen. He was fifteen or sixteen. My God, this is unbelievable.”
“Seems like more than a coincidence that we both know him, doesn’t it?” Johnny asked.
“But what else could it be? It’s no more explainable than why men by the name of John keep appearing in my life. I mean, think about it. I’ve had three husbands, all with the name of John, Ian of course being Irish for John. And Johnny Ringo. Some things defy understanding.”
“We’re sure we’re talking about the same person?”
“Well, the Johnny Ringo I knew had dark hair, not as black as yours, brown eyes, he was a bit taller than me. He was cocky, maybe a little too sure of himself.”
Johnny laughed, “Yeah, that’s Ringo for sure. Except now he has a rather impressive mustache he probably didn’t have when you knew him.”
“I would have thought he’d stay in San Jose to look after his mother and sister. He was very protective of them after his father died. His plan was to work on his uncle’s horse ranch.”
“But Jenny, his mother and sister are dead.”
“My God, this story just keeps getting worse. Do you know how they died?”
“If he told me I don’t remember. But I think it happened shortly after they arrived in San Jose. You said you arrived in San Francisco in ‘66, right?”
“Well, I met him shortly after, probably in ‘67.”
“All of our lives have changed considerably since then.”
“Yes, they have,” Johnny said, as he swung is legs over the side of the bed. “Now get dressed, Corazón, I’m starving!”
Later, having finished breakfast in the dining room, they were relaxing with cups of coffee on the hotel terrace overlooking the ocean.
“I still can’t get over the coincidence of you knowing Johnny Ringo,” Jenny said. “Do you know where he is now?”
Johnny shook his head as he said, “He didn’t say specifically where he was headed, just that he thought he would head back to Texas. He’s a drifter, Jenny, like I used to be. He has no place to call home.”
“That makes me sad, to think of him uprooted and adrift.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry too much about him. He’s quite self sufficient and seems to be enjoying his life. Anyway, before we got sidetracked with the Ringo thing, I was telling you I might ride over to San Jose soon and meet Matthew Ringo about buying some of his stock.”
“I think it’s a wonderful idea!” she said, her eyes wide, staring at him and smiling.
“What are you grinning at?” Johnny asked.
“I’m grinning at you, my love. I’m so happy to see you excited about the ranch. I know you haven’t talked to Murdoch about it yet, so I wasn’t sure it was still a priority for you.”
“Sure it is. I haven’t had time to get into it with Murdoch. But I was thinking about that, too. I don’t think we should ask him if we can do it. I think we should show him the plans we have, the “numbers,” as Scott calls them, and tell him what we’re going to do. Like you said, we own a third of the place. We shouldn’t have to ask for permission to use our third the way we want to.”
“I couldn’t agree more. I love your plan. So was thinking about the ranch what got you all fired up this morning?”
He smirked, and leaned his head to one side. “Maybe. Or maybe I was just all fired up for you,” he said, as he pulled her close and planted a wet kiss on her lips.
“Well, whatever it was, keep thinking those thoughts.”
They talked more about the timing of Johnny’s trip to San Jose and how to present their plans for the horse ranch to Murdoch. They both felt excited about moving ahead with their dream. Sitting back, gazing out at the sea, they grew quiet.
“What have you told Frankie about me?” Jenny asked, breaking their reverie.
Johnny turned to look at her, a warm smile on his face. “A lot. I showed him the picture of you that I carry with me.”
“You had a picture of me with you?”
“Sure, I couldn’t go two weeks without seeing your face. It’s an extra from our wedding that I keep in my saddlebags.”
“It’s there now?”
“Sure. I always have it with me.”
“Show me when we get upstairs.”
He jumped up and took her hand. “Let’s go,” he said, leading her to the stairway. They got to their room and he grabbed the saddlebags from the back of the chair. Sitting on the small sofa, he searched through the contents of the bag until he found the small leather journal he carried with him. From inside it he retrieved the photo. It was a portrait of her outside the Mission, taken by the photographer James had hired to take pictures following their wedding. Johnny handed it to her.
Jenny settled herself next to him and looked at the picture.
“I don’t remember this one.”
“It’s my favorite picture of you. I love how you’re not looking at the camera, but looking at me. I was standing behind the photographer, looking over his shoulder, distracting you, when he took this. He captured how beautiful you are,” he said.
Now she remembered when the photograph had been taken. Her heart swelled, touched that he carried it with him.
Johnny continued. “I showed Frankie the picture and told him your name. I told him you’re my wife, but he probably doesn’t understand what that means. But it doesn’t matter. He knows you’re part of the family and you’re special to me. He says your name now when I show him the picture.”
Jenny rested her head on Johnny’s shoulder. “He sounds like a very smart little boy.”
“He’s smart as a whip. He doesn’t miss anything and he talks a mile a minute when he gets going. On the trip home he had me and Scott in stitches with his endless babbling!” Laughing, he said, “It’s sometimes a relief when he falls asleep!” He had tucked the picture away while he was talking.
Jenny took his now empty hand and held it. She saw their future clearly now, building the horse ranch, developing the shooting school, growing the Lancer brand. She was ready to go home to meet Johnny’s son and be his partner in raising him. If they were blessed with other children, their love and happiness would only grow. She couldn’t wait for their new beginning to start. She looked at Johnny, her eyes gleaming, “It’s time Frankie met his step-mother. Let’s go home.”
He grinned from ear to ear, and said, “We can’t leave today because I have a surprise for you tonight. How about we leave on the morning stage?”
“Okay,” she said, looking perplexed. “What do you have planned?”
“I said it was a surprise, didn’t I? You’re just gonna have to wait.”
Jenny sat in the lobby wondering what her husband was up to. They had finished dinner, and Johnny went up to their room after settling her in a chair inside the hotel door. While she waited, she realised she felt more calm and relaxed than she had in weeks. Her life felt intact again, and she felt immense hope for the future. As painful as the past few weeks had been, she felt the bond between her and Johnny to be stronger than ever. Forging a future out of despair was not a foreign concept to her.
She looked up and saw Johnny bounding down the stairs, her cloak draped over his arm. With a brilliant smile on his face, he took her by the hand and said, “Come with me, Corazón.” Once outside, he placed her cloak around her shoulders. “It might get breezy on the beach,” he said.
“We’re going to the beach? How will we see in the dark?”
Pointing to the sky, he said, “It’s a full moon. We’ll have plenty of light.”
He led her to the long flight of stone steps that led to the beach. As they slowly made their descent, Jenny was surprised by how quickly her eyes adjusted to the moonlit night, and she could easily see the way down. But she still appreciated the firm grip Johnny had on her arm as they made their way to the sand. Jenny recognized one of the restaurant servers approaching them on the stairs. He offered a polite nod to them as he passed them on his way up to the hotel.
As they left the stairs and turned to face the expanse of beach, the air changed and a gentle breeze brushed against Jenny’s face. They walked a few yards until they reached the first outcrop from the cliffs and Johnny steered her to the sheltered spot behind the rock. She stopped when she saw the small campfire, a blanket covering a patch of sand and extra blankets piled in the corner, several lanterns placed around the edges of the blanket, creating an amber glow around the site. A small bucket held what appeared to be a bottle of champagne, with two glasses waiting to be used. A picnic basket sat next to the wine.
She felt her eyes pool. “Johnny . . .” she whispered, as she felt his hand on the small of her back.
“It’s not the honeymoon I promised you, but I thought I could at least give you a romantic night on the beach.”
She leaned into him and said, “It’s perfect.”
They got settled on the blanket and Johnny poured the champagne. He raised his glass. “To my beautiful wife, the person I love most in this world.”
Jenny sighed. “To my gorgeous husband, for whom my love seems to have no limit.”
As their glasses touched, the crystal chime filled the air. They each sipped, then savored the sweet taste on each other’s lips.
“Delicious,” Johnny murmured. “Speaking of delicious, our dessert should be in the basket.” He turned and reached for the basket, placing it in front of them.
“You’ve thought of everything, haven’t you?”
“Well, the idea was mine, but Juan filled in the details.”
“That was Juan on the stairway?”
Johnny nodded as he removed items from the basket. “Yeah, he was excited to help me. I think he enjoyed it.”
“Well, I think he’s a romantic. Just like you, my sweet man,” as she leaned in and kissed him again. “My goodness, look at this!” An array of sweets was laid out before them. Small bites of chocolate cake, chocolate covered strawberries, chocolate dipped sugar cookies, and a bunch of plump red grapes.
“Juan outdid himself, that’s for sure,” Johnny said. “I may not have tipped him enough! Here, try this.” He picked up a strawberry and placed it in Jenny’s mouth.
She chewed it, savoring the sweetness of the berry combined with the tangy richness of the dark chocolate.
“Whoever came up with this is a genius!” she declared. She took a sip of champagne. “Delicious! You must try it.”
And he did. They tried everything, savoring the sweets and the wine. Later, Johnny threw some logs on the fire, then rolled up a blanket to serve as a pillow. After the lanterns were doused, they lay back on the makeshift pillow and Johnny pulled a blanket over them. Hand in hand they gazed up at the stars.
“Ya know, Jenny, I’ve spent a lot of nights sleeping under the stars. And not always because I wanted to. I used to look up there and wonder if there was another person looking at those same stars who I might meet someday. Someone who could love me and share a life with me. After some time, I stopped wondering. And now, here you are. It feels like a miracle.”
“You feel like a miracle to me, too, Johnny,” she whispered.
“I don’t like to think of us ever being apart again, but if we are, let’s both go out under the night sky and look at our star, and we’ll be together.”
“That’s a beautiful idea, but which one is our star?”
“Which one do you want?”
“I think the brightest one. So we can’t miss it. That one,” she said, pointing to the sky.
“Yes, that’s the one. The Dog Star. Scott says its real name is Sirius.”
He released her hand and pulled her into an embrace. He looked skyward, marveling at the brilliant light blanketing the dark sky. So much light, if you could just grab hold of it. Light to show the path ahead, light to illuminate the love in the world, light to obscure the pain, light to shut out the darkness. He had found his light and he held her in his arms. The past weeks had taught him how fragile it was, how if he didn’t pay close attention, the light could dim and quickly extinguish itself. He would take more care in the days to come. He would tend to her, nurture their love, cherish her beyond all others. For she was his light, his love, his lifeline.
He turned to face her, his chest heaving with emotion.
Her hand caressed his face, “Johnny . . .”
He raised his finger to her lips. “I will love you forever, Jenny.“ Then he kissed her, and kissed her again, and they lost themselves in a world where forgiveness, redemption, and rebirth were possible. Johnny Madrid Lancer vowed to hold on to this woman and their love like his life depended on it. Because it did.
~END Quicksilver Part I~
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