THE GIFTS: What Happened Next by Suzanne

Word Count 77,215

Episode Tag to The Gifts.

Chapter 1

“I ain’t goin’, Murdoch.”

“Johnny, Scott went with me last year.”

“Uh uh, no siree, not me.”

Scott’s gaze flickered from Murdoch to Johnny. Johnny had his head down, eyes glued to his supper. Not a bad method of defence. If he caught Murdoch’s eye he was probably done for.

“You’re a third owner in this ranch, Johnny. That means you have certain obligations.”

Murdoch hadn’t even got worked up yet. Scott sat back in his chair and took a sip of wine. This could take a while.

“Murdoch, I won’t even know what the heck they’re talking about most of the time.”

“Nonsense. It’s the Cattlemen’s Association Annual Conference, not a mathematical lecture. Of course you’ll understand what’s being said.”

Johnny skewered a potato with a mulish look. “Everyone’ll be tricked out in their fancy duds and smoking cigars. It just ain’t my kind of thing, Murdoch. Besides,” he raised his eyes and looked across at Scott. “If Scott’s going, you won’t need me tagging along.”

To be fair, Scott hadn’t wanted to go last year either but it turned out to be far more interesting than he’d expected. He was even looking forward to almost a week away from the ranch in Sacramento. But he kept his mouth shut. Murdoch didn’t need him to fight his battles.

Murdoch picked up his wine glass. He twisted the crystal this way and that, watching the candlelight reflect off its angles before taking a drink. “Well, I guess if you feel that way—.”

“I do,” Johnny said abruptly, looking up.

“All right. If that’s what you want, Johnny. I’ve already given Jelly a list of things to do but fixing the bridge and unblocking the creek will be a lot quicker with two of you working on it, then that will give you time to re-fence the south pasture.”

Scott nearly spurted his wine when he saw the look on Johnny’s face.

“Jelly? Jelly!” He looked across at Scott. “I thought you said Jelly was going to Sacramento.”

Murdoch looked blank. “Scott said that? I don’t know where he got that idea from.”

Murdoch’s barely-there frown in his direction clearly said, ‘keep your mouth shut.’

“No, there’s far too much work to be done here for us all to go. I was thinking of leaving Jelly in charge.” Murdoch got up from the table. “I’ll go tell him you’re staying. It means I won’t have to listen to him moaning about all the work he’ll be doing while we’re kicking up our heels in Sacramento.”

Murdoch’s leisurely stride got him as far as the door before Johnny threw up his hands.

“Wait a minute.”

Murdoch turned around. “Did you say something, John?”

“You’re a wily old coot, you know that, don’t you.”

Murdoch was all innocent surprise.

Johnny’s shoulders slumped. “Okay, okay. I’ll go to Sacramento with you and Scott,” he muttered.

Murdoch’s face broke into a big smile. “That’s wonderful news, Johnny. I’ll go and tell Jelly when to have the horses ready.”

The front door closed with something of a triumphant bang.

Johnny eyed Scott. “You were a great help, weren’t you.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“That’s exactly what I meant.”

“It really won’t be all that bad, Johnny. I didn’t even go to all the meetings last year.” He remembered the feel of the hand on his shoulder every time Murdoch introduced him to another fellow rancher. “This is my son, Scott.” It wasn’t hard to miss the warm note of pride in Murdoch’s voice. “I think Murdoch wants to show us both off to his ranching friends. It means a lot to him, Johnny.”

Johnny’s face softened. “Yeah, I know.”

“So, what is it that’s eating you?”

“Nothin.” He stood up. “Just make sure Murdoch doesn’t take us anywhere near Mumford’s Crossing.”

.

Johnny pushed his hat back as they rode into Sacramento. The streets looked pretty much the same as they had a few months earlier—wide and noisy and teeming with wagons and horses and people. He’d always stayed away from big towns but here he was back in Sacramento again. The memory of what happened last time here was still awfully fresh in him mind. The whole place left a damned bitter taste in his mouth. The three of them had been all fired up about Murdoch’s birthday. Scott had his stereopticon and Jelly had his pig…his sow…and he had the rifle. A Winchester.

One Of One Thousand.

To be cherished as you would an art treasure. That’s what he’d told James A Mumford. That’s what he’d wanted for Murdoch Lancer.

 Only thanks to Mumford’s daughter, all he had in the end was a silver Lancer ‘L’ to give to Murdoch. Dios, he was lousy at giving gifts.

Murdoch had booked them into the fancy hotel downtown where they were holding their conference. It was away from the noise of the railway and the waterfront, where all the walls were being built to raise the level of the road so that the Sacramento River wouldn’t flood the town every time they had a decent rain.

“Here we go, boys.”

They’d left their horses at the livery stable and walked the busy boardwalk to the Imperial Hotel. Murdoch carried a small case but Scott and he just carried their saddlebags over their shoulders.

Johnny looked up at the hotel with its arches and wrought iron decorations but in his head all he could see was the fancy script engraved on the top barrel flat that read ‘One Of One Thousand’ with curls and scrolls engraved all around it and the Winchester blue tint of the magazine and barrel and trigger…

“Johnny, are you coming in?” Scott was waiting for him on the top step.

“I’m coming.’”

He followed Murdoch and Scott inside. The foyer was all marble and wood with coloured tiles on the floor—and that looked fancy enough—but the next second he took his hat off and whistled under his breath. The ceiling was a dome, pale blue like the sky, with leaves and flowers painted around the lower parts. Then at the very top was a window, covered in etchings, to let in light.

“Johnny,” Scott called again.

He pushed his saddlebag a bit further up his shoulder and followed them. Scott hadn’t even looked up.

Murdoch signed them in and paid a deposit and by that time the foyer was starting to fill with people.

They’d only gone a few steps when one of Murdoch’s Association men came up and shook his hand, then another and another. It turned out most of them were staying here and they were all headed into the dining room for their midday meal.

Both him and Scott got pushed forward with one of Murdoch’s hands on each shoulder. “These are my boys. Scott—I think you met him last year—and Johnny.”

He had his hand crushed at least a dozen times. It was a battle to make sure you gave as good as you got as you met each rancher eye to eye with a ‘Howdy’ and a ‘Pleased to meet you.’ Some of the ranchers just gave him a quick look, then kept talking to Murdoch about some vote that was coming up. Then there were others who peered at him like he was a prize bull they were looking to buy.

Murdoch greeted them all like he was happy to see them but some got slaps on the back and a ‘How’s Jenny’—or Frances or Isabel—and a shake of his head and his mouth would turn down when he heard someone had died or wasn’t doing too well. He’d say, “I’m real sorry to hear that, Joe,” like their grief for that time was his own. It was a gift; being able to talk to everyone and share their burdens. Maybe it came from having burdens of your own to shoulder?

“Come and join us, Murdoch. There’s room at our table,” Fred Tucker called out.

Murdoch looked at him and Scott. “No, we’ll wait for the opening dinner tonight. We need to wash off the dust from the trail, don’t we boys.”

Fred waved them off. “See you all tonight then, Murdoch.”

They trooped up the wide staircase to the third floor where their rooms were. Murdoch had a single room and theirs was next door. The red carpet was soft underfoot and the doors were solid with brass handles and locks. He tapped the wood panelling that went half-way up the wall with the toe of his boot.

“What is it, Johnny?” Murdoch turned to look at him.

“Nothin’. Just lookin.”

Scott put their key in the lock. “I think you were kicking, not looking.”

“I’ll see you boys in a while.” Murdoch disappeared into his room and they went into theirs.

Johnny tossed his saddlebag on a stuffed chair then put his hands on the pale green woven bedspread. He pressed down a few times, letting it spring back. “Feels good, brother.”

Scott tossed him an apple that was in a basket on the dresser. Johnny walked across and picked up a bottle of red wine. “Com-pli-ments of the Imperial,” he read.

Scott held up a glass. “Shall we?”

Johnny shook his head. “Not me.”

He pulled back the lace curtain and looked down at the bustle in the street below while he chewed on the apple. A wagon loaded with watermelons trundled by but what caught his eye was a Chinaman with a basket full of washing on his back. He was bent over like he might be older than the hills. He was having a time of it weaving his way through the traffic. Johnny stopped chewing. The Chinaman had almost made it to the boardwalk when a couple of cowhands pushed him backwards and the washing and the Chinaman sprawled onto the street, nearly getting run down by a rider. The cowhands were clapping their hands and looked to be laughing as they headed off.

Johnny’s hands were itching to grab every one of them by the throat.

“What are you looking at?” Scott came across, stripped to his waist.

Johnny let the curtain drop. “Oh, nothing,” he muttered. “Just the same small, ugly world.”

After a bath and a shave Murdoch met them in their room.

Johnny noticed Scott had donned his jacket and string tie so Johnny put on his soft cream shirt instead of the blue one under his buckskin jacket. Teresa had done a fine job cleaning it after Slate Meeks tried to put a bullet in his head. He looked at himself in the mirror; well, this was as dressed-up as he was gonna get.

“Supper will be at six boys, so don’t be late. I’ll save you a seat. And stay this end of town. It gets pretty rough around the railway they’re telling me.”

Scott said, “Yes sir,” as they both strapped on their guns.

Murdoch eyed the one on Johnny’s hip. “Do you think you’ll be needing that here?”

“Like you said, Murdoch, it gets pretty rough around certain parts of town.”

“The part you two are staying away from.” His face softened. “Cheer up, Johnny. You’re here to have some fun while you learn a thing or two. And you’ll find lots of pretty girls at the dance tonight.”

He did his best to make it look like he was looking forward to it all. “Sounds fine, Murdoch.”

Once they walked out the front door of the hotel, they turned left—away from the railway yards. Johnny wasn’t looking for trouble.

“We should look for a gift for Teresa,” Scott said, stopping to look at the window of an emporium that held fans and lace handkerchiefs and shawls.

Johnny made a face. “Let’s get a drink first and something to eat.”

“Girls like pretty things.”

“I didn’t saw we won’t, I just said let’s get a drink first.”

“You’re not going to be much company if you’re going to sulk the entire week. I didn’t do so well with Murdoch’s birthday present either remember.”

He sighed. “I know, Scott. It’s just that…” He waved a hand in the air then let it drop back to his side. He didn’t really know what it was. He just felt empty and fired up all at the same time. He’d left the rifle in the hands of James A Mumford. Left it there and his money with it. ‘A gift of love from his son.’ That’s what Tiffany Mumford had said. Well, it still tasted like dirt in his mouth. Sometimes, doing the right thing felt awfully like doing the worst thing. But what choice did he have? It still tore at him that he’d had the rifle back in his hands and he’d given it up. But how the hell was he meant to take it off old man Mumford, blind and in a wheelchair?

Course he wouldn’t have lost Murdoch’s Winchester if Mumford’s daughter had told the truth—that Mumford’s son had been a hopeless drunk and got himself shot and killed and his last words had been anything but love for his old man.

And it made Johnny wince just thinking about her saying that.

“I thought I might visit Trina on our way home. You could come. Maybe we’ll talk Murdoch into letting us do some hunting on our way back?”

He knew what Scott was trying to do so he tried to sound interested. “That sounds real good, Scott.” The thing was, Scott had every reason to be happy with helping that little girl. Murdoch would have been mighty proud of him if he knew. It was just the sort of thing Scott would do. But at least he didn’t feel like his arm was being twisted up his back when he gave the stereopticon to Trina. Not like Johnny did.

They’d come to a saloon across the way that looked a might grander than the one in Morro Coyo. They were about to step down off the board walk and cross the street when Scott grabbed Johnny’s arm and yanked him back just as a carriage swept around the corner. It was going way too fast for a busy street like this one.

“He think he owns the road?” Johnny straightened his jacket.

“He certainly owns something.” Scott pointed to a crest and a crown emblazoned on the door of the carriage. Inside they got a glimpse of a man about Murdoch’s age and a girl with blonde hair piled high. She seemed to catch their eyes as the carriage went past.

“If she’s at the dinner tonight this convention just got a whole lot more interesting,” Scott murmured, holding the heavy door to the saloon open for Johnny to pass through.

There were plenty of men inside but unlike The Red Dog, which was full of cowhands, the Golden Lady mostly served men in suits. Some wore rigs, but plenty didn’t.

The bar ran the length of the room with huge mirrors hanging behind it in gold frames. Scott ran a hand along the polished wood. “Walnut. Nice. What’ll you have?” he asked Johnny as the barman hurried across to them.

“Beer.” He didn’t have the heart for Tequila. “You got a menu?” he asked the barman. The man’s bald head was almost as shiny as the bar.

“Over there, son.” He pointed to a white board on the wall, with the menu painted in black. The board was the plainest thing he’d seen all day.

Johnny pushed his hat back. The menu was pretty plain as well. “I’ll have a steak.”

“Make that two.”

Johnny turned around and leaned his elbows on the bar while he waited.

Some folk were just eating or drinking but plenty were playing poker. There were a few empty tables towards the back. He nudged Scott’s arm and pointed to one then made his way across, tipping his hat to a saloon girl dealing cards at her table as he walked past. She gave him a ‘come-and-see-me-later’ look so he gave her a smile. It didn’t hurt to keep your options open.

“Madrid! Johnny Madrid.”

Johnny turned around slowly. He knew that voice but his hand went to his gun all the same. “Shorty?”

“In the flesh an’ looking flash.” He put a hand on each of the lapels of his suit jacket to show it off.

 Johnny started grinning. “Shorty McCall. What the blazes are you doing here?” He stuck out his hand, gripping the one offered back to him. “Last time I saw you was in…”

“Tucson, maybe? We were both working for that hombre, Valentine. You an’ me and Wes. You two still travelling amigos?”

Johnny shook his head. “No. Wes is dead.”

“Old Wes? What happened?”

Johnny rubbed a hand across his mouth. He hadn’t thought about Wes in a long time. What kind of friend did that make him? “You know how he never was any good at breaking horses.”

Shorty winced, like he was there watching it. “Poor old Wes,” he said softly. “And what about you, Johnny-boy? Who are you working for?” He had a look in his eyes that Johnny knew well, like he was calculating the odds.

“I’m not. And it’s not Madrid anymore. My father called me home. My name’s Lancer now, Johnny Lancer.”

“Here you go, Johnny.”

Johnny took the beer Scott handed him. Hell, he hadn’t been expecting to see Shorty. It made his head spin like he had a foot in two worlds. He could feel Scott’s eyes on them both.

“Um…take a seat and join us, Shorty. This is my brother, Scott Lancer.”

Scott nodded. “Pleased to meet you.” His eyes moved upwards. Shorty was a good two inches taller than Scott and lean as a string bean. “Nice name.”

Shorty grinned. He never showed his teeth. “It’s better than Aloysius.”

Johnny pulled up another chair with his foot while Scott sat down.

“You were married last time I saw you. How’s the fair Lucinda?”

“Turns out she weren’t so fair after all. Ran off with a Mex.” There was an edge to his voice as his eyes landed on Johnny. “She always did like that kind.”

From what he remembered, Lucinda liked any kind that wore pants and had deep pockets. “Don’t look at me, Shorty. I’ve never been in the market for another man’s wife.” He’d hauled her out of his bed and just about smacked her bare behind when he’d found her in his hotel room that night.

“She was always going on about yer, Johnny.” Shorty wiped up a drop of beer with his finger then leaned back in a lazy way. “Seems like you could no wrong, ‘cording to her.”

Johnny put his beer down. He could look lazy, too.

“It just shows how little she knows my brother though, doesn’t it,” Scott put in but Johnny noticed he’d put his glass down.

A piano started up in the corner but Johnny kept his eyes on Shorty. With a girl like Lucinda, you never knew what stories she might have spun and her kind of lies could get a man killed.

McCall leaned forward. “I’ll tell you one thing, Johnny; a wife can be a damned curs-ed thing.” Then he sat back in his chair looking like she’d led him some kind of dance before she left.

“Don’t know. Never had one.” Johnny took a swig of beer as he shot Scott a swift look. His brother raised his eyebrows at Johnny then relaxed a little further into his seat.

“Then you’re wiser’n me, Johnny. I’ve had me three of the damned things and not one of’em stayed the course.”

Well, he probably had about as much hope of keeping a woman as Val did. He sure didn’t know how to talk to them. It had only taken one ‘howdy’ and a smile from Johnny to have Lucinda running to his room. “So, you hired on with someone?”

“I’ve been working the King ranch for about six months now, about twenty miles south-east of here.”

“He had trouble?”

Shorty grinned. “Nope. That’s why I’m here—to make sure he don’t have any.”

“King?” Scott frowned. “I don’t think I remember that name last year.”

“You wouldn’t. He bought out a whole lotta smaller ranches the last couple of years. So, your old man is Murdoch Lancer then, huh?” Shorty looked like he only just made the connection.

“That’s right.”

“You’d better watch out, then. Your old man’s got competition. King’s aiming to make his ranch the biggest in the San Joaquin Valley.”

Scott shrugged. “We’re not competing with anyone, except ourselves.”

“That’s right.” Johnny leaned back in his chair. “It’s a sure way to go bust. It’s enough work to grow the feed you need and get your stock to market.”

“Well, listen to you, Johnny-boy. Ain’t you the young rancher now.”

Johnny grinned. “I tell you, it takes some getting used to.”

“Well, it ain’t the life for me.” McCall looked at Johnny and rubbed his ear with that same calculating gleam. “You must have slowed down some, now that you’re a rancher. No need to hone the …”

“What do you, think, Shorty? You want to try taking me on?”

“Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, I wouldn’t like to see you get hurt now, would I?” He grinned and got up to leave. “You seen Isham, lately? I heard he was in these parts.”

“Isham?” Johnny looked him in the eye. “I haven’t seen him in months.”

“McCall!”

They all turned to see an older man in vest and jeans calling to Shorty from the doorway. “That your foreman?”

Shorty gulped down the last of his drink then stood up. “Sure is. Gotta go. Be seeing you around, Madrid. I mean Lancer.” He winked, then walked away.

Johnny watched him leave then stared at his beer. Why would this ‘King’ hire on Shorty unless he was expecting some kind of fracas?

“You thinking what I’m thinking?”

Johnny looked up to find Scott watching him. “Now that depends on what you’re thinking, brother.”

Scott was wearing his thoughtful look. “I’m thinking this King sounds like trouble.”

“Yeah, well, men who aim to rule the world are always trouble.”

Chapter 2

They’d played poker then stretched their legs in the sun, walking past the state capitol building with its big white dome. Scott said they’d only just finished building it. Johnny whistled when he saw how big it was. “Will you look at that. You’re not going to bump into that on a dark night.”

They even took a ride on the horse drawn car that travelled along rails. Johnny had wanted to do that last time they were in Sacramento but Jelly wouldn’t get on it. Said he didn’t hold with new-fangled things. It sure was a smoother ride than bumping along in a wagon. He felt a bit like a kid, sitting on the wooden seats and watching the world glide by like that. He even forgot about Murdoch’s rifle—until they glided right by the store he bought it from on Front Street.

On the way back to the hotel Scott made them go into nearly every store they walked past. He said they had to get that present for Teresa. After the fourth one Johnny shook his head. “Uh uh, you’re not dragging me into another store.” He lifted his hat then dropped it lower over his eyes. “I’ll wait outside.”

And that wasn’t much fun either. The mercantile Scott went into was bang smack between a pickle factory and a cooperage. While he was waiting on the crowded boardwalk two wagons pulled by steaming draught horses pulled up at the pickle factory and that started a fight between the drivers about who should be seen to first. A stream of young boys rushed out and they were hollering and laughing and not helping matters any, ducking and weaving between the folks trying to get by.

Johnny wrinkled his nose and leaned against the lamp post, hooking his thumbs over his belt. The horse droppings all over the street he was used to but the stink of vinegar from the pickle factory was something else. The smell was bad enough at home when Teresa used vinegar to polish the silver and scrub the floor rugs and she even mixed it with olive oil to clean the furniture. Seemed like every other week she was wanting a barrel of the stuff from Baldermeros.

“Whoa, lady.” He reached out an arm and caught the elbow of an old dame in one of those hooped dresses you didn’t see so much nowadays. His other hand had a tighter grip on a red headed stick of dynamite that had been racing with the other boys. He’d bumped into the bird cage she was carrying and just about knocked her flying.

“Oh, mah goodness.” She put a hand over her heart. Thank you, kind sir.”

“Are you sure you’re okay, ma’am?” Her grey dress was wide enough to block half the boardwalk but the lady wearing it was just a slip of a thing.

“Why, I do believe I am, thanks to you.” She smiled up at Johnny from under her bonnet and he got a glimpse of faded eyes with wrinkles to match.  “At least I never need carry ma vinaigrette in these parts.” Her laugh was chirpy and high, a bit like the tweets of the tiny yellow bird she was holding in its cage.

Johnny grinned. “Ma’am, the smell’s strong enough to make a corpse sit up and notice.”

Once she was steady, Johnny let go of her elbow and gave the boy’s arm a bit of a shake to get his attention. “I thought you’d like to apologise to the lady.”

But the only thing the kid was interested in was the gun on Johnny’s hip

Johnny gave him a bit more of a shake and the boy’s eyes slowly travelled away from the gun and up to Johnny’s face, where they stayed for a bit with a sort of a wide-eyed wondering.

“Kid, the lady’s waiting.”

He gulped but didn’t really turn his head to look at her. “I’m real sorry, lady. Mister, are you—?”

“Go on…off you go, kid.” He gave him a bit of a push and sent him back to where the other boys were unloading a wagon of cucumbers. A kid jawing his ear off was the last thing he needed.

The old lady was peering at the bird in her cage. “I only just bought him from the menagerie store a few doors down. He’s the sweetest little thing isn’t he. Ma husband, Beaufort, why he just loved birds. We had an aviary just near the front terrace. You could hear them chirping away all day long. Of course, they’re long gone now. Long gone.”

“Ma’am, can I help you to wherever you’re going?”

“My goodness it’s been a long time since I had an offer from a handsome young man.” She patted his hand. “No dear. Atticus, my first born, and his family, why, we live up there.” And she pointed to the second floor of the mercantile Scott was in. “But we’re moving. Atticus says they’re opening up a lovely area by the capitol building. It’s become much too crowded and noisy in these parts.”

“Well, I can at least walk you to the doorway.”

“Oh my, that would make my day something special.”

“Let me take that for you.” She was so frail looking it was a wonder her family let her out on the street. He put out a hand to take the cage and then held out his arm for her to take. She’d pointed him to an alley that ran between the cooperage and the store.

It was only a dozen or so steps and they were there in no time at all. “Your cage, ma’am.”

“And who is that other handsome gentleman you’re with?”

Johnny started laughing now. “Ma’am, I think you’ve been spying on me. And he’s my brother.”

“Your brother? How interesting. But then the two of you did appear to be mighty close. Your father must be a fine man. Now, now, don’t take on so. What’s an old lady like me got to do with her time except watch the world go by.” A dimple appeared in her cheek. “I was sitting in the tea shop across the way when I first saw the pair of you. Something told me you were charming young men. And I was right.” She sounded very pleased with herself.

She thanked Johnny again and invited him and Scott to take tea with her while they were in Sacramento and then the old lady tottered off on her way and Johnny went back to his lamppost.

Finally, after watching all the people coming and going through the mercantile doors, he saw Scott come out, holding a long paper package.

Scott held it up like he’d won the pot. “Are you ready?”

Johnny eyed the brown paper in Scott’s hand and cocked his head. “It took you all that time to pick out one itty bitty present? What is it?”

“It’s a fan.”

“Well, what’s she gonna do with that?”

“What all ladies do—she’ll fan herself.”

“I mean what’s she gonna do with that one when she’s already got a fan?”

“Ah hah, but does she have an ivory fan with silk leaves and feather edging?”

Johnny shrugged. “I don’t know. You’re the fan expert.”

“No, she doesn’t. And she’ll have all the girls in Morro Coyo wanting one. Do you know the Queen of England herself said ‘No toilette can be considered complete without a fan.’”

He considered Scott. “I bet you knew a lot of fancy folk in Boston but I’m betting The Queen ain’t one of’em.” They stepped off the boardwalk and weaved their way around the droppings and passing traffic across to the other side.

“True.” He grinned. “The girl behind the counter showed me an article in the ladies section of the Sacramento Bee.”

They got to the other side in one piece. “Well, I guess I can’t argue with The Queen.”

“That’s right, Johnny.” He put an arm around Johnny’s shoulders. “Buying a present isn’t something to be taken lightly. You can’t rush into these things.”

“No-one could accuse you of rushing, brother.”

“The most important part of present buying is—research,” he finished wisely.

Maybe he had a point. Johnny and gifts had never had much luck. “What kind of research?”

“Here’s another mercantile,” Scott said, letting go of Johnny and walking around a lady wheeling her baby. “I’ll show you.”

“Hey, Scott.” Johnny had to wait for her to pass before he could follow and Scott already had one hand on the doorknob by the time he got there. “Hey, Scott!” He was just in time to grab Scott by the arm. “Oh, no you don’t. We just got Teresa a present.”

Scott pointed to the window. One section had kids’ games. “She might like a game of Battledore and Shuttlecock. I had that when I was a child. Teresa would love it.”

Johnny threw his hands up and stomped a boot heel on the boardwalk. “Oh no. Next you’ll be wanting to buy one for The Queen, seeing as you’re so chummy with her. And maybe something for Jelly. And what about Murdoch? I’ve seen what these shopping ‘expeditions’ are like with Teresa—it starts off she just wants to buy one thing and before you know she’s buying up half the store.”

“Johnny, just this one store. It won’t take me a minute to look inside.”

“Nope. I’m heading back.” He started walking. “You coming?” He turned around and kept walking a few steps backwards but Scott was still looking in the window. “Scott. Come on.” He didn’t really want to spend the rest of the afternoon by himself. A big city by yourself could be a lonely place. When Scott didn’t move he walked back the few steps he’d taken. Something just wasn’t right. Scott had his moments but he’d never been able to out-shop Teresa. He stopped by the mercantile window then pushed his hat back so that he could properly look Scott in the eye. “You wanna tell me what’s going on with you?”

Scott was beginning to sound annoyed. “What’s wrong with getting Teresa more than one present?”

“Well, nothing…” Johnny lifted his hat and scratched his head. “I guess.”

Scott sighed. “All right. I didn’t want to say anything because I know how disappointed you are about your special rifle and how rare it was to find it but I just thought while we were here that I’d look to see if I could find another stereopticon. For Murdoch.”

Johnny didn’t waste a second before he started grinning. “Oh boy, Scott, why didn’t you say so!”

“You don’t mind?”

“Course I don’t mind. If you’d told me we could’ve split up and checked all the stores in half the time.”

“You think so?”

“Sure.” Johnny looked at the sky. “We don’t have much time left today. I’ll tell you what, as soon as Murdoch gives us some free time tomorrow, we’ll go hunting. You an’ me.”

Scott was grinning, too. “Okay, you’ve got a deal. But while we’re here…”

“Okay, okay. But this is the last one today.”

The blonde behind the counter would have happily sold Scott the dress she was wearing she was so anxious to please him. It showed how much finding another stereopticon meant to him because he didn’t even seem to notice. She must’ve opened every box in the store just in case one was hiding in it but there was no stereopticon.

Johnny opened the door and they walked outside into the dusk. Twilight was falling and a lamplighter was on his ladder lighting one of the lamps that lined the street. In Morro Coyo you just had to stumble around in the dark. “How’d you find the first one, anyway?”

“Just by accident. I saw it in the window of a Chinese store. It was the only one they had.”

“Well, surely someone in this town’s got another one.”

Scott didn’t look hopeful. “I went into nearly every store in Sacramento last time looking for Murdoch’s present.”

Johnny whacked him on the arm. “That’d be all that ‘research’ you were doin.’”

Scott laughed. “I deserved that.”

Johnny looked around. “Well, we’ve covered all the stores up this end of town. Tomorrow we’ll try somewhere else.”

.

Scott had them back at the hotel bang-on six o’clock. A stream of people was making their way into the dining room. Johnny and Scott stood in the doorway looking for Murdoch. It was everything Johnny thought it would be; the ladies were in their best dresses, shiny silk and ruffles if your ranch was doing well or maybe just cotton if it wasn’t, but it seemed they all had their hair piled high and some sort of sparkling bauble at their throat. And there were so many colours it looked like a field of wildflowers.

The room was big enough for a herd to graze. There were chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and everyone was sitting on velvet chairs at round tables topped with stiff white cloths.

“Gentlemen.” Johnny looked around. A little guy in a suit with slicked back hair and a moustache was waving at them. He was looking a bit flustered. “If you don’t mind, good sirs.”

Johnny was about to tell him that he didn’t mind at all but then Scott nudged him. “He wants us to check our guns at the door.”

“Oh.” Johnny undid his gun belt and gave it to the man who then hung it on one of the hooks behind him on the wall. “You might as well take my hat as well. And my jacket.” The room was already warm.

Scott checked his gun and hat but left his jacket on, like almost everyone else in the room.

Murdoch was already seated when Johnny and Scott walked in. He waved them over to a table near the front and Johnny was glad to see it was filled with people he already knew. Henry was there, Joe Talbot, Aggie Conway. It was good to see familiar faces. Maybe the evening wouldn’t be as bad as he’d expected.

Henry grinned at him as he sat down. “What did Murdoch do to get you here, Johnny? He hogtie you?”

“I think it was the threat of spending a week working with Jelly that convinced him to come,” Scott said as he took his seat. They all laughed. Even Johnny joined in as the waiters started bringing plates of food around.

The talk around the table was all about who was going to be the new president and who they’d vote for.

“King’s got some great ideas, Murdoch. He’s a modern man. Says we have to look at change. The old ways won’t cut it anymore.” Henry glanced around the table like he was checking if anyone else was showing their hand.

Murdoch took a slow sip of his wine and looked at Aggie. “Is that what you think?”

“I’m not so sure, Murdoch. Change for the sake of change is as troublesome as not.”

Henry waved his fork at Murdoch. “Matthias King is a man who looks to the future. He says the railway is bringing farmers. There’s already been trouble around these parts. The farmers are shooting good stock, saying ranchers are trespassing on their land.”

Murdoch nodded. I know. I’ve heard.”

“King says we have to stand firm. Force them out if need be.”

“Henry, this country has just finished one war. I’m not aiming to vote for a man who wants to start another.”

“We have to protect our interests, Murdoch. King says this is only the beginning, that we have to strike before the whole valley’s overrun with farmers.”

“Well, I certainly don’t intend to vote for anyone who considers the only way to win a fight is with a gun. Have you seen the men King surrounds himself with?”

“He’s got Shorty McCall working for him,” Johnny put in, “and a few others.”

Aggie put a napkin to her mouth, then looked at him. “Do you know him, Johnny? Or any of them?”

“Sure. I’ve worked with McCall.”

“Are they trouble?”

“Oh, they’re trouble all right. They sell their gun to the highest bidder and don’t ask questions.”

Johnny looked across to where King was seated. So, this was the man Shorty was working for. King wasn’t a big man; grey hair that was thinning, a moustache you’d hardly notice, heck, he didn’t look any different than most of the other ranchers in the room.

He couldn’t see the lady who was probably his wife because of how she was facing but on his left was a girl about Johnny’s age. He couldn’t forget her.  She was one they’d seen riding in the carriage earlier. At that moment she caught him staring but instead of turning away she held his gaze for a second then her eyes moved onto the rest of their table.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the San Joaquin Cattlemen’s Association Annual Convention.”

The hubbub of voices and knives on plates died away as everyone listened to Marshall Banks, the president. Murdoch had told him his wife was dying and that’s why he was stepping down.

Banks’ voice droned on about this and that and Johnny joined in the clapping when everyone else did. Would he have agreed to take the thousand dollars for an hour of his time if he’d known he had to sit through nights like this? That day in Mexico seemed like another lifetime ago—and it was. But sometimes it felt so close he could taste the fear in his mouth. Poor Rodriquez..

Then he noticed Scott looking at him and he caught the word ‘competition.’

Scott thumped him on his leg under the table. “You listening?” he mouthed. Johnny looked back to the platform. Banks was going on about a generous gift. Everyone started clapping.

Then the breath caught in Johnny’s throat.

In his hand, Banks held a Winchester rifle. Even from his seat Johnny could see the blueish tint, and the scrolled engraving, the walnut stock.

It was a One of One Thousand.

The room was buzzing with voices and Banks had to call three times for order.

“This year’s competition will be in three parts; bronc busting, a horse race and of course, with a prize like this, a pistol shoot. We’ll accept one entrant from each ranch, so choose your best.”

The room started clapping again but Johnny couldn’t get his eyes off that rifle. Was it possible there’d be another One Of One Thousand here in Sacramento?

Aggie leaned across Scott and touched Johnny on his arm. “Didn’t Murdoch tell you they hold a competition every year?” She must have seen the look on his face.

“No, no he didn’t.”

“Well, you’ve only brought the two boys with you, Murdoch. Which one’s gonna enter?” Henry beamed at them both. “I’ve brought young Higgins with me. He’ll give either of your boys a run for their money on horseback.” He scratched his head and looked at Johnny. “Can’t say the same about the pistol shoot.”

Murdoch’s gaze took in both of them. “It’s up to the boys to decide, Henry. If they want to enter at all.”

Banks had put the rifle on a stand on a table. Johnny couldn’t believe he was looking at another One Of One Thousand. He could feel a flutter of hope beginning inside him.

“Johnny, what do you say?” he heard Scott saying.

“What?”

“I said I think you should be the one to represent Lancer.”

Johnny was ready to jump up and start the competition there and then. He couldn’t believe it. A One Of One Thousand. But he choked down his excitement. He was learning a few things about being in a family. “You sure? You’re the cavalry man. You must know how to race a horse.”

“Gentlemen, the book is open. Come and register your contestants,” Banks called out.

Scott’s mouth turned up on one side with a smile. He ruffled Johnny’s hair.

Murdoch was grinning at him. “Up you go, John, and do the Lancer name proud.”

He went to move, then checked. Maybe it wasn’t right him entering. “Murdoch, I was a professional,” he said under his breath. “Maybe…”

“I wouldn’t worry on that score,” Aggie said tartly and pointed. Sure enough, Shorty McCall was making his way up to the front to sign on.

“Johnny, they’re all professionals,” Murdoch said. “You’ll be up against men who break broncs for a living. Beating them will take some doing. Now go sign on.”

He bent down to Aggie as he passed. “You’ve got good hearing, Aggie,”

She looked pleased with herself. “How do you think I stay one step ahead of your father?”

A crowd was jostling around the table, a few old timers but mostly their age was probably closer to his. Some older, some younger. They all had the usual cowboy look; sun scarred faces, lean bodies and leathery hands. Yep, this was gonna take some doing.

Johnny felt an elbow in his ribs. “I guess we’ll find out now whether you’ve lost your edge Johnny Madrid. I mean Lancer.”

“That jokes gonna get real old, real quick, Shorty.”

“It’s no joke. I know who you are, Madrid. I know you better than all the good folks in this room. A name change don’t make no difference.”

Johnny searched his face. This was a new Shorty. And he didn’t like it. “What’s eating at you?”

But the grin was back on Shorty’s face. “Ooh, Johnny, still the same. I was just trying to get a rise out of you, don’tcha know.” They’d come up to the table now. “You first, Johnny-boy.”

Johnny picked up the quill. It didn’t feel awkward like it used to. And neither did writing the words—Johnny Lancer. He could feel Shorty’s eyes on him so he even added an extra flourish, just like he’d seen Murdoch do. He followed his name with, ‘Lancer Ranch.’

Once done he handed the quill to Shorty. “I’ll be seeing you, Shorty.” Then he sidled up real close to him. “I sure hope you’ve been practicing.”

.

The table had been cleared and all the plates removed when he walked back to their table.

A band had set up in the corner and already some couples were twirling around. He was glad Teresa wasn’t here or she’d be plaguing him to death about dancing.

Murdoch had got into a deep talk with some men Johnny didn’t know and Scott was over at the punch table talking to a passel of girls and that left him by himself and he didn’t mind one bit.

He walked out of the dining room, past the little guy minding the hats and guns, through the foyer with its vases of flowers and velvet seats and then wandered outside onto the boardwalk. The air was fresher out here, even if there was still some hubbub going on in the street, but he really wasn’t taking too much notice of it all.

There was a buzzing inside him and he couldn’t keep still—a few steps one way, a few steps back the other.

Truth was he only had one thing on his mind and that was the rifle up on the stage.

He was going to win it. He didn’t know how it got here or if it was even the same one that had ended up above James A Mumford’s fireplace.

But this time it was going to be his.

And he was going to give it to Murdoch. For his birthday. Just like he’d always intended.

Chapter 3

Scott remembered a few of the young ladies from last year so he went across to where they were milling around the punch bowl. Just to be sociable of course.

He was just about to make his hellos when a hand touched his arm. He’d only had a quick glance as the carriage went by in the street but it would be hard to forget the face he’d seen at the window.

He bowed in his best Boston manner. “Miss King, I believe.” And for a moment he thought he was in a Boston ballroom when he saw her dress of pale blue satin with a small train. “Let me introduce myself.”

“Scott Lancer. From Boston.” She raised a very pretty set of eyebrows. “You see, I know all about you. They still talk of your exploits east of the Mississippi.”

“You have me at a disadvantage then, Miss King.”

She held out her hand. “Amelia King, and I’m pleased to meet you Mr Lancer.”

It was a hand that had never churned butter or milked a cow, unlike most of Scott’s acquaintances nowadays. “Have you been out here long, Miss King?”

“I’m not sure, as that answer will depend entirely on how long I stay here. Time is a relative thing, don’t you think, Mr Lancer?”

“I think you’d get on well with my father. He enjoys being precise.”

She wrinkled her nose, making the two tiny freckles on the end of it appear to dance. “I’m not at all interested in meeting your father. He’s much too tall.”

“That seems a little harsh, don’t you think.”

“Would you like me to be even more honest than that?” Her smile was mischievous now and he laughed.

“No, I don’t think I want to hear what you think of my father. His excessive height is reason enough not to talk to him.”

“Good.” She slipped her hand under his arm. “I don’t like fathers. No, that’s not right, I just don’t like mine.”

Scott instinctively looked across to where he could see Matthias King talking to a group of ranchers.

“Ah ha,” she said, with a note of triumph. “You see. You don’t like him either, do you.”

He looked back to Amelia. “I don’t know your father. It wouldn’t be fair of me to cast judgement on him.”

“You don’t need to know him.” She sounded disinterested now.

“Could I ladle you some punch?”

She’d spread out her fan, very similar to the one he’d bought Teresa, and began fanning herself. There was no mischief in her eyes now. Only boredom as she looked around. If she’d been expecting the extravagance of a Boston ballroom she was bound to be disappointed.

Finally, she turned back to Scott. “Well, what shall we do. Shall we dance or something? I think that’s what they’re doing.”

Scott held out his arm. “It’s called ‘having a good time’,” he said gently, “but by all means.”

“Oh dear, that was horribly snobbish of me, wasn’t it?” She held her fan near her face so that all he could see was her eyes. She sounded apologetic.

“It’s no good. You’re not really sorry.”

She took her fan away and frowned, an angry furrow between her brows. “How do you know that?”

“You can’t hide a smile behind a fan, your eyes will give you away every time.”

She closed the fan with a snap and pursed her lips. “Oh, bother. Men out here are so odiously truthful.”

“But they’re very charming eyes, even when pretending to look sorry.”

Her mouth turned down. “I think my hazel eyes are dreadfully dull.”

“It’s not the colour that matters. It’s the life and the expression you can see in them that counts.”

She tapped his chest with her fan as she stared fully up into his face. “And what expression do you see in mine…Scott?”

Right now, he didn’t give a damn what colour her eyes were, not when she was standing this close to him.

“Hopefully it means you’d still like to dance with me…Amelia.”

“Gracious, yes.” Her eyes were laughing now. “I’m prepared to give you a thousand apologies for that honour.”

From the corner of his eye, he caught sight several men watching Amelia King as he led her onto the dance floor. He grinned to himself. Yes, it still felt good to be dancing with the most sought-after girl in the room.

.

Sometime later he came across Murdoch. The last dance had been played and the band were packing up their instruments. Most of the guests had left. Murdoch was always one of the last to leave. He and Johnny had become used to that. Johnny in particular. Scott would often find him kicking his heels outside, waiting for them to come out.

“Scott, are you ready to go up?”

Scott looked around. “Where’s John?”

“I haven’t seen your brother for some time. You know, Johnny.”

They said their goodbyes to the few ranchers who were left then headed upstairs to their rooms.

As they were walking up the stairs, Murdoch said, “You managed to entertain yourself at least.”

A pinch of irritation squeezed the back of his neck. “Is there something wrong with that?”

Murdoch’s look appeared to be one of genuine surprise. He clapped a hand to Scott’s shoulder. “Of course not. I’m glad one of my sons enjoys a social evening. I always enjoyed them myself. Your mother and I cut quite a figure on the dance floor.”

Scott grinned. “You didn’t step on her toes?”

“Are you telling me I’ve got big feet?” He chuckled in that deep throated way of his. “It was something I worried about, believe me. That was Matthias King’s daughter you were dancing with, wasn’t it?”

“Amelia. That’s right.”

“Pretty girl.”

“Yes.”

He said his goodnight to Murdoch and tried the handle on his own door. It was unlocked. The room was in darkness but he could hear the sound of someone sleeping from Johnny’s side of the room.

He closed the door behind him as quietly as possible, then stood there for a moment, watching the shafts of moonlight that peeped into the room through Johnny’s lazily closed curtains.

He wasn’t sure he could sleep, not when Amelia King’s scent clung to his clothes and he could still feel the warmth of her body in his arms.

Right now, he didn’t think he could ever sleep again.

.

Johnny stood by the door of their room, washed, shaved and ready for breakfast. “She sure must be something else.”

Scott tied his tie then studied his reflection in the mirror. Ignoring Johnny was his best move. Through the mirror, he could see Johnny behind him.

Johnny squinted in his direction. “Is that a drop of gravy on your jacket?”

“Where?” Scott’s eyes scanned the brown material. Damn it, he didn’t have another jacket with…

Johnny’s laugh pulled him up short. “Very funny,” he ground out.

“You don’t look like you got much sleep, brother. That always makes you grumpy.” Johnny opened the door for them.

“I’m not grumpy. You could have woken me earlier.”

Johnny shrugged. “I thought you’d like to sleep. So, who is she?”

He whacked Johnny in the stomach with the back of his hand as he walked out the door. “None of your business.”

Amelia King wasn’t at breakfast. Perhaps it was just as well otherwise he’d hear nothing but teasing from Johnny. All the same, he felt like a child who woke up Christmas morning to find not a single gift.

They chose their food from the breakfast buffet then moved across to where Aggie and the other Morro Coyo locals sat.

He even managed to greet everyone at their table with good grace as he took a seat next to Murdoch then started cutting up his bacon.   All anyone could talk of was the morning’s bronc-busting competition.

Henry eyed Johnny’s plate of eggs and bacon. “I hope you like your eggs scrambled, Johnny.”

Johnny grinned. “I do, Henry. I do.”

“I hear most of the money’s riding on my boy to win,” Henry told the table.

Aggie snorted. “Well, my money’s riding on my hand to win—and I’d imagine most ranchers are backing their own boy.”

“Don’t pay him any mind, Aggie.” Johnny gave Henry a knowing smile. “Ole Henry here’s just trying to whittle away at my confidence.”

Scott leaned towards Murdoch. “How good is Henry’s hand,” he said under his breath.

Murdoch held out his cup for a passing waiter to fill it with coffee. Once he’d swallowed a mouthful, he looked at Scott. “As good as they come.”

.

A good crowd had gathered around the corral at the end of town to watch the contest. The women held parasols or wore sunbonnets to protect them from the heat. Banks had organised men to sprinkle the dirt with water to keep the dust down so that everyone could clearly see the action.

Scott didn’t know where they got the horses from but they were as wild as any of the horses Johnny had caught at Lancer.

Henry’s boy, Will Jenkins would be up next. Right now, a grizzled hand who worked for the Talbots was on…no, he was off.

“Five seconds on the Talbot Ranch,” Banks, with chronograph in hand, called out, while another man wrote the time in a book.

Good, another one who wasn’t a threat to Johnny.

“Here comes Willie,” Johnny murmured.

The boy barely looked eighteen, he was all gangly limbs and bright red hair. The crowd went silent. Maybe they’d all heard Henry’s boasting?

Scott scanned the crowd for the hundredth time. Apparently Amelia wasn’t interested in bronc riding. He thought she’d said she was going to watch. Damn, her mother probably made her stay away as she wasn’t here either. But Matthias King was at the railing, with Shorty by his side.

A huge cheer went up from the crowd and when he looked he saw Will Jenkins already out of the gate, bouncing on an ugly bay bronco that jumped and bucked and reared just about every way you could possibly think of. Will didn’t hold his arms straight like just about everyone else, instead his whole body looked loose, as if could bend whichever way the bronc twisted. What really caught Scott’s eye was the way he used his spurs, from the point of the shoulder to the flanks of the horse. The way he used them made it almost impossible for the horse to pitch him off. “

“He’s good,” Johnny murmured. “Will you look at the way he uses his spurs.”

“I hate to say it, but there’s no way he’s going to get tossed by that brute.”

Right then, the bay gave an almighty kick with its back legs and Will sailed into the air as the crowd gasped. Will was coming down and the bay had already twisted away from him.

Will’s ride had been so darned good that Scott almost hoped he wasn’t tossed. “He’s going to hit the deck.”

And then Will landed in the saddle and the bay gave a fierce snort and pawed the ground and simply gave up and Will rode him around the corral as everyone clapped.

“Whooee, that was good riding.”

Murdoch came up behind them. “That was incredible riding.”

It seemed like everyone’s head was turned towards Banks and his chronograph. Once again the crowd went silent.

“Twenty-two seconds for William Jenkins. Up next is Johnny Lancer of the Lancer ranch.”

Johnny got down from the fence and began pulling on a pair of tan work gloves.

Murdoch slapped him on the back. “Just do your best, Johnny.”

“Johnny, all you’ve got to do is hold on for as long as possible.”

Johnny grinned at Scott. “I have done this before, you know.”

“I know, but this time you’re up against top hands; the five dollar a day hands who do this for a living.”

“I know, I know.”

“Just keep him away from the fence,” added Murdoch. They’d already seen two riders with broken ribs thanks to crashing through the railing.

Johnny nodded, giving a wave to the crowd as his name was announced.

So far Henry had been right. Scott had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach as he watched Johnny make his way to the chute. “Can Johnny beat Will?”

Murdoch rubbed the palm of his hands together like they were sweaty.

“I hope they haven’t given him a widow-maker.”

Scott put his feet on the bottom rung of the fence to get a better look. Johnny looked calm but wary as he gingerly dropped into the saddle. The big roan, at least the size of Murdoch’s horse, was already flicking its ears back and forth and pawing at the ground. Johnny breathed out slowly through his lips, once he was settled.

“Okay, let her buck,” Johnny said, gripping the rope with both hands.

One of the men yanked the jacket off the horse’s face while the other opened the gate and the horse exploded into the corral like every demon in hell was after it.

Up and up and up, it twisted and tossed and snorted and weaved, going ever closer to the fence as first its front hooves pawed the air and then the rear legs kicked up and out. Johnny’s arms were stiff, unlike Wills’, but he was working his spurs as he did everything he could possibly do to stay on and tire the bronc out.

“That one’s a brute.” Scott clenched teeth his teeth.

Murdoch had his watch open in front him. “But he’s doing well, Scott. That’s a fluid ride.”

And it was, too. It was as if Johnny’s body was synchronised with the horse. As the horse crashed down, so did he, as it rose, he soared, but never too far as to be still in the air when he needed to be coming down.

If was graceful, yet bone jarring. He could see the sweat on Johnny’s face, the concentration in his eyes. Up down, twist, up down, turn.

“Fifteen seconds,” said Murdoch.

Henry’s boy had stayed on twenty-two seconds and hadn’t been thrown.

“Eighteen,” called Murdoch.

The crowd was cheering and hollering but Scott doubted if Johnny could hear anything.

“Nineteen.”

And Scott just couldn’t stay quiet. Soon he was yelling with everyone else. “Stay with him, Johnny. You can do it!”

“Twenty seconds.”

And then before the words were even out of Murdoch’s mouth, Johnny was soaring through the air. Scott winced as he landed with a thud, chest first on the ground. He rolled straight away to avoid the wildly flailing hooves, then dived headfirst over the fence, somehow managing to land on his feet, gulping for air, next to Scott.

“Whooee, did you see…that beauty…fly?”

“You did well, Johnny.”

“Twenty seconds by my calculations Johnny. Good work.” Murdoch handed him a canteen of water.

Johnny was covered in dirt and his face was red with rivulets of sweat running down his temples. He took a swig then tipped his head back and poured some water across his eyes before wiping his face with the bandana Murdoch passed him. “How many more to go?”

Scott looked at the board. “Six.”

“This’ll be tight.” Murdoch scanned the list of names. “They’re all good hands.”

Another six to go. Scott still felt tense but now that Johnny had ridden he had a chance to look around. As he’d expected, there was no sign of Amelia King but he felt sorely disappointed all the same.

As they watched each rider plummet to the ground he could feel himself getting more and more restless. He just wanted the whole thing to be finished; he barely noted their time.

“That was a good ride.” Johnny sounded worried as another rider hit the ground. Scott shook his head. He had to get his mind off Amelia and focus on what was happening, for Johnny’s sake.

“What’s wrong?” Johnny was staring at him.

“Nothing. It was a good ride.”

Johnny looked satisfied. “Shorty’s up next.”

It was easy to put Amelia out of his mind now as McCall swaggered up to the gate. He was probably the biggest threat to Johnny winning the competition.

He could feel Johnny at his side, watching McCall as intently as he was.

“So, what is it between you and McCall?”

Johnny didn’t take his eyes off McCall as he mounted. “We go way back.”

“That’s it?”

“Here he goes.”

Scott turned to see McCall and his horse burst out of the gate. He was good. Scott could feel his gut twisting. ‘Fall, damn you,’ he muttered under his breath, as McCall’s horse twisted and turned and threw its head. Was it his imagination or was this horse less wild than the one Johnny had ridden?

“He’s going,” said Johnny, in a tight voice.

Scott didn’t think so. McCall was coming down into the saddle…but at the last moment the black twisted and McCall had nowhere to go but down onto the dirt. He rolled like Johnny had and made for the side while one of the riders caught the horse.

It had been a good ride but surely not enough to take second place?

Murdoch was shaking his head, though. “It will be close for second and third. At least two other riders did a similar time to Johnny.”

Johnny shrugged but when he met Scott’s eyes it was clear he was worried, too.

Banks came out and stood in the middle of the corral.  “Third place, with fifteen points, goes to Jack Thompson.”

Everyone clapped but Scott could feel the churning in his stomach.

Say Johnny’s name next!

“Second place goes to…” Banks looked around with a grin, like he was enjoying the attention.

“Second place goes to…Johnny Lancer. He’s collected twenty-five points.”

Scott barely heard Banks announcing Will Jenkins as the winner. He was too busy slapping Johnny on the back. “Second place, that’s great Johnny.”

“Well done, son.”

Johnny nodded and looked pleased but Scott could see he still didn’t know for sure if that rifle was going to be his. The pistol shoot was probably a sure thing but not the horse race. Barranca was fast but he hadn’t been trained for racing. At least Johnny had height and weight on his side. Some of the cowboys competing today had been a lot taller, not that any of them carried too much of a paunch.

A few people were coming up to Johnny and slapping him on the back. Shorty McCall wasn’t one of them—but his employer was.

“Murdoch Lancer.” King held out his hand. “Your boy did well.”

“Thank you, Matthias. I don’t believe you’ve met my sons? This is Scott. And Johnny.”

“Of course, we’ve still got two events to go. I rather like the look of that rifle. I’ve been trying to get my hands on one for some time.”

“They’re a beauty all right, aren’t they.”

“Have you thought about the election, Murdoch?”

“Yes, I’ve been giving it some thought. I haven’t decided anything as yet.”

“Ahh, you’re a man after my own heart, Murdoch. We’re both thinkers. We like to shape our destiny rather than have it shaped for us. Am I right?”

“Well, Matthias, I’d like to say you were right but if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that a man can’t be in control of everything that touches him but he has to make the best of the hand he’s dealt.”

“You disappointment me, Murdoch. As for myself, I play to win. Always.”

“And that’s your prerogative.”

Murdoch was about to make his excuses when King said, “Take this competition, for example. Your boy’s good but he can’t beat McCall. McCall’s at the top of his game.”

“Well, your man has ground to catch up. He didn’t place anywhere in today’s event.”

King waved a hand in the air. “It’s not important to win all three. It’s like life, Murdoch. It’s where you finish that counts.”

“I assure you, King, I won’t lose a wink of sleep over this competition, whether we win or lose.”

“And how do you feel about losing your stock to the farmers? How do you feel about the government forcing you to fence your pastures?”

“I admit, that’s something I’d be loathe to do.”

“Then vote for me, Lancer.”

Murdoch put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder and then Scott’s. “My boys and I will have to think about that. We’re equal partners in our ranch.”

A flash of surprise tinged with something that could have been scorn showed in King’s eyes. It was a pity this man was Amelia’s father.

“How very egalitarian of you, Lancer. I believe it’s become quite fashionable in foreign circles.”

Murdoch’s grip on their shoulders became that little bit firmer and Scott exchanged a swift glance with Johnny.

“I don’t know about that but it suits my boys and I just fine. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

As they walked away, Johnny muttered, “Trust Shorty McCall to work for an old buzzard like King. You aren’t gonna vote for him, are you Murdoch?”

Murdoch stopped and looked across to King who was swooping on other ranchers. “I…we…will vote for whoever is the best at serving our valley.”

“Men like King don’t serve anyone but themselves.”

Both he and Johnny followed Murdoch’s gaze to where King was clearly doing his best to charm Aggie Conway.

Something uncomfortable was settling in Scott’s stomach. He had a feeling his life was about to become complicated.

Chapter 4

“You think a shining coat will make him go faster?”

Johnny looked up on hearing Scott’s voice. Scott had walked across the field to where Johnny was preparing for the beginning of the race.

“It can’t hurt,” he called back, watching Scott duck under one of the branches of the oak tree that Johnny stood under. “Well, howdy, brother.” Johnny grinned at Scott, then turned back to brushing  Barranca’s neck.

“What’s your plan? It’s a good distance.” Scott squinted through the leaves to the road, as if he was seeing in his head the route Johnny had to take. “More about endurance than speed.”

“Barranca’s steady but he can finish strong. I won’t take him out too hard.”

Johnny looked around the field at the edge of town. Everywhere he looked he could see a rider preparing his mount with another half dozen men around him who looked to be giving their advice. Henry was giving Will an earful. The kid seemed to be standing there, taking it all in pretty calmly, but when he saw Johnny looking his way he grimaced with the side of his mouth that Henry couldn’t see. Johnny gave him a thumbs-up sign.

Scott followed Johnny’s gaze. “I hope you’re not fraternising with the enemy?”

Johnny tossed him the curry brush and grinned. “Are you?”

The look on Scott’s face could’ve frozen half of Lake Tahoe. Maybe all of it. He gave Scott a whack on the arm. “Hey, Scott, I was just kidding. Heck, I don’t care about you and Amelia King. The pair of you looked real pretty on the dance floor last night. Everyone said so.”

“And does ‘everyone’ have nothing better to do with their time than pay attention to what I’m doing?”

Johnny rubbed the back of his neck. He was going to have to be careful with his words. In the end he said, “I guess folk are always looking for something to talk about. Not as if it means anything.”

Scott took a deep breath. He shook his head, looking off into the distance before he blew the breath out again. “I’m sorry, Johnny. I thought I was done with this sort of foolishness when I left Boston.”

Johnny pushed his hat back and squinted at Scott. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t seen Scott in this mood before. “Well, brother, from what I’ve seen folk are pretty much the same no matter where they live, it’s only the doodads they wear on the outside that make a difference. Boston, Morro Coyo…Sacramento. You really think they’re so different?”

Scott looked at the curry brush in his hand like he was thinking about throwing it. “No. No difference.”

Johnny took the brush off him before he did throw it, maybe at Johnny. “You might as well accept it, brother. Grumbling won’t change anything.”

Some of the straight-backed soldier had gone out of Scott as he leaned against the tree trunk. He would’ve liked to ask Scott just how serious he was about Amelia but, no, another quick look at Scott said this probably wasn’t the time. Scott could be awful uppity about some things, especially when it came to women. But what was Scott expecting—that no-one would notice him dancing with Amelia two nights in a row and pouring her punch and putting her lacy shawl about her shoulders as the Kings were leaving the room?

He hadn’t even gone shopping with Johnny in the afternoon yesterday like they’d planned, to look for a stereopticon. Scott said Amelia wanted to see around town and would Johnny mind? Of course he didn’t mind. Not as if he wanted to trudge in and out of stores again. Besides, Murdoch had been hoping one of them would go to the meeting that afternoon so he’d followed Murdoch in and sat beside him and listened as they talked about water rights and fencing and farmers and tried to keep his eyes open.

He still had the brush in his hand, so he tossed it under the tree near Scott’s foot. And just as he did that, a bugle horn sounded. He’d have to be heading over to the start line. “Anyhow, the way I see it,” he ducked under Barranca’s neck to tighten the girth strap, “it don’t matter a lick to me who Amelia’s old man is. And I’m pretty sure Murdoch would say the same thing.”

“I’ve never questioned your taste in women, Johnny, or Murdoch’s. And I expect the two of you to do the same for me.”

“Hell, Scott, what’s put a burr under your saddle. Isn’t that just what I said?”

“Boys, how’s everything going?”

Johnny twisted his head to nod to Murdoch. “Okay. I’m almost ready.”

 Murdoch put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder as Johnny did up the buckle. “Fine day for the race. Perfect conditions.”

“Fine day for some,” Johnny murmured under his breath.

“You’re right, it’s a good day, Murdoch.” A quick glance showed him Scott coming forward. He sounded like a man who’d made a decision. “I think Johnny’s going to do well.”

Johnny finished checking the girth strap. When he swung around Scott was holding out his hand. “Best of luck, brother.”

Johnny took Scott’s hand. “Thanks.” It looked like the sun had come out again for Scott. Just as well. Johnny didn’t want to be going into the race with any bad blood between them.

Murdoch was walking around Barranca with an experienced eye. “I see you’ve lightened your saddle as much as possible. How many left in the competition?”

“Eighteen,” Scott said. “We lost three in the bronc busting.”

“Good.” Murdoch nodded.

Johnny started grinning. “Murdoch, you’re not meant to smile because some of the competition got tossed and broken up.”

“What? No. No, I didn’t mean that.”

Scott was shaking his head. “Murdoch, I would never have taken you for being so callous.”

Murdoch started chuckling. “Nothing like a competition to bring out the worst in man. You’d better mount up, John, or they’ll be starting the race without you.”

Johnny undid his gun belt and passed it to Murdoch, took his hat off and tossed it to Scott, then ran his eyes over Barranca one last time before swinging into the saddle.

Murdoch looked up at him once he was in the saddle and patted Johnny on the leg a few times. “Just do your best, Johnny.”

“Don’t rush him. Let him settle into his stride,” Scott added.

Johnny grinned and gave them a quick salute before urging Barranca over near the cattle yards. As he got nearer he could see two kids holding a length of rope that was stretched across the road as the start line. Further down the road he could see red flags had been placed to mark out the route they had to take.

It looked like half the town had come out to watch. A few wagons were still lumbering along the road and someone was yelling at them to turn onto the grass. Ladies carried their parasols and it looked like every kid in Sacramento had skipped school to come and watch.

Johnny leaned down and ran his hand along Barranca’s neck as they headed across. “It’s you and me, Barranca. You’re gonna show’em how fast you can run.” Barranca tossed his head and snorted and Johnny laughed. “You’re too clever for your own good, you know that. Just make sure you go the right way. We rode it this morning, remember?”

His hands felt sweaty, like he didn’t have a good hold of the reins. Dios, he wasn’t as toey as this yesterday before the bronc-riding contest. He wiped his palms along the leg of his pants as he walked Barranca across to the start line.

Think Johnny. You’ve gotta get this right. Start at the cattle yards, head out of town past the last of the houses and then we’ll be riding alongside open fields. Don’t forget to go around the big oak where the road forks. That’s the half-way mark. Take the fork to the right, keep your tempo even, then we’ve got a big arc, almost a circle, along the track through the forest before coming out on the road back into town. It had to be about three miles? Maybe two and a half? Barranca could do it. He had a good long stride so he’d cover the distance easier than some. It wasn’t as if they were up against thoroughbreds. The rules said they all had to be working horses.

“Hey, Johnny,” young Will called to him, as did a few others. He was in amongst the other riders now as they made their way to the start line.

Barranca was arching his neck and prancing around, like he knew he was on show. Johnny eyed his competition. The smaller ranches simply had their best work horses. They’d have good stamina but not necessarily a lot of speed for a race this distance.

Shorty McCall rode up alongside Johnny on a big black with a glossy coat. The saddle with its silver trimmings would have been worth more than Shorty could make in a year. It was fancy but it wasn’t light. They weren’t allowed to use different saddles but Johnny had taken as much weight off his that he could. No rifle, no bedroll, no saddlebags. King should have known that less weight would be better. “You riding the boss’s horse, Shorty?”

Shorty grinned “I just might be at that. King aims to win.”

“So I’ve heard.”

Shorty eyed Barranca. “Pretty horse—but looks ain’t gonna work for you this time, Madrid.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he stared at him. “Just what are you getting at? What the hell does ‘this time’ mean?”

“Those big blue eyes don’t work on me, Madrid. Let’s see if they can win a race for you though, huh?” The big black lurched as Shorty dug his spurs into its side. He threw Johnny one last look then rode off to take his place at the start. Johnny watched him jostle his way in until he’d pushed his way into the front line.

Johnny frowned after him. First Scott, now Shorty McCall. What the heck was wrong with everyone today?

He clicked Barranca on and they walked up to the start line. There were too many horses to line up in one row but Johnny wasn’t too worried—he just made sure he stayed behind young Will and Shorty. And if some unknown buck had a fast horse and could shoot the centre out of the ace of spades, then maybe the rifle would be going to them. But boy, he hoped not.

All the horses were jostling now at being crammed in so close together. A quick look to the right and he could see Murdoch and Scott by the side of the road, standing with the rest of the crowd.

“Good luck, Johnny,” Murdoch called just as everyone started yelling out to the riders. Scott yelled something that he couldn’t hear, the kids yanked the rope out of the way and then Banks fired his pistol above the din and they were off.

Barranca was pulling from the very start, wanting to get in front of the other horses. He’d caught the nerves in the rest of the bunch. But Johnny held him steady. They had a long way to go yet, and he wasn’t aiming to make the mistake of going hard early and being too blown to finish.

The thud as their hooves hit the dirt seemed to calm Barranca down but this many horses kicked up a heck of a lot of dust. The bunch had its own dust cloud everywhere they rode which meant there was no chance of anyone looking out for holes or rocks on the road.

Already at least eight riders were ahead of them and Johnny and Barranca were sitting in the next bunch but a quick look around showed him he was with the older riders and most of them looked like they could have been out on a Sunday ride. One scrawny old-timer next to him on a bay had his hat crammed tight on his head and was still chewing away on a plug of tobacco. He winked and grinned as he caught Johnny’s eye like he was having the time of his life.

Something lifted inside Johnny that he hadn’t felt in a long time. Was there anything better in life than racing a horse? Barranca was loving it. His ears were back, his mane was blowing towards Johnny like heads of wheat caught in the wind, and his gait was so smooth Johnny could have been astride a train, steaming its way to Denver. It was almost as loud as travelling on a train; all the horses were breathing hard and their hooves made a heck of a din as they pounded the road. For a second he almost didn’t care about the race. He was back in Mexico, riding free, with no fences to mend or steer to round-up or…or …a One of One Thousand to win back for Murdoch.

Dammit, Johnny. What the heck was he doing? Did he want to win this race?

He looked around. Where was Shorty? Maybe he’d played it too safe and hadn’t gone out hard enough? What if they were too far in front and he couldn’t catch up? Nope, that wasn’t possible this early. He hoped not at any rate. But one thing he did know, he wasn’t going to kill his horse to win a race. No matter how much he wanted that rifle. “Stay with’em, Barranca. We can do this.”

Another quick look around showed him the bunch he was with had begun to thin out. The tobacco chewer was still neck and neck with Barranca but they were both now at the front of only six riders and up ahead he could see Shorty on the big black and Will on his roan. They were galloping hard but Johnny and the bay were clearly gaining on them.

He kicked Barranca on a little harder and his stride stretched out that little bit more. His rhythm was easy and his breathing was noisy but not laboured. Johnny could already see sweat on his neck and flanks.

“Come on, Barranca, you’re doing just fine.” Will and Shorty were only one length away now and just up ahead was the oak tree that marked the halfway mark.

With every stride, they were gaining on Will and Shorty and Barranca was having the time of his life. Johnny wouldn’t be able to haul him to a stop right now, if he tried. Johnny started to feel a bit better about things; he could just about reach out and grab hold of the tail of Shorty’s horse. Shorty looked over this shoulder and didn’t look too pleased about what he saw. Johnny grinned at him and waved. No way was McCall beating him today.

Johnny wanted to be first to the tree. If he could take the inside he’d gain a few yards. He urged Barranca on, but not fully giving him his head. “Not yet, boy.”

But Barranca was flying. They galloped past Will and Shorty, took the inside line around the tree and then past the tree and onto the road that led through the forest.

Only they weren’t alone. Damn. The old-timer and, well that was a surprise, it was Bob Watts from the Conway ranch, riding by his side. Bob was riding a chestnut Murdoch had haggled over with Aggie a few months before. And wasn’t it just like Aggie to keep it quiet that Bob was riding that horse. They must’ve ridden up to the start line at the very last minute. Ooh, Aggie’s horse was a real threat.

Johnny looked behind as the three rode neck and neck with each other. The road twisted and turned through the trees but he couldn’t see anyone following them, yet. And definitely no sign of Will or Shorty McCall. So much for King’s boast.

But now it was the chestnut gaining ground on every stride. It was a bigger horse than Barranca, sleek and beautifully proportioned. Murdoch had fumed for days when Aggie tricked him out of buying it.

Johnny flattened himself as much as he could along Barranca’s neck. He could feel Barranca straining to be free. “Not yet, boy. Soon.”

Barranca was head to head with the old-timer and they still had a way to go through the trees but he could sense the chestnut was fresher. He was gaining on Barranca every few strides. Soon he’d be an entire length ahead.

Johnny kept his eyes on the chestnut. He could feel the old-timer right by his side. He had to wait for the perfect moment to give Barranca his head.

Half a mile to go. The trees were a blur as they went by but it was good to be in the shadows after the heat of the sun. Sweat was running into Johnny’s eyes and Barranca’s sides were starting to heave as his breathing got even louder.  The veins were standing out on his neck but his rhythm was still strong. Barranca’s head and the bay’s were moving like pistons, one up, one down, one up, one down, each with manes streaming behind them and ears pinned back.

Johnny squinted ahead. Could it be? Dios, yes! All of a sudden, the chestnut wasn’t gaining ground. This was their moment. “Okay, boy, let her rip.”

He could feel the joy in Barranca as he surged ahead. This is what he’d been waiting for the entire race. Only thing was the old-timer’s horse must’ve felt the same because he lifted his speed as well.

By Johny’s calculations, Barranca just had to place to give him every chance of winning the rifle. He’d got twenty-five points for coming second in the bronc-busting and you got fifty for coming first. If he could even just place in every round he couldn’t lose because it was unlikely anyone else could do that. But he had to get a place.

They’d be out of the forest soon and would sweep back around onto the…

A horse was coming up behind him. He looked over his shoulder and couldn’t believe it—the rider was Shorty McCall. He’d been out of sight since back at the tree and now he was neck and neck with Barranca? It just didn’t seem possible. Where the hell had he come from?

The last of the trees passed by and they burst out of the forest into sunshine.

Shorty was crouched low over the saddle. He didn’t look at Johnny as now the three of them rode side by side. Barranca was giving his all but did the black seem fresher?

The three of them were gaining on the chestnut. Dios. It was gonna be close.

Now Johnny could hear the yells of the crowd over the thud of the hooves.

A hundred yards to go. Fifty.

“Come on, Barranca. Come on.”

The chestnut was in front by no more than a head but Johnny and the other two were still dead even.

He urged Barranca on with everything he could…the crowd was screaming…the chestnut was in front…the finish line was coming up…and…Johnny held his breath as all four of them soared across the finish line.

All four horses continued down the road. Barranca was wet with sweat, his sides heaving. Johnny gradually brought him to a walk but he had to work to stop his hands from shaking. Dios, he was about to explode with a million questions.

Did they get a place? He had no idea who won or who didn’t. There could only be a nose in it.

Bob Watts came alongside, his face covered in dust and streaked with sweat, probably like Johnny’s. He held out his gloved hand. “Good ride, Johnny. That was some race, huh. Who won?”

“Wish I knew!” Johnny slapped his hand into Bob’s. “Well done, Bob. Aggie won’t stop grinning for weeks.”

The old timer on the bay shook hands with him as well, still chewing, but Shorty had already ridden back to the start line. All the horses looked as spent as Barranca. They’d given their all—but one of them had to be the winner. But which one? Johnny’s gut was churning.

As the three of them rode back towards the finish line, Murdoch and Scott rushed up to him. “That was a great ride, Johnny.”

Uh oh, that wasn’t sounding good. He swung down, not expecting his legs to feel a bit shaky. “Where did we finish? Who won?”

Scott winced. “They gave you fourth.”

“By a whisker,” added Murdoch.

“And first?”

Scott and Murdoch looked at each other but it was Scott who answered. “King’s horse.”

Johnny dropped his head. “Where did he come from?” He tried to sound calm but he was just so damned angry.

“Who Johnny?”

“McCall,” he growled. “One minute he’s nowhere to be seen and the next he’s flying past me.”

Murdoch and Scott looked at each other. “I don’t know, son. We couldn’t see much. Only the last two hundred yards as you came round the bend.”

Johnny took a deep breath. People were milling around everywhere. Banks was pinning a blue ribbon on the black’s bridle. And then he caught McCall’s eye and he didn’t like what he saw. Everything inside him screamed to grab McCall by the throat. But he couldn’t do that. Not to Murdoch. Not with all his ranching friends around.

Aggie and Henry came across and they both praised Johnny for his ride. But how could he be sure what McCall had done? Was it possible he’d won fair and square? So, he stood there, holding Barranca’s reins but it was like he was seeing everything through a curtain; one side was people smiling and laughing and cheering and on his side there was nothing but pain and a fury that was tearing up his insides.

Fourth, he’d come fourth. And after Barranca had given his all. He rubbed the creamy neck. “You did good, boy. Real good.”

“That’s an impressive horse you’ve got there.” Johnny gritted his teeth without turning around. Of all the people he didn’t want to see right then, Matthias King was the top of his list.

“So was yours.” He turned around to face King. “Almost unbelievably so.” He managed to keep his voice even but he flicked a knowing smile, well, maybe it was more like a snarl, in Shorty’s direction. He was surrounded by girls with parasols over near the starting line, only they were more likely oohing over the horse than Shorty. He’d never been ogled by women, much.

“I didn’t have you pegged as a sore loser, boy.”

“He isn’t.” Murdoch came and stood by his side. “Are you, Johnny?” Murdoch looked down at him with a smile that clearly said, ‘We’ll talk about what’s bothering you later.’

“Nope, not when I know everything’s above board and fair and square.”

King nodded. “Just so. You have fine sons, Murdoch.”

They started talking about ranching and it was all Johnny could do to stand there. He shrugged at Scott, who wasn’t saying much, either. He just wanted to head off and get Barranca rubbed down and watered. Well, he could explain everything to Murdoch later. “I’ll just go and—.”

“Oh, he’s beautiful.” Amelia King ran up to Barranca. She was all decked out in purple, the kind of watery purple you saw in the sky at dusk, right after rain. She ran her gloved hand down Barranca’s nose, then looked at Johnny, putting her other hand to her neck like she was breathless. “It was so close. I thought you were going to come second or even third.” She looked at her father, then back to Johnny. “I almost cheered for you.” As far as confessions went, it was probably the sweetest one he’d ever heard. Scott sure was lucky. How the hell did King end up with an angel like her?

 “I’d love to own him. Would you consider selling him?”

“Barranca?” He didn’t mean to snap but it was like being run through the gut with a hot poker. “He’s not for sale.” Murdoch was looking at him with a question in his eyes and he tried to dampen down the thing that was trying to swamp his insides. “Sorry.” It was the best he could do.

Amelia shook her head. “No, it’s me who’s sorry, that was silly of me. Of course you wouldn’t want to part with him. I can see that now.”

King had started walking around Barranca like he was on show at an auction. Boy, he’d love to smash King’s face with his fist.

“My daughter is very keen on your horse, boy. Name your price.”

Murdoch put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “King, my son has given you an answer.”

“I’m not selling my horse. Not for any price.”

“Nonsense. Everyone has a price. I’ll give you twice what he’s worth and the extra you can spend on…well, whatever it is you boys like to spend your money on.” King actually took his billfold out of his jacket pocket. The man was unbelievable.

Johnny took a step towards him. “Are you deaf, King? He’s not for sale.”

“Johnny, it’s just an offer,” murmured Scott.

He could see Scott wasn’t saying that for King’s benefit. Some of his anger, not all of it, seeped out when he saw the look on Amelia’s face. “If you’ll excuse me, ma’am, I’ve got a horse to water.” He took his hat back from Scott and put it on his head. When he looked around, Murdoch was holding out his gun belt. “I’ll see you back at the hotel, Murdoch.”

“All right, son.”

He slung his gun belt over his shoulder then walked away, leading Barranca.

He’s not for sale..he’s not for sale…he’s not for sale…It’s not for sale.

The rifle just isn’t for sale.

He stopped short and scrunched his eyes shut, only opening them when Barranca nudged his shoulder.

Dios, maybe this whole thing was driving him crazy?

He started walking again but he was still stuck behind that curtain.

“Damn you, Tiffany Mumford. Damn you to hell.”

Chapter 5

“I’m so sorry, Scott. I spoke without thinking. It was just a horse. I think you’re angry with me?”

“Not with you, Amelia.”

He’d been looking out for her all morning, and thanks to Johnny and Matthias King, when Amelia finally appeared, she’d been embroiled in an argument.

And why couldn’t Johnny just shut-up for once? No, that wasn’t fair. Johnny must have been disappointed about not placing in the race and Scott was personally ready to punch King in the face for going on and on about buying Barranca. And Johnny seemed to think that Shorty had cheated somehow? No wonder Johnny was on edge.

“Scott?”

When he looked down, Amelia’s eyes were searching his face from beneath her bonnet. Her words sounded sincere, unlike anything that came from her father’s mouth.

“Amelia, it wasn’t just any horse—it was Johnny’s horse.” Hopefully that sounded gentle, rather than scolding. “And if it was ‘just’ a horse, why did you ask if you could buy him?”

“I don’t know.” She looked away and shrugged, giving him a glimpse of creamy skin as the lace at the shoulder of her dress slipped a little. “It was beautiful and I like beautiful things. I collect them. Is there anything wrong with that?”

“Didn’t anyone teach you that you can’t have something just because you want it?” And what he wanted this moment was to put his lips near the top of her shoulder, where her dress had shifted.

“Probably. I don’t know. It’s a silly conversation. I don’t want to talk about it anymore. It’s made everyone cross. Your brother, our fathers. Even you, Scott.”

“I’m not cross…It’s just that…”

She pursed her lips, then tugged one end of the satin bow under her chin like she wanted to pull the entire ribbon off.  “It’s just that my father was odiously rude. Do you really think I wanted the horse after your brother made it quite clear he didn’t want to sell? Is that what you think of me?”

“Amelia, of course not. I’m sorry, too, that Johnny wasn’t more polite to you.”

“Oh, I don’t give two figs for that. Can we talk about something else? I did promise you a picnic, remember. The basket is in my carriage. But perhaps you’ve forgotten?”

He clapped a hand to his forehead. “The picnic. How stupid of me.”

She slapped his arm. “Don’t be mean, of course you remembered. And now you’ve made me do something unladylike and my mother would be horribly cross if she saw me.”

He laughed and they started walking towards her carriage. Things felt easy between them again. It was one of the things he liked about her. “You don’t speak about your mother very often.”

“There’s very little to say, that’s why.” She took her bonnet off as she walked, then shook her hair so that it fell in waves down her back. The creamy white skin on that strip of shoulder was looking more and more tempting. “But it’s interesting watching you and your brother together. Have I told you I like studying people?” She tilted her head and considered his face. “You’re both so unalike.”

“Different mothers…different upbringings.” He said the words lightly. Johnny’s story wasn’t his to tell.

“I can see you both in a Gothic story. You would be the hero of course, while Johnny would be the dark and mysterious brigand, who terrorises our young, naïve heroine.”

“The sensible Amelia King reads Walpole or Radcliffe?”

“And what self-respecting romantic doesn’t read them? And I assure you, no woman wants to be called sensible. It’s the first rule of all romantics.”

“I beg your pardon. And I can assure you, Johnny’s no brigand who terrorises young women.”

“But he is dark and mysterious, and he has that deliciously violent past. I’m quite terrified of him.”

“You’ve no reason to be.”

Her eyes widened. “Scott, I’m only funning. Of course I’m not really afraid of him.” The teasing look was back in her eyes. “He’s much too handsome for that.”

He withdrew his arm. “Perhaps you’d rather it was Johnny you were walking with?”

“I can assure you, I didn’t spend an hour looking through my dresses to decide which would be the perfect one to wear for Johnny’s sake.” She took a firm hold of his arm again.

“Oh? If it wasn’t for Johnny’s sake then…?” He looked around. “It must have been for all those horses you’ve admired. Lilac is very becoming.  I’m sure all the horses appreciated your choice.”

“I’m sure they did.”

“What a pity I’m the only one left to appreciate it now.” He looked around. “All the horses have gone home.”

She stopped walking and turned so that she was almost in his arms, with her face uplifted to his. “And just how much do you appreciate my choice?”

There was only one thing in the whole world he could appreciate right now with her lips that close to his.

“Scott?”

“I appreciate your choice very much, Amelia.” He murmured the words but even murmuring was difficult to get out when her eyes were looking at him like that.  “Very, very much,” he murmured again, his head leaning closer to hers. Was anyone watching? Did he care? All he could see was…

“Stop!” He’d only caught sight of the boy at the last minute but side-stepped just in time before the child barrelled into him. Then he had to grab the child’s arm to stop him running into Amelia. Could the boy’s timing have been any worse? “You need to look where you’re going.” He sounded angrier than he meant to. The child would only have been seven or eight, or perhaps an undersized nine.

“What d’you mean? You got in my way. Lemme go.” The wild cat tried to twist and turn away from Scott’s grip. His feet were bare and his shirt was too small and it was just as well he wasn’t wearing boots or he probably would have tried stomping the heel on Scott’s foot.

“Calm down. Just calm down. No-one wants to hurt you.” Scott waited until his squirming stopped then let go of his arm. “I just wanted to check you’re all right?”

The kid nodded, but his eyes were wary beneath his shaggy black hair. “Can I go now?” He growled like a wild cat, too.

“Yes you can—but watch where you put your feet next…”

The child ran off. It looked like he was chasing after four bigger boys over in the field.

“You saved my life, Scott.” Amelia laughed but she looked annoyed, hopefully for the same reason he was. “Well, my dress at any rate.”

Scott took a deep breath. “That was an…unfortunate…interruption.”

“I think I have a stronger name for it than that.” She was laughing at him now. Oh yes, she knew exactly what he was thinking.

Scott held his arm out again. “Come on, we’d better find your picnic basket.” The day was suddenly turning brighter; and who knew what a picnic under the seclusion of one of the big oaks in the field might bring?

Only when they got to her carriage, not the enclosed one that nearly ran Johnny down but an open buggy with shiny leather seats and gold trimmings, her mother was in it, waiting for her. She put her parasol down as they arrived.

“Mr Lancer.”

Her greeting was hardly warm but Scott bowed his head, “Mrs King.” He’d been introduced to her by Amelia last night. She was a good deal younger than King. The likeness between her and Amelia was quite noticeable. She had the same wide mouth as Amelia and thick blonde hair but Amelia was lively and tended to say exactly what she thought. Mrs King appeared to say very little at all from what he’d seen.

He took the basket from the buggy then walked what was hopefully, a respectful distance away. It was clear from the undertone of their voices Amelia didn’t want him to hear what was being said. But it wasn’t hard to catch the gist of it—and it looked like their picnic wasn’t going to be a private affair. Of all the rotten luck.

Amelia came over to him just as he caught sight of the urchin again over by some trees. He’d caught up with the older boys he’d been chasing.

“I’m sorry, Scott.” Her voice was tight. “My mother thinks the perfect place for our picnic is over there.”

He looked to where she pointed. It was under a tree but her mother couldn’t have found a more public spot if she tried. Damn, damn, damn.

“You must remind me to thank her.”

“Oh, Scott.” Amelia burst out laughing. “Isn’t it just awful of her. And she’ll be watching us the entire time. What are you looking at?”

One of the older boys had pushed Scott’s urchin to the ground. If he wasn’t with Amelia, he’d—.  “Nothing, come on, let’s have our picnic.”

He spread their blanket in the shade under the tree. He was sure Mrs King’s eyes were boring into his back the entire time. Amelia sat down, arranging her skirt until it sat just right. It was funny, she was particular about some things but she’d yanked at her bonnet strings without a second thought.

Scott was about to sit down as well when he saw his wildcat walking towards them. Only there was little about the wildcat in him now. His head was almost on his chest and he rubbed his eyes a couple of times as he walked with the air of someone who didn’t care where they went.

Amelia was still busy taking their picnic food out of the basket.

“Would you excuse me for a minute, Amelia. I won’t be long.” He didn’t wait for her answer as the boy had started running again.

“Hey!” The child half-turned and slowed down but didn’t stop. “I don’t want to hurt you. I’ve got something for you.” The boy stopped now but he had the look of a wild colt ready to run. As he got closer, Scott could see two grimy tear marks on his cheeks. “Are you good at catching a ball?”

“Some.”

Scott walked closer. “What about something smaller…like a quarter?”

Scott was close enough to see the flash of interest in the boy’s eyes. “I don’t know. Mebbe.” The last word had a hopeful edge to it.

Scott fished some coins out of his pocket and picked out a quarter. The boy was only a few feet away now. “Do you think you can catch this?”

The boy’s eyes were glued to the coin but he shook his head. “Uh uh, my mama says I ain’t allowed to take money from strangers.”

“I don’t want anything for it. I’m just here having a picnic.” He pointed to where Amelia was setting out their food under the tree.

The boy took a step closer but he still looked ready to run.

“My name is Scott. Scott Lancer. I’m a rancher from Morro Coyo. You know where that is?”

“Nope.”

“Do you remember my name?”

“It’s Scott Lancer.”

“Good, then I’m not a stranger if you know my name, am I?”

“I guess not.” He started to smile but his eyes still said, ‘I don’t trust you.’

Scott held up the coin then flipped it into the air. The boy was fast. He stuck out both hands but he fumbled. The coin rolled to the end of his fingers and headed for the long grass at his feet. Scott winced. Well, if they couldn’t find it, he had another.

But the boy didn’t give up. He scooped down again and caught the coin with one hand, just under his knees. Scott watched him flip his hand over and stared at the silver coin in his palm. He didn’t look up at Scott for some time and when he did, his eyes were huge.

“Oh boy, you didn’t lie. It’s a whole quarter.”

Scott winced. “No, I didn’t lie.”

The boy turned it over in his hand, then held the coin up to the sun as if he was trying to see through it.

“It’s for you to spend. Just you. So off you go, and don’t tell those other boys what you’ve got it, or they’ll try and take it off you. Okay?”

The boy looked to be in a daze. “Thanks, Mr Lancer. Thanks a whole bunch.” And then he ran off in the direction of town.

He’d forgotten about Amelia for the moment but thankfully when he walked back she was busy setting out wine glasses and plates for their picnic fare.

She passed him a bottle of wine and a corkscrew as he sat down on the blanket. “Would you do me the honour?”

He was busy attacking the cork when he heard her say, “I saw what you did.”

He fingers stopped what he was doing for a moment. He had a horrible feeling his face had gone red. He finished uncorking the bottle and took the wine glass Amelia was holding out to him. Their eyes met and he smiled at her between pouring the wine.

“For you,” he said, holding out her glass.

Only she didn’t let go of the glass as her fingers touched his.

What was she up to? “Amelia,” he said, about to laugh, but when he looked there were tears in her eyes.

“You really are a hero, aren’t you, Scott Lancer.”

Chapter 6

Johnny walked out of the livery then pulled his hat lower to shield his eyes from the sun. Right now, what his mood wanted was the gloom of the stall where he’d stabled Barranca. What he wouldn’t give right now to grab Shorty by the scruff of the neck and go a few rounds with him.

He put his hands on his hips and looked around. Sacramento was crowded and smelly and just plain loud.

What the hell was he going to do? Scott was probably off romancing Amelia—at least that’s what he should be doing if he had any sense. And Murdoch would be waiting to hear what Johnny had to say back at the hotel. It would have been hard to miss the ‘we’ll talk about this later’ look on Murdoch’s face after the race.

The race.

He scrunched his eyes shut. Damn it all, had he made a fool of himself with King? It wasn’t like him to let someone like King get under his skin so quickly. And it wasn’t making things easy for Scott, either.

He crossed the street, dodging the horse droppings and a wagon loaded with timber. It was probably headed down to the river end of town where they were shoring up the sidewalks to change the street level.

But right now…did he want a drink? Maybe something to eat? He wiped his hand across his mouth as he walked along the boardwalk. Truth was, he didn’t know what he wanted to do. If he went into a saloon, there was a good chance he’d be expected to talk about the race and that was the last thing he wanted right now.

He’d gone over and over the race in his head as he stabled Barranca and none of it made any sense where Shorty McCall was concerned. There was no way the black could have caught up to Johnny and the others when he was nowhere to be seen once they’d ridden around the oak tree. He’d talked to Will while they were in the livery together—not asking him outright if McCall had cheated—but Will’s horse had put his foot in a hole and almost fell. Will had had to dismount and check the foot and by the time he got to the finish line there wasn’t another horse in sight because he was dead last.

Could Shorty have swapped horses? King would have needed a matched pair here in Sacramento to get away with that. It was possible but…well, it didn’t seem all that likely. A move like that would take a heck of a lot of planning.

But what if Shorty had simply cut across through the trees and come out near the bend at the end? He would have shortened the distance from the oak tree to the finish line by at least a third that way. There’d been a big gap between the first four horses to finish and the rest of the field and that would have made it easy for Shorty to come out of the trees on the road just behind Johnny with no-one any the wiser. The trees were thick there and every rider would have had their eyes on the road in front. Less distance travelled would make the black that little bit fresher, enough to give Shorty a winning edge.

But could Johnny prove any of this without sounding like a sore loser? What would be worse—losing to Shorty or sounding like the kid who cried when he didn’t win? Well, Johnny had lost a heck of a lot of times in his life and he’d only cried once that he remembered. He damn well wasn’t about to add to that tally now.

Johnny ambled on, only stopping to let a lady pass in front of him who came out from one of the stores. Her arms were full of brown wrapped parcels and she had a little girl by her side, chewing on a stick of liquorice.

First.

Shorty had come first.

That gave him fifty points to Johnny’s twenty-five with only the shooting round to decide who wins. Whoever made up the rules had made the shooting round worth the most points at seventy-five. So even if he drew with Shorty in the last round, Shorty would win the rifle because that would give him a hundred and twenty-five points and Johnny would only be on a hundred.

Could he beat Shorty? Johnny winced. Back in the day, when they were riding together, he would have said he could beat him with his eyes closed…but now? Shorty was still in the trade while Johnny spent his days wet-nursing cattle. Sure, Johnny still practised but was his edge still there? Truth was, now that his life didn’t depend on his gun in a fracas, he had no way of knowing if he could take Shorty down in a contest.

He was beginning to curse the whole damn competition. That first night, when they announced it, well, it seemed like it was meant for him. That someone, somewhere, was smiling at him and giving him the chance to make up for everything Tiffany Mumford had done.

It was going to be his first real gift to Murdoch. Why was it that every time he tried to buy Murdoch a gift, something went wrong? Last year he’d had the ruckus with Wilf Guthrie, then this year he’d bought Murdoch the rifle and he managed to mess that up as well. Boy, did he feel stupid giving Murdoch that silver L, especially after he’d spent that whole trip with Jelly polishing the stock and telling him all about it and how pleased Murdoch was going to be. He’d seen the whole thing in his head; Johnny giving Murdoch the Winchester and…well, he never got too far past that point because he could never think of exactly what it was he wanted to say. What do you say to the man who saved your life? Who took you out of the dark and into the light? And that was what the One of One Thousand was going to say—all the things Johnny couldn’t put into words.

“Whoa!”

There she was again, the bird lady with the hooped dress, outside the mercantile. And he nearly knocked her down as she came out the mercantile store door and into his path. He took hold of her arm and led her across to the store window and out of the way. “Ma’am, are you okay?”

“Oh, ma goodness, we do seem destined to meet, don’t we, young man.”

“It sure looks that way.” He let go of her arm and tipped his hat. “Johnny Lancer, at your service, ma’am.”

She held out one of her tiny, gloved hands. “Esther Mayberry, and I’m happy to make your acquaintance.”

She was such a little thing, even in her hooped dress. Johnny looked around. The boardwalk was crowded with cowhands and businessmen. “It’s pretty busy out here, ma’am, do you want me to see you to your door around the corner?”

“Why, thank you for such a kind offer, Mr Lancer, but I’m actually on my way to drink tea at the tearoom across the street.” She tipped her head to one side, making the fringe on her straw bonnet jiggle. “Do you drink tea, Mr Lancer?”

“My sister, Teresa, makes it from time to time. Mostly I’m a coffee man.”

“Of course you are. My late husband, Beauregard, was a coffee man as well.”

Johnny looked at the street. As usual there was a steady stream of wagons and carriages and riders travelling both ways. “Ma’am, you’d best take my arm if you aim to cross the road.”

She swapped her blue, drawstring purse to her other hand and took his arm. “Why, Mr Lancer, how gallant of you.”

Her steps were slow and he had to put a hand up to slow down a buggy that was travelling way too fast, but they made it to the other side in one piece and he led her to the tearoom door.

“There you go, ma’am.”

He was ready to walk away when she said, “It’s been such a long time since a handsome young man took tea with me.”

Johnny started to grin. She was a wily old dame. He pushed his hat back off his face. “Ma’am, are you trying to get me into that den of iniquity? I’ve heard all about what you tea drinkers get up to.”

Her face went pink as she laughed. “Why, Mr Lancer, you see right through me. I must be losing my touch. May I call you, Johnny?”

“Miss Esther, seeing as you’re trying to corrupt my moral fibre, you might as well.”

He had a quick look through the tearoom window. It was packed full of old biddies with sour faces sitting at small round tables. No way was he going in there. No siree.

“Mis Esther, I’m sorry, ma’am…I…”

His big mistake was looking down into her eyes. They might be faded and crinkly but she still knew how to make a man feel guilty if he turned her down.  “Miss Esther, you’ve sure got that look down pat, don’t you. Now how in blazes am I meant to say no to you?”

She simply patted his hand. “You’re not, my dear boy. You’re not.”

Well, there was nothing for it. He opened the door, then followed her into the crowded room and as soon as the bell above the door tinkled,  pretty much every head turned their way.

“Smile, my dear boy, you’re being ogled,” Miss Esther said under her breath as Johnny followed her to a table in the middle of the room.

He grinned at that, then made a big thing of pulling out her chair, like he’d seen Scott do one time when they were both trying to court Minnie Taylor.

Miss Esther looked around the room, nodding to the other women in their fancy bonnets like she knew them all. “Ladies.” Then she thanked Johnny and took her seat like the grand dame she probably once was.

Johnny leaned down to her ear. “Miss Esther, is that the way you always greet the other ladies when you come in here?”

“Oh, no child,” she whispered back, “I only did that today because I know how jealous they all are that I have such a handsome escort.”

Johnny grinned at her. “My old man should’ve warned me about women like you.”

He was about to sit down when he remembered his hat. He hooked it on the hatstand by the door and was about to take his seat when he heard, “Ahem.”

Miss Esther’s eyes were resting on the gun at his hip.

“Oh, this. Sorry, ma’am.”

He started to undo his gun belt—but something made him stop and look up. Sure enough, at least half a dozen faces quickly turned away, like mice scuttling back to their holes when you lit a lamp in a dark room.

He grinned to himself, finished undoing his belt, then left it on the stand with his hat.

Miss Esther ordered tea and cake for them both, then said to Johnny, “Now, I want you to tell me all about yourself and that fine-looking brother of yours that I saw the other day.”

“You don’t beat around the bush, do you Miss Esther.”

“Well, Johnny, I like people and I like to hear their stories. And I’ve always been…some might call it ‘obtrusive’ but I like to say ‘curious’. When I was a girl, my mother, bless her heart, told me it was very unbecoming in a debutante. But my Beauregard told me he liked my ‘enquiring mind’ the very first time I laid eyes on him. We had fifty-two wonderful years together, and he never once complained that I asked too many questions.”

Johnny grinned. “And did you? Ask too many questions, I mean?”

She frowned. “Now you’re being impertinent.” But she quickly laughed. “Oh my, yes, the man was a saint. Enough about me.” Her eyes twinkled. “As I recall, you were about to tell me about you.”

And that made him laugh. “Well, there’s nothing much to tell. Scott’s mother died when he was born and my old man got married again and they had me.”

She waved a finger at him. “That’s only half the story. I’ve heard your brother talk. He’s from the East,” she added, tapping her chin with her finger and looking at him like he was a puzzle that had to be solved.

Johnny moved his hands off the table; a waitress holding a tray in one hand was trying to put his teacup in front of him. Miss Esther helped her and in no time the table was covered in cups and a plate of cake and a teapot and more plates. All the china had little blue flowers on it, just like the set Teresa used at Lancer when visitors came calling. Miss Esther poured milk in the bottom of her cup but Johnny shook his head when she offered milk to him. She prattled on about giving the tea time to draw in between whispering particulars about some of the women who sat nearby. And it was just as well they were all talking too loudly to hear Miss Esther tell him how many husbands they had or how much whisky their son drank. It was going to be a very long afternoon.

He was just stirring some sugar into his tea when he heard her say, “Boston would be my guess. Where your brother is from.”

“That’s right, Miss Esther. Scott’s grandfather took him back to Boston and my mother took me back to Mexico when I wasn’t much more than a baby. Murdoch couldn’t find me and I grew up in border towns, pretty much on my own and,” he hadn’t been sure if he should add this part, “I ended up being a gunfighter.”

“Ooh, my, my, how exciting,” she said, then took a sip of her tea as if he just told her he worked in a bank.

He smiled at that but then shook his head. He didn’t want to lie to her or make it sound prettier than it was. He already liked her too much for that. “I’ve killed men, Miss Esther. I think…I think there was a lot of hating in me back then.”

“Oh, Johnny, people rarely hate for no reason. They’re either taught it from the time they’re young, and it’s bred into them, or they learn it the hard way, because of how they’re treated. A young boy alone, in those border towns I’ve heard so much about…why, it can’t have been easy.”

“Well, it wasn’t all bad. I kinda liked being on my own. No-one to answer to.” He swirled the tea leaves in the bottom of his cup, watching some of them try to cling to the side before the liquid washed them back again. “But I did plenty of bad things.” And why the heck was telling her all this? He remembered talking to a padre one time; one kind look and Johnny had spilled his guts to the old guy.

She leaned forward and patted his hands. “Johnny, I’ve met killers before and you most definitely are not one of them. You see, I know because…”

She put her cup down but it rattled on the saucer. Her hand was trembling.

“Miss Esther?”

She’d closed her eyes and pressed her lips together.  “I’m sorry, Johnny. I haven’t spoken of this very often.”

“And you don’t have to now.”

She took a handkerchief from the blue satin purse she had on the table.

“We were travelling by stagecoach, not long after we moved out here. It was held up by bandits and Beauregard, well,” her eyes misted over, “Let’s just say he died, like the Southern Gentleman he was, trying to protect me and those other poor souls.”

“I’m so sorry, Miss Esther.”

She pressed the handkerchief to her eyes first and then that little nose.

“So, you see, Johnny, I know what’s in the eyes of a killer.” She reached across and touched his cheek. “And that’s not what I see in your face.”

“Your Beauregard…” Johnny took hold of her hand as she laid it on the table, “he must have really been something.”

Miss Esther nodded, like you do when you know words will only bring tears.

Then she pulled her hand away and started pouring them both another cup. “Now, Johnny, drink your tea before it gets cold.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She brushed a few crumbs from the white tablecloth then pushed the plate of cake towards him. “Oh my.” She started to laugh, dashing away the hint of tears at the corner of her eye. “Aren’t we just the saddest pair. Let’s talk about something happy. A lady should never cry when she’s with the handsomest man in the room.”

Johnny looked around. “Miss Esther, I’m the ‘only’ man in the room.”

“And that just proves how right I can be, sometimes.”

Johnny picked up his cup and took a bite of his fruit cake. “Okay, I can tell you something that’s happy. After all those years in border towns, look at me now.” And sometimes it was still hard to believe, “I’m part owner of a fine ranch, I’ve got me a brother and a sister and…”

“And what, Johnny?”

Talking to Miss Esther, he’d almost forgotten about everything that had happened that morning.

He shook his head and sighed. “And that’s why I wanted the rifle for Murdoch.”

Miss Esther was like that tiny bird of hers, hunting for seed. When he looked up her head was cocked to one side and her eyes were asking a hundred questions. “What rifle?”

Somehow he ended up telling her all about Tiffany Mumford and her tricks to take the One of One Thousand—except finding her in his tub—and then he told her about the competition and how badly it was going. And the more he told her, the more his heart felt like it was about to bust open. “So, you can see why I’ve got to get that rifle for Murdoch. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything as bad as I want that Winchester.”

“Johnny, from what you’ve told me, your father sounds like an exceptional man and he’s not the man I think he is if he needs a rifle from you to tell him you care.”

“I know that, but…”

“No, Johnny, I don’t think you do. Not really. A gift is helpful in saying what’s in your heart, but it doesn’t say everything.”

“Maybe I don’t know what to say,” he mumbled, staring at his cup.

“My Beauregard gave me some beautiful presents but when I think back over those fifty-two years, the gold rings and pearl necklaces don’t hold first place in my heart. They’re long gone now, in any case. No, I think about the little things, the laughs we shared, the difficult times we got through together…those last words we spoke before going to sleep at night.”

“But that’s the point, I’m not too good with words. I’ve let my gun and fists do most of my talking up to now.”

“Johnny, your words sound just fine to me.”

He leaned forward and pushed away his tea cup. “The thing is, how am I supposed to thank Murdoch for not kicking me out when I stood with Warburton against Murdoch; or for sticking by me when Barker tried to pin a murder on me…or…” he waved a hand about the air, “or a hundred other things?”

“Johnny, I’m not saying gifts aren’t important—I’m trying to say it’s not the size of the gift that counts. Sometimes, it’s the simplest gift of all that wraps itself around your heart; it’s the one you can’t put down.” She smiled and traced the pattern of the beads on her drawstring bag with her finger. “The gift you carry with you,” she added, in a soft voice.

Now that he looked at it, the satin was faded and the edges of the little blue bag were frayed and the drawstring ribbon had definitely seen better days.

Scott had said the Stereopticon he’d bought Murdoch was a real gift—from the heart. He shook his head. “I don’t know, maybe the Winchester wasn’t the right gift after all. I told Murdoch I’m not too good at picking out gifts.”

“Johnny, I’m sure your father will treasure any gift you give him, especially one that means a lot to you. And I can see how badly you want to win that rifle for your daddy but all I’m saying is he won’t be disappointed if you don’t. Do you think, after all those years of not knowing if you were alive or dead, that he gives two hoots about a rifle? He’s not the man you say he is, if that’s the case.”

Johnny closed his eyes. Everything she said made sense but it didn’t kill the ache in his heart for the Winchester.

The sound of a chair scraping the floor made Johnny look around. “Do you think they’ll be kicking us out soon?” They’d finished their tea and the plate of cakes was now only a few crumbs. All the other tables were empty, except one where a tall woman with a nose like an eagle’s was still slurping away on her tea.

“That’s Hortense Mortimer, the biggest gossiper in town,” whispered Miss Esther.

“Ma’am, I hope supping with me won’t make anyone gossip about you.”

“Oh, Johnny, how disappointing it would be if they didn’t. Surely taking tea with the famed Johnny Madrid is something to be talked about.”

Johnny sat back and stared at her. “You knew who I was all along? Why you sneaky…”

“Now, now, Johnny, ah told you I’ve got nothing to do all day and with all you cattlemen staying this end of town…well, people talk. Especially as everyone’s going to watch you in the competition tomorrow.”

“They are?” Dios, that was something he hadn’t thought of.

“I’m sorry, perhaps I shouldn’t have told you that—but child, the shooting contest tomorrow is the talk of the town.” She took the napkin from her lap, folded it, then placed it on the table. “I believe,” and she lowered her voice, “some people are even betting on the outcome.”

He stood up and helped her out of her chair. “I hope a lady like you isn’t planning on wasting her money.” He wasn’t entirely sure how much Miss Esther cared for conventions. “Are you aiming to watch?”

“Johnny, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Johnny insisted on paying and then he made sure she got safely back across the road. Her steps were slower this time, as if she was tiring, but her smile was still bright as he led her to the door at the side of the mercantile where she lived with her son.

“Thank you, so much Johnny. I do declare, this has been the finest afternoon I’ve had since I lost my Beauregard.”

“Miss Esther, you’ve made the sun shine for me, too, on what was a pretty dark day.” He took off his hat and held her hands with one of his. “May I?”

He was about to kiss her hand but…

“Oh my.” Miss Esther pressed a hand to her cheek where he’d kissed her, then looked across the road to the tearoom. “I do hope Hortense Mortimer was watching.”

 Chapter 7                                     

Johnny pulled the lace curtain back in their hotel room and looked down at the street below. The lamp-lighter was out there again, lighting the streets of Sacramento so that good folk could travel in safety.

There were still people out on the streets, locking up businesses, going home for the night without a care in their heads. Nope, that wasn’t true. Life was full of cares. He’d yet to meet a man who could scoot around them.

He stood there for a while longer, looking at nothing in particular. Then he started to notice he was rubbing the tips of his fingers together on his right hand, where the skin was smooth. Old habits. Dios, he was full of the jitters tonight. That wasn’t like him, Johnny Madrid, good at his trade.

Johnny Lancer. Murdoch Lancer’s son.

Behind him, Scott was humming something in snatches. He let the curtain drop and walked across to him. They were meant to be meeting Murdoch down in the dining room but Scott was taking so long, supper would be finished before they got there. Scott didn’t even have his shirt on yet.

Scott was in his britches, standing over the pitcher of water and scrubbing his face like he wanted it to shine like a newly-minted gold piece. Well, at least one of them had something to sing about. Scott had come in all bouncy after his afternoon with Amelia and he’d been humming ever since.

Johnny leaned against the wall near the washstand just as Scott’s hand started feeling the table like a blind man. Johnny took the towel off his shoulder and tossed it at Scott’s face. “Is this what you’re looking for, brother?”

Scott disappeared behind the towel as he wiped the soap and water off his face. “It is indeed,” he said, once he came up for air.

“You’re in a good mood.”

“That’s because I had a very pleasant afternoon.” Scott looked in the mirror then started towelling his hair where the ends were wet. “What about you? What did you do?”

“Oh, nothing much.” Johnny picked up the hair brush on the stand, running his fingers over the bristles.  “Oh yeah, I took tea in the tearooms with a bunch of old ladies.”

Scott laughed. “Okay, if you don’t want to tell me how you spent your afternoon, that’s fine with me.”

Johnny walked back to the window. Nothing had changed down below. No, the lady in the dress shop across the way was locking her door. The wind had picked up a bit and she was having to hang onto the ends of her cape while she jammed her key in the keyhole. He couldn’t tell how old she was from over here but…

“Johnny.”

When he turned around, Scott was standing there with the towel over his shoulder and his hair sticking up every which way. “The hairbrush.” He stuck out his hand.

Johnny tossed it over with a grin. “I thought you might be trying a new look for the fair Amelia.” Scott was back looking in the mirror, brushing his hair down, turning this way and that to make sure it was sitting right. “Well don’t you look…”

“Don’t say it.”

“I was just gonna say…”

“I don’t want to hear it, whatever it is.” Scott threw a warning glance at Johnny then grabbed his white shirt from the back of the wooden chair near the washstand.

Johnny took a few more steps about the room. His spurs jingled. Would Murdoch expect him to take them off? He probably should but it seemed like a whole lot of effort for one supper.  He went back to the window and peered down again.

“Johnny, you’ve been pacing like a caged mountain lion the whole time I’ve been getting ready.”

He looked across at Scott. “I guess I don’t like being cooped up in fancy rooms and I don’t want everyone else eating their fill before we even get down there. You are planning on eating tonight, aren’t you, brother?”

Scott did up the buttons on his white shirt. “Don’t be so impatient. And can I have my tie back before its unwearable.”

Johnny looked at his hands. Sure enough, he’d somehow picked up Scott’s tie in his wanderings. “Well, what d’you know.” He grinned again and handed it over.

Scott tossed him the hairbrush in exchange. “Here, you might as well use this yourself.”

Johnny went over and stood beside Scott who was back at the mirror tying his tie. They both wore white shirts and their faces had that shiny just-scrubbed look. He dragged the brush through his hair a couple of times. “Well, ain’t we a pretty pair.”

“So, do you want to tell me what’s bothering you?”

Johnny’s hand slowed as his eyes met Scott’s in their reflection. “No.” Then just as quickly, “Yes.” Then, “I don’t know.” He finished brushing his hair then walked away but he knew Scott was watching him.

“Can I have my brush back before you pull out all the bristles?”

“You’re no fun, brother.” He tossed it back again without looking. Life had felt a whole lot simpler when he was just plain Johnny Madrid, beholden to no-one but himself.

“Are you worried about the competition tomorrow?”

 “Nope. It is what it is. I either beat Shorty or I don’t. Simple as that.”

“I can’t argue with that logic.”

Scott took his jacket from the wardrobe and came across to stand near Johnny.

“If it’s not the competition, then what is it, Johnny?”

Scott had that big-brother look on his face, very like the one he used warning Johnny not to get into trouble, only kinder somehow. It always made Johnny feel obligated to answer, that he was just plain mean-spirited if he didn’t. It wasn’t really playing fair in Johnny’s book. He tucked his hands under his belt at the waist and took a breath, trying to sort out his thoughts, whatever the heck they were. “Are you still planning to look for a Stereopticon for Murdoch?”

He could see the question took Scott by surprise. Hell, it took Johnny by surprise.

Scott looked at him, like he was trying to figure out how Johnny had read his mind. “It’s funny you should ask that—I was just thinking about it last night.”

“So, are you?”

Scott shrugged his jacket on and frowned like he did when he couldn’t decide on a move in checkers. “When we were looking for one the first day we were here, it certainly seemed like the right thing to do.”

“But now?”

“For some reason last night, I was thinking about how Murdoch keeps that little painting I gave him on his desk. The evening before we left, I came back downstairs because I’d left my book behind and I caught him with it in his hands and he was…”

Scott seemed to be hunting for the right words.

Johnny almost held his breath. “He was what, Scott?”

“I’m not sure I can explain it. He was just staring at it…as if—.”

And Johnny knew. “As if it meant more than getting a fancy stereopticon would?”

Scott nodded. He looked grateful that Johnny understood. “And that’s what I was thinking about last night. I started to wonder if the stereopticon was as good a present as I thought it would be?”

Which of course made Johnny wonder if the Winchester was as good a present as he thought it would be. Damn it, everything had been so clear a few days ago; win the rifle and give it to Murdoch like he’d planned back in Mumford Crossing.

“Johnny, I’m not saying the stereopticon wasn’t a good present. I’m just saying I don’t think it’s the right moment to find another one and give it to Murdoch. And it might start some awkward questions that, frankly, I don’t want to answer.”

“Sure, Scott.”

“But I haven’t totally given up on the idea. Perhaps I’ll look for one next year for his birthday?”

Johnny just stood there. Was he going about everything all wrong? He thought buying presents was what you were meant to do, and the fancier the better.

Scott came across and put a hand on his shoulder but he couldn’t look up. He didn’t want Scot to see that he didn’t know what he was doing; that he didn’t know how to be a proper son to a good man like Murdoch.

“Johnny, I’m not saying it’s wrong for you to try and win the rifle for Murdoch, though.” He gave Johnny’s shoulder a shake, forcing Johnny to look up.

“I know, Scott.”

But he kept looking at Johnny and Johnny knew he was waiting for him to say more. And he couldn’t. Not now.  So he stepped away from Scott’s hand on his shoulder and headed across to the door, “Come on, Murdoch will be waiting for us in the dining room.”

Scott just stood there in the middle of the room. He was hard to fool and like a dog with a bone when he made up his mind about something.

 Johnny put his hand on the doorknob. “Are you coming?” When Scott still didn’t move he added the clincher: “The fair Amelia will be waiting.”

.

Johnny waited until he figured he wouldn’t be noticed.  He’d done the right thing by Murdoch and sat through another fancy dinner then he’d had to sit and listen to King give a speech about all the things he’d do if he was voted in as president of the Cattleman’s Association. Once King got onto things like equality and fairness, Johnny was so mad he could hardly sit still. All the same, he managed to sit through it, then he excused himself from the table and left the room.

He was just standing outside the dining room door, wondering what the heck he should do when Murdoch came out and grabbed him by the arm.  “Johnny, what’s wrong with you?”

He took one look at Murdoch’s face and saw nothing but questions and a whole lot of worry.

Johnny looked around to see if anyone was in earshot as he led Murdoch away from the doors but the lobby was deserted save for Murdoch and him and the hotel clerk at the desk. “McCall cheated, that’s what’s wrong,” he growled, keeping his voice low, “And Matthias King had to know about it.”

“Johnny, that’s a serious accusation. How did McCall cheat?”

“Only way I can figure it is he cut the corner when we got to the forest. I could feel him hanging back. Now I know why.”

Murdoch nodded, staring at the plaster pedestal in the corner with the big vase of purple and white flowers on it. Finally, he said, “Do you have any proof?”

Johnny put his head down. “No.”

Murdoch sighed. “Then like it or not, there’s nothing we can do about it, Johnny, short of making a scene and having everyone say you’re a sore loser. And you know that’s what King will say.”

He kicked the leg of the circular sofa in the middle of the room. “I know—but it’s burning me up inside, Murdoch.”

“Yeah, I can see it is.”

Johnny kicked the sofa leg a few more times then felt Murdoch put a hand on his arm. “Come on, let’s go and sit down and we’ll talk about this.”

Talking about it with Murdoch was the last thing he wanted to do but he moved across and sat down on one of the stuffed chairs in the corner of the lobby.

Murdoch eased himself into the other seat but he leaned forward so that he could look Johnny in the face. “Johnny, I know you want to win the rifle but…”

“It isn’t just the rifle, Murdoch.” He didn’t like King. He didn’t like him wanting to buy Barranca. He didn’t think it was fair that he was having to go to all this trouble to win back the same thing he’d bought fair and square only a few months ago. And why was it every time he was in this town, someone wanted to get hold of something he already owned? He crossed his leg and put his boot up on his knee and started spinning the wheel of his spur like he wanted to spin it right off. There was nothing about any of this that Murdoch would understand.

Murdoch was clearing his throat, then Johnny heard him say, “I never told you…that day we all returned home from Sacramento…”

Johnny jumped up. He just couldn’t sit there another minute and have someone tell him why he shouldn’t try and win the rifle, like Miss Esther had. And he didn’t want to hear one of Murdoch’s stories about when he was a kid or whatever it was he was gonna say. “Murdoch, I think I just need to go for walk. Clear my head or something.”

“Johnny—.”

“It’s okay, Murdoch.”  Something twinged inside him when he saw the look on Murdoch’s face. He tried to calm down and get his voice even. “Look, why don’t you go back inside with Scott and enjoy the rest of the night, huh.”

Murdoch didn’t look happy. “You’ll stay out of trouble? You’ll be okay, John?”

Johnny clapped a hand to his arm and walked away.

“Johnny?”

Johnny gave him a backward wave. “Sure, I’m always okay.” He threw the words over his shoulder and walked outside.

.

Once the heavy hotel door with its etched glass and brass handle swung shut behind him he took a big breath. He wasn’t feeling very proud of himself right then. He didn’t need to be taking any of this out on Murdoch, especially when his old man was trying to help him.

He stood there for a moment, rubbing the tips of his fingers again. He’d rub them right off one day if he wasn’t careful.

He could go back to the saloon he’d been in with Scott, or…or he could head down to the rail yards and get away from everyone in their fancy vests and ties. Besides, he’d promised himself he’d see some of the building work in Sacramento before they left.

.

There was only a gas light on each corner now, so it got darker and darker this end of town, but there were still plenty of people around. His kind of folk; cowboys, drifters, families down on their luck—although it wasn’t those kind of women who were out and about right now.

“Hey, lady.” He’d only stopped on a corner to think about which way he wanted to go when she’d moved out from the shadows of a shop front and wrapped her arms about his neck.

“You want me to show you a good time, cowboy?”

He pulled her hands down from his neck and stepped away, trying not to breathe. “Sorry, lady, not tonight.” He turned his face away from her, trying to be polite, but, whew-ee, she smelled worse than one of Jelly’s poultices.

Johnny kept walking. He kept his eyes open for trouble but it was pretty quiet, now. A few Chinese restaurants were still serving their chop suey but not much else was happening and that suited him fine because the further he walked the clearer everything got—tomorrow he was going to make up for everything Tiffany Mumford had done to him. He’d win the Winchester and give it to Murdoch. It didn’t matter what Miss Esther or Scott or Murdoch or anyone else said.

A few doors up he could hear a piano tinkling and the hum of voices and boy, he could do with a drink about now.

When he got to the saloon he looked over the swing doors. There was no-one inside that he knew, just the usual assortment of cowhands and a couple of saloon girls. No sign of satin vests or big bugs chewing on imported cigars. The chairs were hard and the tables scratched and rickety.

It looked like home.

He ordered a whisky at a bar that hadn’t seen a polishing cloth in years, found himself a table and sat down. No tequila tonight. His hand was going to be steady and true tomorrow.

Tomorrow. He started to laugh at himself. Anyone would think he was about to face Wild Bill Longley instead of having a shooting contest against Shorty McCall, whose own mother probably didn’t know what he did for a living.

Sally was the name of the girl doing the rounds of the tables. He wasn’t sure if her yellow hair came out of a bottle but the dimples when she smiled over her shoulder at him were awful cute. He wouldn’t mind slipping an arm about her waist while he filled in some time. She’d started to sashay across in his direction and he was about to offer to buy her a drink when there was a stir by the entrance. The batwing doors swung open so hard they hit the wall either side.

Johnny, and probably everyone else, looked across to see who was making such a racket.

Well, wouldn’t you know, Shorty McCall was looking straight at him, like he wasn’t even surprised to find Johnny in a back-water bar like this one.

“Hey everyone, look what the cat’s dragged in. You slumming it, Mr Fancy Rancher?”

Johnny looked across and smiled, leaning back in his chair like he had nothing better to do than pass the time with his old friend. “Shorty. You come to gloat?”

Shorty shrugged as he walked across the room. “No hard feelings, Johnny. You beat me at Bronc busting. I beat you in the horse race.” He grinned but Johnny didn’t like the glint in his eye or the curl of his mouth. “Boy,” Shorty was sounding treacle smooth now, “that black of Mr King’s can run something fierce, can’t he.”

Johnny went still. He’d done a lot of simmering today but something was about to blow. He could feel it. “How’d you do it, Shorty?”

“Do what?”

“Oh yeah, you’re just as innocent as a new-born babe, aren’t you, Shorty.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Madrid.”

“You don’t?” Johnny shook his head like Shorty didn’t get the joke. “Well, let me explain it to you, Shorty. You see, you were nowhere to be seen when we rounded the oak tree and next thing I know, we’re neck and neck and heading for home.”

Shorty laughed and looked around the room to the few cowhands sitting at the other tables. The saloon had gone quiet. Johnny noticed the piano player had taken his stool and disappeared and Sally and the other girls were standing by the back door and looking like they were ready to run.

Shorty leaned back against the bar. “Do you hear this?” he asked the room, before sniggering again. “His nag was too broke down to win so he blames me.”

Johnny shrugged, but he added an edge to his voice. “I’m just asking how you did it, Shorty, that’s all.”

“What are you trying to say, Johnny?”

“I think you know.” Johnny was almost purring. It felt good to be finally scratching the itch that had been niggling at him for hours.

“I don’t know nothin’.”

Johnny stood up, kicking his chair back with his foot. “I can spell it out for you if I have to.”

Shorty shook his head, smiling like a girl. “Uh uh, I ain’t wearing a gun. See.”

“I don’t care about a gun. I aim to beat every stinking lie out of you until…”

“I don’t think you will, boy.” Johnny flicked a glance to the doorway. King stood there with some of his hard cases. “And I don’t like what you’re insinuating.”

Well, surprise, surprise. It was turning into a regular party.

“You’ve got it wrong, King. I ain’t insinuating anything. I’m saying plain as day that your man cheated.”

King eyed Johnny. “Prove it, boy.”

Oh boy, what he’d give to be able to do that. And King knew he couldn’t. Johnny locked eyes with him, keeping his voice even. He’d played with men like King plenty of times before. “You think you’ve got it all worked out, don’t you, King. But I aim to win that rifle tomorrow.”

King flicked a speck of dirt off his lapel. “The way I hear it, your gunfighting days are over. Long gone. McCall here though, he’s still got the edge. He’s sharp. Honed.”

“McCall tell you that?” Johnny almost laughed out loud then he looked across to Shorty. “I guess no-one told him what happened to Isham and Sexton Joe?” Shorty never was too good at poker. The entire room must’ve seen the look that flashed in his eyes.  Ol’ Shorty wasn’t looking quite so certain all of a sudden.

Johnny grabbed his glass, downed the last of his whisky, then walked over to the bar, locking eyes with Shorty the whole time.

Johnny went to walk away, then he turned back and leaned in close, near Shorty’s ear. “Isham thought I was just a rancher, too.” He stood there a second or two longer, letting his words sink in, then settled his hat lower on his head and walked towards the door. He stopped when he got to King. “That rifle’s gonna be in my old man’s hand by tomorrow afternoon. Maybe it’s time you get used to losing.”

Two of King’s hands made a move and tried to grab at him but he had no intention of busting up his fist in a fight. “You want to start the competition right now?”

King’s men froze—as did everyone else in the room when they saw his gun.

“I didn’t think so.” Johnny spun his gun then slipped it back into his holster. “Shorty, Mr King,” he nodded at them both, “I’ll be seeing you tomorrow.”

Well, that was fun. Johnny whistled out a breath once he got outside the saloon and walked a few doors down. So much for keeping out of trouble. He checked behind him, standing still and listening for a few moments. All he could hear was his own breathing. No-one had followed him. He grinned in the dark. Hopefully he’d given Shorty a few things to think about while he tossed on his mattress all night.

Johnny looked around. He couldn’t sleep now, even if he wanted to. Damn, it felt good watching Shorty squirm. That was the most fun he’d had since coming to Sacramento.  

What to do now? He’d come all the way down to the railroad station but it was deserted at night. Opposite was The Ebner Hotel. That was the one Murdoch talked about staying in before it got wild this end of town. Johnny walked along the railway track for a while, counting the wooden struts as his boots hit them in the dark. Things were looking up. He could feel it. All those doubts he’d had about beating Shorty had been nothing more than one of Jelly’s dreads in the night.

The moon had been bright a minute ago but now it hid behind some clouds. With the walls half built, Sacramento wouldn’t be wanting another flood in their town.  The sky must have read his mind because a drop of rain fell on his hand. Then another. He wasn’t going to be the one to trample all that thick carpet in their room with soggy boots, so he might as well head back to the hotel and try to get some sleep.

He took the opposite side to the saloon he’d been in earlier. No sense in courting a ruckus. Even in the gloom, he could see all the work going on this side of the street. Merchants were jacking up their stores to make them higher and some were turning their ground floor into a basement. Either way, he was soon stumbling over bricks and timber. In the end he gave up and walked back across to the other side. King would probably have gone by now. He couldn’t imagine him slumming it this end of town for very long.

His steps slowed of a sudden. Come to think about it, how the hell did Shorty find him down here in the first place? King and Shorty had both been in the dining room when Johnny walked out.

Johnny was almost outside the saloon again. The piano player was belting out the same tune and nothing else looked any different.  He looked over the swing doors as he passed.  Shorty wasn’t too worried about a steady hand for tomorrow if the row of glasses on his table was anything to go by. No-one looked Johnny’s way and he kept going.

The rain was splattering on the ground all around him now, making a din on the boardwalk and he started walking faster. His spurs chinked their own song. ‘One of One Thousand…One of One Thousand…One of One…’

“Don’t move—and put your hands up high above your head, boy.”

Johnny didn’t move and he put his hands right where they told him to. The gun he could feel poking into his back was a powerful persuader. “You wanna tell me what this all about?” he asked over his shoulder, trying to get a glimpse of whoever it was, but he earned a sharp jab in the neck for his trouble.

“Get going.” A hand pushed his back. “In there.”

‘There’ was an alley running alongside a dry-goods store. It was hard to make out much of anything in the dark but he could see the outline of some barrels and a couple of wagon wheels leaning against the walls.

“Toss the hardware.”

Well, Murdoch did tell him not to come down here. Stay out of trouble, he said.

“Now,” the voice growled.

He tried to think fast. Who the hell were these guys? He was a few doors from the saloon, so no help there. And with the rain, even the rats had run somewhere for cover.

“I’m waiting, hard case.”

Everything inside him screamed ‘Don’t drop your gun’ but what choice did he have?

He grabbed it by the handle, real easy-like, then tossed it out in front of him. “Okay, now do you want to tell me…” He spun around, arms out. If he could only…

Dios, as soon as his gun hit the ground something slammed into his back. His knees buckled and he sank to the dirt but he ducked his head and barrelled forward into the man standing in front of him. Johnny’s head hit something hard and then he was rolling on the ground.

“Do it,” a voice called out.

Johnny tried to turn his head around but…he couldn’t stop himself from yelling as the pain tore into his right hand and up his arm.

What the hell? Tears stung his eyes and he could barely catch a breath…

When he came to, the first thing he heard was the steady plop, plop of rain. He opened his eyes and saw nothing except a blur until he could slowly make out a puddle near his head by the only sliver of light that came into the alley.

Somewhere, a long way away, a piano was playing. The saloon. Shorty.

The rest of the alley was silent.

Johnny dragged himself into a sitting position with his left hand but as soon as he moved his right the pain clawed at him and for a second he thought he might pass out again.

He managed to scoot back against the wall, then with his right hand cradled in his left, he rocked back and forth with each throb of pain.

Dios, could things get any worse?

They’d broken his hand.

Chapter 8

Johnny sat hunched against the wall in the alley.  He didn’t want to move right now. Sure, he could feel the rain running down his hair and onto his face but it just didn’t seem all that important when he’d been knocked into a cocked hat and a whole host of miseries were trying to cram their way into his thinking.

He had to keep them out. Keep them all out.

He kept his eyes shut and listened to his breathing and the plop, plop as the rain started making more and more puddles.

He could deal with this difficulty one of two ways. He could either sit here like a baby and bawl his eyes out or he could get mad. Real mad. Misery had a louder voice to begin with. It always did. But if he waited long enough, he could drown it out. He knew how to do that. And then the fire would start to burn.

He just had to wait. And feed it.

Tiffany Mumford. Matthias King. Shorty McCall.

It started in his jaw, then moved down his neck until it was searing his chest, making him clench his left hand so tight his nails dug into his skin. But that was good because he could feel the force of it right down to his fingertips. The thing was, now he had to show it who was boss or it was liable to eat him alive. Make him careless. Make him stupid. He’d seen that happen to more men than he could count. Some of them good men. All of them dead men.

But he wasn’t afraid of any fire. He’d make it work for him.

He’d make it win for him.

That’s right.

 And if felt good until his gut started churning—because he knew he had to be able to use his right hand.

He put his head back and let the rain hit his face. At least the stinging cold on his cheeks took his mind off the pain.

After a while, a chill from the brick wall started to seep through his shirt. His white shirt. His best shirt. He should’ve known better. Nothing good ever came of polishing a plough. You just had to let the plough be what it was. No shame in that. Next time he’d just let Scott dress up in his fancy duds.

The pounding in his hand was beginning to settle down, enough so that he could stop biting his lip at any rate.

And it turned out he was wrong about the rats—one of them had scurried out from behind a barrel and was standing on its hind legs, sniffing his boot like he was looking for a friend. It looked as wet and dragged out as Johnny felt right then. “Aren’t we a fine pair.” It stopped sniffing the boot when he heard Johnnys’s voice and started moving his head slowly from side to side like an old man trying to see in the dark, before scampering off somewhere down the alley.

Johnny didn’t mind rats—the four-legged kind at any rate.

Well, it was probably time to look at his hand. Dios, he didn’t want to, though. If he couldn’t see it was broke, it wouldn’t be. Right?

“Come on, Johnny. You might as well die game.”

He looked up at the sky. Above the alley walls he could see the outline of some clouds. They were edged in a silver thread, like Teresa’s needlework.

Was it a sign? Nah, he’d never been superstitious. Leave that to Jelly. No reason for Johnny to start with it now.

Okay.

He took a breath.

Time to do it.

He looked down—and wouldn’t you know it, he couldn’t see a blamed thing because his whole hand was in shadow.  He had no choice but to slowly lift it into the little bit of light he had.

He peered at it, then gingerly turned his hand over, like it belonged to someone else.

He couldn’t believe it. His right hand looked pretty much the same as his left. None of his fingers were sticking out at weird angles and his hand still looked like a hand. It was a start.

But he was going to have to test it to see how much damage had been done.

He could do this. He just had to take a deep breath…

He started with his little finger. Okay, it tugged some, but wasn’t too sore. He might as well go for broke and jiggle all his fingers.

Damnit all to hell. He drew in a breath, hissing with the pain.

Once the fireworks had settled down, he tried again, this time opening and closing his fist. Hot prongs still shot up his arm but he could move his hand and still breathe. Just.

And if he could still breathe, he could still shoot.

The clouds had moved across some more, letting in the moonlight again. He hadn’t even noticed the rain had stopped. He could see his hat lying on the ground and his gun was a few feet away from it.

Well, he couldn’t sit here all night. He held his sore hand to his chest and eased his way onto his knees. And the way things were going, if he had any sense, he ought to say a few prayers while he was kneeling. Next, he got a leg under him, then the other, and sort of staggered to his feet. The alley mostly stayed still—another good sign—so he reached back down with his left hand and picked up his gun.

Come on, Johnny, you can do this.

He winced so much that he could barely see, but he managed to holster his gun with his right hand. Hell, he needed better than that. Much better.

Ilevarse el demonio. In border towns, you couldn’t get any angrier than that. Wes would pat him on the back. “Now, now, Johnny, keep your shirt on. You don’t wanna be going off half cocked.” Only Wes never really understood—he never knew what it was to be Johnny Madrid. But Johnny had learned the hard way. He knew what had to be done if you wanted to beat them at their own game.

He looked down at his hand, holding it up a ways until he could see it in the light. “Damn it, you’re gonna do exactly as I tell you.”

McCall.

He was the only one who’d gain from Johnny losing tomorrow.

McCall and King.

Dios, he’d make them pay for what they’d done.

This time he didn’t take a breath or tense his legs or his jaw or any other part of him. He simply drew his gun, spun it on his finger, then dropped it back into the holster.

He didn’t stop and ask his hand how it was doing. Instead, he snatched up his soggy hat and put it on his head as he walked out of the alley.

One way or another, he was going to make them pay.

Johnny swung the saloon doors open and stood on the threshold. It all looked pretty much as it had when he left here, before. Whenever that was. There were still plenty of men in the saloon so it couldn’t have been as late as he thought. But he only had eyes for one man. One low, down, snivelling, dog of a…

And then he smiled.

Shorty was standing at the bar and wasn’t he just having a hog-killin’ time with another couple of cowboys. Maybe he was grinning like a fool because he knew he could win tomorrow? Maybe he was laughing because he thought ol’ Johnny Madrid was lying in the alley with a busted hand? Well, he had news for him.

“Your boss gone home, Shorty?”

Shorty turned around and even from where Johnny stood, it was clear that Shorty was bone dry, right down to his boots. But that didn’t surprise him none. Shorty had always been a coffee boiler, never around when there was actual work that needed to be done.

But that look of surprise on his face when he turned was enough to make Johnny’s heart sing. He’d won the first round at least.

“What’s it to you, Madrid?”

Johnny walked around the tables over to where Shorty stood. Shorty’s friends didn’t seem so friendly all of a sudden because the two of them looked at each other and moved away further down the bar.

Johnny eyed the barman. “Tequila.” He had another glance around the room. There was no sign of King or his hard cases. He expected as much. A man like King would never stick around to dip even the tip of his little finger in cow dung.

But if King wasn’t around, there was a good chance it meant Shorty had been the one giving the orders. His gut tightened. Dios, not another friend. First Isham. Now Shorty. There was a time he thought watching a man’s back meant…hell, why was he even surprised? It’s not as if they were his family.

Johnny put his feet on the brass foot rail and leaned his elbows on the bar, shoulder to shoulder with Shorty. “I met your friends in the alley tonight, McCall.”

“What friends?”

“Your friends.” Johnny stuck out his hand. “They left me a calling card.”

In the dim light of the saloon, his hand didn’t look so good. It was covered in mud that was beginning to dry and under that he had a jagged cut on the back of his hand that was seeping blood. Boy, whoever did this must have stomped on him then ground his boot heel in as well. At least there was no swelling. Yet.

Johnny took hold of the bottle and glass the bartender scooted along the bar. “I just thought I’d come to tell you…” He took the bottle in his right hand, poured himself a drink, then swigged it down. “Guess what?”

Johnny held his right hand in front of Shorty’s nose and clenched his fist, not once, but twice. “You lose, Shorty.”

Shorty grabbed hold of Johnny’s arm and stared at the hand as if could see seven fingers. “What the hell are you talking about, Johnny? Did someone jump you?”

“Oh, that’s rich, coming from you.”

Shorty’s eyes went wide then he let go of Johnny’s arm like he’d touched a hot pan. When he spoke, it was only loud enough for Johnny to hear. “They do say there are plenty on the shoot this end of town, Johnny.”

“Then you’d better be real careful-like, before someone raises sand with you.”

His drink finished, Johnny plonked it on the bar with enough force to make the barman look his way. “I’ll be seeing you tomorrow, Shorty.”

He dug out a couple of coins and flipped them towards the barman, then

walked out into the night, letting the doors swing shut behind him.

“Johnny. Johnny!”

Damnit. Johnny turned around, slowly—anything faster and he would have ended up on his butt. “I don’t have anything more to say to you, McCall.” And he didn’t. Not without giving away that his hand was almost giving him more grief than he could deal with right then.

He shut it out, concentrating on Shorty’s face.

Shorty came up close to him, so close that Johnny could see his eyes by the single lamplight outside the saloon. “I ain’t no four-flusher, Johnny. I didn’t do this,” he said in a low voice, like he didn’t want anyone else to hear. “You know me. This ain’t my style.”

“Your style? King’s style? Is there a difference, Shorty?”

“Think what you like, but I aim to take you on tomorrow, fair and square, according to Hoyle.”

Johnny took a step closer. “You’re as crooked as they come, Shorty and a blowhard to boot. Always have been.”

“We were friends once, Johnny.”

Johnny shook his head. “You stopped being a friend once you sided with King.”

Chapter 9

Johnny tucked his sore hand into his waistband and started the walk back to the hotel.

The rain had let up and the moon was showing its face here and there, bright enough at times that he could see clouds mirrored in the pools of water in the street. The wind had dropped. The only sounds he could hear were his own shaky breathing, his boot heels making a clatter on the boardwalk and the chink of his spurs.

He kept his pace steady and held his shoulders straight but in truth, he had about as much strength in him as a broken down mule.

And he had a heck of a lot to think about.

For starters, he winced every time he thought of what Murdoch was going to say when Johnny showed up with a busted hand. Murdoch told him to keep away from this end of town. ‘Stay out of trouble,’ he said.

 And then there was Scott. How the devil was he meant to tell Scott he just had a run-in with Matthias King, who happens to be the father of the girl Scott’s been making eyes at the last few days?

He traipsed another couple of blocks and all he got for his worrying was a sore head. Well, he should be almost back to the hotel by now. The shops in this section of the city had bigger windows than the ones down by the railway and the restaurants he looked in had flowers in vases and proper cloths on the table. He squinted in the distance. There were carriages travelling along the road and it looked like some people were headed his way on the boardwalk.  He could hear them talking and laughing, so that was a good sign. It was people hiding in alleys he had to be wary of.

Johnny stopped walking and listened; he could make out some of the voices headed his way.

“No, he hasn’t got a chance in hell. Henry said his boy would be lucky to hit a barn door.”

Hell, that was a couple of Murdoch’s cronies coming down the street and Johnny was about to walk slap-bang into them looking like he’d been hog-tied to a horse and dragged through the mud.

“I don’t know, that Will might be something of a surprise. He won the bronc busting don’t forget.” Yeah, he knew that scratchy voice of Paul Watson.

Johnny dived into a lane way and stood in the dark, listening as their voices got louder the closer they got.

“Why, you old goat. I know what you’re up to—you’re trying to get everyone to back Will just so you can lengthen the odds on young Johnny.”

Johnny grinned in the dark when he heard Paul chuckle and admit to the charge. The other man sounded like Ben Irvine. Both of them were old friends of Murdoch’s. They must be staying in one of the other hotels around here.

“They do say King’s man is good, though.” Paul didn’t sound too convinced.

“Balderdash, that’s what it is. You ever heard of a Shorty McCall gunning down anyone? Is that a name they talk about in corners?” They both started laughing and it was probably Paul who was wheezing.

“It surely isn’t a name fashioned to strike fear into the heart, is it.”

There was more laughing and some coughing. Poor Shorty, cursed with the name Aloysius. Johnny almost felt sorry for him, until he remembered his aching hand.

“…as day she’s set her sights on him.”

Johnny stopped breathing. This time it was a woman’s voice. He could make out two of them as they got to the head of the laneway, walking behind the two men.

“It’s shameful, that’s what it is.”

“I heard tell she gets all her clothes from Paris, France.”

“Oh my. But they are dreadfully pretty, aren’t they. They say there’ll be wedding bells before the year is out. My Ben says King probably planned the whole affair. Everyone knows Lancer is the biggest ranch in the San Joaquin and that Matthias King has his sights set on…”

Damn, Johnny tried as hard as he could but their voices were softer than their husbands and they’d walked on and out of earshot. He had a good mind to follow them and ask just what they thought King was planning to do.

Dios, had Scott been tricked? Was Amelia just making up to him for her old man’s sake? He slumped against the wall. Johnny hadn’t talked to her much. Scott wanted Johnny to sit at their table at supper but he hadn’t felt like talking so he’d stuck to Murdoch’s side. Johnny knew one thing—Scott was no dunderhead when it came to women. He saw through Glory before Johnny or Murdoch did and look how pretty she was. But Amelia was different to Glory. Glory wanted everyone to like her but Johnny got the idea with Amelia that she didn’t give two hoots whether anyone liked her or not.

Aww, hell.

He didn’t bother to cover-up a grunt as he stood up from the wall. He was hurting. Boy, was he hurting. He tried changing the position of his hand as he walked back out to the road and that eased things some. Across the way he could see the lights of their hotel, The Royal, looking fine as cream gravy with its columns out front and four floors of windows. Most of them were lit, with guests probably getting ready to settle in for the night. But how many of those good women were gossiping about Scott and Amelia right now, as they dropped their nightgowns over their heads? And what would his very private brother say if he knew?

He didn’t want to be mistaken for the town drunk, so he took the back stairs on the outside of the hotel. He had a moment when the heavy door leading to the second floor wouldn’t budge but he tugged harder and it opened with a shriek of the hinge. So much for not attracting any notice. He eased his way inside. The corridor was empty and more importantly, there was definitely no sign of the mountain he called his old man, as his wet boots left dirt on the carpet.

When he got to his room he poked his head around the door. A lamp was burning but there was no sign of Scott. It didn’t look like he’d come back up here since supper.

He tossed his hat on the bed. It wasn’t easy undoing his gun belt with his left hand but he got it done, then shucked his shirt.

The pitcher had been filled with fresh warm water so he used that to fill the bowl. As soon as he eased his hand into it, the water changed colour to a dirty, reddish brown. The back of his hand had stopped bleeding on the way back, but now it started to ooze again as he tried clenching and unclenching his fist. If Teresa was here, she’d be rushing off to get him a cold compress but the warm water was all he had, so it would just have to do.

His hand and fingers were tightening already, and if his hand swelled up too much, he’d have no hope of holding his gun, let alone firing it. He swallowed hard. Well, no sense in letting it rattle him.

A door banged close by and he nearly jumped out of his skin like a skittish foal. For a second he thought it was their door, but it was probably Murdoch in the next room. Boy, he hoped his old man didn’t come looking for him. He didn’t want to face that look of Murdoch’s—the one that said Johnny had let him down.

Then there was Scott to deal with.

Dammit, after the scuttlebutt he overheard, he didn’t know if he should feel bad about having a run-in with King or if he should be warning Scott that maybe Amelia wasn’t everything she seemed to be. He threw his head back and looked up at the ceiling, but whatever way he looked at the fancy plaster swirly things and roses, for the life of him, he just couldn’t imagine Scott taking any brotherly advice too well.

At least the water felt good.

He closed his eyes—then let his head roll on his shoulders a few times. His hand was throbbing in time with the thumping in his chest.

James A Mumford.

The man had caused Johnny a heck of a lot of trouble. Well, no, it was the whole caboodle of Mumfords who’d caused him trouble.

It didn’t take much to remember standing in front of James A Mumford. He could even feel the weight of the rifle and the smooth grain of the walnut stock as he held it in his hand. The same stock he’d polished until it gleamed so bright you could almost see your reflection, except, that was, for the part he’d marked with chalk for the Lancer ‘L.’

Dios, he’d been that close. That close. If he’d only had another couple of minutes he could have been on his horse and out of Mumford’s Crossing and Tiffany Mumford wouldn’t have seen him for dust.

He still remembered everything Mumford said that day; and all that bosh about Jim knowing how much his old man loved him.

“His last words were of me. My daughter told me.”

Oh yeah, they were all about his father all right. They were all about seeing him in hell.

And all the while Johnny just stood there, with the rifle in his hands, listening to Mumford’s grieving and knowing nothing he said was true.  And he just couldn’t do it. He couldn’t be the one to knock Mumford sideways; that Tiffany’s version of events didn’t even come half-way close to the truth.

So, he gave in. Threw up the sponge.

But he sure as hell wasn’t going to do it a second time. Not when he had a second chance. If it hadn’t been for Murdoch, Johnny might have ended up like Jim Mumford, dying after a shoot-out, on some dusty, two-bit street. Listening to old man Mumford taught him one thing—and he was grateful for that. He taught him that Johnny had to make sure Murdoch knew how he felt about him.

He had to win that rifle. He needed the Winchester to say the word Mumford talked about. That word that men don’t say.

“Oh good, you’re here.”

Johnny swung around. What the dickens? He hadn’t even heard the knob turn and before he knew it, here was Scott putting his head around the door.

“Hey, Scott.” He stuck his other hand in the water as well and swished it around like he was washing up.

“Murdoch wanted me to check where you were. I told him you were still alive.” Scott grinned. “Are you going to bed?”

“Yeah, I thought I might turn in.”

“I’ll see you in the morning then. I’m meeting Amelia downstairs in a few moments. We’re going for a walk before it gets too….” Scott’s stare started at Johnny’s hair, then went down to the patches of mud on his pants and stopped at the bundle on the floor near his feet.

Well, that was just plain dumb; he should’ve shoved his shirt under the bed instead of leaving it wet, muddy and bloody on the carpet.

“What happened to you?” Scott closed the door behind him and came into the room. “Are you okay?”

Johnny glanced in the mirror. His hair was plastered to his head and he had a graze on his cheekbone. Gone was the just-scrubbed shiny look from before supper. “Oh, someone jumped me.” Johnny grabbed the towel and began drying his hands, as much as he was able.

“Near the hotel?”

“Nope. Down by the railway.”

That was when Scott started shaking his head. He could be a lot like Murdoch sometimes. Worse even. “Damn it, Johnny, you just had to go down there didn’t you—even after everything Murdoch said. What is it with you that you have to go looking for trouble?”

“I wasn’t looking for trouble, I was looking for something to do,” Johnny snapped back—and that wasn’t like him. “Besides,” and he tried to sound calmer, “I seem to recall you’ve been in plenty of scrapes yourself since you came out here.”

Scott eased off and started grinning again. “That’s a fair call, brother.” He pointed to Johnny’s face. “Well, I hope she was worth it.”

All Johnny had to do was nod and brush the whole thing off as some stupid cowboy fracas, right? That’s what he should do. Then Scott would go down to Amelia and…

“Well, what about it, Johnny? Someone trying to rob you?” Scott was going through his jacket pockets as he talked. “I seem to remember it was my world-wise brother telling me I had to keep my eyes peeled in big cities out here.”  Then Scott started opening the drawers in the bedside table and peering in them. “Speaking of being robbed, have you seen where I put my wallet?”

Johnny clenched his other fist around the towel. He should just keep his mouth shut. Scott was happy. He was practically bouncing. He sure didn’t need to know about King, not when Amelia was waiting for him downstairs.

Amelia.

What in blazes was he meant to do?  Was it all a bald-faced lie?

And Scott was about to go and spend more time romancing her. Just how deep had the two of them got? Johnny clamped his teeth together—if he had any sense at all, he’d keep his big mouth shut about King. He stared at the towel in his hand, with its small red crown stitched at one end. “I wasn’t robbed.”

He risked a quick glance at Scott but he was still looking in the drawer.

Maybe Scott didn’t hear what he said—after all, Johnny could barely hear what Johnny said, speaking through his closed jaw like that.

Then Scott slowly closed the drawer he’d just opened and looked across at Johnny like he was seeing him standing there for the first time. “Who attacked you, Johnny?” There was a wealth of meaning in those words.

It wasn’t too late. Johnny could still pass the buck. And maybe he would’ve if he hadn’t heard that talk about Amelia.

“Who do you think, Scott? Who else wants that rifle so bad?” He tried to make it sound like he wasn’t angry, like it was just something that happened.

“Do you know for sure?” Scott had gone quiet. He wasn’t bouncing now.

“No, I don’t know for sure. I don’t know anything for sure.”

“Don’t you think you need some proof before you start making accusations, brother?”

He held up his hand and this time he couldn’t stop the bitterness from flowing out. “Here’s my proof. They went for my gun hand, Scott. You think someone got me on the ground then stomped on it by accident?”

Scott came up close and looked at his hand. “Dammit, Johnny, why didn’t you show me this before? Has Murdoch seen it?”

“Nope. And he doesn’t need to. Not yet, anyway.”

“Dammit, Johnny.”

Johnny grinned at him. At least Scott had forgotten about King for the moment. “You already said that.”

“Do you think…will you still be able to…?”

“Beat Shorty?” He’d felt real confident in the bar when he shoved his fist in Shorty’s face but he knew time wasn’t his friend with this sort of injury. “I sure as hell am going to try, brother.”

“I’m getting Murdoch.”

“No. Scott. Murdoch will just…Scott!” Aw, phtt, he was already out the door. Now he’d have to fend off the same questions from Murdoch.

When Murdoch came in he took one look at Johnny then took hold of his hand. “Here, let me see.” He turned it over both ways, nice and gentle, like a sawbones would. “Do you think it’s broken?”

Johnny shook his head. “I can still move my fingers. It hurts some.”

“We’ll strap it. That should keep the swelling down.”

Scott was hovering, like he wanted to be there but he didn’t want to be there. “I’ve got a bandage in my saddle bag.”

Johnny grinned. “See, Murdoch, I told you we could make a cowboy out of him.”

Only Scott didn’t smile, he just went across and fetched his saddle bag from over in the corner.

Murdoch didn’t smile much either as he pulled the wooden chair over. “You’d better get out of your wet things. Sit here Johnny, and we’ll get your boots off. There should still be someone downstairs in the laundry who can brush and dry those leather pants of yours.”

“I can take them down with me,” Scott said. “You’d better give me your boots as well, Johnny. They look like you’ve been playing in puddles.”

“I’m guessing you still want to compete tomorrow?” Murdoch asked, as he yanked Johnny’s left boot off, getting dirt on his hands as he did it.

 Johnny stuck out his right foot for Murdoch to grab hold of his other boot. “Is the sun planning on coming up in the morning?”

Murdoch chuckled. “I guess it is, son.”

Once his boots were off, Johnny stripped to his drawers then wrapped the cover from his bed about himself.

Murdoch made him sit on the bed and lean back against the pillows so that he could get to work on Johnny’s hand. “So, do you have any ideas on who did this, Johnny?”

Johnny looked at Scott but his face wasn’t giving anything away as he tossed Murdoch the roll of bandage. Did Johnny want to get into all this again with Scott? It felt like he got let out of jail when he brought it up last time. He watched Murdoch start to wrap the bandage around his hand. But damn it, who else but King would have had someone waiting to pounce? The only way he hadn’t tried looking at the situation, was standing on his head. And he was even willing to do that if he could get an answer or the proof that Scott wanted.

“Johnny?” Murdoch was clearly expecting a reply.

In the end, Johnny said, “I have a pretty good idea, but Scott, here, doesn’t agree with me.” Murdoch began wrapping the bandage on his fingers. “Not too tight, Murdoch. I’ve got to be able to move them.”

Scott stood at the foot of the bed with his arms crossed. “I just said you have no way of knowing for sure that it was King. How do you know it’s not someone who stands to lose big-time on the competition? It’s all around town that people have got a lot of money riding on you winning.”

“How about five years in border towns, Scott, dealing with men just like King. I’ve seen how they operate. His type isn’t interested in right or wrong, it’s all about winning and they’ll use every dirty trick in the book to get what they want.”

“I don’t think that’s good enough, Johnny. I think you should try to get to know a man before you start accusing him.”

Murdoch held up a hand. “Boys, let’s discuss this rationally. Johnny, to be fair, you haven’t given us any hard evidence as to why you think King is behind this. Scott, you have the floor. Let’s hear what you have to say.”

Scott took a moment, like he was considering his words. “I spent some time with King in the bar before dinner. We had a drink…talked a little.” He looked at Murdoch. “I was surprised. He wasn’t what I expected.”

“And what was that?”

Scott shrugged. “Hard-nosed. A bully? Only intent on seeing his own ranch prosper.”

Johnny sniffed. “So, you found a paragon of virtue, I’m guessing.”

Scott didn’t even look Johnny’s way. “The man I talked to seemed well-educated, particularly interested in the latest breeding initiatives and even farming techniques. He says the valley should be seen as a whole, that what one ranch does can affect the others. He was interesting. Engaging.”

Johnny was ready to gag. “And he’s rich and he has a pretty daughter—it’s just right up your alley, ain’t it, Scott.

“Don’t judge people harshly, just because they’re rich, Johnny!”

“Boys, enough. We don’t need to be arguing about this.”

Johnny yanked his hand back as Murdoch finished tying off the bandage. “It’s too late, Murdoch. We already are.”

“You disliked King before you even met him,” Scott ground out, “from the time you found out McCall was working for him. It’s personal with you, Johnny.”

“And it isn’t personal with you?”

“It’s a different sort of personal. A man doesn’t have to like the father of the woman he—“

“Loves? Was that what you were gonna say?” Even to his own ears, Johnny bit more than he meant to.

Scott straightened up and when he spoke it was hard to tell if it was ice or fire in his voice. “No, it wasn’t. And anything between Amelia and me is none of your damn business or anyone else’s.” He snatched up Johnny’s pants and boots. “Murdoch, if you’ll excuse me. I’ll take these things down to the laundry.”

The door slammed behind him.

Johnny could feel Murdoch’s eyes on him so he kept his head down.

“Johnny, that was uncalled for.”

“I know. I’m sorry, Murdoch. I’ll go get dressed and find him and talk with him.”

Murdoch sighed. “No, leave him be. I think he’s on his way down to see Amelia. She was waiting in the lobby for him. Besides, Scott just took your pants and boots.”

Johnny couldn’t muster up a smile. He let his head fall back on the pillow behind his head, putting his good arm across his eyes.

“What is it?” he heard Murdoch ask. Sometimes a caring word was a lot harder to deal with than an angry one.

He swallowed hard. His throat felt awfully dry of a sudden. “I’m gonna pull out of the competition. Not even the One of One Thousand is worth getting in the way of something like that between Scott and Amelia.”

“Johnny, I don’t think Scott wants you to do that.”

“But Murdoch…if he loves her, I’d never forgive myself if…if I messed things up for Scott over a stupid competition. Maybe it’s the right thing to do anyway. Nothing’s gone right since I entered the competition. And the whole time, the only thing I wanted was—”

“What Johnny?”

He took a breath. “Nothin’, it’s nothing, Murdoch.”

After a while Murdoch patted him on the leg. “Well, it’s your decision. Only you can work it out. But you have my support, either way.”

Johnny held up his bandaged hand. “Thanks Murdoch.”

Murdoch patted him on the leg again, before standing up. “I’ll come in later to check on you. We might need to loosen the bandage a little later.” When Murdoch got to the door he turned around. “And Johnny, don’t jump to a decision about all this. You’ve had a pretty hard night. Sometimes the morning brings its own answers.”

Johnny nodded. “Okay, Murdoch. Thanks again.” He hoped his eyes told Murdoch more than his words did. It often felt that way when he talked with Murdoch. Words just didn’t seem enough.

Johnny lay back on the pillows, resting his bandaged hand on his chest. In spite of what Murdoch said, he couldn’t let it rest. Not till morning. He had to make up his mind right now.

If Scott truly loved Amelia, then that changed everything.

It wasn’t going to be easy giving up on the rifle. Not when he’d come this far.

But what the hell was Johnny doing, anyway? Maybe Scott was right. Was winning the rifle more about beating Shorty? Sometimes the past nudges at you and you can be too stupid to see it.

And then there was Amelia. What if the whole making-up-to-Scott thing was nothing more than a sham?

It sure didn’t look like that from Scott’s side, though.

And was winning the rifle worth Scott’s happiness? Maybe even his future?

These last few days, all he’d been able to think about was seeing the rifle above the fireplace at Lancer. It sure wasn’t going to be easy to walk away.

Well, he’d given it up once already to Tiffany Mumford, for her old man’s sake—surely he could give it up for Scott.

Scott probably wouldn’t want him to pull out—damn it, it wasn’t as if it was something Johnny wanted to do, either—but right now, way down deep, it was the only idea that had felt right, all day.

Maybe he was finally standing on his head?

Chapter 10

Scott took the narrow steps downstairs at a slow pace. He’d decided the easiest way to find the hotel laundry would be to take the inner back stairs and passageways the staff used. It turned out they weren’t well lit and smelled strongly of onions and other stale cooking odours. Just another thing he had to thank Johnny for right now. He’d only passed one window in the stairway and he’d been strongly tempted to force it open and throw Johnny’s things outside into the street below.

He was facing a dilemma all right. What do you do when you want to believe two people at the same time—one of them a brother you care about and the other a man who means nothing to you at all?

And what if there’s a girl, a very special girl, like Amelia, in the middle of it all?

He had no idea why there was an apple on the second floor landing but it felt good kicking it down the next flight and hearing it smack into the wall on the way down.

He reached the ground floor and found more narrow hallways. After a few wrong turns, a young boy in a leather apron with a boot in one hand and a polishing cloth in the other, stuck his head out of a room. “You lost, sir?”

It turned out the actual entrance to the laundry was in the laneway that ran the length of the hotel.  A Chinese girl, in the usual baggy pants and long tunic, sat on a stool at the entrance. He must have startled her because she jumped up when she saw him and stood there like a nervous colt, as if she couldn’t decide whether to run away or face him.

“It’s all right. I just wanted to drop these things off to be cleaned and dried.”

She shook her head, pointing at the boots. “They go boy inside.”

“No, I want them dried, not polished.” He had to raise his voice to be heard over the noise from the laundry. “They need heat—a fire. They’re wet.”

He looked past her, through the doorway with its peeling red paint, where the din was coming from. He had a glimpse of about a dozen Chinamen running around, yelling and gesturing at each other. White sheets hung on long ropes strung across the ceiling. Underneath these, the laundry workers ducked and weaved, their long queues swinging behind them, some carrying bundles of clothes in their hands or in baskets. Others stood at long, wooden tables, their hands constantly going back and forth, as they ironed more sheets. Scott grimaced. And he thought ranching was hard work. Even standing outside the door, the humidity from the fires and wet clothes still hit him. It was almost like standing in thick fog, but it was a warm, clammy feeling, rather than cold.

The girl out front darted forward and picked up a wicker basket from beside her stool and held it out to Scott.

 “You come back…” she held up two fingers. “Maybe this long?”

“Two hours? Okay, I’ll be back in two hours.”

He put Johnny’s things in the basket, then started walking back to the hotel lobby, where Amelia would, hopefully, be still waiting for him, if she hadn’t given up and gone to her room.

“Amelia.”

And just as he said her name out loud, he tripped on one of the uneven cobblestones in the laneway and almost fell flat on his face. He looked around but there was no-one else to be seen, just the Chinese girl sitting on her stool. And it was so dark she probably hadn’t noticed. But his annoyance grew all the same. How was it, that just this afternoon, everything in his life had felt practically perfect and now he could barely stay upright walking along a road?

For the first time in months, he hadn’t had a single thought about cows and branding and round-ups. Amelia made him laugh. She talked about her life at finishing school, climbing out the window at night, teaching the other girls bawdy songs on the pianoforte, paying another girl to do her embroidery—the endless boredom of learning what was considered proper for a young lady. 

And he understood her. He’d felt the same way in Boston. Hadn’t he strained against all the rules that told him who he could talk to and what he should and shouldn’t say? He’d searched for Amelias—the girls who didn’t care—who thought life could promise more than sitting in a parlour, embroidering cushion covers.

But perhaps he’d been less honest than Amelia—it had taken the arrival of the Pinkerton agent with Murdoch’s offer for him to finally do something about his distaste of that life.

And he was feeling a similar distaste, right now.

He told Johnny that his seeing Amelia had nothing to do with either Murdoch or Johnny. Then why should he feel—this time he found an empty tin in the laneway to kick—guilt? Or anger…or fustration. Maybe all three? And more?

And what was he meant to say to Amelia? ‘Excuse me, Miss King, but did your father hire men to break my brother’s hand?’

Was it too much to ask that he could just enjoy her company? And in spite of whatever Johnny seemed to think, Scott had not fallen in love with Amelia.

That definitely was not the case. Not even close. Johnny was completely wrong.

When he got to the lobby, Amelia was sitting on the circular velvet couch in the middle of the room.  She’d changed her yellow evening dress for a day dress of pale blue with dark blue trimmings of braid and lace. None of the girls he knew out here dressed like Amelia. Nothing she wore ever looked sensible or said anything about it being her ‘Sunday-best’. He certainly wasn’t thinking about church right now.

When she looked across he saw nothing of Matthias King in her smile. Not that he should have—but it was a relief all the same. “I thought you were never coming,” she called to him as she stood up, holding a carnation in her hand. The bored drawl from the first night had long gone. And sure enough, his heart started doing the same dance it did every time he talked with her.

Only this time, everything didn’t feel quite right. There was a subtle check inside him. A feeling that he should hold back. Dammit Johnny.

Amelia was prattling on about having taken a long time to change her dress. That she’d wondered if he’d thought she wasn’t coming, instead of the other way round.

Scott could barely take in what she was saying. He thought seeing her might be awkward after his argument with Johnny, but he hadn’t thought it would be this hard. He felt little better than a spy.

“I’m sorry, Amelia, but we had trouble.” He tried to sound more comfortable than he felt. “I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to come.”

“Why? Did Mr Lancer tell you it was past your bedtime?” She was all tease tonight, making her look as young as Teresa. She tucked the stem of the carnation into the buttonhole on his jacket. “There. Do you like it?” She stood back to see the effect, as if he was a Christmas tree she’d just finished decorating.

Scott did have a choice. He could avoid the entire issue of Johnny and her father and talk about something else. But he just couldn’t do that to either Amelia or himself. The truth mattered too much. It always had with him.

“Johnny was set upon tonight. Some men dragged him into an alley.”

“Robbers?”  All trace of merriment left her face. “Here in Sacramento? Oh, how dreadful. Is he all right?”

“It doesn’t appear to be robbers. They didn’t steal anything from Johnny.” Not something you could buy, at any rate.

“How very odd. But was he hurt?”

All he could see was care and concern in her face, so surely the truth should be the obvious answer? He was sure he could trust her.  “Yes,” he finally answered, “But only hurt by me,” he added lightly, “because we argued about who attacked him tonight.”

She wrinkled her nose like children do when they’re confused—and he had to say, it was particularly cute. “Well, that seems like an odd thing to fight about. Either Johnny saw who it was or he didn’t.” She glanced at Scott, “So, did your brother see who it was?”

“No. It was dark. He was only guessing who it might be.”

“Well, that’s a pity. But an argument based on conjecture is hardly worth discussing, don’t you think?”

“Sometimes conjecture is the only thing we have to go on.”

He’d studied her face, every flicker of expression, the entire conversation. He had to be impartial. It didn’t matter how creamy her skin was or that she had a freckle on her right cheek.  The issue was, could he see anything that hinted Amelia knew her father was behind the attack? Or did he see anything that suggested Scott was right and Johnny was wrong?

She tucked a hand into his. “Scott, we’re wasting time. This is meant to be our evening and you’re meant to be taking me for a walk.”

“And your father won’t mind?”

“Why should he? I’m being escorted by the most eligible bachelor in all the San Joaquin. Besides, I don’t give a fig for what he says.” She tugged on his arm. “Come on.”

The air was fresh after the rain. Apparently, the wet weather had forced people inside for cover, even the few who would be outside this time of night. He was glad. He needed the quiet as they walked.

“You were a lot more talkative this afternoon, you know,” Amelia said. “Is something troubling you, Scott?”

She’d stopped under a gaslight, washed in a yellow glow, but there was an uncertainty in her gaze that hadn’t been there before. He’d told Johnny not to judge people but wasn’t that the very thing he was doing, throwing out lures, hoping Amelia didn’t take the bait. It all felt very ugly.

He put his hands on either side of her arms and looked down into her face and asked the question he should have asked in the beginning. “Why does your father want to win the Winchester rifle so much?”

Her eyebrows went up. “What a strange question, Scott. And I have no idea. I suppose it’s the same reason your brother wants to win it.”

And he thought of Johnny, up in their room, flexing his hand. “I doubt it.”

She shrugged. “He’s just Daddy. I don’t ever think about why he does things. Perhaps he wants to win it because he grew up with nothing? Or maybe he needs to prove that he’s worthy? I don’t know why, really. Does it matter?”

He took her arm and they started walking again. Perhaps it didn’t matter? Some of the tension was leaving him. He should have just talked to her like this in the first place.

“What about your brother? Isn’t a rifle a tool of his trade?”

“Johnny isn’t a gunfighter any more.”

“That’s quaint of you, Scott. You’re so loyal. It’s one of the things I’ve come to like about you these past few days.”

“Amelia, he really isn’t. Johnny stepped away from that life.”

“Scott, you were raised in Boston by your grandfather. You were educated and taught how to behave in society. You’re still all those things you were in Boston—you’re just living in a different place. It’s no different for Johnny. He’s still who he is.”

“My father would disagree with you.”

“Scott, paved roads and indoor plumbing don’t change who you are inside. I see that in my father.” She walked on a few more steps. When she spoke, she sounded thoughtful. Unusually so. “I think…deep down…my father is still the starving boy who was found crying in an alley. It makes me sad for him sometimes.” She laughed—a small, awkward sound—but Scott understood how hard it was to show your real feelings.

All the same, her words were a surprise. “Your father was an orphan?”

“Daddy doesn’t like to talk about it much but sometimes Mother says he cries out in his sleep. I heard him once.” She shivered. “It must be so dreadfully scary to be alone in the world. No money, no food. No-one to tuck you in at night and smooth the hurts of the day.”

No, it wasn’t a childhood Scott experienced but he’d seen how the realities of that life gnawed at Murdoch. There was a reason Murdoch was always preaching on the importance of having faith in a person. Sometimes the simplest remark from Johnny about his childhood caused a flicker of pain on Murdoch’s face. Mind you, it was the same with any mention of Grandfather—although it was usually anger he saw on Murdoch’s face at those times. Some day he’d ask Murdoch…

“Oh. Oh dear.” Amelia put a hand over her head, trying to protect her bonnet but there was no protecting anyone from this amount of rain.

Scott took her hand and they started running. This wasn’t how he’d planned on finishing their evening. They turned a corner and found some protection in the doorway of a haberdashery with an awning. He slipped his jacket off and put it around Amelia’s shoulders. “There, that should…”

He didn’t get any further than that. And it took less than a second for him to understand this wasn’t meant to be a quick token of thanks. Her lips were warm and greedy and he pressed into hers as hungrily as she did to him.

“Oh, Scott,” she murmured, letting go of his lips to trail kisses up to his ear, “I don’t give a damn about rifles and competitions. Is it bad of me to say that?”

No, it was pretty much perfect, so he showed her that by finding her lips again and kissing her harder. He could feel her body pressed tight against his, feel the heat rising in his own body. And then, of all the cursed luck, he could hear the unmistakable sound of footsteps on the boardwalk. “Amelia…”

“I don’t care who sees us.” Her breath was hot on his neck. Maybe he didn’t care either as his lips founds hers again and the blood rushed in his ears.

But the footsteps were louder now.

“Amelia…” He put his hand on her shoulders and pulled her away. “I think the rain has stopped,” he said in a loud voice. “We can probably move on now.”

“Nice night for a stroll, Scott.”

He was glad it was dark under the awning and no-one would be able to see his face if the heat he felt in his cheeks was anything to go by. “Mr Morrison. Mrs Morrison.” He tipped his hat. “I think you’ve met Miss King.”

Amelia didn’t look the least bit embarrassed but then they weren’t friends of her fathers. “I was just saying to Scott, I think the rain has stopped.” She beamed at them both.

“Yes, my dear.” He turned to Scott. “I’m looking forward to the competition tomorrow.” Mr Morrison winked, then said under his breath, “I’ve got a little amount riding on your brother.” He cleared his throat. “Come now, Molly. We’d best leave the young people alone.” And he turned and gave Scott another wink before they walked on.

Scott took Amelia’s hand and tucked it under his arm. Amelia was laughing now. “You should have seen your face when those two showed up.”

“You weren’t helping, Amelia.” He tried to sound severe but she laughed all the more. It was a good sound. An honest sound.

“I suppose we should be going back to the hotel. It must be getting late.” She sounded as excited as he was at the prospect of having to wait until morning before he saw her again.

Fortunately, he managed to find a few more doorways on the way back, but eventually they couldn’t put off the inevitable.

“You’d best not come up.” She took his jacket from around her shoulders and gave it to him once they’d stepped inside the lobby.

There wasn’t a soul around, save the clerk at the desk, a sandy-haired man about Scott’s age, who was having to pretend he didn’t see them as he wrote something in a ledger.

Scott shrugged his jacked on. “Will I see you in the morning?”

Amelia put a hand to her tiny hat and righted it. “Oh dear.” She was looking at the crushed carnation in his buttonhole. “You can take breakfast with me in the dining room at eight.” She took the drooping flower out as she spoke.

He took her hand and kissed it, then let it go. “Goodnight, Miss King.”

“Goodnight, Mr Lancer.”

She walked across to the stairs, stopping only to toss the flower in a bin as she walked by, before heading up to her room.

Chapter 11

Scott took the stairs two at a time on his way back up to their room. He didn’t usually sing out loud, that was more Johnny’s style when he was feeling good with the world, but if it hadn’t been so late, Scott could have almost started singing ‘Aye aye yippee’ or ‘Ki yi yippee’ or whatever it was Johnny liked to sing. On second thoughts, he was pretty sure the words were—

“Oops.”

He was going so fast, as he swung around the corner onto the first floor landing, that he came toe to toe with one of the housemaids he’d seen earlier that day, still at work in her white frilled apron and starched cap. She couldn’t have been much more than fifteen. He put his hands out to save her and then somehow ended up holding her almost in a waltzing position. And he just couldn’t resist. “Shall we dance?” She didn’t say no, and she didn’t look scared, so he took that as a yes. He twirled them both the once before letting her go in the direction she’d been going. Then he bowed and flashed a smile at her. “I beg your pardon. Have a lovely evening. Beautiful weather, isn’t it.”

The girl swayed a little when he let her go, then looked towards the landing window. It was wet with rain.

She giggled, putting her hand over her mouth. “If you say so, sir.”

Scott grinned some more at her. “Oh, I do, I do, I do.”

Scott attacked the next flight of stairs three at a time but when he got to the second floor, he stopped short.   The gaslight in the wall sconces had been turned low but in the dim light he could see Murdoch in the hallway, still in his jacket, pacing back and forth in front of their door, hands dangling at his side.

Scott tried to keep his face straight as he walked up to Murdoch. Johnny would be laughing now if he saw Murdoch. “You forgot your suit of armour.”

Murdoch stopped pacing and looked up with glazed eyes. His thoughts must have been a million miles away.  “What’s that?”

“I’m assuming you’re on guard duty?”

“Oh.” Murdoch’s smile transformed his face. It always made him remember just how much he’d come to like this man. “Something like that. I just wasn’t sure if these people had any other plans for Johnny.”

Murdoch was talking in a low voice, presumably so that Johnny couldn’t hear their voices, so Scott did the same.

“Johnny doesn’t seem to think so.”

“Even if he did, do you think he’d tell us?”

There didn’t seem any point in replying when the answer was so obvious. Of course, there was humour in Murdoch’s annoyance.

“We Lancers are alike, aren’t we. Is Johnny any different than you and me?”

Murdoch chuckled. “Damnably alike,” then he added, “It looks like you enjoyed your walk.” Scott felt the familiar prickles up his spine. Grandfather always managed to make a comment like this sound like an inquisition. Scott really should try to remember that Murdoch—and Johnny for that matter—were not Grandfather.

Anyway, tonight he was feeling charitable towards the entire world. Scott grinned back at him. “That I did.”

Murdoch looked pleased. Genuinely so. “Good.”

“You might as well go to bed now, Murdoch. I don’t think there’ll be any more trouble.” And everything inside Scott was buzzing and he really wanted to just be alone and think about tonight…with Amelia. And what she said…and how soft her lips felt and oh, about a thousand other things.

Murdoch nodded but his sigh said he wasn’t entirely happy, and there was a grim line to his mouth. “You’re probably right. Goodnight, son.” But he didn’t move to his door, instead he stood there, staring at the floor.

Scott hesitated. It didn’t look like Murdoch was going to get much sleep if he was this concerned.

Murdoch looked up, maybe sensing Scott’s indecision. “It’s all right, Scott. Go to bed. We’ll talk more in the morning.”

“Goodnight, Sir.”

Scott walked the few steps to his door. Hopefully Johnny would be asleep. If he had any sense he—

“Scott, Johnny wants to withdraw from the competition.”

Scott spun around. “What?”

There’d been a reluctance in Murdoch’s voice, almost as if the words had been wrung out of him.

Murdoch motioned him to come closer, away from their door. He didn’t speak until Scott was next to him and even then he spoke in a low tone. “He thinks he should pull out. He told me after you left.”

Damn, this was bad. No wonder Murdoch was looking so deflated. Scott felt like the wind had left his sails as well. “I wondered when I saw his hand if he’d be able to shoot.  It must be worse than I imagined if Johnny has decided to pull out. Damn it, he must be feeling pretty bad. He really wanted to win that rifle for—.” He only just stopped in time but when he looked up, Murdoch didn’t seem to have noticed.

It was always a bad sign if Murdoch, who prided himself on speaking the truth, wouldn’t look you in the eye.

“Sir?” Scott waited. Murdoch’s bottom lip was jutting out, as it did sometimes when he was thinking. Eventually Murdoch rubbed his nose a few times, then looked up with all the indications of someone who’s come to a serious decision.

That happy feeling Scott had flowing through him just a few minutes ago was fast ebbing away.

“No, Scott. He wants to withdraw because of you. Well, you and Amelia.”

Scott almost laughed out loud. This wasn’t as bad as finding out Johnny’s hand was irreparably damaged, as he’d feared. “What? Why, that’s ridiculous. I’d never ask him to do that. I don’t even want him to do that.”

“Shhh.” Murdoch held up his finger. “No need for the entire hotel to hear. And I know.” Murdoch ran his hand through his hair. “I told Johnny that but…”

Scott knew all right. “He wouldn’t listen.”

Scott took a deep breath and stared down at the carpet. It didn’t help; the floral pattern with its red and blue cabbage-shaped flowers was as unpalatable as this entire situation.

“I’ll talk to him, Murdoch. Make him see some sense.”

“It might work,” Murdoch finally murmured. “Then again, Scott, we might be worrying over this for nothing. With his hand the way it is, I’m not even sure Johnny will be able to hold a gun, let alone fire it.” Murdoch clenched his own fists. “I’d like to get my hands on whoever did this to Johnny.” He stared down the hallway with such intensity that Scott glanced down the hallway as well, thinking Murdoch really had seen someone standing there.

“I feel the same way, but I doubt very much if Johnny would let us intervene.”

“I’m his father, aren’t I,” Murdoch growled back at him. “And I’ll be damned if I let someone do this to one of my sons. But Scott,” and this time he did pin Scott with his stare, “if it does turn out to be the work of Matthias King, I won’t be going easy on him.”

Scott stared right back at him. “Murdoch, in spite of my feelings for Amelia, I can assure you, I’d be right beside you.” He paused. He shouldn’t have to explain himself but… “I don’t want you to think I’d be willing to look the other way just because…”

All the tension slid out of Murdoch’s expression as he put a hand on Scott’s shoulder. “Scott, I know you too well to ever think that of you.” Murdoch shook his shoulder a few times. “And I understand what you were saying to Johnny about King—and you’re right. It’s never good to jump to conclusions, especially if you already have a reason to dislike someone. We feel much the same way on that point. I just didn’t think Johnny was in the right frame of mind to listen to reason at the time.”

Something let go of Scott. Something he didn’t know he’d been holding onto. “Thank you, Murdoch.”

“You could still be right, you know. I’ve been hearing all over town that people have bet money on Johnny winning. I think this competition has turned into something bigger than any of us foresaw.”

Scott’s mouth turned down. “I don’t think they’d be feeling particularly confident of the outcome if they saw the state of Johnny’s hand.”

Murdoch locked eyes with Scott, his face grim once again. “What would an unethical man do if he found himself on the brink of a big financial loss?”

Scott hesitated. Murdoch was always loyal to his friends. “Perhaps you should ask Ben Irvine?” Scott shrugged his indifference when Murdoch looked at him. “I’m not passing sentence on him, Murdoch, but Aggie told me the other day, if I wanted to place a bet, Ben’s the man to talk to.”

“Ben?” Murdoch shook his head. “No, Scott. I’ve known Ben for years. We started ranching out here at the same time.” But he looked unsettled all the same.

When Scott walked into their room he found the lamp turned low. Johnny was standing by the window, peering outside through a crack in the heavy drapes, far enough away from the door not to have heard his conversation with Murdoch.

Scott couldn’t help smiling. “It will never catch on.”

Johnny’s eyebrows went up as he turned around.

Scott pointed to the satin robe with its padded lapels that Johnny was wearing. “Maybe if it was just a little shorter. It might be the length?” Only Johnny’s white socks showed at the bottom, beneath the red hem.

Johnny grinned. “Murdoch said I was liable to trip over the blanket and break my other hand as well, so he made me wear this.”

“How’s the hand feeling?” He’d seen Johnny flexing it as he stood there, probably not even realising he was doing it.

Johnny pointed towards the bedside table. “By the way, I found your wallet under the bed. You must have kicked it there, somehow.”

Scott kept his gaze right where it was. “Johnny, I’m not letting you pull out of the competition because of me.”

Johnny grunted with a look of disgust, letting the curtain drop back. “Murdoch told you, huh?”

“Don’t blame Murdoch, Johnny. He’s concerned about you. And damned angry, I might add.”

“Yeah, I thought he’d be all riled up because I went down by the railway.”

“He’s not angry about that. He’s in ‘Papa Bear’ mode. He’s angry about whoever did this to you.”

Johnny gave Scott a suspicious look. “He’s mad about this?” He held up his bandaged hand, then a grin spread across his face. “He’s almost the size of a bear, isn’t he. You should have seen how mad he was when those army buddies of yours showed up.”

Scott grinned back. Sometimes he could hardly remember the gruff, angry man he met that first day. “And he was ready to tear Marks limb from limb when he threatened to have you shot.”

“Marks wanted to shoot me?”

“You remember, when he had you and Charlie Poe locked up and—.” Scott wagged his finger. “Uh uh, no you don’t brother.”

“What?”

Scott gave him a knowing look. “You’re trying to change the subject—and it isn’t working. You’re not—“

Scott spun around. Someone was knocking on their door. Scott looked across to his gun belt, hooked over the bedpost where he’d left it. Would he have time to get it? But Johnny had already called out, “Come on in.”

No, he’d run out of time.

Scott glanced at Johnny. He could see the handle of Johnny’s gun in his left hand as he held it across his chest. The gun barrel was tucked under the fold of Murdoch’s robe.

The door jerked open bit by bit, as if someone was having trouble with it. Then the first thing Scott saw was a black boot.

Whew. He relaxed.

It was Scott’s dance partner. She was trying to juggle holding a tray with a coffee pot and three cups and open the door at the same time.

“Here, let me help you.” He jumped forward and took the tray from her but she barely looked at him. Her eyes went straight to Johnny. It was a little too dark in the room to be sure but he was almost positive her face had gone red. Scott grinned to himself. Teresa had had a crush on Miles Barlow until Murdoch sent him packing.

She dropped a quick curtsy. “Sorry to disturb you. But he…the big man that is…he said…before…to bring this to you. Please. If that’s all right. Thank you.”

Johnny’s eyes met Scott’s over the top of her head. Johnny was clearly doing his best to hold in a laugh but Scott felt sorry for the poor kid as he put the tray down on the dresser. “Thank you very much, Miss. We appreciate it.” He gave a few coins to the girl then walked across and held the door wide—it had never quite closed—for her to leave.

“Um…yes…thank you,” she managed to get out, almost walking into the wooden chair that had been left at the foot of the bed.

“Whoa, careful there,” Johnny called out but she managed to keep her balance and walk through the door without further mishap.

Johnny tossed his gun on the bed then went over to the coffee pot. “You want coffee?”

“Thanks. And I think you just made a conquest, Johnny.”  Scott undid his tie then put it over the back of the chair the girl had almost collided with.

Johnny was grinning as he picked up the pot, using the napkin around the handle. “Nah, it must be the robe. You wear one of these things in Boston?” He looked down at himself and wrinkled his nose. “It’s kinda flowery, don’t you think.”

“Says the man who wears a shirt with butterflies embroidered on it. And Johnny, I’m still not going to let you withdraw from the competition.”

Johnny set the pot down but there was a glint in his eyes when he looked up. “What’s it to you, Scott?”

Sometimes kicking Johnny was very tempting. “Plenty, brother. And you can be annoyingly stubborn, you know that.”

“Well, you can thank Murdoch for that.”

There had to be something he could say that would convince Johnny to change his mind. He picked up his wallet and flicked through the notes. It was all so frustrating. Deep in Johnny’s heart, he probably wanted to compete, more than anything.

Johnny handed Scott his coffee, eyeing the wallet.  “You checking the money’s all there?”

“No, I’m checking if my brother still has a brain.” Scott slipped the wallet in his jacket pocket then took the white mug. “It’s not like you to give up, Johnny.”

“Who said anything about giving up?” Johnny said over his shoulder, heading back to the coffee pot.

“That’s what it will look like to whoever did this to you.”

“You think I haven’t thought about that, Scott?” Johnny said in a low voice, without turning around. “I guess it means some things are more important. I thought you’d understand that.”

“Johnny, I don’t even know how I feel about Amelia. I’ve only known her for a few days. It’s true, there’s a lot I like about her—but I know one thing for sure…” He waited until Johnny looked up at him. “If there is something special between Amelia and me, then it has to be strong enough to survive her father losing a competition to you. Otherwise, it isn’t even worth the idea of you giving up competing for me.”

Johnny could have been talking to his chest, his head was that low. “It’s more than that, Scott. If her old man…”

Dammit. Scott banged his cup down. Which wasn’t very smart because coffee went everywhere. “Johnny, it’s not Matthias King I’m wanting to court. And Amelia is enough of her own person not to care either.”

Johnny looked across at him. “You sure of that, Scott. Really sure? I mean, just how well do you know her?”

Scott held his gaze. “I guess I’ll find out tomorrow—when you beat Shorty McCall.”

Scott held his breath. Johnny was standing uncustomarily still.

“Johnny, it’s my life and I’m willing to take the chance.” He let his voice soften. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do. It actually means a lot to me. But we both have a stake in this competition—because I want to see the smile on Murdoch’s face when you give him the One Of One Thousand as well.”

Johnny scratched his ear a few times before finally looking Scott’s way. “You do, huh?”

“I do. And,” he pointed to Johnny’s bandaged hand. “For the sake of whoever did this to you, Murdoch and I both want to see you compete tomorrow and prove to this person that Lancers don’t quit.”

Johnny took a gulp of coffee before looking across at Scott with a one-eyed squint. “You never give up, do you.”

Scott let his smile grow. “What makes you think you and Murdoch are the only stubborn ones in the family?”

Johnny did some more squinting, beating a tattoo on his mug with one finger, but Scott could see his shoulders had dropped a small amount, as if whatever thought had had a hold on Johnny was beginning to let go.

“Well? What about it, Johnny? Are you in?”

It took another few moments, but at last Johnny nodded, holding up his bandaged hand. “I’m not sure how well I’ll go but I sure aim to give it my best shot.”

Scott grimaced. “Ah, yes, that small problem of your hand. I’ve been thinking about what we can do.”

Johnny put his coffee down then held the hand out in front of him, palm up. “I’ve been trying to flex it some.”

Scott shook his head. “We need more than that. I’ve been thinking about what Jelly does when a horse has a strained fetlock.”

“I’m not wrapping a stinky poultice on my hand.”

“Not that. I’m thinking of the cold water Jelly soaks their feet in.” He looked around. “What we need is some really cold water. Some ice from the kitchen would help.”

“I’ll go get some.”

“Um…Johnny.” He pointed at Murdoch’s robe. “It might be better if I go.”

Johnny chuckled. “You think this might be that ‘wrong impression’ that Murdoch’s always talking about.”

.

Scott almost bumped into Murdoch in the hallway. “Murdoch, we have ourselves a competition again.”

Murdoch grinned back at him and slapped his hands together and this time it was Scott who did the shushing.

“I’m going down to get Johnny’s things from the laundry. Could you ask the clerk at the desk to send up an ice bucket and a fresh pitcher of water?”

“Good thinking. Will he be there this time of night?”

“The sandy-haired kid at the desk? He’s always there.”

.

Scott took the backstairs two at a time. The hotel was quiet now, with that sleepy late-night feel. He didn’t pass anyone as he made his way along the corridor that led to the door into the alley.

Talk about a hundred emotions in one night. The time with Amelia felt like a lifetime ago.

Murdoch.

Murdoch pacing outside their door.

He smiled to himself. He really meant it when he said he wanted to see Johnny give Murdoch the rifle. They’d both felt awkward that night, giving Murdoch their gifts. Here was a man who owned—part-owned—the biggest ranch in the San Joaquin and all they had for him was a water-colour painted by a child and a silver Lancer L that was practically useless.

‘He is a good man, who can receive a gift well.’ If that’s the definition of a good man, then Murdoch passed Emerson’s test with flying colours that night. It was as if Scott really had given him the Stereopticon and Johnny his One Of One Thousand. In fact, Murdoch had seemed so moved the night of his birthday, that the both of them were nothing but relieved when Jelly finally showed up with Arabella.

And he was pretty sure that Johnny felt like he did; that whatever had happened in the past, the present was all any of them could have wished for. That was what Scott had wanted the Stereopticon to say to Murdoch.

The same Chinese girl was sitting on her stool when he walked up to the laundry door. Her head was slumped on her chest so she was probably asleep. It must be past midnight. You’d think she’d be allowed to leave her post by now.

He was about to say hello when she jumped up, took one look at him, then rushed inside.

Through the doorway he could see the same bustle as before. A cloud of humidity and the waft of wet clothes hit his face when he walked in a little further. At first he could see no sign of the girl, but gradually the Chinese faces started turning towards him. Was it his imagination, or was there a tension in the air he hadn’t noticed before? One by one, every single worker stopped and stared at him—and there wasn’t a single smiling face among them.

He was an idiot sometimes.  How many times had he wished he’d listened to Johnny and carried his gun?

There was still no sign of the girl from out front and no-one stepped forward to serve him.  “Excuse me.” He addressed the room in general. “I came here to pick up the things I left earlier.”

They all just stared at him. Not a single head bobbed or smiled. Perhaps none of them understood him? “You speekee English?” It was the closest thing to Mandarin he knew.

Suddenly, the six or so in front of him started to shuffle backwards as another man walked between them.

At last. It was the same laundryman who’d taken Johnny’s things from him earlier. Scott was ready to hug him.

He was holding a brown wrapped parcel and a hessian bag. “Here is laundry. You take.”

Scott went to take his wallet from his jacket pocket but the man put out his hands, waving them at Scott like he was shooing him away. “No. You takee laundry. Leave now.”

Scott looked around. Every face was turned his way and not only were they not smiling but they clearly wanted him to go. “Look, I don’t know what’s going on here but…”

“You leave. No trouble.”

“Okay.” Scott gave up. It was none of his business anyway. He went to turn around. But on second thoughts…

He made it to the door with everyone watching him. No-one made a move to stop him, so he kept going, back out into the alley.

The alley was still deserted and the door back into the hotel was only about fifty yards away. None of this made any sense. They’d seemed friendly enough when he dropped the clothes off before. Then again, perhaps he was only imagining their animosity? It was possible they simply didn’t like Americans in their shop.

Scott glanced back a few more times but didn’t see anyone. He shrugged. He’d just have to put it down to another new Western experience. He could ask Murdoch about it…

Or perhaps he was about to find out for himself?

He could hear footsteps. Damn, he really didn’t need this right now. Someone was following him up the alley.

He was almost at the door back into the hotel. He could make a run for it but the door was heavy and if it was someone wanting to attack him, they’d be onto him before he got it open.  He gripped the hessian bag that much tighter. Johnny’s boots were the only weapon he had. At least they still had the spurs attached.

He strained his ears. He was almost sure the footsteps were coming closer. He’d heard about Chinese triads and their secret societies. Was the laundry a cover for an opium den? Had he seen something he shouldn’t see?

In another four steps he’d be at the hotel door. If he was going to make a stand, now was the time. One…two…three…

He spun around, holding the hessian bag out in front of him and ready to throw the parcel holding Johnny’s pants at their face.

He only just stopped in time.

In front of him stood the little Chinese girl from outside the laundry. She was flinching, with her hands held in front of her face for a shield.

Scott took a breath. He needed one to make up for all the breaths he hadn’t taken in the last few moments.

“What are you doing here?” He was so angry with himself. He could have really hurt her.

“I sorry. I sorry.” She was still flinching, with her hands held up. The poor thing. What sort of a life did she have out here? Although at least she wasn’t working in one of the Chinese brothels.

“It’s all right. I won’t hurt you.” He tried to sound as gentle as possible. When he looked into the dark behind her, he saw another girl, dressed in the same black garb of baggy pants and tunic. “Do you want money?”

She shook her head straight away.

Scott looked up and down the alley. There was no-one else to be seen. “Are you in some kind of trouble?” He’d heard the stories of young Chinese girls being sold or simply stolen from their villages.

Both girls kept looking over their shoulders towards the laundry, as if they were afraid of being seen.

“I can’t help you if you don’t tell me.”

She bowed to him, with her hands held together. “Most honourable sir, we talk to you,“ then in a whisper so quiet her words were hard to catch, “about brother.”

What? Had he even heard correctly? “My brother? Johnny?”

She looked down the alley, then back to Scott before nodding her head, with the same scared look.

Scott was beginning to wonder if Johnny had spiked his coffee. None of this was making any sense. The girls kept looking around, as if they were afraid of being seen.

“Would you like to talk inside? You’ll be safe there.”

Neither girl said no, so Scott took the laundry girl’s arm. She didn’t resist as he led her inside and the other girl followed without a word.

When he tried to get her to walk any further than the narrow hallway though, she pulled back. Both of them shrank against the closed door.

“Look, I’m not trying to hurt you. I just want you to tell me about my brother.”

She patted her head. “Hair? Black?”

It took him a second but he finally got it. “Yes, my brother has black hair.” Well, he wasn’t going to try and differentiate between black and dark brown with them.

Then she held out her hand, like a gun. “He shoot? Bang, bang.”

Scott nodded. Hopefully she was trying to make sure she had the right person, not telling him someone was planning to shoot Johnny. There was only one way to be sure. “My brother is Johnny Madrid.”

“Yes…yes…vely flamous.” Her face lit up and now both girls were nodding very hard.

‘Vely flamous.’ He’d have to remember to tell Johnny that one.

“Bad men. Want to hurt.”

Scott stopped smiling inside now. “How do you know this?”

“Hear talk. In alley.”

“When?”

“Tonight. Before you…” she pointed at Scott’s chest, “come. Before rain. They want…” She frowned, like she was trying to find the words, then she held up one hand and made a chopping action on it with her other hand. “Bad men.”

Scott gripped her arm. “Who was it?” But she shrank back and shook her head with wide eyes.

Scott took a breath and let go of her arm. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. But I need to know who it was you saw.”

“No name. I sorry.”

Damn. “Well, what did he look like? Young, old? Was he a rancher? Wearing a suit…?”

He had to stop. She was looking hopelessly confused and no wonder with him badgering her like that.

Then the other girl stepped forward and made zig zag patterns with her fingers in the air. Charades was never his strong point, especially playing with a Chinese girl who knew very little English.

But the other girl had now become excited. “Yes, yes. Likee that.” And she started making the same zig zag patterns in the air: up, then down, up, then down.

Yes, yes, but likee what? Scott scratched his head. “Mountains? He was a big man?” Shorty McCall was a tall man.

“Not big.” His laundry girl started pointing to her head.

“He was wearing a hat? Bald—no hair?”

She frowned at him. “No, no, no.” She clearly thought he was very dim-witted with the look of scorn she was giving him.

Then the second girl said. “Carr-idge,” making the same motion with her hands.

Scott stared at them. Something icy cold started strangling his heart.

It wasn’t the tips on a mountain they were trying to show.

It was the points on a crown.

A crown on a carriage.

Chapter 12

Scott trudged back up the same dark stairs to his room. Only a gloomy lamp spluttered here and there along the stairwell; apparently it was of no concern to the management if the hired help took a tumble and broke a leg.

Someone had put lead in his boots. He trudged up another few steps. His boot heels made a hollow tapping sound that echoed up the cramped stairwell.

His boots weren’t the only thing filled with lead right now.

Surely Amelia couldn’t possibly know what her father had done.

It just wasn’t possible.

Was it?

And just how foolish would this news make him look in front of Murdoch and Johnny—after he’d taken the high road and insisted that Johnny shouldn’t be so quick to judge?

How did he get himself into these situations? He’d promised himself after his dealings with the McGloins that he wasn’t going to be taken in by a pretty face or a hard luck story, again. And yet, here he was—again.

He felt damnably like one of the Union’s hot air balloons that they used for reconnaissance, soaring with the birds one minute then landing with a thud the next.

Had there been anything in King’s speech or demeanour to even remotely suggest he’d go so far as to have his henchmen attack Johnny when he’d talked to King before supper?

He’d only just walked into the lobby after spending the afternoon with Amelia, when he saw King speaking to that sandy-haired clerk who was always at the desk. He’d checked on the threshold; could he just turn around and head out before he was seen?

But it was too late. King turned around at that precise moment and his eyes went straight to Scott standing in the doorway. There was nothing for it but to keep walking in. “Good afternoon, sir.”

King came across and shook his hand. He wasn’t a tall man but his grip was firm and his eyes, very like Amelia’s in colour, met Scott’s with an open and quite friendly regard. Not at all what Scott was expecting after the kerfuffle about wanting to buy Johnny’s horse after the race.

“Scott, it’s good to see you again. Do you have time for a drink with an old man?”

And what was he to say; that he’d just spent the afternoon with Amelia telling him how little she cared for either of her parents? “Of course. It would be my pleasure.” He looked sideways at King as they walked across the lobby and into the bar. “Although perhaps ‘old man’ is a little overstated, sir?” King had the usual crows feet about his eyes and the same lines along his forehead that Murdoch had, but he was hardly in his dotage.

“Everyone ages quickly out here. You’ll find that out for yourself soon enough. A cowboy past thirty creaks like a fifty year old, my boy.” King ran his hand along his thinning hair above his ear and grinned. “I used to have a fine head of hair like yours.”

The hotel bar had been almost deserted. The few men dressed in suits sitting at the tables scarcely looked up when they walked in so it was probable King didn’t know them either.

King ordered a whisky at the bar from a barman who’d pumped King’s hand when he approached and gave him an odd, lop-sided smile, as if half of his face wasn’t working. But his eyes were bright and he was clearly happy to see King.  Scott nodded and ordered the same as the barman turned towards him. It was then that he saw the puckered scarring that started near the man’s left ear then ran down the side of his face.

“Joe’s a fine man,” King murmured with a slight nod in the barman’s direction as the man limped down the other end and out of earshot. “He didn’t fight on the same side as you but we all have to pick ourselves up after a war, don’t we—the losers and winners alike, I’d imagine.”

Scott ran a hand along the polished mahogany. There were no scratches or knife marks on this wood. Or worse. “I have to agree.”

Joe came back and opened a new bottle of whisky, pouring a generous amount into each glass. He winked at Scott. “Nothing but the best for Mr King.”

“Don’t you worry, I’ve drunk my fair share of bad whisky, Joe. How are Gladys and the little ones doing?”

“They’re doing mighty fine, Mr King. Mighty fine.” Joe beamed at them both some more before walking away.

Well, all that had been something of a surprise.

“Joe used to work for me,” King said, as if he’d read Scott’s mind. “But ranching was too much for him with his injuries.”

Only one thing would account for Joe’s eagerness to serve King. “So, you got him a job here?”

King shrugged as he put a hand to his mouth and cleared his throat. It was an awkward gesture. “I have my contacts. It comes in handy.” Then he picked up his glass and took a gulp of whisky, shifting his shoulders as if a burr was stuck in his shirt.

The shrug, the embarrassed look; he’d seen Murdoch downplay a kindness he’d performed in just the same way any number of times. In fact, the first time he’d seen it had signalled his first warming towards Murdoch. Hiding your light under a bushel was so much the opposite of something Grandfather might do.

So, they’d stood at the bar talking, all the while Scott wishing he was some place else. No, that wasn’t true. At first he’d felt that way—it was hard to replace everything that was gorgeous about Amelia in his mind with the reality of her father—but King definitely had some interesting tales to tell about life, starting out as a boot polisher on the streets of New York. “Poor old Finnegan just keeled over in the snow one day and never got up. That’s how I got my blacking kit. Hah.” His laugh wasn’t really a laugh. It was more like an exhaled grunt that was a strange mix of both bitterness and gratitude. Then he talked of how he’d started life as a landowner with a rundown pig farm. “And who knew a baby pig could be so blamed cute. Hah.” He slapped a hand on the bar. “Needless to say, my pig-farming days were short-lived.”

“But you’ve done well now, sir.”

“And I’ve got plenty of grey hairs to show for it. Not to mention a daughter and wife who—who mean the world to me.” King seemed to grimace but the expression was so fleeting it was hard to tell if Scott imagined it, especially as King started talking about the difficulties of ranching and some of the hardships he’d faced practically in the next breath.

“And that’s why we need to look for better ways to farm and run a ranch. They eulogise the western life back East.” King took a gulp of whisky with a curious look, almost a shudder, as if he didn’t really enjoy it. “But it’s a hard life. It makes old men of our youth.” He put his glass on the bar and stared into his whisky. “And shrivels the souls of our womenfolk.”

He hadn’t seen anything shrivelled about Amelia’s soul. “That’s a bleak outlook, sir.”

“Ha.” King took another gulp. “The dangers of whisky. It makes you maudlin.” And then he ordered another one.

“Not for me.” Scott squinted as he lifted his own glass to show it was still half full. The last of the sun’s rays were streaming through the window and into his eyes. It gave the polished mahogany an orange glow.

“How rude of me. Scott, move along. I can’t have the sun blinding you.” Scott protested that he was fine but King insisted they move further along the bar to an area out of the sun’s rays.

Scott was just wondering when he could make his escape when King leaned forward and said in a serious tone, “Listen, Scott, I’m sorry about the business with your brother and his horse. It’s a magnificent animal.”

Scott stiffened. Was this what it was all about? Was he being softened up in order for Scott to sway Johnny into selling Barranca?

King rubbed his chin, shaking his head. “But when Amelia wants something, how can I say no?”

“That horse means a lot of my brother.”

“It would have had pride of place in my stable, too. We have a beautiful set-up.”

King wasn’t even looking at Scott now. It was as if he was seeing Johnny’s horse with the King brand on its rump in his mind’s eye. “Mr King, I thought my brother made it clear to you that the horse isn’t for sale.”

“What?” King’s eyes refocused as he looked at Scott. “What’s that you say?”

“My brother’s horse—.”

King clapped him on the shoulder. “No…no, of course it’s not for sale. I understand that. My mouth runs away from me sometimes. But when Amelia wants something…well, you just spent the afternoon with her. It isn’t easy to say no.”

And Scott could understand that. “She did tell me she likes to collect pretty things.”

“She told you that?” King looked surprised. “Really?”

“Is that such a bad thing for a young girl?”

“I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s my fault? At her age I owned one well-worn suit and…well, that was pretty much it. And it was two sizes too big for me.”

“At least it gave you room to grow.”

“Hah.” He slapped Scott on the back. “But I blame myself for that in Amelia. Pretty things are all very well but you know what the old adage says: It’s what’s underneath that counts.”

And he could imagine what was underneath Amelia was very fine indeed. Scott drained his glass. It was becoming awkward. He could hardly tell King that he should spend more time with his daughter if he wanted to get to know her—but from what Amelia had told him, neither of her parents had had a lot of time for her. Scott’s grandfather had given him many gifts over the years but what he treasured most, now that he was an adult, was the time Grandfather had spent teaching him to play chess and his talks in the carriage as they ‘took the air’ as Grandfather called it, in the carriage every Sunday afternoon.

He was about to make his excuses when King said, “I like that—the way you call him your brother.”

What the devil was King getting at now? “I call him my brother because that’s what he is.”

“Hah.” King waved a hand in the air as if being a brother was neither here nor there. “I wonder what your grandfather would think of that? No…no…” he held up his hand, as Scott went to protest, “No disrespect to your grandfather but we both know there’s a small mindedness in Boston society, especially with the old money, at any rate. It’s an exclusive club. I congratulate you on having the good sense to escape it.”

A familiar irritation was making its way up Scott’s spine about then. Scott’s grandfather was no concern of King’s. Mind you, King’s last words about escaping the Boston crowd had seemed sincere. And yes, he was happy to escape it, even though it meant leaving behind some good friends, not to mention his grandfather.

King drained the last of his glass then turned to Scott “It’s men like Murdoch Lancer who will shape this country into the very best it can be. He’s the perfect mix—the dreamer and the doer. You can’t have one without the other.”

“And you, Sir?”

“Me? I’m the scrubber. Pushing my way into the circle. Wanting to play with the big boys.”

“From what I’ve heard, you’re already in the circle.”

But he did remember King’s last words. “Your brother is a tough opponent. I like that. But you should warn him—I’m going to win. Men like me need to win.”

“Why?”

He laughed. “Because I don’t have his strength. It’s the curse of all weak men.”

.                                               

“My hand’s going numb, Murdoch.”

“Good, that’s what we need.”

Murdoch had made him sit up in bed with the bowl of cold water on his lap. He’d taken off Murdoch’s robe and they’d found an extra blanket in the cupboard to wrap around his shoulders. Every so often, Murdoch would get up from the stuffed chair in the corner and add some ice to the bowl.

“Are you sure I have to do this?” The cold was spreading up his arm making his bones ache. He’d never done this sort of thing before. He’d always just got on and did the job that had to be done and worried about the pain later. It usually went away all by itself if you waited long enough.

Murdoch glanced up just once from the book in his hands. It looked like an old one. The red cover was battered and the pages were yellow. “It should help keep the swelling down. That’s what you want, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, I guess.” He’d never be able to fire a gun if his hand was twice its size. It sure was quiet in the hotel this time of night. The rooms Johnny usually stayed in had paper thin walls. Wes swore he could hear cockroaches scuttling across the floor in the room next door one time. Poor old Wes, he hated the darn things. Johnny had to stop him from going in there and shooting up the floor. ‘Course Wes was full as a tick at the time. “Where’s Scott? I thought he’d be back by now.”

“He’ll be back soon.”

“Can I take my hand out now?”

“No.” Murdoch didn’t even look up.

He flexed his fingers, watching the water move around them. “What’s the time?”

This time Murdoch looked up. “Five minutes past the last time you asked.” He was using his ‘I’m trying to be patient with you’ voice.

Johnny wriggled his way further near the bed head. His hand wasn’t the only thing going numb. “You know how it is, Murdoch; time moves real slow when you’re sitting around doing nothing. Besides,” he nodded towards the book Murdoch was holding, “you’ve probably read that same line five times.”

A slow smile spread across Murdoch’s face as he closed the book with a snap. “Call me Ishmael.”

“Why the heck would I do that?”

Murdoch laughed, that deep rumbling one he used when something Johnny said struck him as funny. “That, Johnny-my-boy, is the first line of the book.” He held it up for Johnny to see. “I found it in my room. Someone must have left it in the drawer by mistake. I’ve read Melville’s other books but not this one. Interesting beginning.”

“Well, what’s it about?”

Murdoch laughed again. “I don’t know. You won’t let me get past the first few pages.”

He stood up and came across, peering into the bowl. “We’re doctoring your hand the only way we know how, Johnny.” He sounded like he was saying sorry he couldn’t do more.

“Yeah, I know. Sorry, Murdoch.”

“Well, it’s probably been long enough. Why don’t you take your hand out and we’ll try bandaging it.”

Once his hand was out, Murdoch took the bowl and put it back next to the pitcher. Johnny looked at his hand. It was paler than usual but red around the broken skin and right now it ached liked the devil, but it was hard to tell if that was from the ice or the injury. It was better not to think about it. Better not to think about how the hell he was going to hold a gun tomorrow.

Murdoch stretched his back. “I wonder if we can get some more coffee? There might still be someone downstairs.”

Johnny looked at the door, as did Murdoch. The doorknob was turning.

“This should be Scott…now,” Murdoch finished, as Scott walked in.

He only had to take one look at Scott to see something wasn’t right. He went to scramble out of bed but Murdoch put a hand on his shoulder. When he looked up Murdoch shook his head the tiniest bit.

Scott came in slowly. He put a brown paper package and a hessian bag up on the bureau but he didn’t look across at either Murdoch or him.

“We were getting worried, Scott.” It sounded like Murdoch was trying to calm a bronc; so, he could see something was wrong, too. “Did you have any trouble?”

“No, not trouble exactly.” Scot took a deep breath. “It looks like we were wrong, Murdoch. And I have an apology to make to Johnny.”

“Why?” Johnny didn’t mean to snap but what the heck was Scott talking about?

“It turns out Johnny was right.” Scott turned to Johnny. “Matthias King was the man behind your attack.”

Johnny flashed a look at Murdoch but he was looking as confused as Johnny felt. “You know for sure?”

Scott sat down on the opposite bed. His face was looking kind of grey but maybe that was the light? Whatever it was, he was looking just about as shaken as Johnny had ever seen him. Johnny kept quiet as Scott told them about the two Chinese girls and what they’d heard in the alley. Now that the truth was out his head was about as numb as his hand had felt in the water. Knowing who arranged the attack didn’t change anything and it sure didn’t help. He was still sitting here with a busted hand.

Murdoch was nodding. “They keep the carriages back there behind the hotel. I suppose it’s possible these girls could have heard what they said they heard. Did they see King himself?”

Scott shook his head. “They couldn’t hear the voice inside the carriage. It was the men speaking outside that they heard. But Johnny and I saw the crown emblazoned on the side door of the King carriage the first day we were here.”

Johnny dried his hand on the towel. Now that he knew it was King, he wished it wasn’t. “Well, what were they saying, Scott?”

“From what I could make out, they were told to follow you and make sure you wouldn’t be able to shoot.”

Murdoch’s frown said everything Johnny was feeling. “I don’t understand, Scott. Why would these women tell you this?”

Scott grinned for the first time. “Their words were, ‘He smile. He nice.’”

“It was those girls?” Johnny looked at Murdoch. “I passed them when I was heading back inside. I didn’t want to walk through the lobby looking like Val in his Sunday best, so I went the back way, down the side alley.”

Scott stood up. Well, jumped up was more like it. “Apparently everyone, even the Chinese, know about the competition. When the girls saw you come back with an injured hand, they realised who you were and what had happened. They told their fathers but from what I could make out, the Chinese workers in the laundry are afraid of King. Or his wife. I’m not sure which.”

“His wife?”

“Don’t mess with a woman whose dress you’ve ruined. The girls said, ‘Big mistake. Woman very angry. Say, she tell hotel boss.’ She’s got the laundry workers scared. They shooed me out like I had the plague. Wouldn’t even take any money.”

Murdoch picked up the roll of bandage from near Johnny’s leg. “I don’t blame them. They probably can’t afford to make even more of an enemy of King.”

Everyone was quiet for a few moments. Johnny stretched out his legs. Dios, he felt bad for Scott.

Scott stood up and took Johnny’s boots out of the hessian bag, then he tossed Murdoch the paper package, before taking his jacket off and draping it over the back of a chair. Johnny exchanged a look with Murdoch. It was clear Murdoch didn’t like seeing Scott like this any better than he did.

“Hold out your hand, Johnny.” Murdoch sat on the edge of the bed, making it squeak and groan.

Johnny put his left hand under his wrist to hold his hand up. He flicked a look at Scott sitting on the other bed pulling his boots off. “Just because her old man’s a heel doesn’t mean Amelia had anything to do with it. I’d be real surprised if she did.”

Scott sighed. “I know, Johnny. I’ve told myself the same thing.”

“Then believe it,” Murdoch said.

Scott looked at Murdoch. “You want the truth? I’m not sure if I’m more disappointed in King or in myself for having believed in him. There was an honesty about him that I liked. He reminded me a little of you.” Scott gave Murdoch half a smile, like he didn’t know if Murdoch would take his words as a compliment.

And maybe Murdoch wasn’t sure either—his hand froze just as he was about to bring the bandage back around again. Johnny darted a look at Murdoch’s face but he’d already started bandaging again.

“I mean the way he had to work his way up in the world,” Scott was saying. “He started out with nothing…built his ranch with hard work and sacrifice.”

“Yeah well—ow, Murdoch, not so tight—I’ve met men like King. They say all the right things when you first meet’em but within a week they’re trying to pull the rug out from under your boots.”

“I know…I know…I’ve met that kind of man as well.” He shook his head. “For some reason, King didn’t strike me like that.”

Murdoch rubbed his bottom lip then looked at the both of them. “The question is, what are we going to do with this information?”

“We could go to the law but I doubt if the girls would—.”

Johnny held up his good hand. “Nope…nothing. We do nothing.”

Scott stared at him like he was crazy. “Are you going to just let King get away with it?”

“What can we do? Like you say, the girls won’t talk. King’s not going to admit to anything. And I don’t see it will help any if we try taking on King’s hard cases. No sense in anyone else getting busted up.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

“Well, there must be something we can do.”

“There is.” He tried flexing his hand. “I can win that rifle. That’s the only way to take down a man like King. Losing that competition will be hitting him in the place where it hurts the most.”

Murdoch looked at the both of them. “Even the tallest tree is no match for an axe.”

“I hate to say it but.”  Scott pointed at Johnny’s hand. “Our axe is a little blunt right now. And we don’t even know what the format of the competition is going to be.”

Johnny grinned at him. “Well, I’ll tell you what, brother—if I lose, I’ll give you the honour of smashing the first fist into King’s face.”

Only Scott wasn’t laughing as he undid the buttons on his shirt. “Johnny, I assure, you, that will be my pleasure.”

Chapter 13

When Scott opened his eyes, Johnny was already dressed in his leather pants and red shirt. Well, almost red shirt. His dark hair was brushed and shiny. He certainly didn’t look like a man who’d been beaten up in a dark alley—except for the mark on his cheek that was going to turn into a fully-fledged bruise in a few days.

“Come on, take if off, Murdoch,” Johnny was saying, flexing his fingers beneath the bandage, as much as they’d allow.

Scott sat up and they both turned to look at him. Johnny grinned. “Morning sleepyhead.”

“What’s the time?” He could tell by the sun coming through the window that it was already later than he wanted.

Murdoch took his watch out. “I make it seven forty-five.”

He shot up out of bed and grabbed for his clothes then pulled his pants on over the drawers he’d worn to bed last night.

“I think someone’s got a date,” Johnny remarked, as if he was talking to no-one in particular.

Did he have a date? Scott dipped his cupped hands into the bowl of water Johnny had already used and then scrubbed the soapy water on his face.

“Amelia’s a fine girl,” Murdoch murmured, as if he too, was talking to the air.

Scott straightened up and snatched at the towel. “If the both of you have something to say, why don’t you come out and say it.”

“Hey, Scott, there’s no need to be snappy. We went over this yesterday.”

“Exactly.” Murdoch didn’t look the least bit perturbed by Scott’s tone as he unravelled the last of the bandage. “She seems like a lovely young lady.”

Scott stared at them both. Of all the—.

A drop of water landed on his chest.

Then another rolled off his chin.

He took the towel and dried his face. He was an idiot sometimes.

The tension in his chest started to subside.

Why should he be angry and Murdoch and Johnny? They hadn’t done anything wrong. In fact, they were doing everything they could to make things easier for him and Amelia, if that’s what he wanted.

And that was the question—just what did he want?

He slung the towel over his shoulder and turned to face them. “My apologies. I’ve no cause to be angry at either of you.”

Murdoch took the last of the bandage from Johnny’s hand. “That’s all right, Scott. How does it feel, John? Can you make a fist?”

Johnny looked down at his hand and wriggled his fingers. “I’m not aiming to punch anyone, Murdoch, I’ve just got to be able to fire a gun.” He flexed his fingers some more but—

Scott’s eyes met Murdoch’s. They both knew it wasn’t looking good. In spite of the soaking and the bandage, Johnny’s fingers looked swollen and he clearly wasn’t able to move them with any ease.

“Scott, Amelia’s not responsible for who her father is. None of us are,” Johnny was saying. “I mean, look who we got stuck with.”

“Exactly.” He grinned at Murdoch then hung the towel on a hook beside the night stand. Nowadays, it was easier for Johnny and him to let their affection show. Hard to believe it was only just over a year since they’d come to Lancer.

“That’s enough you two, or I’ll have you both on open range round-up for a month when we get home.”

“You hear that Scott? He’s threatening us, now.”

Scott grinned but his eyes met Murdoch’s again as he shrugged his shirt on.  Johnny had walked across and taken his gun from the gun belt draped around the bedpost. Was Murdoch going to mention the elephant in the room to Johnny—or was he leaving it to Scott?

Murdoch started to roll up the bandage. Scott couldn’t miss the smudgy patches of red as it dangled to the floor but the jab in his chest was unexpected. The kisses with Amelia didn’t seem quite so sweet of a sudden. He put his head down and did up the buttons on his shirt. This wasn’t a war. Why should he feel guilty? Both Johnny and Murdoch made it clear that they didn’t see Amelia as the enemy.

When he looked up, Murdoch was turning the rolled bandage over in his hands but he was keeping a furtive eye on Johnny. Well, one of them had to say something and clearly Murdoch was reluctant to mention what the both of them were thinking. “So, how’s your hand, Johnny? Really.” He tried to make his words sound as casual as possible but it was unlikely Johnny was fooled.

Johnny shrugged as he spun the chamber. At least he was able to hold his gun in his right hand but it looked awkward and Scott could see a muscle twitching along Johnny’s jawline. “A little stiff. Could be worse.”

Murdoch pulled at a loose thread on the roll of bandage. “Johnny, it’s possible,” and he hesitated, looking up then flicking a glance in Johnny’s direction, “it’s possible you have a broken bone in your hand. Maybe even several.”

To be honest, Scott didn’t think his hand looked good either. “Murdoch could be right, Johnny.”

Johnny didn’t reply. Instead, he put his gun in the holster and wrapped the belt about his hips.

“Johnny—.” Murdoch drew his name out, but it was a gentle remonstration. All Scott could hear was concern.

Johnny didn’t look up. His whole attention seemed to be on doing up the buckle and getting the belt to sit right on his hips. But Scott knew he could do all this with his eyes closed. He’d done it a few months ago when he was blind.

Eventually, Johnny spoke into his chest. “I’m not backin’ down, Murdoch.”

He sounded mulish. Obstinate. Well, Scott couldn’t blame him. Johnny had been like a kid at Christmas when he’d walked in the barn with Murdoch’s rifle. Scott had felt the same way about the Stereopticon. He still remembered the crushed look on Johnny’s face when he came home with no rifle, just the silver L. He wouldn’t even talk about it at first. It took all Scott could do to worm it out of him and even if Johnny only told him half of what had gone on, which was probably the case because he hadn’t really explained the bruise on his face, he could well and truly understand why Johnny was so determined to win the rifle this time.

All the same, he didn’t want to see Johnny hurt himself. He walked across and stood next to Murdoch. “You know, you’re in danger of damaging your hand permanently if it is broken.”

Johnny finished doing up his belt but when he looked up he was smiling like he hadn’t heard a thing Scott said. “Come on, you two.” He waved his good hand at the window. “The sun’s shining. Scott’s got a date with a beautiful woman and me,” and he half turned and started walking towards the door, “Well, my stomach’s calling for some of those fluffy hot cakes they made for breakfast yesterday.”

Scott shook his head. Johnny was incorrigible at times. And stubborn. And foolhardy.

“Come on,” Johnny added, before disappearing out the door.

Scott looked at Murdoch. “You know what he’s doing, don’t you.”

Murdoch’s sigh was long—and expressive. “Yes, I know what he’s doing. But he’s not a child, Scott. It’s his decision to compete. All we can do is support him.”

By the time they walked through the door and into the hallway, Johnny was a few feet away but suddenly he spun around. “Oops, I forgot something. I’ll see you both down there, huh.”

Amelia was already seated at the table when Scott and Murdoch walked into the dining room. Nearly all the chairs at the tables were occupied and the room was buzzing with talk and laughter. Her mother sat one side of Amelia but on the other side was an empty seat. He was probably imagining it but he swore he could smell that rose scent she wore even as he weaved his way past the other tables to where she sat. She saw him and gave him a sunny smile that matched the sky blue stripes on her white dress. Her lips looked even more kissable than they had yesterday. Then again, he now knew just how good it felt to be kissed by them.

By her.

It took an effort to come back to the present—and the first person his eye landed on was Matthias King.

Amelia must have seen something in his expression because her smile faltered just the tiniest bit. But it was the look of confusion in her eyes that stabbed at him. Damnit, he didn’t want to hurt her.

Mrs King looked up when she saw Scott coming but when her eyes landed on him, her glance switched to something behind him as if it was a mere accident she’d even noticed him in the first place. It was very smooth, and she could almost have got away with it except for an almost imperceptible something in her expression. If this had been a melodrama she would have curled her lip. Oh well, perhaps he’d imagined it? But for whatever reason, he was clearly persona non grata with Mrs King.

Amelia had hinted her mother was something of a snob. There was a first for everything, he supposed. After having been drilled with a sense of his own importance and standing in the community from a young age by Grandfather, which was supposedly meant to protect him from the wiles of fortune hunters, here was Amelia’s mother looking down her very long, snooty nose at him. Apparently, he was an unworthy suitor for her daughter.

“Scott.” There was no denying the warmth in Amelia’s greeting at any rate.

He took her hand and let his lips brush the back of it. Then, on second thoughts, he kissed it with a pressure her mother would no doubt disapprove of, just for good measure. “Good morning, Miss King. It looks like the rain has stopped this morning.”  A flush of pink touched her cheeks and for a second she looked adorably embarrassed. Perhaps, like him, she was having a hard time forgetting what had happened. Either that or maybe she wasn’t as experienced as he’d supposed by her kisses in the doorway last night? That made him check. If he hadn’t been so carried away himself, he might have considered that conventions were always easier to discard in the dark. Good Lord, he was no seducer of young innocents—not that they’d gone that far—but he’d kissed her with passion, not restraint.

“You can let go of my hand, Scott.” Amelia was staring into his eyes. She sounded unsure.

He let go of her hand. “My apologies. It’s a particularly beautiful hand.”

She laughed now, the uncertainty gone from her expression, but he could sense an intensity in the way she looked at him. Something had changed between them—or in her. The picnic yesterday had been fun, but it had been an exploration of sorts between them; the wind could have carried their boats in separate directions and they might have waved goodbye with a pang in their hearts, but waved goodbye, nonetheless. But now he could feel that undeniable tethering that relationship brings; that his actions and emotions, for better or worse, would have a direct impact on another.

King threw his napkin on the table and stood up. “Hah, I bet you’re a fine judge of horseflesh, too, Scott. Unfortunately, I can’t take the credit my daughter’s perfection.”

Well, that brought him back to his senses—like a slap in the face. And by King, of all people. “No, but you can take the credit for another hand, can’t you, Mr King.”

King was good. The look he gave Scott was bland. Confused even.

Scott felt a sudden pressure on his shoulder. “Morning, King,” Murdoch said in his calm way. “Mrs King. Amelia.”

Scott felt like saying, ‘It’s okay, Murdoch. I don’t plan on making a scene. Not in front of Amelia.’

Perhaps, fortunately, he ended up saying nothing at all because just then, Johnny sauntered across to the table. He was all gunfighter this morning, with that smooth, cat-like grace that was so evident in him at times. It fitted him like a glove. And speaking of gloves, Johnny was wearing black leather ones. That was odd. He’d never seen Johnny wear gloves before.

“Morning all.” Johnny was at his most polite.

Both King and Amelia replied but Mrs King inclined her head at Murdoch. “Mr Lancer, how do you do. I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure.”

“The pleasure’s all mine, Mrs King.”

Mrs King was going to roast in her brocade outfit if she intended to watch the competition today. The gold silk ensemble would have cost a pretty penny. No wonder the laundry workers were quaking in their boots if this was the type of dress she was wanting cleaned. On second thoughts, he jolly well hoped she did roast.

“Perfect weather for the contest this morning, Lancer.” Matthias King was brimming over with enthusiasm and Scott was ready to punch him. “Is your boy ready to take on my boy?” King eyed Johnny with a shrewd glance.

Johnny gave him one of his quiet smiles—the type he used when he was sizing someone up and finding him wanting. It annoyed the hell out of most people, Scott included, especially whenever he thought back to their early days at Lancer.

“My son,” and Murdoch emphasised the word, “is ready to take on your hired gunman. I think that would be a more accurate description, don’t you?”

“Hah, to be sure.” King’s laugh was more like a growl. “I pay a king’s ransom for McCall’s services. I hope he’s worth it. What do you think, Johnny?”

Scott didn’t know how it was but it was as if most of the conversation in the room had lulled at the same time.

“Well, Mr King, Shorty’s been shy of going up against me for a long time. I guess today he’ll get his chance.” Johnny’s quiet words almost sounded loud in the room. “Difference is he’ll get to walk away—this time.”

The noise in the room started up again, only it had increased several notches.

Johnny didn’t seem to notice he had most of the room talking. Or if he did, he didn’t care.

“Well, the best man will win. You can’t argue against that, father.” Amelia’s tone sounded brittle. She seemed to be the only member of her family who could sense the tension in the air.

“By the way, I just came over here to tell you that I won’t be recommending your appointment as president of the association.” Murdoch spoke in the same pleasant manner he’d used earlier. “I’ll be telling anyone who asks me that they should vote for Purcell. He’s always been a man of integrity and a champion of…” Murdoch’s eyes seemed to bore into King’s, “fair play.”

Not a muscle moved in King’s face. Not a flicker of emotion showed in his eyes. He’d be a formidable poker opponent.

“I’m not bothered by your decision, Lancer. There are plenty of ranchers who see things my way.”

“Well, I guess we’ll discover if that’s true or not come voting time. And King, I don’t hold with men who use violence to get what they want.” Murdoch nodded at the women. “Mrs King. Amelia. Enjoy your breakfast.”

This was the moment Scott was dreading. Amelia was looking at him with an open question in her eyes, now. He didn’t want to hurt her but given the circumstances, he couldn’t possibly sit at a table and pretend he didn’t want to punch her father in the nose. So, he smiled at her and tried to show with his eyes there was a reason he wasn’t sitting next to her. “I look forward to seeing you after breakfast, Amelia.” He put as much feeling as he could into his words but he felt worse than a rat all the same.

As they took their seats at a table with Aggie Conway, Johnny murmured under his breath, “It don’t matter none where you sit, Scott.”

“Thanks Johnny,” Scott murmured back, “but having to look at King’s face while I’m eating would only give me indigestion.”

Johnny laughed. “You can say that again, brother.”

Chapter 14

“It’s a fine day, Johnny.” Murdoch looked up at the sky as they walked out of town. They were practically rubbing shoulders with dozens of other folk on the sidewalk. Johnny guessed they were all heading to watch the competition. Already he’d seen plenty of stores with signs in the window saying they were closed for half a day.

His old man was trying to sound hopeful.

“Sure is. Blue sky. No wind.” Johnny walked alongside him—always a chore if Murdoch was in a hurry.  This morning, though, they’d only walked a half-dozen steps past the hotel when Murdoch looked sideways at Johnny then slowed his pace.

They’d left the boardwalk now and were heading out to the open fields at their end of town. It was mostly dry underfoot except for a few boggy patches from last night’s rain. Teresa would’ve been oohing over the buttercups growing in the grass if she’d been here, and talking about their bright faces. For her sake, he tried to keep his boots from squashing them. At least it gave him something to do—besides trying to keep up with Murdoch.

He pulled his hat a little lower over his eyes. It was mid-morning and the sun already had a sting to it. His hands felt sticky inside his gloves. One of the reasons he hated wearing’em. Just another thing to thank Matthias King for.

Murdoch was talking about yesterday’s meeting but Johnny only had half an ear open. He didn’t feel so good. Murdoch and Scott had been watching him like hawks, so he’d forced down a stack of hotcakes, smothered in butter and syrup. His belly was paying him back by churning something fierce.

Murdoch had a way of frowning when he talked sometimes, but today, if he caught Johnny looking at him, Johnny could almost see him cranking the handle to turn his frown into something you’d almost call a smile. It added to the twisting in Johnny’s gut. He didn’t want Murdoch worrying. Hell, Johnny was probably doing enough of that for both of them. Three of them, if he included Scott.

When they rounded the bend Johnny just about turned around to head straight back to the hotel. If half the town had watched the horse race, it looked like the whole town had come to watch the shooting competition. Ladies were tricked out in Sunday dresses and their menfolk were in their best bib and tucker and carrying a picnic basket on their arm.

It was the same open land at the edge of town where the horse race had finished but now folk had set up tents to sell their lemonade and baked goods and jams. They’d even built a stage and had a band playing. Banks was up on the stage, calling to the crowd through a trumpet that made his voice boom.

“You sure this ain’t the Fourth of July, Murdoch.”

“I had no idea Banks had planned such a big event.” Even Murdoch sounded taken aback. “It’s not usually this grand.”

Johnny had to stick a grin on his face, not so much for Murdoch’s sake, but for all the people looking his way and pointing at him. He was the prize bull being led into the auction yard. Normally, he wouldn’t give a damn. Would even kind of like it. After all, he’d spent more hours than you could poke a stick at, learning to be good at his trade.

“Whoa, boys. Watch where you’re going.” Johnny reached out his good hand to dodge a group of boys that were running around, shooting at each other with wooden guns and getting in everybody’s way. A three legged mutt was following them, scraggly tail wagging, barking at anyone who paid him some attention and just having the time of its life. Well, good luck to him.

When Johnny looked up, a passel of Murdoch’s rancher friends was heading their way.

“Howdy, Murdoch. Johnny. Fine day for it.”

“Murdoch, I’ve got money riding on young Johnny, here.”

“Johnny, you show’em, boy.”

“Have you made up your mind who you’re voting for tonight, Lancer? All the best to you, Johnny.”

And on and on it went. He lost track of how many they talked to. Some Murdoch didn’t even know but his old man managed to shake their hands and sort of corralled Johnny with his bulk so that no-one shoved a hand his way for him to shake. All the same, he was getting tired of the number of faces that peered at him and wished him luck and said they had money riding on him and hoped that Murdoch had a place to put the rifle.

They all took it for granted that Johnny was going to win.

Only the whole time he was still tasting the dream he’d had last night. It left him sour and out of sorts inside his head. But he couldn’t show that to these folks. So he smiled and nodded and grinned at their jokes, real polite.

Murdoch was talking to Paul Watson now. Watson was wheezing away and telling Murdoch that him and Ben Irvine were thinking of backing King for president.

“Well, we aren’t fully sure,” Irvine put in. “What do you think of King, Murdoch?”

At least they weren’t talking to Johnny. Right now, Johnny didn’t didn’t give a damn who Watson voted for.

He put his hand on his holster. Yep, his gun was still there. Solid, hard. An old friend.

Not like in his dream:

It had given him a hell of a fright when he went to draw and found no gun. Shorty, meanwhile, was shooting at ducks in the sky, by the hundreds. Every time he hit one, it would squawk and explode in a puff of feathers. It was the darndest thing. Pretty soon, Johnny could hardly see for feathers floating in front of his eyes.

He just about danced a jig when he finally felt the handle of his gun—but he still couldn’t draw because his fingers were tangled up in something.  When he looked down he couldn’t believe it; how the hell had he walked out in Murdoch’s silky robe?  The damned sleeves were so long they covered his fingers. He started to panic, cussing and yelling at Shorty. But Shorty just stood there grinning— with his gun pointed at Johnny’s chest.

And now he understood; it wasn’t about winning a rifle any more. It was about living or dying.

He saw Shorty’s finger on the trigger…

And then he woke up, sweating like a pig, with his hand on fire.

“You ain’t looking so good, Johnny. You feeling okay?” Paul Watson was peering at Johnny and rubbing the bristles on his chin. It sounded like sandpaper scratching along wood.

“No, I’m fine. Real fine, Mr Watson.”

Paul jabbed him in the side and winked. “Just as well. For the minute there I thought I oughtta change my bet. You better get over to the stage, son. They’ll be calling for you, soon.” Then Watson stuck his hand out. “I want to wish you all the best, Johnny.”

What the Dickens was he going to do? These old timers had grips like the jaws of a bear and then they’d pump your arm ten times for good measure.

Where the hell was Murdoch?

He started smiling at Watson. Hell, think, Johnny.

“I…ah…I never shake hands before a gunfight.”

“Not that this is a gunfight,” he heard Murdoch add from behind, just a bit louder than he needed to. He must have been caught up, talking to Ben Irvine, but now he moved across to Johnny, smiling, for all the world just enjoying the joke.

“Nope, it’s not life or death,” Watson wheezed out, but already his eyes had lost their focus and he seemed to be thinking about something else.

Murdoch put his arm around Johnny’s shoulders. “If you’ll excuse us. We’d better keep moving. Johnny will have to get ready.”

“Sure…sure.” Watson moved off and Irvine followed, wishing Johnny all the best as he went.

Murdoch kept his arm around Johnny’s shoulders as they walked through the crowd. “I thought Scott would be here by now.”

It was just like Murdoch to change the subject. “Thanks, Murdoch.”

He gave Johnny’s shoulder a bit of a squeeze. “Just doing my best to keep you in one piece. I’m not sure how much time you’ve got. Do you want to head across to Brown and find out what’s happening?”

Then Johnny caught sight of Aggie waving at them. Murdoch waved back.

No matter how much he liked Aggie, he just couldn’t face her. “Murdoch, I’ll be there in a minute. I’ve just gotta…maybe get me a drink.”

“Are you okay, Johnny?”

Hell no. “Sure. I’ll catch up in a minute.”

He managed to make his way through the crowd to the back of one of the tents that had been set up under some trees. It looked like it was being used to store stuff because the only things inside it were a few wooden crates. He pressed the back of his left hand to his forehead and squeezed his eyes shut.

What the hell was he thinking? What was he doing here?

The band started up with another song. Every time the trumpeter hit a high note it seemed to go right through him.

“Oh, my, my, my. You don’t look so good.”

He started to smile. He didn’t need to open his eyes to see who was talking. “Miss Esther, what in blazes are you doing here?”

“Did you think I was going to miss the biggest event the town has seen all year? Why folk have been talking of nothing else the past few days.” He could hear the cheeriness in her voice change, though. “But Johnny, you look like you’ve come down with the grippe.”

He took his hand away and opened his eyes and gave her a frank look. “Ooh, I wish it was that simple, ma’am.”

“Do you want to tell me what happened, child? I’m a good listener. At least that’s what Beauregard said. When I would let him get a word in.”

He laughed. Couldn’t help it. “I bet you gave old Beauregard a run for his money.”

He wasn’t expecting her eyes to tear up like that but she still managed to smile, even with her voice wavering just a tad. “Mah Beauregard was a fine man. Kind…gentle. I didn’t deserve him, Johnny. And that’s Simon pure.”

“Miss Esther,” he had to swallow some of the grief he felt for her right then, “I doubt very much if he would have agreed with you on that.”

She took a lace handkerchief out of her reticule and dabbed at her nose, all the while saying, “Enough of this. I hate being maudlin. Besides, it’s not me we’re talking about. You’re the one with the miseries.” She put her head on the side like the tiny bird she was. “Now, are you going to tell me what’s bothering that handsome face of yours?”

“Ma’am, I’m not sure telling you is going to help any.”

“It might not, but I’m a nosy old woman, so of course I’m just dying to know.”

“Well, when you put it that way.” He just wished he knew how to put it. He rubbed his good hand across his mouth while he thought about it. Words didn’t always come easy. “It’s like this…I wasn’t expecting so many people to know who I am. And because they know what I used to be, they expect me to win.”

“Oh.” She seemed to think for a bit. “And it bothers you? Them knowing you’re Johnny Madrid?”

He grinned at that. “Nope. I’ve never tried to keep that a secret.”

“Then I must be an addlepated old woman because I don’t understand.”

He held out his right hand in its black glove, then gently eased it off with his left. He did his best not to grunt but he could feel the sweat breaking out on his forehead. About that moment he heard her gasp.

Once he had the glove off, he let out the breath he’d been sucking in.

“Oh dear. Oh my, my. You do have trouble, Johnny.” She put her hand out. “May I?”

He nodded and let her turn his hand over, looking at it this way and that. “I’m not going to be foolish enough to ask if it hurts.”

“You don’t carry one of those magic, cure-all ointments in your purse do you ma’am?”

“No, Johnny. I don’t.” Her smile was as about as hopeful as his. After a while she said, “Do I want to know how this happened?”

“It doesn’t much matter how, ma’am. Not now.”

She didn’t look entirely satisfied by that answer—not many women would be most likely—but she nodded anyway. “So no-one knows about this, do they. Everybody will be still thinking that you’ll win.”

“That’s right. And a lot of them have put money on me, good money. Maybe even a week’s wages.”

“But that’s not what bothers you, is it, Johnny?”

He could see the road into town in the distance. Would all those good folk who wished him luck a short time ago be chasing him down it in a few hours time, clamouring for their money back? He’d seen men tarred and feathered for less.

Oh, Lord. If ever he needed heavenly help, it was right now. It felt like his hat band was squeezing his forehead and the thump in his head was keeping time with the pounding in his hand.

“Johnny. What is it, dear?”

He took his hat off and wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. Then he tapped his hat against his leg a few times.

 Aw hell.

He scrunched his eyes shut. “I don’t think I can win. Hell, I don’t even think I can shoot.”

She put a hand on his arm. “Oh, you poor boy.”

He had to laugh at that—or maybe he might have done something else.

“Would it be such a bad thing,” and her voice was just a gentle tweet, “if you didn’t win the rifle?”

How did she do that? How did she know, in spite of all the fuss and the band playing and the folk with their money riding on him winning, that all he cared about was that one thing? “You’re really something, Miss Esther. You know that?”

“I just try and tell it like it is.” Her cheeks dimpled. “At my age, I can usually get away with it.” She put a hand back on his arm. “But what are you intending to do, Johnny?”

“Well,” he squinted in the direction of the trees, “I guess I could just show everyone my busted hand and then folk could probably get their money back from whoever took it….” He rubbed his finger under his nose while he thought about what that would look like. “And I guess Shorty will win and my rifle will end up on King’s mantle.” Just like the other one had ended up on Mumford’s.

“You don’t strike me as the walk-away type, child.”

He tugged on his ear, then squinted some more, but he didn’t look at her.

“And I suspect,” she went on, “you’ve had your fair share of bruises because you didn’t have enough sense to walk away.”

He started to grin down at her. “You saying I don’t have any sense, Miss Esther?”

“I think you have a great deal of feeling—and that usually triumphs over sense.” She patted his arm. “But our feelings, well, Johnny, they can’t always be trusted.”

And wasn’t that the truth.

“Right now, you’re all fired set on winning that rifle for your father, to say to him the things that men can’t say to each other. And there’s nothing wrong with that—but sometimes, it takes even more courage to say the actual words, Johnny.”

“So, I’m a coward?”

She laughed. “I’m saying you’re a man.” When he didn’t answer, she said, “Johnny, if you can’t give Murdoch the rifle, would it be so very, very bad?”

And wasn’t that the exact question that had kept him awake most of the night?

“Ma’am, I faced a firing squad one time—and missing out on that rifle would come a very close second. I got tricked out of it once. I’ll be da—. Well, I ain’t planning to have it happen again.”

“I understand. Sometimes there are things that a man just has to do.” She took his good hand and squeezed it. “But don’t let it eat you, Johnny. Look for the sign. You promise me, now—you’ll look for the sign.”

And she was so earnest, it would surely break her heart to back down. “Okay, Miss Esther. Just for you. I promise.”

She looked happy when he said that. “Now let me give you a kiss. Not for luck, though…” He bent down and she kissed his cheek, then patted it with her gloved hand. “…just because you’ve got a dear face.”

He watched her totter off in her hooped dress. There weren’t many that could hold a candle to Miss Esther.

He started grinning. He didn’t know how she did it, but somehow, Miss Esther just made him promise to do something—and he didn’t have an idea in hell what it was he was promising to do.

Look for the sign?

Well, he could just hope he never had to do it.

Banks was still yelling into his trumpet thing but this time they were words Johnny needed to hear. “The shooting contest is about to begin.”

Johnny dropped his hat back on his head, adjusted his gun belt with his left hand, making sure it sat right, then squared his shoulders.

Shorty McCall would be out there somewhere. Waiting for Johnny. But ole Shorty would know he wasn’t the one all the townsfolk had come flocking to see.

Johnny smiled to himself. Well, he wouldn’t mind rubbing Shorty’s face in it.

And if the people had come all the way out here to see Johnny Madrid—then it was Johnny Madrid they were damn-well going to see.

Chapter 15                                            

“Scott. Scott!”

He turned around, and in spite of his jumbled feelings, he still felt that stir inside him when he saw her amongst the crowd at the edge of the field.

He’d let Johnny and Murdoch go ahead of him. He needed the time to walk and think. Did he even want to see Amelia? Could he face her again, knowing what he knew about her father?

She was by herself, neither parent was in sight, so that was a relief, easy to spot amongst the crowd in her blue and white striped day dress with its flounces and lacy frill that edged her three quarter length sleeves. Unlike the other women, her bonnet hung from her arm by its strings. Her blonde hair, so shiny in the sunlight, was swept high, but he had to say, the curls that fell on her shoulders and bobbed as she walked had him thinking all manner of things regarding what lay below the tight bodice. She was a vision. More than one head turned as she walked past but she didn’t seem to notice: neither the rangy cowhand, the banker-type in his hundred dollar suit or the group of giggling girls in their Sacramento best.

He answered Amelia’s smile. How could he not when she only had eyes for him?

She put her hand on his arm when she caught up to Scott. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere. Isn’t it exciting? I never knew there’d be so many people here.”

“It’s quite an event, isn’t it.” His eyes took in every part of her. Up close, she was even more magical. But even to his own ears, he could have sounded more enthusiastic about the competition. Being torn in two was damnably uncomfortable.

“There’s nothing like a competition to stir the blood, is there. Father’s been talking about nothing else for days. I think I must be like him because ordinarily I hate losing but—.” She stared up into his eyes. “What’s wrong? You’ve been out of sorts all morning. Is it this thing between our fathers? Gracious, I don’t give a damn which man becomes head of the silly cattlemen.” She stamped her foot. “There. Did I shock you?”

“Of course I’m shocked. You should never call cattlemen silly. They’d be highly offended.”

Her mouth twitched. “Well, it’s true, I don’t give two hoots for them. They’re probably all boring. I have, however, found us a quiet place behind those trees over there.” All the severity in her face had slipped away now. “It’s not quite a doorway but almost as private.” She moved a little closer, slipping her hand under his jacket.

He closed his eyes for a second. What was he meant to do? It was hard to think of anything with her hand rubbing his chest like that.

He could just damn Matthias King and the competition and the rifle and let Amelia lead him a hundred miles away. A thousand even.

“There’s nothing happening yet,” she murmured, withdrawing her hand and tugging his arm instead.

Only a fool wouldn’t go with her. And maybe Johnny and Murdoch were right? What the hell did it matter who her father was? Why couldn’t he just let go of it all and enjoy the moment and damn the complications?

“Come on, Scott.”

“Just what are you up to, Miss King?” He let her take his hand and they weaved their way through the crowds. He was glad she didn’t wear gloves. His skin was tingling where his fingers wrapped around her tiny hand.

They’d reached an area under the trees where a lot of people had left their buggies. It was deserted here save for them and the horses. Amelia led him until they were pretty much shielded by a back horse harnessed to a stylish black buggy with its canopy pulled back. He was about to point out that the dung and flies didn’t make this the best place to talk when she turned around, her face uplifted to his—a clear request in her eyes.

He really didn’t ponder too deeply if this was right. Amelia didn’t seem to care about the smell and clearly rain and doorways were just as fresh in her memory as they were in his.

And it felt just as good as it had last night. Maybe even more so.

“Oh, Scott, I’ll take you anywhere. Let’s just leave here.” She gripped his lapels and breathed into his ear. “We can get away from all this. From our fathers and their arguments…”

“Shhh. Let’s forget about all that. There’s just…” He tried to find her lips again. That was all that mattered right now.

But she’d started murmuring in his ear between kisses. “They’ll never miss us. We could spend the whole afternoon together. Just the two of us.”

“I can’t do that.” He kissed her some more—and then some more— but finally drew back and took a breath. “Amelia, as tempting as that sounds, for one, your parents would shoot me and for another, I have to be there to support Johnny.” His heart was thumping in his chest. What he wouldn’t give for a few hours of just her and her alone. He’d be trailing kisses down her neck and along that silky smooth white shoulder and… He swallowed. This wasn’t Boston and for all her talk, she was not an experienced society dame.  For safety’s sake, he took a step away from her. “Why don’t you put your bonnet on. You’re likely to get burned with the sun this hot. I’d hate that pretty nose to be red and sore.”

Her look was mutinous as she flicked a curl at the back of her neck but she put her bonnet on. “You don’t need to worry in regard to my parents. They never care about what I do.” She took hold of the blue satin ribbons and began tying a bow under her chin. “And I wouldn’t think Johnny would give a fig about you being there, either. Not when he knew you could be spending the time with me.” That alluring tone was back in her voice again. She had the most kissable lips…

He had to stop those thoughts. Stay focused. He was here for the competition. And distance might be prudent right now. Whoever owned this buggy had a fine animal in the black. Scott walked closer to its head. “Hey, there.” The black swung around and gave him a sleepy look that said he didn’t mind a little attention. Scott ran his hand along its neck before looking towards her. “Amelia, I think your father cares about you very much.” As much as he hated to admit anything noble about her father right now.

She shrugged her shoulder. “There’s only one thing that concerns my parents and that’s making a name for themselves.”

His ears twitched at that. “What do you mean?”

She gave him an incredulous look. “Don’t you know how jealous they are of Lancer?  Mother says if Daddy pushed himself more, then they’d be the biggest ranch in the valley. Maybe in all of California. That’s why she hates you, Scott. Didn’t you know that? And you expect me to care about what they think?”

Good God. So that was how things were. He felt a rush of warmth. It was to her credit she felt such scorn. “And winning the rifle is part of all that.” It all made so much sense when he considered what the Chinese girls had told him.

“What does it matter about a stupid rifle? Why does everyone care about it so?”

“Johnny has his reasons for wanting to win it. I can’t speak for your parents.”

She climbed into the buggy then thumped down onto the seat. The black’s right ear went back.

“Oh bother, why are we even talking about this.” She clasped her hands together in her lap. “What is it, Scott?  I feel like…like something changed since last night.” Her voice was small, uncertain even. So unlike her usual assured manner.

He tried looking her in the eye but deception was something that always made him uneasy. He ran a hand along the black’s side between the harness. The glossy coat was warm from the sun’s heat.

“I’m not stupid, Scott. I saw the way you looked at my father this morning. It was almost as if you hated him. And then the business with your father…”

The band were starting up another song. Somewhere voices were calling for competitors. A tug-of-war was about to start up between ranchers and towns people.

Her hand gripped the side. “I want the truth, Scott. Doesn’t our friendship entitle me to that?”

And if he told her, what then? He knew from experience you could hate someone but still be hurt by negative words concerning that same individual. Emotions were complicated things.  “I’m just not sure I’m the right one to tell you. I think you should ask your father.”

“Hah, do you think he’d tell me the truth?”

No-one had told him the truth about Murdoch when he needed to hear it. Perhaps she really did have a right to know? He just didn’t want to be the one to tell her.

“Scott. Please. Since I’ve been home, I almost imagine the walls whispering secrets I can’t hear. My parents talk behind closed doors. Then there’s that odious McCall fellow. Can’t you be honest with me?”

Damn, how was he meant to ignore an appeal like that? How could he ignore all her confusion and pain?

He rubbed the black on the withers a few more times. It lowered its head in appreciation. At least someone was happy. “Remember I told you someone attacked Johnny down by the waterfront last night?”

“Of course I remember.”

He walked back to the buggy and looked her in the eye. “The truth is, it was no accident, Amelia. It was intentional. And it was your father who planned it.”

He hadn’t expected her to giggle. “Oh, Scott, it isn’t possible. He’d never do a thing like that.” She giggled some more. “You’re making it up.”

“I wish I was, Amelia, but he was heard giving men directions. He wanted Johnny injured so that he couldn’t hold a gun.”

She stopped laughing—but only just. “I don’t believe you. I don’t believe any of this.” But when he didn’t look away, every trace of amusement vanished. “I don’t understand. Why are you being so cruel?”

“I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be—but you insisted on the truth.”

She stared up at him and he could see all the emotions flitting across her face; anger, doubt, fury, unbelief, hurt. But the one that cut him the most was despair. “Oh, Scott.” She turned away.

Damn it. There was no sign of Miss Amelia King, sought after debutante. Now there was just a young girl who was hurt. He put his hand on her shoulder and said her name as gently as he could but she shrugged him off.

Well, he couldn’t blame her for that. “I didn’t want to be the one to tell you.”

She stared down at her hands clasped in her lap. “How you must hate me,” she whispered.

“No,” he said as quickly as he could. “There’s no blame attached to you in any of this, Amelia.”

“Are you sure, Scott? Are you sure you can separate me from everything that’s been done?” Then she added, in almost a whisper, “How can I separate myself?”

The tug-of-war must have started because he could hear the cheering and yells.

She straightened her skirts then said in a stiff voice, “You said someone saw my father doing this awful thing?”

“Not saw—they heard him. He was in your carriage last night.”

Her voice was dull when she spoke. “Then there’s no chance this is all a mistake?”

All he could do was shake his head.

She looked up of a sudden. “I need to go,” she said in a clear voice, her eyes darting around as if she was in a room with no door. 

Scott put his hand out and helped her from the buggy. Once she was down she straightened her skirts in a purposeful way.

“I’m sorry about all this, Amelia.”

She looked up at him. “Yes but ‘sorry’ doesn’t tell me where you stand in all this. Where we stand?” Her lips trembled but she managed to twist her mouth up into something like a smile.

He just stood there and looked at her as a thousand possibilities raced through his mind. Finally, all he could say was, “I don’t know.” But he wasn’t going to give up on that sliver of hope that still ran through him.

She took it well, even if her nod was a sad one. “I think the competition will be starting soon. We don’t want to miss that.”

“I suppose not.” Right now he wished there’d never been a damned competition.

He started walking beside her but she stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Would you mind, Scott? I think I need to be alone for a while. As alone I can be in this crowd, anyway.”

In the distance, he could hear the voice on the stage calling for the competitors, sounding like it was speaking from an underground cavern.

“Of course. I need to find Johnny and Murdoch, too.”

But he’d only watched her walk a few steps, the white flounce on the hem of her dress trailing behind her, before she turned around.

She smiled at him but even from this distance, he could see the regret in her eyes. “For what it’s worth, Scott, I hope Johnny wins that rifle. I always wanted him to win it.”

Chapter 16            

Almost the first person Johnny saw when he left Miss Esther, was Scott walking through the crowds.

Johnny hooked his gloves over his belt then took his hat off and waved it above his head to get Scott’s attention. Scott noticed it almost at once and changed direction to head over to Johnny.

“Our soon to be ‘former Cattlemen’s President’ Banks has made sure he goes out with a bang,” Scott said, head swivelling to look around at the crowd.

But Johnny wasn’t fooled. “You don’t look so good, brother.” He squinted against the sun, closing one eye. “You talked to Amelia, huh?”

Scott shook his head but only a shavetail would miss that warning look on his face.

Johnny held up his good hand. “Okay. You don’t want to talk about it.”

The scratchy look on Scott’s face eased some but his mouth was grim. “I told her about her father.”

“Hell, Scott, what did you do that for?”

“I’m just incurably honest, I suppose.”

“Or just plain stupid.”

At least that wrung a laugh from Scott. “That, too, no doubt.”

“Boys!”

They both looked around to see Murdoch calling to them, easy to spot being a head taller than most of the folk around him. Murdoch looked to be excusing himself from Paul, Henry and Aggie and a few ranchers Johnny didn’t know. They all looked towards Johnny and called out some words of good luck as Murdoch moved away.

Johnny lifted his hat to them then noticed a raggedy looking kid with a slingshot in his hands. He was staring at Johnny with his mouth open, big dark eyes fixed firmly on Johnny’s gun. Johnny cocked his head and leaned to the side to try and catch the boy’s eyes. “Howdy.” The kid finally looked up. Johnny winked at him before dropping his hat back on and settling it a little lower over his eyes.

“I think we’ve met before,” Scott said, real polite. “Do you remember my name?”

The boy shifted his gaze to Scott’s face and his eyes brightened. “Sure I do.”

“This is my brother, Johnny.”

“Aw, I know who he is.” He gave Johnny a shy look from under the mop of hair that half-covered his eyes. “Golly, everyone knows that.”

Johnny grinned at Scott. “Stick with me and maybe one day, you’ll be famous, too.”

Scott whacked him in the belly.

A lot of folk were looking his way. It didn’t bother him. It never had. It wasn’t something he’d looked for but it was part of being good at his trade. If his hand wasn’t aching fit to bust he’d have moseyed on over to a group of pretty gals making eyes at him.

“Are you gonna win, Mr Madrid.”

Johnny looked down at the kid; a gunfighter had come to his village when he was about the same age. Nothing like a fast gun to make you forget the gnaw in your gut. “You hoping I do, kid?”

“Sure am. Cody said Shorty McCall was real fast and he reckons you lost your edge ‘cause you don’t hire out no more but I told him that was bull. You are gonna win, ain’t you Mr Madrid?”

Johnny gave the boys cap brim a tug. “I’m gonna do my best, kid. Go on, you’d better go find yourself a good place to watch.”

“Sure thing, Mr Madrid.”

“And call me Johnny,” he yelled as the kid darted off between the legs of the crowd.

“I wouldn’t mind calling you Johnny,” a woman murmured, fluttering her lashes in Johnny’s direction as she slowly passed by, the train of her red satin dress trailing after her.

Johnny whistled under his breath.

“Oh, no you don’t,” said Scott, grabbing his arm and turning him around until he was facing Murdoch who was walking towards them now. “That’s one train you have no business catching – not while Murdoch’s around at any rate.”

A sudden stir in the crowd made them both look around. “Well, will you look at that.” Two young men in bright Chinese clothing were walking around the crowd—only they stood head and shoulders higher than even Murdoch.

“Stilt walkers,” Scott said.

It sure was a strange sight. They seemed to float above the crowds. “How do they stay up?”

Scott grinned at him. “Practice.”

Everyone was looking up at the two stilt walkers. A few of the younger kids were crying. “Here.” He tossed Scott his black glove.

Scott looked at it with a blank face.

Johnny held out his left hand. “Help me get it on, will you. It fits tight. I don’t think I can tug on it with my right.”

This time Johnny could see Scott understood. He moved in closer, doing a good job of shielding what he was doing as he tugged the glove until it fitted tight. No-one was looking their way. Good. It was then he noticed Paul Watson, stuffing a wad of notes in his pocket. They must have been the only two, three including Scott, who didn’t have their necks craning to see the walkers. Maybe Watson felt Johnny looking at him? Sometimes that happens. But for whatever reason, he looked straight at Johnny. No way could he have missed Scott giving the glove a final tug. Johnny froze for a second but Watson just looked away again. Well, just so long as it wasn’t Shorty; anyone who handled a gun was real good at sniffing out a sign of weakness.

“Boys.” Murdoch was all smiles as he caught up them.

Johnny squinted up at him. “You’re looking pretty pleased with yourself, Murdoch.”

“Just upholding the honour of Lancer.”

Johnny stared at him—then at Scott—then both of them. “Did you two bet?”

“The odds are in your favour, brother.”

Murdoch grinned. “How would it look if we weren’t willing to back our own starter?”

“Murdoch, you know better than anyone…”

 “Hush. Come on, Banks is calling for the competitors to come to the stage.”

Johnny blew out a breath and put his hands on his hips. His old man must be crazy. “I thought you told me one time you never bet unless it’s a sure thing.”

“Johnny my boy, there’s always a time when a rule should be broken. Come on.”

.

No-one had been told what the actual competition was going to be. There was no sign of any target. Maybe they were going to fire at plates or coins. He smiled at the thought. He couldn’t count how many bullets he’d wasted firing at anything he could afford to blow apart from the time he’d bought his first gun.

He flexed his hand again. He’d done this plenty of times. If you let your thoughts kind of hang in the air you could distance yourself from the pain, almost like it belonged to someone else. ‘Course, you could only do that for so long. Sooner or later your body started yelling at you and the sweat stood out on your forehead.

The trick was to not let it show on your face. You had to look like you had the upper hand; that you knew you were fast. You knew you were better. That you knew when the smoke cleared, you’d still be standing.

The three of them started walking towards the stage. They’d only gone a few steps before Murdoch put a hand on his shoulder. The weight of it carried a lot of meaning. But Johnny didn’t need any warning—he’d already spotted King and Shorty walking towards the stage as well. A little behind them walked Amelia and that hoity-toity mother of hers. If Mrs King stuck her nose any higher, it was liable to get pecked off by a bird.

Amelia looked kind of pale but she gave Johnny a smile as she looked across at him. He felt bad about her and Scott. What did it matter what her old man was like?

Ole Shorty was walking next to King, tricked out in a satin vest and black boots so shiny you could shave by them.

King gave Murdoch a wave but for once he looked a bit edgy. The two groups couldn’t help meet, the way they were both headed towards the stage.

Shorty glanced at Johnny then his eyes flicked down to Johnny’s right hand. Johnny flexed it then gave Shorty the kind of smile he knew would annoy the heck out of him. Shorty was good. He had to give him that. If he wanted to thump Johnny, he didn’t show it. But he didn’t slow his stride so that Johnny and he ended up shoulder to shoulder as they got nearer to where Banks was calling them.

“Well, well, well, don’t you look the part,” Johnny said under his breath. “You oughtta be on the stage in that outfit.”

Shorty kept looking straight ahead. “Shut-up, Madrid. You think I wanna wear it?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you do. Some people will do anything to make a name for themselves.”

That made Shorty look around. King had moved on some steps away, as had Murdoch and Scott. He leaned in close to Johnny. “I know who did it.” He spoke under his breath. “But it’ll cost me my job if I tell you.”

“So?”

Johnny couldn’t help flicking a glance towards King. When he looked back, Shorty was looking that way as well.

“Try talking to the clerk on the desk at the hotel.”

Johnny shook his head. What the hell was Shorty up to? Trying to put him off his game just as the contest was about to start? “And why the hell should I listen to a thing you say?”

Shorty looked towards King again before saying, “Johnny, I’ve got my pride. If I don’t beat you fair and square, then I haven’t won.” He looked at Johnny’s hand. “I sure hope you can shoot with it—cause that’s the only way I want to beat you.”

Shorty walked off, leaving Johnny standing there, staring after him.

“Stand back folks. Get behind the rope. It’s time for the event you’ve been waiting for.”

“Johnny. Come on, brother.”

It was an effort, but he pulled his thoughts back together, then went across to Murdoch and Scott. “Well, this is it.”

Scott slapped him on the back. “Good luck.” He had to yell now to be heard over the noise of the crowd. They’d started cheering every time one of the contestants walked up towards the stage.

Johnny turned to Murdoch and looked up at that craggy face he’d come to know this last year and a half. Who would have thought, huh? “I sure hope I can win you that rifle, Murdoch.” He hoped Murdoch heard what was in his voice. What he was trying to say.

“Johnny, I…”

Murdoch was staring down at him, like he had something he wanted to say real bad but couldn’t get it out. Well that made two of them. He tilted his head. “You trying to say something?”

In the end, Murdoch shook his head. “It can wait until later.” He put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “We’ll be cheering for you, John.”

.

Some of the horses hadn’t finished the race yesterday and a few other men had withdrawn. The field of contestants was down to ten. They all went up and stood in front of the stage, then one by one, Banks called their name out and they had to walk up the steps and take their place on the platform.

The crowd was standing behind the ropes that separated them from the shooters and they were having themselves a grand old time, clapping for each man as they walked up to stand alongside Banks. Someone told Johnny this was going to be the order they competed in.

Pretty soon, there was only Shorty and him waiting to be called.

“Shorty McCall, representing the King ranch,” Banks yelled through his trumpet.

Johnny thought the crowd was loud before but now everything shot up a notch. A few people whistled and cheered but old Shorty was getting a good hand. Of course, Shorty made the most of it. He took his hat off and waved it above his head as he walked up the steps.

“And our final competitor, representing the Lancer ranch…”

Banks paused, like the auctioneers do when they’re about to shout out, ‘Sold.’

Come on. Get on with it

But there was hush over the crowd. It was the darnedest thing. Johnny glanced around. It was like everyone had that stirring inside you get right before a bad storm hits.

“Johnny Lancer!”

Well, if they clapped for Shorty, the crowd was twice as loud for him. Folk were whistling and cheering and calling out to him as he walked up the steps. They were so loud he could feel his face going red.

“Wave to the crowd, Johnny,” Banks said, as soon as he got up on the stage, giving him a big grin.

It was the last thing he wanted to do but everyone was looking at him like they expected it, so he tipped his hat and mumbled out, “Howdy.” And he didn’t know why but that made the crowd laugh but at least they sounded friendly.

Banks made some sort of speech that no-one listened to—not Johnny anyway. At least not until he started telling them what they had to do.

“Look out there, gentlemen.”

Johnny did like he said and saw three poles. On top of each pole, a flag was flying. Warburton would have called it a ‘pennant.’ He liked fancy words. The man who could shoot down all three flags would win one hundred points. Two flags down and you’d win fifty. One flag was worth twenty-five.

Shorty was already twenty-five points ahead of him. If Johnny was going to win the rifle, he had to do better than Shorty. They couldn’t draw. Even if they both hit two flags, Shorty would still win.

“Gentleman, if you’ll be so good as to move to the markers we’ve placed down below.”

Johnny and Shorty followed the others off the stage. There was a lot of back-slapping and laughs between the cowhands as well as some licking of lips and hand wiping along their thighs. It was hard to tell if they were nervous because of the crowd or they just wanted to do well for their ranch. Probably both. Whatever they were thinking, Johnny and Shorty weren’t a part of it. The two of them just earned a few sideways looks. Only young Will came up to Johnny and wished him luck. “I sure am looking forward to seeing you shoot, Johnny.”

“Thanks, kid.”

The flags weren’t as high in the air as the one he’d shot down that day in Warburton’s camp but the distance would be a little further. He jiggled his fingers some more. Truth be told they were nothing like as nimble as they should be and his hand was aching something fierce. Would he be able to fire his gun and fan the hammer? And even if he managed to do that, would the pain and stiffness take his aim out?

He looked about him. No doubt about it, the other eight adjusting their gun belts looked like regular cowpokes. That left Shorty and him.

And McCall liked to be showy with a gun.

“Okay gentlemen. Have your guns at the ready.”

The ‘mark’ was a tin plate, nailed into the ground. Seth Perkins was the first to try his aim. He walked up to the plate, lifted his arm and squinted along the barrel. Three times he fired. Three times he missed.

The crowd cheered him anyway and he waved at them with his lopsided grin.

Just as Johnny expected, the first five didn’t hit a thing, walking away with a wave and a laugh like they’d expected it all along but everyone cheered and clapped them in a neighbourly way.

Then came Henry’s boy, Will. He didn’t try to draw. He just took his gun out of his holster and took his time, squinting as he used the sight to aim.

Bang. A wisp of smoke hung in the air. And a flag went down.

Everyone cheered as if young Will had already won.

Will smiled like he was a little surprised himself the flag was no longer there. The crowd went quiet and he raised his gun a second time.

Bang.

The flag stayed right where it belonged. And so did the third flag. He hung his head looking a little dispirited but managed a wave and a grin for the crowd.

The next two missed as well.

And then it was Shorty’s turn.

He must have decided cutting a swell wasn’t his style because he’d shucked the vest and shiny boots and now stood there in his usual duds. How much would King dock his pay for that?

Like Johnny, he wore a glove on his left hand, only his was brown. Shorty walked up to the mark and waited. He’d have an advantage with his height. He pulled his hat lower, took out his gun and spun it on his finger, then dropped it back in his holster. That drew some oohs from the crowd. But the whole time he kept his eyes on the flags, almost as if he thought they might fire down on him any second.

Johnny could see King across the way. He had his chest puffed out like he’d already won. Johnny flexed his fingers. Maybe he had?

And then Shorty burst into action. Bang, bang, bang. Three distinct sounds.

Shorty put his gun back in its holster as the crowd broke into wild clapping and hollering and cheering.

It was better than Johnny had hoped for. Much better. McCall must have been practising since Johnny last saw him. The first two flags were nowhere to be seen. Only the third flag still swayed in the breeze.

McCall spun around and waved his hand, then he looked at Johnny with a ‘beat that if you can, Madrid’ kind of look.

“Shorty McCall has taken down two flags. That puts him in the lead,” Banks called out. “Johnny Lancer has to take down all three flags to win the One of One Thousand.”

Well that started more cheering and hollering.

It was the craziest thing—Johnny felt more nervous than he ever had in Nogales that time. Maybe it was all the noise? He just had to block it out.

He couldn’t help but look to the spot where Murdoch and Scott were standing. They were allowed inside the rope, like all the other ranch owners.

“You can do it, brother,” Scott yelled at him, thumb in the air.

Then his eyes found Murdoch’s. “Just do your best, Johnny and everyone at Lancer will always be proud of you.”

For a second there it almost didn’t matter if he won or not. But then he thought of that rifle on the mantle of James A Mumford and that same burn to get it back hit him right in his ribs.

He nodded at both of them, then walked across to the marker.

He knew how to do this. Forget about the ache in your hand. Just slow your breathing, Johnny-boy.

Isham. Isham always called him that.

Dios, he could feel that stab of fear, could feel the sweat on his palms. “Nobody’s gunning my old man.”

He took a breath then looked at his targets; three flags, yellow, green and red, attached to round poles about an inch wide.

The air was almost still, the flags barely moving. The sun was on his back.

Warburton had asked, “How good are you?”

I’m good.

I’m real good.

I’m Johnny Madrid.

He let his right hand hang down near his gun, but he held his left hand in the black glove across his body.

He’d done this a thousand times. Don’t think about it Johnny. Just do it. Just do it.

The crowd was so quiet now, he could hear his own breathing.

Steady…steady.

“When you’re ready, Johnny,” Banks called.

And that was all he needed.

Draw.  Left hand move across. Hold the trigger. Middle fingers fan the hammer.

Once.Twice. Three times.

Johnny spun his gun on his finger and dropped it into his holster, all the while with his eyes on the poles.

The yellow flag was gone.

The green flag was nowhere as well.

The third flag…

The third flag still flapped on its post like a drunk gull, goading him; You lost.

You lost.

He’d lost.

No-one in the crowd clapped or cheered. It was as if all their sighs carried towards him on the breeze.

No. No. No.

He’d lost it again. The One of One Thousand was gonna hang over the mantle in King’s house, just as it had in James A Mumford’s.

He dropped his head and scrunched his eyes shut.

Murdoch and Scott came up to him. “Johnny, two flags.”

“We’re proud of you, son.”

But he just couldn’t look at either of them.

King had gone across and was shaking Shorty’s hand, up and down like he was pumping water.

Shorty McCall—who cheated in the horse race to come in second—had now won the whole damned contest.

Johnny wiped his hand over his mouth. It was all he could do to not shove his fist in McCall’s face.

Banks was calling for everyone’s attention.

Murdoch had a hand on his shoulder. If it wasn’t for that he would have left the field but Murdoch’s hand was heavy. Not as heavy as Johnny’s heart right now, though.

The air had started buzzing again with talk. He heard the name Madrid. Saw people pointing at him. He didn’t know what they were saying but he felt their jabs. Everyone was a hero until they lost.

Hell, losing hurt more than he’d thought it would.

King stopped pumping Shorty’s arm and came across. He held out his hand.
“That was classy, shooting, Lancer. You were faster than McCall. Much faster. If we’d been judging speed, you would have won.”

“If he’d been facing me, he’d be dead.”

Murdoch drew himself up. “And if someone hadn’t stomped on Johnny’s gun hand, he probably would have got that third flag.”

“Shocking event,” King muttered, looking anywhere but at them.

Scott leaned in closer. “It was a little convenient, wouldn’t you say, King.”

But before King could answer, Banks started calling on his trumpet again, this time for King and Shorty. King looked more than happy to have to move away.

“Let’s go, Murdoch,” Johnny muttered.

“No, Johnny, no-one else in the crowd knows what happened to your hand. You don’t want to look like a sore loser.”

“Well that’s exactly what he is, Murdoch,” Scott said. “He’s sore—and he lost because of it. I’d like to give King…”

“Scott, that won’t help things.”

Banks got up on the platform they’d made using an old wagon. “Our winner today is, Mr Aloysius McCall,” he yelled.

“Phftt.” Shorty sounded better.

Shorty took the step up two at a time while the crowd clapped. Johnny took some consolation in the fact that some would have clapped louder if he’d won because they would have made some money on Johnny.

King took to the stage as well. You would have thought he’d done all the contesting.

Johnny shook his head and stared at the ground. Standing here watching was almost worse than anything he’d ever done.

“To present the prize for outstanding ranch hand this year, we have Tiffany Mumford, who very kindly donated this prize, in honour of her father.”

Johnny couldn’t believe his eyes when he looked up. He’d wondered. All this time he’d wondered if she had anything to do with it. How likely was it that there were two ‘One of One Thousand’ rifles here about?

That just about did it. Now he was fit to burst at both her and King.

She didn’t look his way. She had that same nose-in-the-air attitude that had made him want to strangle her the last time he saw her.

“In my last year as President of the Cattlemen’s Association,” Banks was saying, “It’s a great honour to award…”

“Johnny, your hand is bleeding,” Murdoch murmured.

Hell, that was the least of his problems. He simply shrugged. To think he’d lost the exact same rifle, ‘his’ One of One Thousand—twice—was almost more than he could take right now.

“Here, let me bind it.”

“Don’t bother, Murdoch.”

Johnny glanced at his hand. There was a bit of blood on the back of it. So what. He couldn’t focus on that when there was a kind of hollow echoing in his ears. He just couldn’t believe it. To lose the rifle once was bad enough…but to lose it a second time…

Murdoch was digging around in his pocket.

“I said no need to bother.” And just as he said that, something silver fell on the ground. It must have been caught up in Murdoch’s handkerchief.

Murdoch bent down but Johnny was too quick for him. He picked it up, then opened his hand to let it lay flat in his palm. It was shiny. Shinier than Johnny remembered. He could still see himself drawing the chalk on the stock where the silver L was meant to go.

He looked up at Murdoch. Really looked at him. It was like he was back in the great room at Lancer, seeing his old man for the very first time.

Murdoch didn’t look put out or rattled. “I always carry it with me, John.”

Johnny swallowed—hard. “For luck?”

“No Johnny. It means much more to me than that.” Murdoch could put a heck of a lot of feeling into that deep voice of his.

“Murdoch…I…” He ran a hand over his mouth. Dios. Miss Esther was right. He didn’t need to give Murdoch a rifle. Not even a One of One Thousand could say what was in his heart right now. And then all that feeling seemed to get stuck in his throat. A gust of wind blew his hair over his eyes and he was glad of that. He felt real shy of a sudden. “I’ve never thanked you, Murdoch,” he managed to say.

“For what, Johnny?”

Damn, this was hard. “You know, for everything. You bringing me back, saving me from a firing squad. I always wanted to thank you. I guess I—.”

“Hey, look,” someone yelled out.

Johnny wasn’t going to get put off this time. Okay, he didn’t win the rifle but he knew what he had to do. Miss Esther was a wise old lady. “Murdoch, I wanted to win the rifle because—.”

But then Murdoch started looking around as well and Scott was going crazy and shaking Johnny’s shoulders. What the heck was going on?

Then Murdoch’s face swam into sight with a grin so wide he nearly split his mouth in two. “Johnny, you won!”

Johnny stared at him. “What?”

“Look Johnny.” Scott was pointing to where the pole with the red flag had been laughing at him—but the flag was nowhere to be seen. Had someone taken it down? What was all the ruckus about?

“Johnny, don’t you see, your third shot wasn’t as clean as the first two and the wood must have splintered. All it took was a gust of wind to dislodge it and take it down.”

Scott was ruffling his hair. “Johnny, you did it. You won your rifle back.”

When he looked at the stage, Banks was beckoning him over. “Sorry folks, it appears there’s been a mistake. The winner of the One of One Thousand Rifle is young Johnny Lancer.”

Johnny stumbled forward. All of a sudden he had a throng about him, patting him on the back and the shoulders. When he got to the stage he had to wait for Shorty and King to come down.

Shorty stuck his hand out. “That was fine shooting, Johnny. If your hand hadn’t been busted up, you probably would have got all three in a clean shot the first time.”

King was looking like a fish on dry land gulping for air. “Well done, Johnny.” King came down the steps like his legs wouldn’t bend. His voice sounded pretty stiff as well.

Johnny eyed him but his mouth had stopped working and besides, he felt too good with the world to say anything to King right then.

It seemed Shorty had plenty to say, though. “Looks like your mantle’s gonna be bare after all, Mr King. And by the way, I quit.”

Johnny didn’t know how he managed to get up on the stage. His legs had gone all wobbly.

Banks slapped him on the back. “Well done, Johnny. I was hoping you were going to win,” he added, under his breath.

And then the darndest thing happened—Johnny found himself standing face to face with Tiffany Mumford.

Her hair was still brushed until it was smooth as a cat’s coat and she still wore that white shirt pulled tight over her breasts.

“Congratulations, Mister…”

She paused and for the minute there he wasn’t sure what she was about to say ‘saddle tramp’ maybe?

“Lancer.” She didn’t smile but she held out the One of One Thousand—his One of One Thousand. At the last she added, in that proper voice of hers, “Your win was well deserved, Mr Lancer.”

And then he had it in his hand. It looked just the same; the gleaming walnut stock, the blue barrel, the fancy scroll work and the silver plate that proclaimed it to be Mr Winchester’s finest workmanship.

“Go on, Johnny. Wave to the crowd.” Banks pushed Johnny forward, then added with a grin, “I think a few people might have made a bit of money off your win, today.”

The crowd had pushed down the rope and were now standing in front of the stage. He felt kind of stupid but he did what Banks told him to and stepped forward. When he got to the edge, he held up the rifle in his left hand to show the folks.

And that’s when it hit him. The One of One Thousand was finally his.

The crowd sure was happy. Maybe Banks was right about the money they’d won. They cheered and whistled some more.

But there was only one face Johnny was looking for. And it wasn’t quite how he wanted to do it, or how he’d planned it in his head, but Murdoch was standing right near the front, alongside Scott, and just looking proud as punch and Johnny was feeling so relieved that he just couldn’t wait a moment longer.

“Murdoch,” he called out. And as soon as Murdoch looked he held the rifle out that little bit further and mouthed the words, “This is for you.”

Chapter 17

Somehow, Johnny got down the steps again, rifle in hand. He almost stumbled on the last step because his legs felt kind of numb.

Where was Murdoch? It was hard to see over the people who were starting to move away from the stage.

In his head, he’d always seen himself giving the rifle to Murdoch at Lancer but now, after all that happened, he just wanted his old man to have the darn thing in his hands.

Folk were clapping him on the back as he walked through the crowd.

“Well done, Johnny.”

“You showed‘em how it’s done, boy.”

“Bully for you, Johnny.”

“Bang-up, shootin’, kid.”

He nodded at each one, trying to be polite, all the while trying to push through and not step on anyone’s dress or bump too many shoulders. He didn’t know where all these folk were headed but it was opposite to where he was aiming to go. He hoisted the rifle and let the barrel rest on his shoulder, gripping the stock that little bit tighter with his left hand. He’d come this far—he sure as hell wasn’t gonna lose it now.

The kids with their wooden guns had already taken over the tin plate and were having their own contest ‘shooting’ at the flags. He dodged past them but still couldn’t see any sign of Murdoch.

More people clapped him on the back while he stopped to look around and he nodded some more and thanked them—and all the while, the rifle felt like it was getting heavier and heavier. Damn it, where the hell was Murdoch? He pushed on the through the crowds. They were thinning at last as people were putting down blankets to have their picnics or were wandering off back to town.

Finally he caught sight of Murdoch talking to Henry and his son, Will. He couldn’t see where Scott was.

Henry saw him first. “Johnny, that was the finest shooting I’ve seen. I’d swear I only heard one shot coming from your gun. It was the best thing ever when that third flag of yours fell down.”

“Yeah, Johnny, you should have seen it. It just kind of toppled down in a puff of wind. I don’t know how it didn’t fall when you hit it. It was the darndest thing. ‘Course everyone was hoping you were gonna win. I sure was, at any rate.” Will’s grin was so wide you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking he’d won the contest.

“Thank you, Henry. Will.”

Murdoch was looking pretty pleased as well. “It was certainly the most impressive shooting I’ve ever seen.”

Will headed off to get a beer but Henry started gabbing on about the elections. Johnny stood there. And waited. And waited. He changed feet…and waited some more.

Finally he said, “Um…Murdoch, could I talk to you?”

Henry looked around like he’d forgotten Johnny was even there. “Oh, sure. I’ll get out of your way. No doubt you both have things to talk about—like where you’re gonna hang that beauty. Besides,” he added with a wink, “I’ve got me some money to collect.”

Murdoch laughed. “You mean to say you didn’t bet on Will?”

Henry looked a little abashed. “I had to cover all angles, Murdoch.”

Henry wandered off and Johnny watched him go. Well, he kept his eyes on Henry at any rate but he wasn’t really watching him. It was stupid but he was suddenly feeling edgy standing here alone with Murdoch. Not that they were alone. Heck, half the town had come to watch the contest. But he felt like they were alone, all the same. It was like the time he woke up after the Pardee business. He’d felt real uncomfortable knowing his old man had been sitting right next to his bed the whole time. But, no, this wasn’t really the same sort of uncomfortable. This was like…

“Henry’s right, Johnny, that was a masterful display of shooting.”

Johnny shrugged. He wanted to say, ‘I did it all for you,’ or something like that but maybe that sounded really stupid like something a wet-behind-the-ears kid would say. No, he’d say just what he’d planned to say when he was sitting in the back of the wagon with Jelly and Arabella—a life-time ago now. He balanced the rifle on the palms of both hands and held it out to Murdoch. And then he looked up into his old man’s face, even though he felt a bit awkward doing it. “Happy birthday, Murdoch.”

He’d seen a lot of different expressions on Murdoch’s face this last year and a half, but this one made the breath catch in his throat.

“Johnny…I don’t know what to say. After all you went through.”

He managed to grin, even though his mouth seemed to have a will of its own right then. “Well, I did it for you, old man.” And he almost had to push the rifle into Murdoch’s arms.

Murdoch took it like he was being handed a newborn babe. “Johnny, it’s beautiful. It really is.” He ran his hand over the grain of the stock, then shifted the rifle so that the sun hit it and showed off the blue tinge to the metal. Then he brought it up to his eyes and looked through the sight and all the while Johnny stood there, grinning. He grinned so much his mouth started to ache.

Then Murdoch looked down at Johnny—but right at him—and his mouth moved but he couldn’t seem to get the words out he wanted to say. He started shaking his head, like he did when something puzzled him or made him wonder. “Johnny, this means a great deal to me. Not so much because of what it is—which is wonderful—but because of what you went through to give it to me. Thank you, John. I’ll treasure this always.”

He couldn’t say anything back. His heart felt like it was fit to burst. Border towns had never seemed further away than they did right now.

Murdoch put a hand on his shoulder. “You know, I’m very proud of you boys. You and Scott…you’re…you’re really quite a pair.”

“Well, Murdoch…we think a great deal of you too, old man.”

Murdoch gave his shoulder a shake. “Not so much of the ‘old man’ if you don’t mind.” Then something behind Murdoch must’ve caught his eye. Johnny was about to turn, too, when Murdoch said, “I think someone wants to talk to you, Johnny.”

There was something about the way Murdoch said the words that made something drop in the pit of his belly. Did he want to turn around?  

Before he even had a chance to talk, Murdoch excused himself and then moved off. Blazes, what the heck was he meant to do?

He scrunched his eyes shut and grimaced. He didn’t really have any choice, did he. All the same, he could make her stew a little—so he took his time turning.

They just stared at each other. And boy, his heart burned when he remembered what she’d put him through. Just seeing her, standing here in the same outfit, brought that morning all back to him. He’d dragged himself up out of the dirt, beat up and broken with only a wet bandana to ease his hurts. Boy, how he’d itched to wring that perfect neck of hers.

She had grit. He had to give her that. She didn’t flinch from a hard look. And her poker face was as good as they come. ‘Course she still looked high and mighty. She was the daughter of James A Mumford, wasn’t she.

“I just wanted to congratulate you.”

Her voice was just as he remembered: cold as a mountain spring. Just the sight of her was enough to put him off his feed.

“Good. I’m congratulated.” Now walk away, lady.

Only she didn’t. Instead she looked across to where Murdoch was standing. He had some friends around him, all admiring the One Of One Thousand, by the look of it. “That’s what the rifle should have been all along.”

The sun was hot. He took his hat off and ran the sleeve of his shirt across his forehead. He was too damned tired for games. And his right hand was reminding him of the grief he’d just caused it. He slapped his hat against his thigh. “Just what is it you want?”

“A gift of love—from his son.” She leaned on the last word, like he was stupid.

“Lady, are you loco? After everything that happened, you’re trying to tell me that?” His voice rose up a notch on the last words and his palms itched something fierce. “Lucky for you you’re not—.”

“This isn’t…that’s not how I meant it.” Her shoulders dropped. “I’m trying to say that that’s where the rifle truly belonged. In your father’s hands.”

But he wasn’t fooled. She’d smiled at him in the tub, too. He put is good hand on his hip and took a step back. “Just what game are you playing now, lady?”

Her shoulders went straight again. “No game. Like I said, I just wanted to congratulate you, Mr Lancer. That was a fine display of marksmanship.” Then she turned and walked away, blonde hair swinging like a scythe as she went.

Hell and damnation.

He let her go four steps before the words were wrung from him. “Miss Mumford.”

She didn’t stop.

“Ma’am. Miss Mumford.” He said it clearer this time.

She stopped walking—but didn’t turn around. And wasn’t that just like her.

He sighed and walked over to her. He sure as hell didn’t want to be indebted to her in any way…but…damn it all, he could add up just fine when the numbers were clear in his head, even if he didn’t like the answer. He sighed again. “This was your doing all along, wasn’t it.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

He waved a hand. “The competition, the prize. You knew I’d go for it.”

Her mouth went tight but that slight shift in her eyes showed the war going on in her mind. For once, the hard-as-nails Tiffany Mumford, couldn’t decide what to do.

“Well?” It felt real good having the edge on her.

“My father died two months ago.”

Boy, she sure know how to keep any feeling out of her voice—but he hung his head all the same. “I’m real sorry about that.”

“Thank you.” Queen Tiffany. She could have been thanking him for picking up her glove.

“So, you figured it was time to ease your conscience, huh?”

“While he was alive I could put it all aside—everything I’d done—to you. But when he died, I couldn’t look at it. Hanging there. Over the mantle. Accusing me.”

He didn’t say a word. He didn’t even look up. It was good to hear her squirm after all she’d put him through. Sure, he’d put on a good show for Murdoch when he gave him the silver L—him and Scott both—but it had gnawed at him for weeks. Robbed him of his sleep. Mad him madder than anything he could almost remember. He’d done it for her old man, not her. He’d left old man Mumford with Murdoch’s rifle and Johnny had ridden away with a burning ache.

“Your father came to visit us,” she was saying.

He looked up at that. This was the first he’d heard of Murdoch visiting the Mumford Ranch.

“He was collecting signatures.”

“Oh. Sure.” He’d forgotten all about Murdoch collecting signatures that day as he travelled back from Sacramento.

“I’d seen the chalk L on the stock. I hadn’t thought anything of it until your father came to visit us. He saw it on the stock and rubbed it off. I realised then who you were.”

“Not some saddle tramp, huh?” At least he had the satisfaction of seeing her flinch the tiniest bit.

“I don’t think I ever really thought you were a saddle tramp. You wouldn’t have been able to afford the room or the horse you rode or the rifle itself. I suppose I just didn’t want to consider any of that at the time.”

“Would knowing who I was made any difference?”

“It might.” Then something of a smile peeped out. It was the first glimpse he’d had of the woman in his tub. “I’m not so sure I would have taken on Johnny Madrid.”

“Well, for your information, it’s Lancer, now.” But he gave her a long look. “So you planned this whole shebang? The bronc busting, the horse race…the shooting contest?”

For once she looked a mite guilty. “When I found out who you were…well, everyone in these parts has heard the story of how Johnny Madrid turned out to be Johnny Lancer. Then, when my father died, I felt it prudent to take on some protection. I hired a man called Bushrod Smith.”

“Bushrod.” He grunted. Small world, huh.

“I happened to hear Mr Smith talking about a time he’d worked for a man called Warburton. Mr Smith also liked to boast about the exploits of Johnny Madrid.”

Johnny shook his head. He could hardly believe it. “So you heard him talk about me shooting that flag on Warburton’s tent?”

She nodded. “It caused quite a stir, apparently. I think you’ll find it’s a tale he likes telling. Her mouth turned up the tiniest bit like she had to give herself permission to smile. “No doubt he’ll soon have you shooting a hole through a silver coin from a mile away.”

Whew. Bushrod Smith. Of all people.

“Mr Lancer,” she stood up straight, like she was about to recite Madame Blaize or something, “I owe you an enormous apology. I don’t know if it was Jim’s death that day or what but…”

And that was as far as she got. Typical. He’d almost thought for a moment there—

“No, I won’t make excuses. I stole from you. I had you beaten. I slapped you. All in the name of tricking my father.”

He stiffened. He didn’t want to lose the anger—but honesty like hers was always his undoing. “Well…” He looked across to Murdoch, still showing the Winchester off to a bunch of ranchers, a big grin on his face. And it was hard to forget the grief on Mumford’s face that day. He swallowed. It could have been Murdoch one time, with Johnny lying dead in the dirt. “You gave him something he…cherished… the last months of his life.”

“I gave him a lie.”

“Maybe that’s a little harsh.”

“But true.”

And what could he say to her? “We…e…ell,” as mad as she’d made him, he was hardly in a place to judge. “We all make mistakes, I guess.” He’d certainly made enough mistakes siding with Warburton instead of Murdoch. “Sometimes we make the worst ones when our intentions are the best.”

She hadn’t budged any. Not in her expression at any rate. She was probably as hard on herself as she was on her dealings with everyone else.

“I loved my father, but after he died, I found myself wondering…” She was looking off into the distance but she brought her gaze back to Johnny with a grim determined look, as if he was the padre and no matter how it ripped at her gut, she had to confess. “I wondered if I was too much like him. James A Mumford was a driven man. I used to blame Jim for all his hate. I didn’t know why he couldn’t feel any love.”

The Mumfords all seemed a lot alike. “I guess it has to be given out, for the other person to feel it.”

“My father had Jim with him his whole life but in the end, all he had to show for that relationship was a rifle that Jim didn’t even want to give him.”

“You’re awful hard on people—but maybe that’s because you’re so hard on yourself. Is that what your father taught you?”

She put a hand to her forehead, like maybe it ached. “I don’t know what he taught me any more.”

But Johnny shook his head. “Oh, I think you learned something from him, all right. That’s why you’re standing here, now.”

That grim look was back around her mouth. He should have known not to talk to her like she had a heart. The woman in the tub was a fake Tiffany Mumford. He rubbed his cheek. Boy, she’d almost taken out some teeth last time she slapped him.

She drew herself up to her full height and he got ready to take a step back but all she said was, “Thank you for being so understanding. It’s not what I deserve.”

Part of him wanted to agree with her—but damn-it-all, he was Murdoch’s son, wasn’t he? “Well, it’s like you say, I guess…”

But he didn’t get any further than that. Some sort of a commotion was happening over near the stage.

“Is there a doctor? We need a doctor,” someone was yelling.

Dios, not Miss Esther. He didn’t know what made him think that but something fierce gripped his heart. “I’m sorry. I’ve gotta go.” He went to run off but he just couldn’t. Not like that. Not after what she’d done for him.

“Thank you.” It felt real awkward after everything he’d been thinking about her these last weeks but he pressed on anyway. “You did a good thing.” And as much as he hated it, he added, “I’m beholden to you.”

Then he turned and started running past the folk still standing around. He could see Murdoch bending over someone but it looked like they’d sent a man in a suit off to get the doctor and he was running in Johnny’s direction, blocking his line of sight.

He got ready to side-step as the runner got close but the man clearly wasn’t looking. Next thing his shoulder hit Johnny’s. Dammit. Johnny hissed with the pain of it, as the knock jarred his hand. The sharp jab almost took him to his knees. What the heck? The other guy didn’t even stop, just kept right on going.

Johnny cursed, cradling his hand as he watched the man run towards town.

“What the heck?” He pushed his hat back and craned his neck forward to look through the crowd. He was right. It wasn’t just any man who bumped him. It was the sandy-haired clerk from the hotel.

Chapter 18

It wasn’t her. It wasn’t Miss Esther.

Murdoch was down on one knee, but it was a leg in brown trousers sticking out behind his bulk that Johnny could just make out through the crowd that had started to gather and gawk.

For a moment, he almost went to water with the relief of it.

Johnny pushed his way through but got stuck behind the broad backside of a matron with a bustle. “‘Scuse, me, ma’am.”

Past her shoulder, he could see Murdoch—looking calm, as always—bending over Paul Watson, of all people, who looked to be only just coming around. Someone had given Murdoch a canteen. He had one hand under Paul’s head, holding the canteen to his lips.

Murdoch caught Johnny’s eye as he wedged past the woman. Johnny pushed his hat back and squatted down beside him. “What happened?” he murmured. “Is someone fetching a doctor?”

“Henry’s gone to find one. Here, Paul. Take it slow now.” Some of the water was dribbling into Watson’s mouth but a lot ran down his chin. His eyes looked kind of glassy and his face was white and pasty. “We need to get him back to the hotel and find, Adeline.”

“Where’s Scott?”

Watson started struggling to get up. “Easy, Paul. Easy.” Then to Johnny, “I don’t know. I haven’t seen him since the competition.”

Paul was muttering something but all of a sudden he gripped the front of Murdoch’s shirt and his eyes went wide with some sort of panic. “He’s got my money,” he wheezed out. “He’s got all of it.” His voice sounded even rougher than usual, like he could hardly get any air. Then he spied Johnny. “Stop him, Johnny. He’s got all of it. You’ve got to stop him for me. Please, boy. Please.”

“Johnny. No. Wait for Scott, he—.”

But Johnny was already on his feet. Murdoch hadn’t seen what he’d just seen—the hotel clerk running away. He hadn’t taken a whole lot of notice at the time with his worry about Miss Esther, but as soon as Paul Watson started begging, he remembered it was the carpet bag the clerk was holding that almost took out his bad hand.

“Out the way. Get moving.” He pushed his way back past the gawkers. Once clear he stopped to stare in every direction. The clerk couldn’t have gone far. Maybe he was hiding? The band was still playing but not with the same gusto as before. At least half the crowd had drifted back to town but dotted among the cowhands in their work gear and the women folk in the Sunday best, it looked like every other man was wearing the same kind of brown suit the clerk was wearing. Didn’t they sell any other colour in Sacramento?

Maybe Johnny should head back to the hotel and—?

And there he was—coming out from behind one of the tents, carpet bag in hand, and sauntering along like he had all the time in the world.

Johnny started walking towards him at an angle. Not too fast, so as not to attract any notice, but fast enough to cut him off before the clerk got to the road. The man was starting to look jittery now. He kept looking back towards Murdoch and Paul Watson. At least he only seemed to have eyes for the two of them and that suited Johnny just fine.

Johnny sped up, seeing as he wasn’t noticed, crossing the field as fast as he dared. There were still enough people around for Johnny to blend in with anyone walking towards town, but in a few yards most of them would be taking the beaten path that ran through the trees to his right. The road ahead of him was clogged with buggies and wagons and carriages. Maybe the clerk was going to try and hitch a ride?

The clerk turned around again but for whatever reason, this time he seemed to be looking straight at Johnny.  Johnny tugged his hat lower and slowed down his steps, as if he too, was just ambling along, all the while keeping an eye of the clerk from under his brim. Damn. It didn’t work. The clerk must have been suspicious because he started running.

Dammit. Johnny started running, too. “Hey. Stop,” he yelled out. “I just wanna talk.”

The clerk stopped too, but—

“Woah.” Johnny ducked behind a tree. A chunk of bark flew off a tree to his right. What the hell did the guy think he was doing? There were women and kids around. He didn’t see the where the next bullet went but he wasn’t going to wave his hand to find out how good a shot this feller was.

He waited a few seconds behind the tree, gun at the ready, slowing his breathing. He needed to slow his mind as well because it was doing cartwheels. He was stumped. Why would the hotel clerk be running off with Paul Watson’s gambling money? At least, Johnny supposed that’s what it was in the carpet bag. Word around the meeting was that Watson was taking most of the bets on the competition. Well, if the scuttlebutt around town was true, and nearly everyone had bet on Johnny, Watson wasn’t going to make a pile of cash. He’d be lucky to break even with everything he’d have to fork over. Maybe even lose on the deal?

Johnny did a quick check around. Most folk, hearing gunfire, had cleared the area. Besides, the path back to town didn’t come this close to the road. Just as well. But a pair of boys about thirteen or fourteen, had their heads together, probably plotting some sort of trouble. “Hey, kids, get outta here. Beat it. Go on, get.”

For a moment it looked like they were gonna argue with him but they finally got the hint and ran off when he waved his gun at them as well.

Johnny took a breath and inched his way around the trunk. The clerk was already running again, coat flapping behind him.

Johnny kept his gun in his hand and took off as well. He’d have to stop this fool before he shot some innocent.

Or Johnny himself. Dammit. He had to zig-zag as another bullet whipped awful close.

He sure as hell hoped the clerk was a lousy shot, because there was no cover between Johnny and the road now—but with all the vehicles along the road in front of him, Johnny wasn’t about to shoot wildly. Instead, he aimed at the ground, near the clerk’s feet. Spurts of dirt shot up in the air. It must have scared the hell out of the clerk because this time he ran full pelt towards the road, like he was being chased by coyotes.

Johnny ran, too. If the clerk got to the road, he’d need the devil’s own luck to chase him down, especially if he jumped on the back of a wagon.

Maybe the carpet bag was weighing him down because Johnny was gaining on him. They were only about twenty feet apart, now. Johnny tried to draw breath. “Hey, why don’t we stop and talk about this. You’re only making things worse.”

The clerk glanced back for a second, and that gave Johnny the chance to make up some more ground, but the fool kept running. Clearly, he was aiming to get to the road. Maybe wave a buggy down?  “Hey. Come on. What’s the use?”

But this time the clerk turned with his gun in his hand.

Johnny dived and rolled. Dios, that was close. At this distance, even a wet-behind-the-ears kid could hit him.

By the time he got to his feet, the clerk was off again and Johnny was just in time to see him duck between the back of a wagon and a buggy, drawn by a matched pair, that was coming up behind it.

Johnny sprang forward. The buggy driver started yelling and cussing. Johnny sucked in every bit of air he could. He could feel the steamy breath of the horses on his neck. Dios, it was gonna be close. And then he was out the other side with the buggy flashing past behind him, the wheels almost grazing his spurs as they went by.

Dammit it all. He searched everywhere but there was no sign of the clerk, just the steady stream of buggies and carriages driving back to town. A few of the drivers stared as they went past, probably wondering what the heck was going on, but with this much traffic heading one way, they couldn’t stop without causing grief to whoever was behind them.

Across the road was forest and up ahead was the same sharp bend in the road where Shorty had cheated. It was heavily wooded all around here. There was a good chance the clerk could get lost between the trees and to be honest, Johnny wasn’t sure he cared. Why the hell was he chasing him, anyway?

“Great shooting, Johnny,” someone yelled as a wagon rattled past.

Boy, for the minute he’d forgotten all about the competition. It felt like an age ago, right now.

Aw hell, maybe he’d just head to town. Tell Murdoch he’d lost him. The clerk might’ve doubled back? He could be on the other side of the traffic again, even. Right now, Johnny didn’t give a damn. He swapped his gun to his left hand and stuck his other hand under his armpit. It was aching like the devil. He needed to sit down. For a long time. Maybe he’d hitch a ride back to town himself and—and there was his answer. Up the road, almost at the bend, was a pinto, saddled, and hitched to a tree.

So the clerk had a get-away plan, after all.

“Well, Johnny-boy, it looks like this ain’t over.”

He swapped his gun back to his right hand and started running, using the bushes and trees for cover, slowing only when he was almost up to the horse. The clerk had to be around here somewhere.

Johnny tried to see around the carriages and wagons as they rumbled past but they were kicking up a heck of a lot of dust.  He was getting a few curious looks but nobody offered to stop. Maybe he should just head over there and wait in the—

“Hold it right there.”

Johnny turned around. He squinted at the gun aimed at his belly first, then let his eyes travel up to the man’s face. It was the clerk in the brown suit, all right. And Johnny had been euchered by a man who spent his days standing behind a desk counting door keys.

“You mind…telling me what…this is all about?” Johnny tried to steady his breath from all the running, as he took a step to the side. No-one passing by would be able to see the gun in the clerk’s hand from where he stood behind the tree, so he’d be unlikely to find some friendly help.

But the clerk must have known that, too, because he didn’t move an inch, even though the gun was just about shaking in his hand and sweat was running down his face.

“I’m not as good a shot as you, Madrid, but even I couldn’t miss from this close. Now you throw down your gun. Just like I said.”

Johnny grinned. If there was one thing he hated, it was having to toss his gun. “I guess shooting at rabbits on your day off doesn’t make you a fast gun, but you’ve got a point.” He flicked a glance at the road. The clerk had bided his time; the traffic had thinned to almost nothing. The only thing on the road was a buggy driven by an old grey-haired couple who’d probably up and die of fright if Johnny made a ruckus and tried to get their attention.  And once it swept around the bend, the road would be clear. . .

The clerk was grinning back at Johnny and his face looked less strained. “Wise choice. That old man, he can’t help you. No-one can, now.”

A bird started chirping up in the tree, probably glad of the quiet now the road was empty again. In the distance, the band was still banging out a tune. He could even hear a few voices.

But this far from the competition site, not even Murdoch would see him, especially if he was stuck helping Paul Watson.

“You’ve better do like I say.” There was an edge to the clerk’s voice now. Johnny could barely recognise him as the man who’d signed them all in the day they arrived, with his, “Yes, Mr Lancer,” and, “Have a good day, Mr Lancer,” to Murdoch. His starch collar had wilted and the slicked back hair was all over the place. But more than that, he looked desperate. And Johnny had seen that look before…

Johnny threw down his gun.

The clerk grinned but it was grubby. More like a sneer.

Johnny cocked his head. “You don’t look the type to go robbing people.”

“What do you know of my ‘type’. You think I’m stupid because I work behind a desk? Huh? That I don’t matter to no-one? Is that what you think?”

Boy, it sounded like he just stirred up a hornet’s nest. “I don’t know.” He kept his voice easy. “I’m just wondering why you stole Paul Watson’s money.”

“That isn’t any business of yours.”

The clerk looked to be a good ten years older than Johnny. Maybe more. He stooped down, dropped the bag, then picked up Johnny’s gun. Johnny almost laughed when he could see the clerk didn’t know what to do now that he had two guns in his hand.

“You’ll get caught.”

The clerk finally tossed Johnny’s gun into the bushes and picked up the bag again. “I don’t think so. Watson won’t even press charges.” He started walking backwards, along the road, heading nearer to the pinto, tied to the tree on the very bend itself.

“You sound awfully confident—for a thief.”

A sly look came over his face and that ugly grin with it. “How’s your hand, Johnny Madrid?”

Johnny jumped. Couldn’t help himself. Had he been shot? But sharp cracks were still ripping the air, one after another, making a hell of a racket.

Firecrackers.

Those two boys must have been heading across the fields to set them off.

Even as Johnny realised what the noise was, his hands flew up—couldn’t stop himself—as the clerk lurched the bag towards Johnny. Johnny caught it, the pain in his hand almost sending him to his knees and starting a roaring his head and all the while the firecrackers were exploding and making the pinto neigh and go wide-eyed with fear. Johnny did his best to stay upright but the clerk had already turned and was running towards the horse.

Johnny went to dive for his gun but—Dios, no!

Johnny was too far away. He didn’t even have time to yell a warning as he staggered back away from the hooves; the stage had come barrelling around the bend, the six horses pulling for all they were worth…

By the time Johnny got to his feet, the fireworks had stopped exploding and the clerk was lying face down, in the middle of the road, a crumpled mess, covered in dust. The stage was coming to a halt further up the road. He could hear the driver trying to calm the horses as they slowed to a stop with a squeal of the brakes.

“Oh, God, no.” Johnny turned the clerk over as gently as he could but something was spilling from his coat. Johnny could barely look. Only it wasn’t his innards that spewed out—but a bloody mess of ripped and torn bank notes. The clerk must have stuffed them in his jacket so that he could rid himself of the bag.

Johnny put his ear to the man’s chest. Dear God, he was still breathing but only just. The eyelids flickered open and he moaned.

“Lie still. I’ll send for help.” Johnny spoke as gently as he could. There was a good chance these might be the last words the man would hear in this world.

Somehow the clerk found the strength to grab hold of Johnny’s shirt. “Sorry…sorry—.”

His eyes stared wildly at something over Johnny’s shoulder and that was it. One minute he was there and the next he was gone. It turned out the only help Johnny could give him was drawing the lids down over his eyes.

Johnny dropped his head. Dios, what a mess.

“Mister, I couldn’t stop ‘em. You saw, didn’t you.” The stage driver had jumped down, rifle in hand, and was running towards him like the old man he was.  “Why that fool just ran plum into the middle of the road, without even looking.” Under the white bushy beard, he looked all torn up by what happened. “We was running late so I was just giving’ em their heads fer a bit. We have a quick change this route and—.”

Johnny stood up and put a hand on the driver’s shoulder. “I know. Weren’t your fault. The firecrackers were going off. He mustn’t have heard.”

Or maybe greed had got hold of him so hard, all he could think about was getting away with a shirt full of dineros. Johnny sighed. “What a damn fool way to go.”

And that was when the screaming started.

For a second Johnny thought it must have been one of the passengers on the stage but when he looked up, it was Mrs King, Matthias King’s wife, of all people.

Their carriage must’ve pulled up while he spoke to the driver. Hell, hysterical women was all he needed right now. “Keep her back, King,” he growled. But King seemed to have trouble putting one foot in front of the other as he followed his wife from the carriage.  Johnny tried to hold her back, best as he could with one hand. “This is no sight for a lady, ma’am.” But it was like she was blind and deaf to anything he said and all the while an awful wail was coming from her throat. It was enough to give a body the shivers.

“King, you’ve got to stop her.”

King kind of shook himself and his eyes seemed to start seeing again. “Fanny. Fanny, dear.” He put his arms about her.

Johnny released his hold on Mrs King—at least King could deal with his wife—but King couldn’t keep his eyes off the clerk, either.

“King, get a hold of her. And yourself.”

Too late. Mrs King broke free and half stumbled, across to the clerk’s body. What the heck was going on here? Her wailing had quieted some but she seemed to be saying something over and over while she rocked and cried. It sounded like she was calling the clerk, ‘Joshua.’

She knew him?

Johnny turned back to King. Surely the man was gonna do something? He still looked stunned but not surprised his wife knew the clerk. A lover maybe? Hell, something didn’t feel right.

“You wanna tell me what’s going on here, King?”

King managed to drag his eyes off his wife. “It’s…it’s none of your business, Madrid.”

Oh boy. Johnny gripped his arm. “The name’s Lancer—and considering the fact this man just stole a whole lot of money from a friend of my father’s and tried to kill me—then I think that makes it my business.”

“What about my business, Daddy?” said a small voice behind Johnny.

Johnny winced. It was Amelia alighting from the carriage. “King.” He shook King’s arm. “King, stop her.” His warnings did no good at all. King just stood there, still with that frozen look on his face, like all his feelings had got jammed and the life was being squeezed out of him.

 Johnny let go of King and blocked her path. “Amelia, honey, you don’t wanna look. It’s not a pretty sight.”

Her face was almost white but her eyes were clear and focussed as they looked into his.

“I’ve never seen my mother cry before. It would be instructive, don’t you think, to see what—or should I say, who—could have this effect on her. I believe his name is Joshua.”

Well, what could he say? She probably did have a right. He stepped aside and let her pass, glancing at King as he did so. The man looked completely lost. And all the while, his wife cried and sobbed, pleading life back into that busted body.

Johnny walked behind Amelia. He figured he outta be ready to catch her. Somehow, those sharp hooves had missed most of the clerk’s face but none of his limbs were sitting straight and his head was…well, a chunk of scalp was missing on the other side. It even made Johnny feel ill.

“Oh, my Lord.” Her hands went to her mouth then she turned away and buried her face in his shoulder. “Who is he, Johnny?”

“I don’t know. He works at the hotel. On the desk. I was giving chase because he stole some money.”

“It’s Mr Morrison? From the hotel? But he doesn’t look like him.” A tremor went through her but this didn’t seem to be the time to explain there was a reason she didn’t recognise him; that a violent death sometimes does that to man. “I don’t understand.” She whispered the words into his shirt.

And neither did Johnny.

“King.” Johnny growled the word out, under his breath. “Do something.”

At least that shook King from his daze. He walked across to his wife and put his arms on her shoulders, still wracked with her sobs. “Fanny, come now. He’s gone.”

“It’s my fault. It’s all my fault. He didn’t want to do it. I made him. I told him it would work out.”

King’s eyes met Johnny’s over the body, clearly at a loss. Heck, if King didn’t understand, how the hell was Johnny meant to?

“Fanny, darling,” King tried again, putting a little more pressure on her shoulders. “We need to arrange to get him back to town. You don’t want him lying here in the dirt, do you?”

His words seemed to get through to her somehow because she let him help her to her feet but her eyes weren’t seeing a thing as she walked towards them.

Amelia had straightened up now but she still gripped Johnny’s arm, like she needed the support. “Daddy, who is he?”

“Good God, not now, Amelia. We’ll talk about this later.”

They’d gone a few more steps when Mrs King pulled away from her husband’s hold and turned around to them. Most of the time you could see where Amelia got her looks from but no-one looks their best under this sort of grief, not with streaming eyes and a mouth you’ve got no control over. Her whole face had sagged, making her look twenty years older.

“Matthias, we need to talk about it now.”

“Fanny, this isn’t the time.”

But again, she pulled herself from King’s grip and kind of drew herself up like some grand old dame. “That’s your brother, Amelia. He’s my son. Joshua is my beautiful son.” Her voice didn’t quaver until she got to the last few words.

Johnny leapt forward and was only just in time to help King as his wife’s eyes rolled back and she sank towards the ground.

.

“My boy, you’ll need to rest this hand for a good two weeks at least. Maybe more. Give it time to heal.” The sawbones wasn’t really old enough to call him ‘my boy’ but he was trying hard to act like he knew what he was doing when he wasn’t much older than Johnny. Murdoch said they had a fancy school for teaching doctors in Sacramento.  The doc finished tying off the sling he’d put Johnny’s hand in. Murdoch was watching on but he looked to be in a brown study.

Once the doc had left the room, Johnny pulled his hat over his eyes to let his head rest against the wall. He could almost sing a song to match the throbbing in his hand.  

As I walked out on the streets of Laredo,
As I walked out on Laredo one day,
I spied a poor—

Nope. Maybe not that song. He was trying to forget the picture in his head of the clerk all mangled on the road. Death was an ugly thing, sometimes.

“Did you say something, John?”

“No, Murdoch.”

If he had any sense he’d tell his old man he wanted to be back in that soft bed at the hotel instead of waiting in a doctor’s rooms. He heard a creak and opened one eye, then closed it. Murdoch had eased himself into the wooden chair next to his.

He felt for his old man. Seemed like too many of his friends made poor choices. “How’s Mr Watson doing?”

“The doctor says he’s out of danger. He’ll make it.” Murdoch didn’t sound too thrilled at the idea.

Johnny had been to Watson’s ranch. It looked like he worked the place with a lick and a promise.  “Easy money. Always hard to resist, Murdoch.”

Murdoch sighed. “I know, Johnny. I know. But when it’s a man who’s been a valued friend, for years…”

“Don’t be too hard on him, Murdoch. He probably had his reasons.”

“Paul could have come to me for help.”

The thud Johnny heard must’ve been Murdoch thumping the chair arm with his fist.

Johnny shifted. The chair was darn hard. Yep, hard chairs and dead flies on the window sill. That felt just about right. He’d never taken too kindly to doctors. He’d seen more men die from being tended by one, instead of living. At least this one was clean and didn’t keep his sutures strung through his lapels and he didn’t have hair growing outta his nose. But more than doctors, he hated hearing Murdoch all cut up like this. “You know how it is, Murdoch. A man don’t like to admit he’s made a mistake.”

“That’s a character trait I’m trying to rectify.”

That wasn’t Murdoch’s voice—and right now, Johnny wasn’t sure if it was a voice he wanted to hear.

“King,” he heard Murdoch say. “How’s your wife doing?”

“Fanny?” The word was drawn out. Sad.

Johnny put a finger under his hat brim and lifted it an inch or so. King looked like a man who’d been dragged through a wringer. His face was grey and his clothes were all crumpled.

“She’s not doing so well, Lancer. I’m not sure she’ll ever recover. Do you mind?”

He waved at the chair on the opposite wall then sat down like his legs couldn’t hold him, even if he’d given Murdoch the time to say no. Maybe he needed a doctor more than Paul Watson in the other room? Some bottled courage at the very least. The doc probably had some in one of those cabinets with the glass windows, along with all his little bottles of who-knows-what on the shelves.

“And Amelia?”

“She’s in good hands. I left her with your boy, Scott.”

“Good idea. But you don’t look so good yourself, King.” He had to hand it to Murdoch—his old man was a bottomless well when it came to compassion.

“I don’t know why Fanny did it. I would have given Joshua the money. We always made sure he had money when he was a child and was well looked after.”

Johnny pulled his hat lower. He didn’t feel real comfortable hearing this sort of pain.

“So, you knew about him?” Murdoch was saying.

“I encouraged Fanny to bring Joshua home. Make him part of her life in whatever way she could. I would have been proud to have a son.”

Johnny sat up slowly, lifting his hat enough for his eyes to find Murdoch’s. Yep, his old man was thinking exactly the same thing Johnny was. “Mr King, are you saying the clerk—Joshua Morrison—never knew who his mother was?”

The further slump of King’s shoulders gave him his answer. Johnny whistled under his breath and shook his head. There’d been a lot of anger in that man. Anger Johnny understood.

“Fanny was only sixteen when Joshua was born. He—the father—wasn’t much more than a boy himself. Fanny wanted to marry him. Her family said no. They made her give the boy up but Fanny went behind her parents’ back and found out where he was.”

“Then how the hell did she get Morrison…Joshua…to agree with her scheme, if he didn’t know who she was?”

“I don’t know. We came here regularly so that she could see him. I even bought a share in the hotel so that he’d always have a job. We were going to make him manager once he was able to handle that sort of responsibility.”

“But?”

“He wasn’t performing as well as we’d hoped. I suspect he was drinking, in with a bad lot, and Fanny was…I can’t really explain it…she wasn’t herself. She started worrying about him. Couldn’t sleep. Then she began taking…” King closed his mouth. He looked almost guilty or sad or…

“Opium?” Murdoch said the word so softly Johnny almost didn’t catch it.

King looked at Murdoch with an almost grateful nod, and it was like there was some understanding between the two of them—and something froze inside Johnny.

Shadows. He was standing in the shadows…

“…worrying we didn’t have enough, of anything. We needed more money,” King was saying when Johnny pulled himself back. “Our ranch had to be the biggest. She had to have the most beautiful carriage…the fanciest dresses…” He looked across at Johnny. “I’m truly sorry for how this has impacted you, Johnny. Fanny just couldn’t bear the thought of you winning that rifle. There was a jealousy there that I never took seriously.”

“Mr King, you weren’t to know what your wife was doing.”

But King held up his hand. “No excuses, Johnny. I didn’t see what was in her because I wanted to win as well. I don’t deny that. I started life a bootblack but,” his laugh was grim, “I’m not nearly so noble as Ragged Dick. I had to fight for everything I have today. Even dear Fanny. But as to cheating and having men attack you…” His voice trailed off, like he didn’t have the strength to go on.

Murdoch suddenly got to his feet and took his hat off. Johnny did the same. It was Paul Watson’s wife coming into the waiting area. She usually had one of her bright smiles for Murdoch. Not today, though. Her eyes swept over them, skimming over King, who was standing as well, like she was about to interview them for a job. “Murdoch, Paul’s asking to see you now.” Only her voice was a notch or two higher than usual.

“Adeline, how is he?”

“He’ll recover—this time. You can spend a few minutes with him, the doctor says. That’s all.” And the look on her face said she didn’t even want to grant them that. To tell the truth, Johnny didn’t give two hoots about seeing him either but Murdoch insisted, so he followed him through the door.

For a man who wasn’t going to die, Paul Watson didn’t seem to have a lot of life left in him. He wheezed with every breath he took, his face scrunched up like it was an effort. Or maybe the metal cot felt that uncomfortable. At least they gave you blankets, sheets and a pillow in the cramped room.

Johnny took up a spot against the wall while Murdoch walked up to the bed.

“I’m sorry to see you like this, Paul.”

“Death’s waiting for all of us, Murdoch. It ain’t perticular.”

“No, I guess not.” Murdoch took a seat beside the bed, running his hat through his hands. It wasn’t often his old man looked lost for words. Or maybe with Mrs Watson in the room, he didn’t want to talk at all.

“Spit it out, Murdoch. You came to ask why I did it, didn’t you?”

Murdoch frowned, like was being forced to swallow sour milk. “I’ve heard King’s side of the story.” He cleared his throat. “Joshua Morrison was his wife’s son. Apparently she saw a way of winning the competition and making some money for the man if he was in cahoots with you to ensure Johnny didn’t win. What’s your part in all this?”

“Mine? My part is I’m dying.” He wheezed his words out. “What more is there to say?”

But Murdoch was shaking his head. “Oh, no, you don’t get out of it that easily.”

“It’s his fault.” And he poked a yellow finger at Johnny. “He had no right to be in the darned competition.”

“He had every right—as my son.”

“He’s a professional!”

“He’s a rancher.”

“I was gonna lose everything, Murdoch. Don’t you see. I couldn’t cover the bets.”

“Then why didn’t you step away before it went too far?”

“I was going to. But for that clerk. He came to me. Said we could make a killing if ever-one bet on Johnny and he lost. No-one would expect Johnny Madrid to lose.”

“So you had my son attacked.”

“That part wasn’t me, Murdoch. I swear. That was the clerk’s doing.”

“But you went along with it. A man who sat at our table, supped with us and drank our wine—after all these years, Paul?”

Johnny winced. Paul’s whining left him cold but the hurt in Murdoch’s voice made his fist clench.

“I told you. I had to, Murdoch. I had no choice. I’ve got no-one. There’s just Addy and me. No sons to look after her. No big ranch like you’ve got. You know how much money I’ve got in the bank? Nothing. Not a dime. And you want to go preaching at me. Well, I ain’t sorry for what I’ve done. Not one bit.”

It was like the malice was oozing out of him. And even Johnny had to wonder if this was the same man he’d met before. All the same, something wasn’t adding up. Morrison had looked desperate—but he didn’t have the look of someone who was just plain ornery; that stealing the money was something he intended all along. “So why was Morrison stealing the money?”

“What. What’s that you’re saying? Why should I know.”

Johnny flicked a glance at Murdoch. The bluster hadn’t worked on him, either.

“I think you do. I think you told Morrison he was gonna have to fork out and pay his share of the debts. Maybe even all of’em?”

“No…no. But he had to pay. Of course he had to pay. I…I had no money. I told you that.”

Murdoch shook his head and for a second Johnny thought he really was in pain. Well, he probably was. If there was anything Murdoch hated, it was betrayal.

Murdoch’s mouth turned down and he shook his head some more. “I was going to offer to help you—but you’re way past help, Paul. I don’t think anyone can help you. Not now.”

“Damn you, Murdoch Lancer, don’t you preach…” But the rest of what Paul was going to say was lost in a fit of coughing so bad that his wife rushed to his side and told them to leave.

“Adeline, we’ve been friends a long time. I’m sorry you’ve been put through all this.”

But when she turned around, there was no sign of the friendship they’d shared. Not a smile, not a hint of any regrets. Instead, she looked at the two of them and gritted her teeth. “And I’m sorry your boys ever came home, Murdoch Lancer.”

Murdoch put his arm around Johnny’s shoulder. “Come on, John. We’re wasting our time, here.”

When they got out the door, King was still there. He clambered to his feet, still looking like a man with the ague. “I couldn’t help overhearing. What happened is as much Fanny’s fault as Watson’s. I aim to honour the bets.”

Murdoch frowned. “I don’t see why.”

“There’s an angry town out there, Lancer. They want their money and they don’t care where it comes from. They might even turn on you if they don’t get it.”

“King…I…”

“In any case, it’s already taken care of.”

Murdoch held out his hand. “I’m sorry we didn’t get to know each other under different circumstances.”

Now it was Johnny’s turn to run the brim of his hat through his hands. “Um, Mr King…what about Amelia?”

“You mean about Amelia and your brother?

Johnny nodded. “I—.” He looked at Murdoch. “I mean we—.”

“What Johnny’s trying to say is we don’t hold Amelia accountable in any of this. She’s a lovely girl. And…if things went that way…we’d be proud to welcome her into our family.”

After all that happened, Murdoch’s words were almost King’s undoing. He put a hand to his mouth and squeezed his lips but Johnny had already caught sight of them wobbling.

“Bear up, man. Things look black now but hopefully that means they can’t get any blacker.”

“Hah. And that’s meant to cheer me.” But at least King was smiling at the both of them. “You’ve got a pair of fine boys, Murdoch. But you’d best take this one back to the hotel before he drops. He’s had a big day.”

Murdoch smiled down at Johnny. “He has at that. It’s not everyday a boy wins a ‘One of One Thousand’ for his father.”

Chapter 19

“Here, drink this. It will bring some colour to your cheeks.”

Amelia looked at the glass of brandy Scott was holding and shuddered. “Don’t mention anything about faces—not when I can still see poor Mr Morrison every time I close my eyes.”

She put her head back and let it rest on the back of the padded armchair. A breeze stirred the lace curtains. Carriages and wagons were rattling by in the street below. A man was yelling from across the other side of the street. Something about ‘singing with the voice of an angel.’ Apparently drumming up a crowd for the evening’s performance.

“Would you like me to close the window?”

“No. I’m glad of the noise. It stops me from thinking. Everything in my head is going round and around and around.” She tried to smile but it was clearly a struggle.

Scott held the glass out again. “Please. For me. Just a sip.”

At first her mouth tightened, and he thought she was going to resist again, but she brought her hand up and took the glass, sipping the brandy like an obedient child. After swallowing a small amount, she handed the glass back, then put her head back again and closed her eyes. “Will you stay with me, Scott?”

“As long as you want, Amelia.”

Scott walked to the window. It was almost dusk outside. Usually he liked this time of day in a city.  In Boston. The heat of the day was cooling. The lamplighters were going about their business. The streets were less busy. At least until all the carriages and cabs came out to take the ‘blue-stockings’ as they called them out here, to their dinners and soirées and balls. That was the life Amelia was used to. Could she change? Could she ever be satisfied with life out West? His own mother had made that adjustment—and died.

He looked across at her—and his heart melted. She still wore the blue and white dress but the white flounce on the bottom showed signs of being dragged through the dirt and there were grass stains near her knees. The straw bonnet was now a crushed mess on the floor beside her.

He could only imagine the sort of confusion Amelia must be feeling.

“It’s Mr Lancer who had two.”

“Two what?”

“Wives. And sons. You two.”

And everything he’d been imagining on that tedious trip from Boston was left in the stage when he slammed the door. It was almost like being two people. The old Scott continued on his journey to wherever the stagecoach was travelling—and the new Scott stepped out into a world where plaid and frilled shirts weren’t the style. Where women wore pants and men did most of their talking with either guns or fists.

But Amelia wasn’t as lucky as he was. Her newfound brother was already dead. She’d never been given a chance to connect with him as family and do all the things you do with a brother; share a meal or a laugh. Or an argument for that matter. He and Johnny had had their fair share of those.

He glanced at her again. Somehow, with her hairstyle all to pieces and the stains on her dress, she looked even more beautiful than before. Less like the girl of someone’s dreams—maybe even of his dreams? No, he wanted someone like Amelia was now—a woman who could laugh and breathe and argue and love. Not a pretty doll to sit on a shelf.

He went into the bedroom and took a blanket from the bed. She still looked asleep when he returned so he gently put it over her her then took a seat in the other chair. It was soft and padded and he pressed into the comfort. The tightness in his neck began to ease away.

Thank God he hadn’t walked back to the hotel as he’d intended to after the competition. Things had gone so badly with Amelia before the shoot, and he had an idea that Johnny might prefer to give Murdoch the rifle in private, so he’d intended to walk somewhere and try to get his thoughts in order. What he hadn’t been prepared for was all the back-slapping and congratulations from other ranchers. Then young Will bailed him up and wanted to buy Scott a beer and it seemed churlish to say no, so the saloon tent was as far as he’d got. Of course, one beer had turned into another and when he finally left Will and the others, the first person he saw was Murdoch, still holding the One of One Thousand, and frantically waving at him.

“What is it, Murdoch?”

“I’m not sure—but your brother might be in trouble.”

And that was when the firecrackers started exploding.

Murdoch quickly filled him in on Paul Watson’s collapse, having to almost shout above the noise, and that Johnny had run off chasing the man who’d stolen Watson’s bag with all his takings.

They’d wasted some time following the path that led into town before Scott caught sight of the King’s carriage and the stagecoach stopped farther up the road. He grabbed Murdoch’s arm. “Murdoch.”

Johnny’s first words were, “Boy, am I glad to see you two.” It wasn’t often that he saw Johnny looking harassed.

Mrs King was on the ground, Amelia was kneeling next to her, holding her mother’s hands, and King was returning from the carriage with a bottle of smelling salts.

Over on the road, a man with a white bushy beard was covering a body with a tarpaulin.

“Who’s that?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny looked over at the tarpaulin then looked up at Murdoch. Keeping his voice low, he said, “That’s the clerk from the hotel desk.”

Murdoch looked as confused as Scott felt. “Was he the one who—?”

Johnny’s eyes flashed a warning. “Not now, Murdoch. Not now.”

Scott had helped Murdoch and the driver get the clerk’s body into the stagecoach. No doubt Murdoch was seething with questions, as Scott was. The expression on his face said as much.   Fortunately, there’d been no passengers so they were able to lie the body along one of the seats. At one point the tarpaulin slipped and for just a second, with his heart racing like that, he could have been back on the battlefield. But it slowed, like it always did.

One thing had been clear, though – it wasn’t a bullet that had killed the clerk. Murdoch would be relieved.

Johnny tied a pinto’s reins to the back of the stage, then he climbed inside himself, carrying a tattered carpet bag.

He had to admit, his heart had dropped when the King carriage moved off and he hadn’t had a chance to say a word to Amelia.

Of course, he felt even worse for her when Johnny told him and Murdoch everything that had happened.

“Poor Mrs King,” Murdoch muttered. “Seeing her son dead like that. No wonder she swooned.”

“It wasn’t easy on any of them. I tried to stop her, Scott.” Johnny had his head down.

He could only mean that Amelia had seen the clerk—this Joshua—a mangled wreck on the road. It wasn’t a sight a girl should ever see—but plenty of girls had out here. And worse.

.

Once back in town, he’d left Johnny and Murdoch at the doctor’s and went back to the hotel.

“Scott.”

It was Matthias King coming out the door as Scott was about to walk inside. Scott had been charged with carrying the One of One Thousand for Murdoch.

“Mr King. I’m so sorry.” If ever a man looked like they were carrying the weight of the world, it was him.

But King waved his sympathy off—not unkindly. “It’s Amelia I’m worried about. She’s in her room. Would you go to her? Keep her company?”

“Of course, sir.”

He put the rifle in his and Johnny’s room for safe keeping, locked the door, then went to the King suite on the floor above.

He didn’t really know what he could say to her—or even, should say to her. And would she want to see him after all that had happened?

“Amelia. It’s Scott. Your father asked me to see that you were all right.”

He needn’t have been worried about her not wanting to see him. The words were barely out of his mouth when he heard the click of the door being unlocked. The next moment, she was in his arms, sobbing like the little girl she was, on his chest.

He managed to close the door behind them and coax her further into the room but she clung to him like she was lost at sea and he was the only rock she could cling to.

Between her sobs, she told him her mother’s story; that she’d sat wordlessly in a corner of the carriage on the way back to town as her mother had confessed to all that she’d done.

“She told your father all that?”

“She wasn’t really making a lot of sense. I think she’s half out of her mind. But father was so gentle with her—even though I could hear how upset he was. How badly he felt about all of it. Oh, Scott, it was awful.”

And he tightened his arms and let her cry out all the hurt inside her. Finally, she lifted her head up. “Look what I’ve done to your coat. It’s just a damp mess, now. Like me, probably.”

He coaxed her over to the chair but she looked so lost as she stared, her eyes focussed on nothing.

“I feel so guilty,” she murmured after a while. “I had parties and holidays and balls and presents and warm fires and feather quilts. What did poor Mr Morrison have?”

“From what you said, your mother did try to care for him.”

“My mother took me to his see his room one time. I was young. Perhaps nine or ten. I don’t even remember why we were there. It was at the back of the hotel. Just a small room with a single cot and night stand. I remember standing at the door and looking in and my mother said to me, ‘Look, Amelia. This is how people less fortunate than you, live.’ And she sounded so angry—but angry with me. Like she was angry that I had nice things.”

“Perhaps she was angry with herself?”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure I ever understood her.”

“Parents aren’t always the easiest people to understand.”

“Mr Morrison, Joshua, was the only brother I’ve ever had and now…I just can’t stop feeling so bad about it all.”

“A wise man told me one time, that a child should never feel guilty because of the mistakes or decisions their fath—parent has made. What happened to Joshua isn’t your fault, Amelia. You’re not to blame for any of it. Believe me. I know.”

.

It was late before Matthias King returned. Amelia had pleaded with Scott to stay, so he’d waited in the sitting room of her suite for her father to return.

King had nodded his thanks when he came in but he looked too spent to even get a word out.

“Amelia’s sleeping. She was very upset but I gave her some brandy and I think that calmed her a little.”

“Thank you, my boy. I appreciate all you’ve done.” He started looking around, like he’d forgotten where he put his hat. Then in an almost helpless tone, he said, “You don’t mind—?” and waved at the door.

“Of course.” Scott saw himself out.  He didn’t really want to be around that sort of pain.

The hotel was in darkness, save for the lamps burning in the sconces and that suited his mood right then.

When he got to his room, the door was already unlocked. The sound of steady breathing told him Johnny was asleep but a lamp was burning low by his own bed.

He wasn’t really surprised to see Murdoch sitting in the armchair by the hearth.

“Murdoch.” He kept his voice low.

“I thought you might want this.” Murdoch was holding out a glass of whiskey.

“I do. But I’d better eat one of those sandwiches first.”

Murdoch passed him the plate. He was hungrier than he thought. Sitting here, eating sandwiches, felt comforting and normal after the strangeness of the afternoon.

He was onto his second sandwich when Murdoch said, “How’s Amelia.”

“Distraught…confused.” He didn’t mean to, but somehow his eyes met Murdoch’s. “Guilt-ridden.”

“I wouldn’t expect anything less. She’s a fine girl.”

“She deserved better.” He hadn’t meant to sound bitter. Somehow the subject of fathers and mothers and their mistakes always seemed to blend with his own hurts. Hurts he thought he’d locked away a long time ago.

“Most children probably do.”

There it was…that same shadow he always seemed to be fighting with Murdoch. But now wasn’t the time. This was about Amelia, not about him. And Murdoch might have his faults but both he and Johnny had come to care greatly about Murdoch. And if Johnny could get over his hurdles with their old man, then surely Scott could as well?

He took the whisky and swigged it down.

Murdoch was watchful. “How much has King told her?”

“Everything, from what I can gather. I just can’t believe Paul Watson could do something like that.”

“That makes two of us. I tried talking to him, but it was a waste of time.”

Scott poured himself another drink while Murdoch filled him in on his conversation with Watson and with King. “That’s very generous of King to honour all the bets.”

“I think underneath all the bluster, he’s an honourable man.”

“Then why all the brash talk about winning and having the biggest ranch?”

“For his wife, I suppose? I don’t really know. Some men feel that who they are isn’t good enough. You’ve likely met that type before, Scott.”

He nodded. “But you and King aren’t so different. You’ve both worked hard for what you’ve got.”

“Yes, but I started with an education and a family who cared about me. I had choices.”

The rifle was leaning beside Murdoch’s chair. It made Scott smile. “I didn’t even get a chance to properly congratulate Johnny.”

They both looked over at him. He was sleeping on his stomach, his bandaged hand resting on the pillow next to his face.

“He’s learned a thing or two about handling a gun, hasn’t he.”

“Just a little.” Murdoch grinned back.

Even this moment made him feel sorry for Amelia—she was never given the chance to know what family felt like. What having a brother felt like. He doubted she’d ever shared a warm moment like this with her father. Those moments when words didn’t need to be said. It wasn’t really something he’d experienced with this grandfather, either, until he’d come to Lancer.

“You’d best get to bed, Scott. We’ve got the final meeting in the morning—and I want you boys there.”

“This will be to vote for the next president?”

“That’s right.”

“I’ll make sure sleeping beauty over there is awake and down on time.”

“Hey, Scott. Wake up. The old man’ll be spitting bullets if we don’t get to the meeting on time.”

Scott opened his eyes. He put his head up then let it drop back on the pillow again. It couldn’t be morning already. What happened to the night?

“Come on. Up and at’em.” Johnny whacked him on the leg.

He sat up then swung his legs over the side.

Johnny came across and stood in front of him. “Did you get any sleep at all, brother?”

“A little.”

Johnny looked serious of a sudden. “How’s Amelia doing? All this must be pretty hard on her, huh.”

“I like her, Johnny. I like her a lot.”

Johnny’s smile flashed out. “Well, of course you do. I could’a told you, that.”

He found himself grinning as well. Now that he’d said it out loud, the words sounded right. He really did like Amelia. More than just liked. Something was definitely stirring inside him.

“Well, what are you gonna do about it?” Johnny was saying.

“That’s the question. With everything like it is, it’s hardly the time to ask her father if I can court her.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it too much. These things have a way of working out.”

“I suppose so.” Although right now, he couldn’t quite see how.

“You gonna tell Murdoch?”

“No. There’s nothing much to tell as yet. I suspect he knows how I feel already, though.”

“Yeah, considering we didn’t grow up with him, it’s kinda scary how good he is at knowing what we’re thinking.”

“I like it, though.”

Johnny whacked him on the arm this time. “You like a lotta things this morning, brother.”

“However, you hitting me, isn’t one of them.” He ducked in time to miss another left-handed swipe.

“I’ll see you downstairs. At least one of us oughtta get down there on time.” Johnny headed for the door.

Scott had just dipped his hands into the bowl of warm water when he heard, “And Scott…”

“What is it, now?”

But Johnny’s expression was serious. “I just wanted to say, I’m really happy for you. For the both of you.”

.

Scott hadn’t really been expecting to see Amelia in the dining room for breakfast—not after all that had happened.

Nor was he surprised when it was announced at the meeting that Matthias King had decided to take himself off the list of nominees for president of the Cattlemen’s Association. Quite a murmur went up around the room but he, Murdoch and Johnny kept their faces blank.

“Do you know anything about this, Murdoch?” Henry called to Murdoch from the table next to theirs.

Murdoch stood up and addressed the room. “I believe his wife is unwell and he decided he wouldn’t be able to take on such a responsible position at this time.”

Men looked surprised, as they’d all seen her at the competition, but there were quick murmurs of sympathy.

The rest of the meeting was interminably long. Usually he was quite interested in the discussions but he felt almost as restless as Johnny usually was. This time, Scott kept getting the frowns from Murdoch for shifting his position once too often as the incoming president droned on and on and on about all he hoped to do for the valley. Scott barely took any notice of his name let alone what he was saying. It was tedious in the extreme.

 Johnny looked half asleep, well in that sleepy-alert way of his. He was like a cat: even asleep he had one ear open. Just then he caught Scott looking at him—the half smile that crossed his face was full of understanding.

Johnny had been in love several times since Scott had known him. In fact, he wasn’t sure he’d met anyone who fell in love as easily as Johnny did.

Scott had taken months before he asked Julie to marry him.

A tingle started somewhere inside him. Was he going too fast? That seemed to be the way everyone did things out here. Johnny at any rate.

Was it possible to fall in love in less than a week?

Grandfather would say it wasn’t possible. But Murdoch…Murdoch had the heart of a dreamer. Murdoch would more likely say, yes, it was possible.

Thankfully, Banks said his farewells and then declared the convention concluded.

Scott jumped up. Murdoch was surrounded by ranchers so he and Johnny made a bee-line for the exit.

Once they were out the door, Johnny gave him a knowing look. “Where are you off to in such an all-fired hurry?”

“I thought I should check on Amelia and see how she is.”

“You’re not wearing your poker face, brother. You haven’t had it on all afternoon.”

“You noticed, huh?”

Johnny winked. “You son-of-a-gun. Say howdy for me. And Scott, let her know I don’t hold her accountable for anything that happened.”

“I’ll let her know.”

“And good luck,” he called out, as Scott headed up the stairs.

Luck. Scott hoped it wasn’t luck he’d be needing.

.

His heart was pounding as he knocked on the door of the King suite. He so badly wanted to talk to Amelia on her own.

The knob twisted and the door swung wide. And there she stood. Her hair was less complicated. He liked the way it simply fell about her shoulders. But the grey dress, fetching as it was, told him something of her state. All the same, she brightened when she saw him and her smile was welcoming and sincere.

“Scott, I’m so glad you’re here. I was hoping you’d come.”

It felt so right to take her hands and bring them to his lips.

She closed the door and there was that fluttering in his stomach when he saw she was alone. “How’s your mother?”

But Amelia shook her head. “She’s not doing well, Scott. They took her to the hospital. She isn’t speaking. It’s just awful. I tried talking to her—but she just stares.”

“I’m so sorry.”

She had a lace handkerchief in her hand but it seemed to be more useful for twisting than using to wipe that dainty nose of hers.

“No, Scott. I’m the one who’s sorry. My mother organised those men to hurt Johnny. I feel so bad about it.”

“Amelia, Johnny doesn’t blame you. I’m not even sure he blames your mother. Johnny’s not like that.”

“And that makes it even worse – we don’t deserve such kindness.”

She was clearly troubled. This situation must have touched her deeply, and was it any wonder. He’d never heard her say ‘we’ when she spoke of her family.

She started taking small steps, up and down in front of the window, twisting that poor handkerchief until it was nearly in shreds—and all Scott wanted to do was take her in his arms and hold her tight, like he’d done yesterday. But this time it felt different and he couldn’t quite put his finger on why that was. “Amelia, don’t do this to yourself.”

“It’s so strange. I’m not sure I ever felt guilt before—and now I seem to feel it about everything.” She tried to laugh, but it was a sad little sound.

“Your father withdrew his name for the president nomination.”

“I’m not sure he ever really wanted it. I think my mother told him that was what successful men do. Men like your father.”

“I think if she knew my father’s story, your mother would think differently about him.”

“I think in her eyes, you Lancers have everything. I never saw it until now. That’s why my mother was so jealous of your family—because you had everything she didn’t. Your father brought his sons home. Something she could never do.”

“I think she could have. Your father was willing.”

“Daddy thinks giving up Joshua as a baby made my mother a little sick—in her mind, I mean. But really her heart, as well.”

More than anything he wanted to take her in his arms right then. She needed to come away from all this. Perhaps he could take her back to Lancer? She could rest there and recover.

“Will your father be back soon?”

“I think so. They were keeping my mother in the hospital another night.”

Scott nodded. Her words meant he didn’t have much time to talk with her, though. And they’d be returning to Lancer tomorrow.

If there was one thing he hated, it was feeling rushed…

“Amelia.” He waited for her to stop pacing. “Amelia.”

At last she stopped and turned to him and there seemed to be an expectant glimmer in her eyes, that told him she had some idea of what he was going to say.

“Amelia, this might not be the best time to say all this but you’ve come to mean a great deal to me these last few days.”

“And you to me, Scott.” She whispered the words, so quietly he could barely hear them.

“Do you think…could I ask your father…when the time is right…if I could court you?”

“Oh, Scott. If only you knew how much I wanted to hear those words yesterday morning.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t say them then. I wanted to.” He came close to her and took her hands in his. “But I’m saying them now.”

She looked up at him, with tears in her eyes. “I’m glad you didn’t say them yesterday because it means so much more today; that after everything that’s happened, you can still say you want me.”

“Of course I want you. What happened doesn’t matter. Not to me, or Johnny, or Murdoch. The only thing that matters to me now, is you, Amelia. And I’m daring to hope you feel the same way about me.”

“Oh Scott. I do. I do.”

He was almost sure his feet had just left the ground. “You do?” He reached for her and pulled her into his arms. “Amelia.” Breathing out her name was the best he could do right then. He just wanted to hold her. Love her. Cherish her.

“Scott. There’s something I haven’t told you.” She had her face pressed close to his chest. It made her voice sound muffled. Even childish.

He smoothed down her hair, then kissed the top of her head, letting his lips linger there. “I don’t care. We’ll have a lifetime for you to tell me.”

“No. No, we won’t.”

He didn’t really understand why she was saying that but it didn’t seem to matter right now. Nothing did.

It was only when she pushed away from him and he saw her face that he realised she was serious. He smiled at her. “It looks like I should listen.”

The handkerchief started receiving the same treatment again.  “Scott, the doctor said it would be good for Daddy to take my mother away from all this.”

Well, that wasn’t so bad. For a moment there, his feet had started to come down to the floor again. “A holiday would do her good. It would do you all good.”

“You don’t understand, Scott. He doesn’t want to take her on a holiday.”

“Amelia, does it matter to us—to you—where he takes her?”

And then she turned to him and blurted out the words, “Daddy wants to take her to Australia.”

Things were really getting confused now. “Australia? But that’s miles away. Across the ocean.”

“I know. The thing is, what I’m trying to say, is this; I’ve never known what family is. I see how you are, with Johnny and your father. It’s special.”

His feet were definitely hitting the floor now. “Amelia. No. Your father can handle your mother. He doesn’t need you.”

“But he does, Scott. I never knew it until yesterday. You see, I don’t think I ever knew how much my father loves me. But he does. Isn’t that wonderful. He does.”

“Australia. Good God, Amelia. Does he have to go so far?”

“Daddy tells me Melbourne is a big city. And he’s thought about this for a long time. He wants to be a pastoralist and have sheep.”

“Sheep?”

 “I know it would be so different to here. I need something different. We need something different.”

“Amelia.”

“Scott, don’t look at me like that. I’m not sure I can be strong enough…”

“I can be strong enough for both of us.”

“No. No, you can’t.”

It was strange with Julie. Somehow they’d just drifted away from each other. But this was far worse. This was like a death. He stood there, staring at the carpet. None of it seemed real. It couldn’t be.

“Joshua’s gone but I feel like I need to honour him…to honour what he never had. And maybe, in time, my mother will get over some of the hurt.”

He turned to her and held out his arms. “I don’t think I can bear to lose you.” He was ready to go down on both knees if that meant she’d change her mind.

But she stepped back, closer to the window. “No, Scott. If I let you hold me, I’m not sure I’d have the strength to ever let you go.”

“They don’t deserve this. They don’t deserve you.” Damn everything to hell, he hated her parents.

“Scott you came all this way from Boston—to a father you’d never met before. And now you’ve got a family. Don’t you think I deserve the same chance?”

No. He wanted to say no. She didn’t. Not when it meant leaving him.

“I’ve given this a lot of thought after Daddy talked about it this morning. And,” her mouth twisted, “I don’t think I’ll ever be the right kind of wife for you—or for anyone – until I learn how to be a daughter. I don’t really understand what family is. I don’t understand what you and Johnny and Mr Lancer have.”

He dropped his head, with the horrible taste of defeat in his mouth. “There’s no changing your mind?”

“Don’t make it hard for me, Scott. I’m not sure I’ve ever made a choice that hasn’t been solely about pleasing me. Even now, it would be so easy to run into your arms and beg you to take me back to Lancer. But I can’t. I just can’t.”

“So it’s goodbye.”

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

So he left her standing by the window. And she wouldn’t even let him comfort her or help to calm her sobs.

There was nothing for it then. Scott closed the door behind him and walked away.

Was there ever a more wretched day.

Chapter 20

She was right where he thought she’d be, this time of day.

He pushed his hat back and put his face up to the window. It took a moment to find her, looking in at a sea of bonnets, but when she caught sight of Johnny a huge smile made her look twenty years younger. She waved her lace handkerchief at him like he was her beau, then beckoned him to come inside.

The bell tinkled and once again, every pair of eyes in the tearoom looked his way. This time he figured he might as well play to the gallery, so he lifted his hat, swung his gaze about the room and bowed to them all. “Ladies.”

It was like looking at a branch of chirping birds. At least half of them put their hands to their mouths and tittered. A few brave souls said, “Good afternoon, Mr Lancer.”

He weaved his way through the tables, across to where she sat, then held out the flowers he carried in his good hand. “For the prettiest gal in Sacramento. Maybe even in all of California.”

“Oh, Johnny, aren’t you just the sweetest boy.”

But when he looked down at the table, he checked before making another move. “Oops, Miss Esther, it looks like maybe you’ve got company already.” She already had two cups and saucers, with those tiny blue flowers, laid out on the white cloth in front of her.

For once, he caught her blushing. “Well, my boy, I was hoping you might come by, so just in case, I had dear Mabel lay another setting.”

He laughed. “Well, ma’am, I’m sure glad you did.”

He went to take off his gun belt but she waved her hand at him. “Don’t bother with that, Johnny. It’s too much trouble with your sore hand. Besides, I suspect the ladies are all very happy to have you here, looking the part. It’s not every day they take tea with a famed ‘pistolero.’ Ah believe that’s the correct word?”

He grinned at that, took his hat off and hooked it on the back of his seat, then sat down. “Nope, I’m back to just plain old ‘Johnny Lancer’, ma’am.”

“And that’s a fine name to have, too.” She reached out and touched his bandage. “I see you’ve had this taken care of. I do hope your hand is feeling better.”

He’d taken the sling off that morning, ignoring the look he was getting from Murdoch. “Yeah, it’s coming along.” He nodded when she held up the teapot, pushing his cup forward. “I’m sorry I didn’t get to see you yesterday, after the competition.”

“I heard there was some difficulty,” she murmured, keeping her attention on the pot as she poured their tea. “That poor young man from the hotel got himself run down by the stage. How simply awful.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And he was always such a polite man. He’d been working at the hotel since he was a boy, they say.” She looked up when Johnny stayed silent. “Rumours abound in a town like this. Cities are no different to small towns in that regard. But ah don’t pay them any mind.” And she looked him in the eye as she said that last part, then slid his cup towards him.

“Thank you, Miss Esther. I appreciate your telling me that.” He was able to relax more, now. The King family’s story wasn’t his to tell, especially if Scott intended to see more of Amelia. Maybe even marry her.

“But oh, my, Johnny—,” and one of her tiny hands went to her breast, “You’re powerfully fast with a gun.”

“You think so?” He liked hearing that from her but he ducked his head all the same, to hide his smile.

“Why, half the ladies here were ready to swoon when they watched and I swore I only heard one shot fired and the next thing ah knew, two pennants were down. I confess, my heart jumped in my mouth when I saw that last one still there.”

Johnny took a bite, then grinned through his cake crumbs. “Boy, it was just about the best feeling in the world when Scott showed me the third flag had gone down and—.” He was about to take another bite but…his hand stopped halfway to his mouth.

“What is it, Johnny?”

He put his fruit cake back on the plate and sat back so that he could muster his thoughts. “No, now I come to think of it, that moment might’ve been the best feeling in the world—except for you, Miss Esther.”

“Oh dear. Whatever do you mean, Johnny?”

He gave her a long look. “Now, don’t you go pretending you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

“I do talk a great deal at times, Johnny. You can’t expect a woman my age to remember everything she said.” But her eyes were twinkling like she was having a grand ole time.

She made him smile again but he put it away. He’d tried practising what he was going to say to her on the way down here but he couldn’t remember a blessed thing. “These past few days, I learned…” and he switched his attention to pushing the crumbs on his plate around with his finger.  “I learned that winning the One of One Thousand wasn’t as all-fired special as I’d made it out to be.” He looked up at her. “And I have you to thank, for that.”

“Fiddle dee dee. I’m sure I didn’t do anything.”

“Yes, you did.” And even now it still puzzled him. “You told me to look for the sign.”

“Did I? I must be a silly old woman, then. Drink your tea.”

“No.” He shook his head. “Nope. You’re not putting me off that easily. I think you’re a very wise woman.”

“I am?”

“Miss Esther, I was talking to Murdoch and it pretty much felt…heck…like the world had ended. But right then, I saw something that fell from Murdoch’s pocket. And I remembered what you said.” Just thinking about that moment made him shake his head. “Miss Esther, just how, exactly, did you know I’d see a sign?”

“Did I say that?”

“Don’t you go playing all innocent on me, now. You know full well you told me I’d see a sign.”

“Oh, Johnny.” She put a hand on his and those old, faded eyes of hers started shining like she was seeing something special a long ways off. “Don’t you know there’s been someone watching over you all these years? And do you think He’s going to let you down right when you need a little guidance the most?” She patted his hand, then sat back, but her next words were almost fiery. “Well, I’ve got more faith than that—even if you don’t, my dear boy.” But then she laughed and when she wiped her eyes he wasn’t entirely sure where the tears were from. “Now drink your tea before it gets cold.”

He picked up his cup again. “You really are something, Miss Esther. You know that, don’t you.”

Her eyes crinkled and she leaned in closer. “Can you repeat those words a little louder, Johnny. Ah so want the other ladies to hear you say that.”

He left Miss Esther at the door in the alley that led upstairs to her quarters, where he’d left her before. “Ma’am, can I visit with you again, next time I come to Sacramento?”

“I’d be mighty cross if you didn’t. I’ve only shown you off to the ladies in the tearoom, so far. I’ve got plans to take you to my quilting bee next time.”

He laughed. “I’d best get Teresa to show me how to make a stitch in that case. May I?” Her eyes lit up like a young girl’s and she turned her cheek towards him. He kissed her, not once, but twice. “Now you behave yourself when I’m gone.” But when he went to step back she put her gloved hand up to his face, and held it there, those bright eyes of hers serious for once, but full of a warmth and care he just couldn’t remember seeing too often.

“You’re a fine boy, Johnny Lancer. And your father is a very fortunate man.”

And then, with a wave of her lace handkerchief, she went through the door and was gone.

And he was left standing in the alley, wondering if you could feel happy and sad at the same time.

Yep, you probably could.

He looked around. Murdoch would be still talking to his friends—the ones he always met up at Convention time.

And Scott…

Well, if Scott had any sense, he’d be as close to Amelia as he could get right now.

And that left Johnny—and he didn’t mind being alone right now.

Sacramento was bustling as always but it felt good to be just strolling along. He didn’t have any business to wind-up or a care to think about. And after the week he’d had, that was okay by him.

He wandered into one store with jars of candy on the counter and bought a bag of liquorice to take home to Jelly. Course, he had to try one to make sure it was fresh. And that one tasted pretty good so he took another one out of the paper and chewed as he walked along the boardwalk. “Ladies.” He doffed his hat to a match pair in pink and lace but they giggled and kept right on walking.

A man with a funny accent tried to get him to go into his clothing store to buy a brown velvet jacket that looked like something Murdoch would wear. The little man peered at Johnny over the top of his eyeglasses. “Zis would look magnificent on you, monsieur.”

Johnny fingered the lapel. “Um…nope…that ain’t my style,” and walked on.

And being the obedient son that he was, he stayed away from the railway yards and the saloons that end of town. And he sure wasn’t going to visit one of the gambling dens down there if he wanted to stay in Murdoch’s good books.

He was almost down by the river, now. If he cut across the park in front of him, he’d be able to see one of the riverboats going by. At one time, he and Wes had aired the idea of being riverboat gamblers after taking a trip along the Mississippi—but leaving the boat with empty pockets and sore heads cured them of that idea pretty fast. But Scott, though, he’d sure look the part in one of those fancy shirts with the frills and gold rings the professionals all wore. Johnny smiled. Scott’d be right in his element at one of the faro tables.

There weren’t many people about this end of town. Johnny looked up at the sky. It was getting late. Would Murdoch be expecting him back at the hotel for supper? Nah, probably not. He’d be busy talking with all his cronies. Besides, it was kinda nice out here with the river rolling by, away from noise of the city.

Johnny ambled along, with another stick of liquorice. He was still chawing on it when—speak of the devil.

“Hey, Scott. What are you doin’ out here?”

A cobblestone path wound its way to a bridge that crossed a creek flowing into the Sacramento River. No doubt about it, that was Scott all right, standing on the wooden bridge, both arms leaning on the rails. Johnny did a quick check. Maybe Amelia was here somewhere as well? It was just the kind of place Scott would take a pretty girl if he wanted to be alone. Some birds were chirping away before night fell and the big old oak trees were giving plenty of shade and a hiding place from prying eyes.

Scott didn’t move though or show any sign of having heard him. Johnny stopped chewing and looked around. He couldn’t see Amelia anywhere but maybe Scott was meeting her, here? If that was the case, he wouldn’t want Johnny bumping into them.

Nope, he’d best make what Scott liked to call an ‘elegant retreat.’

He’d only half-turned when he heard Scott say, “Johnny.” Not like he was asking what Johnny was doing there or even saying, ‘howdy’. It was just his name.

Johnny walked on over to the bridge, dodging a hole where a plank was missing. “What are you doing here, Scott? I thought you’d be—.”

‘Cozying up to Amelia,’ was what he was going to say. Only one look at Scott’s face was more than enough to make him ditch that idea. So instead, he took his voice down a notch. “Is everything okay, brother?”

Scott didn’t look up. Just stared down at the water bubbling along while he turned a smooth, flat stone over and over in his hand. “That depends on what you’re referring to.”

Johnny hesitated. Scott wasn’t easy to talk to when he was prickly. No sense in rushing him. So he finished chewing what was in his mouth and scrunched the top of the paper sack closed. “Did you..er…get a chance to talk to Amelia?”

“I did.”

Johnny rubbed his nose. Okay, so Scott wasn’t gonna make this easy.

Johnny could just walk away? He watched the water some more then wiped his sticky hand on his butt. What would Murdoch say if he was standing here?

Being a brother was no easy thing, sometimes.

“So, um, what happened?”

“What happened is—Amelia’s going to Australia. With her family.”

“She’s what?” What he wanted to add was, ‘Why the hell would she do that?’ Instead, he tried to keep his voice even. “That seems kinda sudden, don’t it?”

“She has her reasons, Johnny.”

“Scott, I know everything must be pretty crazy for Amelia right now but, heck, any fool could see she likes you an awful lot.”

“Not enough.” Scott grunted as he threw the stone way out into the water. “It would seem.”

Johnny looked at his profile—the frown, the muscle twitching along Scott’s jaw; both told the story loud and clear. “Dios, Scott. I’m really sorry.”

Johnny put his arms on the railing and leaned on it as well. It wasn’t so long ago that Scott had come into his bedroom carrying a supper tray crammed with three or four different plates of food. “Teresa couldn’t decide on what you’d most likely prefer for supper—so she made all of it.”

Course, he hadn’t felt like eating any of it. Not when he had that pain knifing him in his chest, every time he thought of her. Yep, he knew exactly what Scott was going through.

Scott had put the tray on the table next to his bed. “Would you like me to eat some of this? That way, Teresa won’t know.”

And Johnny hadn’t even been able to crack a smile. He’d just nodded. A life without Mattie had felt awful empty to him right then.

But Scott had been there for him, sitting on Johnny’s bed, eating his supper, while Johnny stared out the window, clutching the damned note in his hand and trying to figure out what he’d said or done to make Mattie leave like that.

Well, there wasn’t any supper tray that needed eating, so…

 He just moved next to Scott and leaned on the rail—the both of them shoulder to shoulder—while the birds went to sleep and the sun went down.

.

It was dark by the time they walked back to the hotel. The street lamps were lit and the boardwalks outside the saloons were crammed with cowhands making the most of a night in town. Johnny dodged the crowds but he had to apologise a couple of times for Scott bumping into folk. It was lucky for both of them that most of the cowhands knew who Johnny was from the competition and instead of a fist coming their way, he got a slap on the back instead.

He couldn’t help noticing a pretty little red-headed gal dressed in satin and feathers and not much else standing in one of the doorways.

“Howdy, cowboys,” she smiled at them both, dropping her shawl to show off a pair of creamy shoulders. “Well don’t you two look like a mighty fine pair.” She had to call over the racket of the piano player banging the keys and all the yelling from inside. “Come on in, boys, and let us give you a rootin’ tootin’ time tonight at the Golden Pearl. Through these doors we’ve got the finest whisky and women and gambling tables in all of Sacramento.”

 Scott didn’t give the place a passing look but Johnny peered over the doors as they slowed down because of the crowd on the boardwalk heading in. With it being that busy inside, maybe she wasn’t stretching the truth any? All the same…  “Sorry, lady. Not tonight.”

It was only when Johnny talked to her that Scott started looking around like he was trying to come back from wherever he’d been.

“Johnny, are you sure you don’t want to go in? It’s our last night in Sacramento. We can—if you like.”

Amelia sure didn’t know the quality of the man she was passing up or she would never have picked Australia over Scott. Not that he wasn’t entirely sorry she had, for his own selfish reasons.

“No, brother. I’m not on the shoot tonight. Besides, we’ve got a long ride ahead of us tomorrow.”

“I can’t say I won’t be sorry to leave this town.”

They were almost back at the hotel and Scott still hadn’t said a word about what happened between him and Amelia. Johnny rubbed the back of his neck as he thought about it all. He sure wasn’t going to pry but all the same, maybe he should say something to Scott? Would Scott say something to Johnny if he’d been the one given the mitten by Amelia? Maybe he should try. Open up the conversation a little?

But when he looked sideways, Scott was nowhere to be seen.

Johnny looked behind. There was his brother, standing still, in the middle of the boardwalk. Now that wasn’t like Scott. He took a couple of steps backwards to be even with him again but Scott had dropped his head so low that Johnny had to lean sideways and look up to try and catch Scott’s eye.  “Uh, Scott?”

He got a half-hearted smile for his efforts. “Sorry, Johnny. I’ve been thinking about Amelia.”

“I figured that, brother.”

“I’ve been angry with Amelia—but I’ve decided that’s not being fair to her.”

“It isn’t? Can’t say that I blame you, none.”

“She wanted a family, Johnny.” Scott sighed, one of those deep ones from his gut. “She believes things can be different between King and her—and hopefully, with her mother as well.”

“If her ma is ever right in the head again,” Johnny muttered.

“That’s not the point. Amelia wants the opportunity to experience what we’ve got. You and me and Murdoch. And she’s right.” Scott put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder and faced him. “It would be wrong for me to stand in her way and deny her that chance. Wouldn’t it.”

It was hard to tell if Scott was asking him or telling him that last part. But there was one thing Johnny knew for sure and he couldn’t help smiling. “Well, now that I’ve got one, I think everyone deserves the chance to have a family. I think you did right, brother.”

“So do I, Johnny. So do I.”

.

Sacramento was pretty much just starting to wake up when Johnny walked through the big fancy hotel doors with the etched glass. He had his saddlebag slung over his shoulder.

Murdoch was already out in front with their horses. The three of them were looking a bit on the sleepy side after a week of living the high life in the livery stable but the ride home would soon fix that.

“You make sure you’ve got that tied secure, Murdoch.” Johnny pointed to the black case they’d given Murdoch for the One of One Thousand. “You sure I can trust you with it?” And he was only half joking after his last trip home from Sacramento with the rifle.

“Oh, I’m pretty sure you can trust your old man with this beauty.”

But Johnny wasn’t fooled. Murdoch was trying just a little too hard. So yeah, he wasn’t surprised when Murdoch tightened his cinch, saying, “Where’s Scott?”

“Oh, he’s comin’, Murdoch.”

“Things between him and Amelia…?”

Johnny winced and shook his head. “Her old man’s taking her to Australia.”

“And she wants to go?” Murdoch sounded as surprised as Johnny had been.

“That’s what Scott says. He’s pretty cut up about it all. Course, he won’t say so. You know how he is.”

“Yes, I know.” Murdoch’s face softened. “Like his mother.”

“Yeah?” Johnny liked these moments. It was like getting a glimpse into another time…almost another Murdoch. His old man must have really been something back in the day, or how else could he charm a fancy girl from Boston right off her feet.

“We‘ll just have to give him time, Johnny.” Murdoch fingered the sling Johnny had donned that morning to rest his hand. “Are you sure you’ll be okay to ride back?”

“I’ll take it easy.”

Just then Scott came out of the hotel. He slung his saddle bag over his horse and tightened the cinch then Johnny passed him his reins.

“Scott. I missed you at breakfast, son.”

“I wasn’t very hungry.”

“You can always get something to eat on the trail. We’ll pass through a few towns.” Scott wasn’t looking but Murdoch’s eyes were saying he understood what Scott was going through.

“I’ll be fine.”

Murdoch nodded. “Well boys, this past week wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I asked you to come along.”

Johnny grinned as he swung himself into the saddle. “You ever known a Lancer to go anywhere without running into some kind of trouble?”

“Since you boys came back—no.”

Johnny had to admit, he wasn’t sorry to be leaving Sacramento. They rode out, three abreast, with the hint of the morning’s mist still hanging in the air. Scott wasn’t saying much and Johnny felt real bad for him, especially with it being not so long ago that Mattie up and left. Even now, he still felt kind of bruised just thinking about her. Sometimes he dreamed she turned around when he called her name that morning. Well, it was usually more like a nightmare because every time something would happen just as he was about to get a glimpse of her; like the fog rolling in or the wind whipping sand in his face or his eyes going blurry again. At least Scott knew what Amelia looked like…

Murdoch talked some but pretty soon he gave up and the three of them rode along in silence, with the morning sun on their backs.

They’d been on the trail for some time when Scott nodded at Murdoch, riding aways in front of them. “He’s looking pretty pleased. That’s the fourth time he’s put a hand on the rifle case.”

“Yeah?”

“It turned out to be the perfect gift, Johnny.”

“Oh, I dunno.” Johnny’s eyes followed Scott’s. It was true, Murdoch sure looked happy enough. “You know me; picking out gifts isn’t one of my strong points. But this lady told me one time, that the best gifts aren’t the ones that cost the most.”

“This lady wouldn’t happen to be young and beautiful by any chance?”

Johnny grinned. “She stole my heart, all right.”

Scott sighed. “She’s probably right. I just can’t see myself giving a stereopticon to Murdoch any more.”

“Maybe next year?”

“Yes, maybe then. But I think not.”

.

They’d just ridden past the sign pointing to Mumford’s Crossing when Scott eased up. “Why don’t you two go on ahead. I’ve got some friends I’d like to visit.”

Johnny looked at Murdoch. How was his old man gonna take that idea?

Murdoch was already pulling on his reins, though. “Sure thing, son.”

Johnny grinned. “So, is she young and beautiful?”

At least Scott smiled back, even if it wasn’t his usual one. “Very much so.”

From what Johnny could remember, Scott had said Trina was about fifteen, so she was no replacement for Amelia, but Trina and her brothers might be just the thing to take his mind off the beautiful Miss King for a while.

They watched Scott ride up the barely-there trail that must’ve led to Trina’s farm.

“You think he’ll be all right, Murdoch?”

“You mean in regard to Amelia?”

“Yeah.” Murdoch was already moving on so Johnny had Barranca follow suit.

“The heart’s a fragile thing, Johnny.”

“I just hope she didn’t crack too much of Scott’s.”

“Well, we just need to give him time.”

“Like you gave me, huh, when Mattie left.”

Murdoch’s smile was almost a mite sheepish, like he’d been found out. “Yes, Johnny-my-boy. Exactly like that.”

Mumford’s Crossing looked just as it did the last time he rode in, right down to the ‘Mumford’s Crossing Freight and Storage’ wagon rattling through town. Maybe that was some kind of an omen?  

“I was thinking we’ll press on a bit further, Johnny, before we stop for the night. Miller Junction is closer to Lancer and there’s a family not far from there that I’d like to look in on—if you don’t mind.”

“You know, Murdoch, my hand is um…kind of bothering me some.”

“Is it? Do you want me to take a look at it?”

“No. No. Look, why don’t you keep on going and I’ll just spend the night here at Mumford’s Crossing.”

“You sure?”

“Murdoch, I don’t wanna mess up your plans. I know you had that family you said Jelly knew that you were aiming to go visit. I’ll just rest up here for a spell. You know. Maybe have an early night then hit the trail first thing in the morning.”

For a minute he thought Murdoch was going to insist on staying, too. He was looking around town like he was deciding if it was some place he wanted to stay, but finally he said, “Good idea. I’ll see you back at Lancer. Tomorrow.” And he leaned forward in the saddle, very much as he leaned on that last word.

Johnny tried not to look too relieved. “Tomorrow it is. See yah.”

He had to admit, he felt a lot different about Mumford’s Crossing than he had the last time he rode out of here.

Of course, now that he’d given Murdoch the shake, he had to work out what the heck he was gonna do. It wasn’t as if he planned to stop here but somehow, with Scott heading off to see Trina, the idea just kind of dropped in his head.

Well, he knew where the livery was so he might as well head in that direction and stable Barranca before getting a room for the night.

Only, he didn’t even make it half-way up the main street before he brought Barranca to a halt.

Wouldn’t you know, out front of the general store, was a familiar black horse with the letters MR emblazoned on the saddle.

And just as he was trying to work out the odds of how many black horses in Mumford’s Crossing would fit that description, the door swung open. For a second he had half a mind to ride the hell out of there. It was her, all right, striding out the door like she owned the town, that blonde pony tail swinging back and forth.

She hadn’t even made it to the first step before she caught sight of him and then she stood stock still and stared like he was the ghost of old man Mumford himself.

Johnny pulled Barranca up and lifted his hat. “Excuse me, ma’am. You don’t know a good store in these parts where I can buy a rifle, do you?”

“No, I’m sorry. You’d have to go to Sacramento for that.”

“Oh. I see.” Her words had all the warmth of a dead fish. Well, that was that. He didn’t know what the heck he was doing here, anyway. “Ma’am.” He dipped his head towards her and urged Barranca on. If he pushed Barranca, he could probably catch up with—

“But my father used to collect them.”

Johnny pulled on the reins but it was a moment before he swung around. Did he just hear what he thought he heard?   

Tiffany had come down the steps. She must have run to be standing this close to him on the road in such a short time.

“He has plenty on display,” she was saying, still in that cool voice of hers, “at the Mumford Ranch.”

“We..e..ll…” Johnny leaned forward and rested his good arm on the horn. It didn’t hurt to make her stew a little, after all the times she’d tricked him.

 “If you’d like to visit, that is.”

Ah, that was the note he was listening for. “I hear tell the trail is easy—if you know the way.”

Oops, maybe he’d gone too far. She had that, ‘I’m Tiffany Mumford’ look on her face again, all stiff necked and shoulders back.

He tilted his head. He’d always found a bit of coaxing never hurt.

 It started out slow but sure enough, there was no mistaking that smile as she walked closer and put a hand on Barranca’s neck.

“That’s right, Mr Lancer. It’s easy. Even in the dark.”

“So I’ve heard.” And he started grinning. “I’m pretty sure I can follow the signs.”

End
April 2020

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PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT
Thank you for reading! The authors listed on this site spend many hours writing stories for your enjoyment, and their only reward is the feedback you leave. So please take a moment to leave a comment.  Even the simplest ‘I liked this!” can make all the difference to an author and encourage them to keep writing and posting their stories here.  You can comment in the ‘reply’ box below or Email Suzanne directly.

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28 thoughts on “THE GIFTS: What Happened Next by Suzanne

    1. Hi Rita, thanks so much for taking the time to let me know you enjoyed my story. It really means a lot to me! I love hearing from my readers! Many thanks! 🙂

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  1. Hi Crtstle, thank you so much for leaving feedback. It’s so kind and you made my day!! And yes, I’ve got quite a few stories I’m working on so keep an eye out for them. 🙂 My thanks again.

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  2. Wonderful story. I actually gasped out loud when you wrote that Mumford donated the rifle. Such great dialogue. I loved how you tied up everyone’s stories. I pictured Miss Esther as one of the old maid sisters on the Waltons. I would love to read anything you write. Thank you for writing this story!

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    1. Good WHN. You really tied up Johnny’s rifle gift beautifully. I liked the King family, the mother being the evil one, really more sick, was quite the surprise. Enjoyed the contest, but kept waiting to prove the trick in the horse race. You had me twisting and turning on this one. Loved the wise old lady with Johnny charming her. I kept picturing this old Victorian tea house we have near me. Wish the pandemic was over. I hope it is open, so I can visit it again. Good story, enjoyed it very much.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Jane Elise, well, I felt so bad for Johnny losing the rifle that something needed to be done about, lol! It’s always risky adding a tag to an episode but I’ve been so happy to hear such positive feedback from readers. Your encouraging words put a big smile on my face! I hope you get to visit that tea house soon – it sounds very much like what I envisaged in my story. 🙂

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  3. Thank you so much, Patricia! I get such a kick out of feedback for my stories. I’m always thrilled when someone lets me know they enjoyed what I wrote. Hee, so I made you gasp – I love it, lol! Your enthusiasm has put a big smile on my face!! Thanks again!

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  4. Suzanne, It was a pleasure to read this rich tale again. You do such a fine job of developing the characters and weaving a taut storyline. Thanks for sharing. Chris

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    1. Chris, I consider it a great compliment if anyone reads one of my stories more than once! Thanks so much for letting me know. I’m thrilled you liked it so much! Many thanks!

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  5. Loved this story. Really felt for Johnny when his gun hand was hurt and had tears in my eyes when the silver L fell out of Murdoch’s pocket. It was nice that Scott had a little romance for a while. Lots of emotion and drama. A great story.

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    1. Hi Tina, thanks so much for reading and then taking the time to let me know you enjoyed my story! Your feedback is a great blessing to me! I’m thrilled to hear you connected with the story. That’s what every writer wants, isn’t it! Thanks again!

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  6. Really great writing! Full of little gems like:’Sometimes kicking Johnny was very tempting’… Actions and thoughts perfectly in character

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Janbrac, Yay, lovely to hear you enjoyed this story! Hee, and lol, can you blame Scott! As a canon writer, it always means so much to me when anyone finds my characterisations match what we saw on the screen. Many, many, thanks for that! 🙂

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  8. What a great storyline .Such a clever idea to create the competition for the one of one thousand building the tension and suspense along the way.
    I loved your chracters and anticipating how they were going to develop and influence the plot. I often find the conclusion of a story can be underwhelming, yours was a compete triumph and left me smiling.
    Thank you so much for a terrific read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Val, I’m so thrilled to hear you enjoyed this story so much! And yes, I agonised over how to end it so you’ve no idea how delighted I am to hear that I left you smiling. Whew! And now you’ve left me smiling, lol!! Thanks so much your encouragement. It means a lot to me!

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  9. This was a great story! So much emotion between the characters, tension during the race and the nice little old lady Esther. Thank you so much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Caterina, it’s such a blessing to hear you enjoyed my story. It’s a lovely reward for the many hours that went into writing this. 🙂

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    1. Thanks so much for letting me know you enjoyed my story, Anne. Feedback is very much appreciated by me! 🙂

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    1. Thanks so much, Mary! High praise indeed to hear you’ll put this on your read-again list! 🙂

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  10. Wow! I love this story! Definitely a favorite. I love how you jumped right into Scott and Johnny’s heads and made their thoughts come alive. I felt like I was watching an actual episode.
    And those scenes between Johnny and Miss Esther were simply adorable.
    Thank you so much for posting this. I will be reading it again, and again!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Castell, I’m a canon writer so I’m always so happy when someone feels my story is like watching an episode because that’s exactly the feel I’m going for! Yay! And I must admit, I had a lot of fun writing those scenes with Miss Esther. Thanks so much for your lovely encouragement. I appreciate it very much!

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  11. Great story! The relationship between Johnny and Murdoch was beautifully written. Miss Esther was a wonderful character. So good that Johnny got his rifle back, even though he had to go through so much to get it. Definitely a story that I’ll be returning to.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Styzgal, the series gave us some very special scenes between Murdoch and his sons so I’m so pleased you think I’ve done justice to the Johnny/Murdoch relationship. Miss Esther turned out to be a sweetie, didn’t she! I had fun writing her scenes. And gosh, it’s always a huge compliment if anyone rereads anything I’ve written!! Thanks so much for your encouragement!

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