Word Count 56,742
This little saga was a year in the making. Without the constant support of the readers and my partner/beta – Linda Rae – I was able to bring this story to conclusion. Thanks to all who supported ‘Pilgrim Fridays’.
This is a Lancer/Big Valley Xover. I don’t own these characters. I never will. Many thanks to the writers who created them and to the actors who brought them to life.
The Pilgrim –
The Death of Johnny Lancer
Pilgrim how you journey,
on the road you chose –
To find out why the winds die
and where the stories go.
All days come from one day,
that much you must know
You cannot change what’s over,
but only where you go.
(Enya – Pilgrim, Stanzas 1&2)
For 6 months he had tried to please the ‘Old Man’. For six months he had run himself ragged doing everything the ‘Old Man’ had requested of him. He mended fences, herded cattle, dug ditches, stayed out of trouble – anything the ‘Old Man’ asked he did. Six months – and still no respect. Every night at dinner it was the same – the old man asking him what he had accomplished and then demanding why he hadn’t thought to do more. For Johnny Madrid it would have been too much. No one told Johnny Madrid what to do. But was it too much for Johnny Lancer? The dark haired young man had yet to figure the answer to that question.
When Johnny decided to trade in his gun for the ranch, he promised himself and his newly found family that he would give it his all. He saw Lancer as his opportunity to get away from the hard life of a gunfighter. At Lancer he had found family and a measure of security that he had never known in his past life. After a fashion, he found that he actually enjoyed not having to look over his shoulder for the next shooter who wanted a piece of him – though one inevitably would show up. As much as he tried to avoid his former life, it would always come back to haunt him. Still, that didn’t prevent him from trying to become Johnny Lancer – the son his father wanted.
On this night, Johnny and Jelly had worked late with the horses, trying to get the last one broke before the sale that would be held at the ranch in 5 days. “How many was that?” Johnny asked, wiping the dirt and sweat off his face, as he and the older man made their way to the main house for dinner. Johnny had invited Jelly to join the family so that he could tell his father of their accomplishments.
Jelly shook his head knowing full well Johnny knew that he had personally broken his own record. “Ya sure have a way with ‘em,” Jelly remarked. “’Ol Murdoch should be right proud of your efforts.”
Johnny smiled to himself; sure that he would finally get some approval from his father. As they entered the house, he saw that he was late for dinner and was holding up the rest of the family. “Sorry I’m late, I was just….”
“Dinner is at 6, you know that John.” Murdoch interrupted quietly, his voice tinged with annoyance.
“Yeah, but I was …” Johnny had pulled out his chair to sit down, but stopped after hearing the cold tone of his father’s voice.
“It’s time to eat. We can discuss what you were or were not able to accomplish later.”
Johnny stood looking from his father to his brother, Scott, who rolled his eyes – puzzled by this latest reaction from their father. “Go ahead and eat without me. Sorry for the interruption.” Johnny shot back sarcastically as he turned on his heel – leaving the way he had come – slamming the door behind him as he left.
Scott rose from his seat to go after his brother. “You didn’t have to be so hard on him,”
“Didn’t I?” Murdoch placed a restraining hand on his oldest son’s arm, preventing him from following after Johnny. “We have rules here for a reason. If the rule is that we eat at six – then we eat at six.”
“I don’t care if we eat at eleven!” Scott responded, anger rising in his voice. “Why are you always so tough on him?”
Murdoch spoke sharply, his eyes snapping up at his oldest son. “Why is it that you don’t ask why he never listens?”
Scott opened his mouth to make a quick reply only to stop when he caught a look in Teresa’s eye. The young woman had been silently watching the entire interaction and signaled with a slight shake of her head that now was not the time for this argument.
Closing his mouth, Scott retreated and sat back down.
Jelly had also silently watched as Murdoch had yet again put down his youngest. With a shake of his head, he slipped out the front door hurrying after his friend. There would be food enough in the bunkhouse and the companionship there was bound to be warmer.
Johnny left the hacienda and went back out to the corral to watch the horses. He had worked hard and all he had wanted was his father’s approval, not the dressing down he received. ‘Why is it always so hard?’ he thought to himself. He’d asked the question often of his older brother, who never managed to disappoint the ‘Old Man’, but even Scott didn’t have the answer.
His thoughts were interrupted as Jelly came to stand beside him. “Come on, let’s eat in the bunkhouse. I hear they got steaks grillin’….” He attempted to pull his friend from his dark thoughts and into the light of the easy companionship the young man shared with the other vaqueros.
“Naw, you go ahead. I’ll get something later…” Johnny gave the older man a sad smile and turned away.
Jelly nodded, understanding his young friend’s feelings, and let him go. What he didn’t understand was Murdoch’s treatment of his youngest son. To Jelly, Johnny was everything that he would have wanted in a son. He was a hard worker, loyal to his friends and aware of his enemies. It didn’t matter to Jelly that Johnny had once been a gunfighter. What mattered most was that he had a good heart.
After finishing their tense meal, Scott rose to go look for his brother. Pushing back his chair, he thanked Teresa for her efforts and with a glare to his father he went out the front door. It didn’t take him long to find Johnny, in the barn combing Barranca – his golden palomino. “Missed you at dinner,” Scott said, picking up another brush.
“Wasn’t good company.” Johnny muttered under his breath.
“So tell me, what kept you from coming to dinner on time?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Johnny responded flatly, continuing his ministrations.
“I’m sorry.” Scott stopped combing the horse and placed a comforting hand on his brother’s shoulder.
Johnny stopped and looked his older brother in the eye. “It ain’t your fault he don’t like me.”
Scott swallowed hard, knowing that there was some measure of truth to what Johnny had said. Scott wasn’t blind. He saw how Murdoch was always harder on Johnny than on any other man on the ranch. The old Scotsman would accept nothing less than perfection from the former gunhawk, while he allowed Scott to make the simple mistakes of a greenhorn without comment. Guilt crept up his spine, knowing that Murdoch never had treated him as harshly as Johnny was treated on a daily basis. Scott searched his heart, trying to find words that would ease the situation. “He’s your father. Of course he likes you. He just doesn’t know how to show it.”
Johnny snorted in response. “Well you could have fooled me! We’ve had this conversation more than once, Boston. That old man flat out disapproves of what I do – even when I do it right!” He pitched the brush in the corner knocking over a bucket with a hard bang. “I just don’t know what more I can do.”
“Hang in there, Brother. He’s bound to come around…”
Johnny dejectedly dropped his chin to his chest. “I’d just like to know when.”
Scott slung an arm across his brother’s shoulders. “Come on. Let’s get you something to eat and you can tell me all about that corral filled with horses.”
Johnny shrugged off Scott’s arm and turned away. “You go on. I’m not hungry…”
The younger man turned and flashed his brother a reassuring smile. “Go on. Tell Teresa to keep the leftovers near the stove and I’ll get something to eat later.”
“Yeah, Boston. I just got some thinkin’ to do. I’ll eat later.”
Reluctantly, Scott returned to the house. Murdoch was in the great room seated in front of the fire. Not wishing a confrontation with his father, he quietly went upstairs to his room. He had some thinking to do too.
Sleep did not come easy to Scott Lancer that night. It troubled him that his father had so easily accepted him into his life and home but had no such consideration for his brother. After tossing and turning for an hour, he decided to get a drink of brandy. Quietly he stole down to the main room, only to find that he wasn’t the only one who couldn’t sleep. Murdoch was still there, seated in front of the dying fire, a snifter in his hand.
“Murdoch?” Scott asked quietly trying not to startle his father.
The older man roused from his thoughts and smiled at his son. “Scott – can’t sleep?”
Scott smiled back picking up an empty glass to pour himself a brandy. “Too much on my mind….”
“Johnny?” Murdoch frowned, holding his glass out for Scott to pour him a refill.
With a half full glass in hand; Scott moved to face his father. “Why does it have to be a constant battle with you two?”
“I don’t know what you mean.” Murdoch murmured as he took a sip of the amber liquor.
Scott couldn’t believe his father’s response. “Like hell you don’t! There isn’t a day that goes by that you don’t find fault with something that he does! I just want to know why.”
Murdoch sighed and looked up into the expectant face of his eldest son before turning his gaze back to the dying fire. “Have you ever broken a horse?”
Scott nearly choked on his drink. “You know I have.”
“You have to take it slow, wear them down so that you can rebuild them into something that you can use.”
“And that’s what you’re doing with Johnny – breaking him?” Scott couldn’t believe his ears. “He’s a man – not an animal!”
“Do you know how many people he’s killed?” The words came quietly. “He’s spent too much time on his own – too much time as Johnny Madrid. He needs to be broken of the habits, the wildness of his old ways. Just like a horse has to be broke to a saddle, Johnny needs to be broken to be a useful member of this ranch.”
“He’s your son for God’s sake!”
“He-is- not- my -son!” Murdoch rose to his feet – anger filling his being. “He is a stranger. My son died 20 years ago when his mother took him away. That young man is not the child I knew – he can never be the Johnny Lancer that was going to be my son!”
Scott was completely taken aback by his father’s outburst. “What about Pardee? Didn’t he prove he was your son then – he nearly died for you…?”
“And in some ways I wish he had.” The father regretfully admitted. “I gave him a chance, but how do we really know that he didn’t turn to Pardee’s side. Do you know for certain? I sure don’t! The fact that Pardee is dead is the only good thing to come of that battle.”
“I can’t listen to this any more!” Scott exploded. “You’ve given up on him. This whole business with the ranch – it was a lie…”
Murdoch sat heavily on the couch and stared at the dying fire. He didn’t want to quarrel with Scott. This was not an issue that Scott had any right to argue. It was between Murdoch and Johnny. Staring into the fire he remembered the dreams that he had for the dark haired toddler who had brought life to the estancia so many years ago. He had dreams for Johnny – dreams that every father has for his child; teaching Johnny how to ride, to shoot – to be a man that he would be proud to call – ‘son’. All he had left were bitter dreams of a promising future – ruined when Maria took Johnny away. It was as if in his head his son had died and his heart had never recovered. Seeing Johnny now was just a constant reminder of all that he had lost. The fact that Johnny had survived to become the famed gunhawk – Johnny Madrid, only made the ruined dreams that much more painful. Gone were the imaginings he had for his dark haired toddler. He was faced with the cold reality that Johnny could never be molded into the man that Murdoch wanted him to be, the man he would have been had he been raised at Lancer and not in Mexico.
Having Johnny on the ranch was also proving to be a liability. For the past several months the Cattlemen’s Association had been constantly hounding him to get rid of the gunhawk who had taken up residence at Lancer; arguing that if Lancer had a hired gun in residence then they would need one too – just to keep things even. Murdoch made a determined effort to show that was not true and that Johnny was no longer Johnny Madrid, but was Johnny Lancer. The young man, however, ruined his father’s efforts by bucking Murdoch’s directions as if he were determined not to be the Johnny Lancer Murdoch was resolved to make him. Johnny was making a habit of taking up for the men against his father, an action that created a lot of tension between them. There were other ways that Johnny wasn’t fitting in and Murdoch was getting tired of the game that he perceived they were playing. At times, the boy could be counted on to handle the toughest of jobs, but when it came time for him to do the more mundane chores he would simply disappear doing who knows what – anything but ranch work. Try as he might, Murdoch could not get the boy to conform to the life Murdoch was preparing him for. Then came the notice of the cancelled cattle contract…
Scott continued to glare at his father while the older man seemed focused on the dying fire. He couldn’t believe that his father had so easily given up on his brother. “So what happens now?” he asked finally, slamming his empty glass down to catch Murdoch’s attention.
“I don’t know.” Murdoch murmured as if hypnotized by the glowing embers. “We wait and see who breaks first.”
“Who breaks first?! He’s a man who was raised in a hell that neither you nor I could ever comprehend. He needs our love and support not our condemnation.” With that said, Scott left his father in the darkening room. Murdoch lingered for a few more moments before downing the last of his brandy and heading upstairs.
Neither Scott nor Murdoch took notice of the two figures hidden in the shadows just outside the kitchen door. Johnny and Jelly had been in the kitchen, polishing off the dinner leftovers, when they heard voices arguing in the greatroom. At one point Jelly had almost gone busting through the doors to set things right – but Johnny held him back. When Murdoch denounced him as being his son, the young man had finally heard too much and slid down the wall, sinking to his heels in quiet numbness. He listened as his brother attempted to defend him and then gave up. He remained there, with Jelly sitting quietly by his side, until Murdoch finally went upstairs.
“I’m sure he didn’t mean nothin’ by it…” Jelly whispered, attempting to explain away the situation, sorry that he had brought Johnny in to eat.
Johnny’s blue eyes snapped open, but he kept his head bowed. “He meant every word of it.” Johnny retorted bitterly. “I need to be ‘broken’ so that I can fit in ‘round here.” Standing slowly he smiled weakly at his friend.
“Johnny….” Jelly reached out to touch Johnny, but the man had turned away too quickly. The older man watched as Johnny walked silently through the kitchen, going up the back stairs to his room. With a shake of his head, Jelly headed to his own room – positive that nothing good was going to come of these revelations.
Moving quickly, Johnny picked up everything he had brought with him and packed his saddle bag. He was leaving and was taking nothing that he had purchased with Murdoch’s ‘blood money’. He even left the watch that Murdoch had given him to use – his grandfather’s watch. As Johnny saw it, he had no father – no grandfather – so why take the useless piece of jewelry. A watch wasn’t needed where he was going. He would take his horse, Barranca, as payment of the services he had rendered during the fight with Pardee. As he turned to leave his room one last time he was overcome with a feeling of regret. He wouldn’t miss the house, the grueling work or his nagging father. He regretted that he hadn’t had the opportunity to know his brother better– but then Johnny Madrid had no brother.
Before leaving the ranch, Johnny left a hastily scrawled note in Barranca’s stall for Jelly to find in the morning. He loved the old man, and knew that Jelly loved him without reservation. Jelly’s grumpy companionship had brought the young gunfighter a lot of comfort during the past few months. The note was a simple goodbye with instructions that Jelly not tell his family he was gone until they asked. He had little doubt he would not be missed – until he was long gone. In a few hours he would be untraceable – as if he had never existed.
Johnny left in the dead of night. He left like he had come – empty handed and alone. He and Barranca paused as they prepared to go over the ridge that separated Lancer from the rest of the valley. Casting one last glance back in the direction he had come, he knew that he would never see his brother or the magnificent house again. “Come on boy.” He gently urged the horse forward – never to look back again.
There would be no Pinkertons looking for him this time. He had finally managed to give his father what he really wanted – Johnny Lancer dead and buried. With him gone there was no reminder of Murdoch’s greatest failures – the breakup of his marriage and the fact that he had sired a killer for a son. Sadly he realized that he was a constant disappointment to his father, that no matter how hard he tried he could never be the son Murdoch would have had if his mother had stayed. Murdoch now had his perfect future with his perfect son. It amazed him; he had no hate for his father – not like before when he thought that his father had kicked him and his mother out of the house. There was no anger at Scott – it wasn’t his brother’s fault that his father hated him. No, this time he knew who was to blame. He placed it on his own shoulders. By his words, Murdoch had confirmed something that Johnny had long suspected – he wasn’t good enough to be Murdoch Lancer’s son – that there was something inborn about him that made him unwanted and unworthy of love.
Thinking back over the past six months brought a sad smile to his lips. It had been fun pretending to belong. But that was all it was for everyone – a pretend play. Well, he was returning to the real world and that meant the world of Johnny Madrid.
By-passing Moro Coyo and Green River, he headed east. He had to be alone, to think out his future – a new future where Johnny Lancer never existed.
The next morning, Scott found Johnny’s bed made and concluded that the younger man had gotten up early to get a head start on his chores for the day. Going down to the kitchen he found Teresa and Maria busily preparing the morning meal.
“Have you seen Johnny this morning?” he asked pouring himself a cup of coffee.
“I haven’t seen him, but I know he was here – he finished off the leftovers from last night.” Teresa smiled knowingly at Scott. She had been pleased to see the leftovers were gone. It meant that Johnny hadn’t gone hungry after missing dinner.
Scott grinned too, imagining his always hungry brother raiding the pantry for leftovers. Without a second thought Scott went about his day hoping to find time to speak with Johnny before dinner that evening. He was hoping for the opportunity to bridge the gap that festered between his father and brother. Clearly Murdoch was not in the mood to bend and since Johnny had been trying – maybe Scott could get him to bend a little more.
At 6 o’clock Murdoch Lancer sat at the head of his dining table. He was furious. How could Johnny be late again! He had Maria go find Jelly, hoping the old wrangler would know the whereabouts of his errant son. Jelly came in ten minutes later, a defiant glare set in his eye as he faced his boss.
“Ya want ta see me?” the older man challenged.
“Johnny who?” came the bold response.
Anger filled Murdoch as he asked again: “Where is he?”
“I ain’t seen him all day.”
“Do you know where he went?” Murdoch pushed, tiring of the short responses.
“Who?” Jelly insisted, his chest swelling in anticipation of a confrontation.
Exasperated, Murdoch stood up. “Jelly I need to know now – where is my son?”
“Why, your son is dead,” Jelly spat the words at his boss and smiled.
Scott and Teresa quickly stood and converged on the older man, both immediately upset and concerned. “What? When did it happen?”
Jelly kept his eyes on Murdoch and pointed a finger at the big man’s chest. “He knows exactly when and how it happened.”
Murdoch was angered by the accusation. “You’re not making any sense. Where is Johnny?”
Jelly walked closer to Murdoch than he ever would have dared before, but he knew he had nothing to lose. He had found the note and knew that his friend, Johnny Lancer, was gone. With Johnny gone, Jelly felt that there was no reason for him to be sticking around either. “There,” he pointed at the doorway to the kitchen. “He bled to death there last night – a wound so deep that the blood just kept a pour’n out of his heart ‘til there was nothing left but Johnny Madrid.”
Scott and Murdoch looked at each other, their eyes widening. “He heard?” Scott whispered.
“Every word ‘n me too.” Jelly continued to glare at the oldest Lancer.
Teresa looked at the men present trying to grasp what had happened. “I don’t understand. Where is Johnny?” she demanded, fearful to know the answer.
“Gone,” Jelly said with finality.
Scott looked away from his father to the doorway. Closing his eyes he tried to make sense of it all. “He heard Murdoch and me last night. We were discussing him and his place here on the ranch….”
“He said that his son was dead! That Johnny could never be nothin’ but Johnny Madrid. Well let me tell you somethin’ – Ol’ man,” Jelly sputtered the words while poking his finger into Murdoch’s chest. “He was too good for ya. He worked harder than anyone on this ranch and all he wanted were ‘jus a kind word. One kind word woulda ‘broke’ him like one of them horses he’s been workin’ with. You didn’t have to beat him; you just had ta love him!”
Murdoch listened in stunned silence before sinking into his chair. “I didn’t mean for this to happen….”
“Well, if ya ask me ya got jus’ what you wanted. Ya got one live son and one dead son.” With that said, Jelly turned and left the house.
The Pilgrim – The journey
All days come from one day
That much you must know
You cannot change what’s over
But only where you go.
Scott was beside himself. If he had known Johnny had been present, he never would have confronted his father. After Jelly left, Scott and his father had a bitter argument which ended when Scott stomped out of the room, going upstairs to Johnny’s room to take a closer look around. There he found everything that his brother had accumulated in the past six months. It hadn’t been much – a few shirts, a pair of pants and a sombrero that Scott had bought for him at a local festival. In the bedside drawer he found the watch that Murdoch had given Johnny the day he had left the first time with Wes – to go ‘wherever the winds blow’. Scott remembered that the two men had argued bitterly and Johnny had left in defiance. This time was different. There were no words between the father and son – just the quiet death of whatever hopes Johnny had for a new life. Scott sat on the bed and clutched the watch in his hand. Murdoch had given Johnny the watch as a reminder to the young man that he was now a responsible member of a family, and that meant being on time. The fact that Johnny had left the watch was confirmation that Johnny had heard the entire conversation the night before and had understood that he was NOT a member of Murdoch’s family and could never be. Looking around the room, Scott sadly viewed that there was nothing left for him to hold on to that remotely indicated that Johnny Lancer had ever existed. Slipping the watch into his pocket, Scott vowed that someday it would be returned to its rightful owner.
Teresa found him there, sitting in the dark, an hour later. She had quietly left the great room while Scott and Murdoch argued over what needed to be done to bring Johnny back. Murdoch made it clear that there was no going after the young man. If Johnny wanted to come back, it would have to be of his own accord. This time, there would have to be an apology. Johnny would have to realize that he couldn’t just up and leave the family, shirking his duties – only to return whenever the mood struck his fancy. Scott had argued that was asking too much – that Johnny had a right to be there and just because Murdoch called the ‘tune’ that didn’t mean that his brother had to be treated like a whipped dog. Teresa admired the way that Scott had stood up to the older man, point blank putting the blame for Johnny’s departure on Murdoch’s shoulders. No one else in the house or on the entire ranch seemed to hold the low view of Johnny that Murdoch held – except for, perhaps, Johnny himself. They had all seen how hard Johnny had tried to be and do whatever Murdoch decreed, but it had never been good enough. At least now Scott had an idea why – and he didn’t like it. His father’s actions had cost him his brother.
“You can’t blame yourself,” Teresa said from the doorway.
“Can’t I?” Scott’s reply came from the darkness. “I should have known better than to discuss their relationship while Johnny was in the house.”
“Well, if you ask me, Murdoch is to blame for this whole mess” the young woman declared entering the room and taking a seat beside her remaining ‘brother’. “Why didn’t he ever try to speak to Johnny about how he felt?”
Scott looked at his ‘sister’ and gave her a weak smile. “I can’t see it ever coming up in a conversation between the two of them. They’re both so stubborn and Johnny – well he’s defensive enough about his past…”
“But for Murdoch to say that Johnny Lancer was dead? Where did that come from?”
Shaking his head, Scott rose from the bed and looked out the window to the west. “We have to find him – or Johnny Lancer will be dead…”
“But where do we look? He could be halfway to anywhere…” Teresa’s voice trailed off as she thought of Johnny alone on the trail. “Where would he go to feel safe?”
“There is no safe place.” Scott hung his head and rubbed his throbbing temples with his hands. “Outside of this ranch he is Johnny Madrid and from what little he told me, there is no place where he’s safe.”
“So what do we do?” Theresa stood to stand beside Scott, quietly slipping her small hand into his.
“We wait until he wants us to find him.”
“And if he doesn’t want to be found?”
“Then Johnny Lancer is dead.”
Johnny headed east towards the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He had been very careful to hide his tracks thinking that perhaps Scott would try to follow like he had when Johnny had left the first time. In his heart of hearts, he wished that his father would care enough to come after him and ask him to come back to Lancer. Half of him would do it, while the other half would tell the old man where the hell he could go.
After stopping in a small mining town for supplies and bullets, he spent five days winding his way through the forested back trails of the mountains. He was all alone not another soul in sight – a good thing as he didn’t feel up to keeping company with man nor beast. Barranca seemed to understand and that was enough. His mind was a jumble of emotions and memories and he needed time to sort them out before he could get on with the rest of his life. Solitude was what he was searching for and he knew where to find it. There were places in the mountains where a man could hide out and never be found.
Riding higher into the mountains he found a cave that he had once used as a refuge after he had been shot up pretty bad. Entering the stone hideaway he marveled at how small it now seemed. Just a few years ago the shelter had seemed like a castle. Now he clearly saw it for what it was – a hole in a mountain fit only for wild animals. A smile cracked his face as he remembered his father’s description of him. He was a wild animal, so the fact that he retreated to this spot was just further confirmation of his inborn untamed nature. He couldn’t blame his father for thinking that way, but it sure did hurt.
Thinking back on his time spent at Lancer, Johnny realized what troubled him most was that he had been completely blindsided by Murdoch’s words. Johnny Madrid – blindsided by a rancher! The gunhawk was awed at the irony. He was supposed to be such a good judge of character. For six months he had been aware that he and his father were like sulfur and black powder when it came to the way they spoke to each other – each conversation was like an explosion waiting to happen. Murdoch always made it clear that he was wary of him – in all of the time that he had spent at the ranch he had never once had the feeling that his father trusted him. That was OK. In his life he had learned to live with people not trusting him, but he sure had wanted to earn his father’s trust – like Scott had. The Old Man had taken to the easterner like a fish to water. Johnny knew that he would have to try harder to get along and he did try. It was difficult living with a man he knew disapproved of him, but he was determined to make it work. That was why he had spent so much time with the horses. He just knew that if the sale was a success that his father would finally have no choice but to rethink his perception of him. To finally learn that his father hated him with such passion caught him completely off guard.
Now that he had the time to look back and reflect, he knew why – everything had been a lie! Murdoch sending for him so that they could be a family – Lie. Murdoch wanting him to be a partner in the ranch – Lie. And, the biggest lie of all – that Murdoch had pretended to care for him. Johnny’s thoughts turned back to the time after he had been shot by Pardee. Murdoch would stay by his sick bed and speak to him of everything and anything except about how he felt. Johnny couldn’t believe that he actually thought Murdoch’s actions were a show of concern.
In hindsight, he now saw the truth for what it was. Murdoch had sent for Johnny Madrid to rid his land of Day Pardee and his gang. When he didn’t need Johnny Madrid any more, the Old Man had to find a way to get rid of him. Well, he did. No fancy words or unspoken knowing looks would ever get him to return again – not like after the incident with the Stryker’s. Johnny had left with Wes because Murdoch had given him two choices and Johnny chose to leave. When he returned, they chose restart their relationship, but apparently Murdoch decreed that Johnny wasn’t worth his time. This time there was no choice. Johnny Lancer did not exist – at least not to the one man who mattered – his father. He couldn’t live the life of a dead person. There was no returning to a life that had ceased twenty years earlier.
When he wasn’t thinking about Murdoch he would think of Scott. With a sad smile he remembered the time when Scott had come to find him after he had left with Wes. His brother had found him, alone, at the saloon in Green River. Scott had told him that he would be dead before he was thirty – that he would die and never leave a mark. Johnny now knew that his brother was right, but there were no other options to pursue. A life at Lancer was no longer in his future and Johnny Lancer was dead – he had died at age two. The only life he had left was that of Johnny Madrid – a life that he had created for himself when he was just twelve. It would have to do, for the rest of his life – how ever long that would be.
“We have to go and find him!” Scott stood in front of his father’s desk, his hands resting on the polished surface as he vainly tried to get Murdoch’s attention.
Murdoch rolled his eyes and turned his back to his eldest son to gaze out the magnificent window that afforded him a stunning view of his property. For the past four days all he had heard was that they had to go after Johnny and he was sick of it. “Scott – even if we were to go and look for Johnny – where would we start? He could be anywhere. No Son, the only thing we can do is to get on with our lives. When he decides that he really wants to be a part of this family – he’ll come back.”
“When he decides?” Scott retorted. “Isn’t more like when you decide that he can become a member of this family he’ll be allowed to come back
Murdoch spun his chair to face his son and slammed his fist on his desk. “This conversation is over and I will not have it again!” The two men faced off glaring at each other.
From the entrance to the kitchen, Teresa sadly watched the two men arguing. It had been like this every day since Johnny had left. Scott and Murdoch were constantly at each other’s throats. She was beginning to wonder if it wasn’t Johnny who was the real glue that kept the family together. Was he the bridge between his father and his brother? Thinking about it, she realized that Johnny had always been at the center of their focus. With him gone, Scott and Murdoch were left to deal with each other – and it wasn’t pretty. When Johnny had been in the house, she was positive that Murdoch cared for Scott more than Johnny – now she wasn’t sure. Was the sad truth that Murdoch didn’t really care for either of his sons? Shaking her head she knew that wasn’t correct either. The truth was that Murdoch didn’t know the first thing about being a father to his sons. To her he had always been kind and compassionate – but then he had known her all her life. His sons were still strangers to him; grown men with their own minds and opinions. He just didn’t see that it would take time for them to bond and become a true family.
The latest argument was interrupted by sound of horses approaching the house. Murdoch and Scott both retreated from their positions and went to the French doors that led to the veranda. Sgt. Adams from the 5th Calvary is here –right on schedule.” Murdoch noted, pleased that the man had arrived in time to interrupt the argument with Scott. “Better tell Jelly to get the horses ready.”
With a grim face, Scott left his father and went to make arrangements to display the horses that Johnny had prepared for sale. Murdoch went out to greet the Sergeant and his two companions. “Welcome, Gentlemen!”
Sgt. Adams briefly shook hands with Murdoch. “Mr. Lancer, we don’t have much time for pleasantries. I need a dozen or so good horses for the army. I believe that the agreement was $100 a head?” The man looked to the corral filled with horses. “Are those the ones you propose to sell?”
“Yes – they’re some of the best on the ranch. Come and we’ll see if there’s anything that you can use.”
Together the men went to the corral to survey the available stock. Sgt. Adams nodded his appreciation of the fine looking stock of horse flesh. “When were these horses broke?”
“Over the past weeks, my son…” Murdoch paused briefly, remembering how Johnny had taken charge of breaking the horses himself. “Well, he spent a lot of time with them. Go on and take a closer look.” Murdoch watched as Adams and his companions climbed the fence and walked around the spirited animals. Scott came to join him and watched as the experienced horsemen made their quick examinations.
“Is this your son?” Adams asked as he climbed back over the fence.
“Yes – this is my son Scott.”
“Well, you did a fine job with those horses…”
“My brother, Johnny, worked the horses…”
“Where is he? I’d like to meet the man who is able to tame a horse, but not break their spirit.” The man looked expectantly at Murdoch waiting to be introduced to his other son.
“He’s not here right now. In fact, I’m not sure he’s going to be back…”
“Well, that’s a shame,” Adams shook his head. “The army is looking for a steady supplier of horses. I don’t suppose that you’ve got anyone else on the ranch who tames horses?”
“No, we don’t.” Scott answered quickly. “Johnny had a real talent.”
Murdoch’s eyes flashed at the comment, but kept his sharp rejoinder in his mouth, not wanting to taint the sale of the horses with his family troubles.
“I’ll tell you what – I’ll take every horse you’ve got for sale. The contract called for $100 a head. I’ve got $2,000. Can you have them delivered to the railroad head in Cross Creek by noon day after tomorrow?”
Murdoch smiled broadly and extended his hand to the Sergeant. “We’ll have them there.”
After the military men left Murdoch walked contentedly back to the house leaving Scott to tend to the details of moving the horses to Cross Creek. Lancer was going to make a sound profit off the sale of the horses. He didn’t want to get in the business of selling horses to the army, but Johnny had insisted. The young man had argued that the sale could show a quick profit for the ranch. They quarreled long and hard over the idea until Scott let his vote weigh in and the contract was signed. A frown crossed Murdoch’s face at the thought of his youngest son. With Johnny gone, there was no one on the ranch with the time or talent to keep that part of the business going. Murdoch became angry at the lost opportunity. The money from the sale would be used to help fund a cattle breeding program that he had wanted to try for years – but never had the extra cash for.
Entering the house, he took the wad of bills the Sergeant had given him and carefully secured it in the safe behind his desk. Before closing the heavy steel door, he pulled out a framed picture that he had locked away just four days earlier. It was a photograph of Johnny. Scowling, he surveyed the likeness of the fiery young man. Johnny just hadn’t fit into life at the ranch – just like his mother. Johnny Madrid’s mere presence spelled trouble – something that Murdoch had carefully avoided for the past few years as he built up his own reputation as a tough businessman. No, Johnny Madrid just didn’t fit into the world that Murdoch had created for himself, Teresa and now Scott. Having Johnny Madrid on the ranch was becoming a liability – the neighbors were becoming distant and suspicious of Murdoch simply because of the gunfighter who had taken to calling Lancer ‘home’. The fact that the boy was gone was a blessing. Putting the picture back in the safe he banged the door shut and spun the dial.
“You know you can’t just shut him away like that,” Teresa’s quiet voice startled the older man from his reflections.
“What did you say?”
The girl went and knelt beside the man who, for all intents and purposes, was her father. “I’ve stayed out if this – letting Scott do all the yelling, but you’re wrong about Johnny…”
“Teresa….” Murdoch moaned, looking away from the pleading eyes of his ward.
“Hear me out, Murdoch,” she implored – smiling when he turned to look back at her. “I know that you were only doing what you thought was best – trying to break Johnny in – but you were wrong. You never took the time to see his good qualities…”
“Good qualities? The boy is born a killer!”
“You don’t believe that!” she snapped, angered at his words. “You were there when he was born – was he born a killer? Or, was it something he learned to stay alive – and because he did – he was able to help save this ranch and nearly die for it!” She paused, letting her anger wane. “He’s changed since he came here. He isn’t the same angry young man he was the day I picked him up in Morro Coyo. He returned to face the Stryker’s when they came for revenge. When Jelly’s boys needed homes, he found them….”
“But the Stryker’s wouldn’t have shot Scott if Johnny hadn’t killed that boy….”
“That ‘boy’ tried to kill Johnny! It was self defense…”
Murdoch sighed and placed his hands on Teresa’s shoulders. “Don’t you see – he doesn’t fit in here. Everything I have worked so hard for has been tainted by his presence. He is Johnny Madrid, and no matter what we call him – people will always see him for what he is.” He searched her eyes and saw that she still didn’t understand. “You remember Clive Baker?”
Teresa nodded her head not sure where this was going. “He’s the man that you sell the cattle to in Modesto. What about him?”
“Well, his wife heard that we had a gunfighter on our payroll and she has forbid him from doing business with Lancer. Seems that having Johnny here goes against her Christian sensibilities. I’m afraid that the Bakers aren’t the only ones who feel that way. People will never see Johnny as a Lancer. He will always be Johnny Madrid.”
Teresa pulled away and looked sadly at her ‘father’. “You’re wrong. It’s you who has never taken the time to see him for who he really is! He’s a gentle human being; the only one who ever takes the time to say good morning and really mean it. He’s the only one to bring me flowers – just because he saw them and they reminded him of me; the only one to bring me peppermint sticks when he comes from town. Those are not the actions of a ‘killer’. Those are the actions of your son.” Teresa stood realizing that her words were falling on deaf ears. “You were always too busy judging Johnny and never even tried to get to know him. Maybe Jelly was right – you did kill Johnny Lancer the other night – because it was ‘good for business’!” She turned her back and bit her lip, a sob escaping from her broken heart. “How does your heart feel now? I hope that it hurts half as bad as mine!” With her piece said, and tears falling from her eyes, she fled into the sanctuary of the kitchen.
Murdoch sat with his mouth open. He had no idea that Johnny had done those things for Teresa. Closing his eyes, he began to see what he had been missing. Johnny hadn’t been ostracized by the men because he was Johnny Madrid; they had taken to him like one of their own. His son had made many friends since he had arrived at the ranch. Friends – not because people feared him and wanted his favor, but because they wanted to be with him.
For the first time, Murdoch began to question his own actions. Was he only seeing his son through bitter eyes? Eyes that only wanted to see the worst in a son that he had no opportunity to father? The son who had survived despite the fact that Murdoch had not participated. Was he viewing his son through the eyes of his untrusting neighbors and business associates? Who was more important – men he did business with or the boy who had sprung from his own loins? These were terrible questions and Murdoch was afraid to look for the answers – especially within himself.
Re-opening the safe, he pulled out Johnny’s picture again. Johnny not only looked liked his mother – he had her temper. Was it Johnny that he was really judging, or his own emotional reaction to a son who reminded him too much of a failed marriage? Words that the Sergeant said earlier now rang in his ears. The horses were more valuable because they had been tamed and not had their spirits broken. Wasn’t that exactly what he had been trying to do to Johnny – break his spirit, the same spirit that had kept the young man alive for so many years? Closing his eyes, Murdoch wished to take back the past few months and start over again – but they were gone – just like Johnny.
For three weeks Johnny made a solitary camp. He practiced with his weapon, re-honing his skills, afraid that he had become lackadaisical during his brief stay at Lancer. Every day, after taking care of his horse, he would take off on foot hunting for his evening meal. If he was to survive on his own he would need to regain the survival skills that had served him well for so much of his life. Three weeks and any fat that his body had accumulated since his ‘visit’ to Morro Coyo had melted away, leaving him leaner than he had been in a long time. Three weeks and he was refocused. Gone were any thoughts he might have entertained about returning to the ranch or of becoming part of a family. He was Johnny Madrid – gun for hire – belonging to no one except for the man with the deepest pocket or greatest need for his assistance.
Satisfied with his new incarnation, Johnny guided Barranca out of the mountains, cutting though the northern end of the San Joaquin Valley toward Stockton. There had been word, before he left Morro Coyo, that there was some sort of land war brewing near Stockton – just the sort of fight that was suited to his talents and new needs. The irony of his present situation did not escape his thoughts. Just a few short weeks ago he had been one third owner of the largest spread in California. Today he was a saddle tramp, a hired gun, looking for a fight.
It was late afternoon when he finally entered the bustling town of Stockton. It was many times larger than Morro Coyo, but it still played out the same – a wild town in the heart of cattle country. He immediately noticed the feel of the town – people were on edge. Taking a closer look, he noticed a number of men with guns hung low on their hips – men who appeared like they knew how to use them. Johnny knew the look well – it was a look that he had mastered at a tender age.
Riding Barranca up to the hotel he dismounted, taking his rifle and saddle bag from the horse before he entered. The clerk, a red haired young man of about eighteen, looked up at him with nervous eyes. “Yes…?” the boy stammered eying the gun slung low on Johnny’s slim hips.
“I need a room for a few nights.” Johnny laid the rifle down on the counter and reached for the register.
“Yes, sir.” He watched as Johnny wrote his name in the ledger. After the boy turned the register back and read the name he turned as white as a sheet. “Mr…Mr Madrid – Johnny Madrid…?” He might have been young but even he had heard of the famous gun fighter.
“You looking for Mr. Bartch?” the boy inquired innocently.
Johnny smiled and shook his head. “Boy, the only things I’m looking for right now are a stable for my horse, a hot meal, a drink and a good night’s sleep.”
The boy sighed in relief. “You’ve got room two at the top of the stairs. Señor Cardoza has the stable across the way and Miss Anna has the best steak in town right here.”
Johnny smiled and flipped the boy a quarter. “Watch my rifle and bag while I take care of my horse.”
The boy had confirmed what Johnny had heard. There was trouble brewing here and that meant a job – money he could use to move further north and as far away from Mexico and Lancer as he could get.
Johnny walked back outside and quickly untied Barranca’s reins. It was getting on towards evening and both he and the animal were tired. Patting the horse fondly, he guided it to the stable across the street. There he was greeted by an older Mexican man; a man who had seen many hard days. Bernardo Cardoza’s hands were thickly calloused and his face was weathered by too much time spent out in the hot sun. “Hola,” Johnny greeted the man in Spanish. “Pronombre yo verbo sustantivo caballo?”
The man eyed the dark haired stranger with suspicion and returned the greeting in English. “There are not many who speak the language this far north.” Bernardo Cardoza said quietly, taking the reins of the golden palomino. “Especially now…”
“Why is that?”
“There’s trouble brewing here.”
“Trouble?” Johnny asked innocently taking the saddle off his horse and throwing it over the stall rail. He picked up a brush from a nearby rack and began to tend to his horse. In the past he had learned that it was best to learn what the conflict was about from the innocent bystanders. Bernardo Cardoza seemed about ready to burst at the seams with information that Johnny could use when it came time for him to choose which side he would hire on to.
Bernardo eyed the young gun even closer. “Did someone send for you, muchacho?”
Johnny snorted and smiled. “No one sent for me. I came here looking for work. Tell me about the trouble.”
Bernardo picked up another brush and began to brush the opposite side of Barranca so that he could study the face of the newcomer. “New blood wants to change things…”
“Change can be good.” Johnny observed quietly.
“Not this kind of change. This is the kind of change that leads to no good.”
“And who are the ‘good guys’”
Bernardo smiled. “Are you looking for work with your back or with your gun?”
A half smile played across Johnny’s lips. “I’m looking for an honest day’s work with honest pay.”
“Then go see the Barkley’s. They have mucho grande estancia ten miles north of town.”
“Gracias.” Johnny put the brush back, patted his horse and turned to leave.
“Wait,” Bernardo caught Johnny’s sleeve but quickly let go as the gunfighter tensed. “You are Mexicano, si?” When Johnny’s blue eyes flashed Bernardo caught his breath and studied the half-breed who dressed like a gun fighter. In that instant he knew, “be careful Johnny Madrid.”
Johnny started to speak but Bernardo pulled him quickly aside. “I know of you. You saved my sister and her family about a year ago. I owe you a deuda. Por favor, if you know what is good, you will leave.”
“And if I should stay?”
“Then offer your services to the Barkleys.”
One way leads to diamonds
One way lead to gold
Another leads you only
To everything you’re told
It took time, but as the days went by Scott and Murdoch came to an unspoken and tentative truce. The ranch kept both men too busy and tired to keep up the argument festering just below the surface of their emotions. They were civil to each other and that was it. Scott spent every waking moment trying to figure how to track down his brother. It wasn’t easy because Murdoch had made him take up the slack that resulted from Johnny’s absence. He suspected that his father felt that if he was kept occupied that he would just forget his brother – Murdoch was wrong. Scott resolved that when the chance presented itself, he would seek out Johnny’s friend – Sheriff Val Crawford to see if he had heard from the missing man.
News of Johnny’s departure flew about Green River like a wildfire after a few of the Lancer hands came to town with tales of how the Boss had up and thrown his son out for no reason. The men grumbled about this, upset that the one Lancer they could count on to stand up for them was gone. Johnny had ridden and worked beside them, unafraid to get his hands dirty – not like Scott or Murdoch who tended to stay closer to the house taking care of the books. Johnny had made himself a buffer between the vaqueros and their strict boss, taking the heat for them when he had felt that Murdoch was being unreasonable. Collectively they admired Johnny’s ‘guts’ and feistiness.
Val listened to these stories with interest, especially of the ones involving Cipriano and Jelly – Johnny’s two closest friends on the ranch. Word had it that both had threatened more than once to quit since Johnny had left, only to be talked into staying by Scott who had promised that he would do whatever he could to bring Johnny back.
The Cattleman’s Association seemed to heave a collective sigh of relief. After the scare that Pardee had put in them, the thought of any one of the members having a hired gun on their payroll was frowned upon – even if that gun was a son. Ben Anderson, the Association President, convinced the membership that they should pressure Murdoch to get rid of Johnny. He worked on the Scotsman’s fears that Johnny’s presence would taint the Lancer name. When that hadn’t worked fast enough Ben, single handedly, applied pressure where it hurt – Murdoch’s pocketbook. He sent notice to the cattle buyers that if they dealt with Lancer they were dealing with a man who was employing a gunhawk to secure his lands. It seemed that this tact had its desired effect. Johnny was gone.
As word spread, Val gauged the reaction of the townsfolk to be mixed. Several of the small business people were pleased to know that the gunhawk had left the area, while other people, like the widow Johnson, sorely missed the young man who would go out of his way to come and visit with her whenever he was in town. She had taken to baking a chocolate cake once a week knowing Johnny’s fondness for the sweet confection. The men who patronized the saloon were mixed in their reaction. The young men lamented dreams of lost opportunities to try drawing against Johnny Madrid, while the old men only shook their heads. They had seen Johnny and knew that his legend was true.
Val was disappointed in Murdoch and he wasn’t the only one. Many of the townsfolk wondered how Murdoch could simply throw away his son. Hadn’t he bemoaned the boy’s absence for 20 years? It didn’t seem fair that the boy be tossed away like a used sock that wasn’t needed any longer. They had all seen and heard how Johnny had fought for Lancer and had nearly died in the process. He had proved himself to them. They had deemed that Johnny was worthy of the Lancer name, so why did Murdoch have such a change of heart?
That was the answer begging to be answered when Scott and Jelly showed up four weeks later for supplies. Uneasiness overcame them as they pulled up to the Garcia’s General Store. Climbing down, the two men could feel all eyes were on them and it made them wary. Entering the store only intensified the feeling. The normally open and warm couple was now cold and indifferent – almost reluctant to fill the order Scott handed them.
“There’s something wrong,” Scott whispered to Jelly who only shook his head in agreement. “I’m going to go talk to Val. Maybe he’s heard from Johnny.”
“Right,” Jelly hastily agreed. “I’ll wait fer ya at the buckboard after I git the mail.” He watched as Scott departed, hopeful that Val would have some word. Jelly had only stayed on hoping to find out where Johnny had gone and that he was safe. Once he knew for sure that Johnny was alright and wasn’t returning, he would leave Lancer as well. There was no way that he could continue working for such a short sighted boss. It had been Scott who had convinced him and a few of the others to stay as long as they had. He could only wonder at how much longer Scott himself would be able to stay with a man who could throw away a son. Wouldn’t that make him next on the list?
Scott made his way down the street, drawing stares from the people he passed. It made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end and he didn’t like it. He was grateful to escape their prying eyes as he firmly shut the door to Val’s office behind him. “What’s going on around here?” Scott demanded shaking Val’s hand in greeting.
“Them?” Val peeked out the window shade for a moment before turning his attention back to Scott. “You want to tell me what happened to Johnny?”
Scott opened his mouth in stunned surprise. “I was just going to ask you to help me look for him…”
“Don’t have to; I been looking for three weeks. Now, you tell me why he left. Word has it that your old man throwed him out.”
“How did you hear that?” Scott’s eyes flashed before looking away.
“I got my ways,” Val smiled knowing that he was on the right track. “What happened to make Johnny leave?”
“May I?” Scott indicated the pot of coffee that was boiling on the stove and helped himself to a cup. “Johnny heard Murdoch and I arguing – about him. He heard some things… and, he decided to leave.”
“Some things?” Val pressed.
Scott looked away not wanting to air his family’s dirty laundry. “It was pretty ugly. He was gone before we knew it.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.” Scott confirmed, blowing on the hot brew in his cup.
“And no one went after him?”
“Where could we look? You know Johnny better than any of us. When he goes to ground, he can’t be found. Unless….?” Scott looked hopefully at the Sheriff.
Val shook his head and poured himself a cup of coffee. “I set out my feelers right after I heard he bolted. I ain’t heard hide nor hair of him. But I have heard some things that aren’t good…”
“It isn’t so much about Johnny as it is about some of his former ‘friends’.” Val hesitated, reluctant to share the information. Looking at Scott, he knew that there would be no hiding the information from the inquisitive man. Scott looked desperate to hear of any news – even bad news.
“Spill it!” Scott demanded knowing that the Sheriff was holding back.
“Well, I’ve heard…” Val hesitated.
“What…?” Scott raised his eyebrows, anxious to know the news.
“Seems that if Johnny shows up as Madrid there’s gonna be trouble…”
“There’s always trouble when Johnny Madrid is around,” Scott lowered his brows, dismissing the comment.
“You don’t understand. There’s a bunch of fellas that are still angry at Johnny for what he done to Pardee and to Sexton Joe. Seems that there’s a story going round that Johnny has turned to spying and back shooting. From what I hear it’s caused quite a ruckus.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Val sighed and rubbed a hand across his grizzled chin. “Scott, it means that if Johnny joins a fight – any fight – he ain’t gonna be trusted by the others. Think about it. He played like he had joined Pardee and look at what he done! He got Day and a group of that bunch killed…”
Scott’s eyes opened wide. “…And Johnny killed Sexton Joe and Isham after he joined the Warburton camp. But he didn’t have any choice; they were going to kill my father!”
“And so was Pardee!” Val put his cup down and sat behind his desk. “Look, Scott. I got it on good authority that if Johnny so much as shows up at any fracas he’s dead meat.”
“What can we do?” Scott sank into a chair in front of Val’s desk.
“Pray he got clean away and is safe.”
Scott left Val’s office to head back to the ranch, his head bowed with the enormity of the bad news; too preoccupied to take notice of the people who stared at him. Silently he climbed up onto the drivers’ bench of the buckboard and reached for the reins.
Jelly watched as Scott approached He had a small white envelope in his hand that he tucked into the pocket of his vest so that he could quickly climb aboard – afraid that Scott, in his distracted state, would leave him behind. “Val got any word?” the handyman anxiously asked as he settled himself on the hard wood.
“There’s no word on Johnny….”
“But?” Jelly asked pressing for the bad news that was written all over Scott’s face.
“Johnny had better not show up at any fights. There’s a group of men after him…”
“What’s he done now?”
“It isn’t anything he’s done since he left – it’s what he did after he came to Lancer.” Scott pushed his hat back off his forehead trying to think of the best way to share the news that Val had given him. “Since Johnny came to Lancer, he’s had to turn against other gunfighters – twice.” Seeing that Jelly didn’t understand, Scott continued. “When Pardee was making his raids on the ranch, he asked Johnny to join him – not knowing that Johnny was a Lancer. Johnny let Pardee think he was Madrid and got in good with the group so that he could learn their plans. When the time was right, Johnny turned and shot Pardee. A lot of men got killed in the ensuing battle.”
“Kinda like what he done when Warburton was here!” Jelly exclaimed recognizing the problem. “He joined them fellas as Johnny Madrid, but when it came to Murdoch – his daddy came first ‘an he kilt them two guns in a fair fight!” Jelly whistled thinking about this problem. “This ain’t good…”
The more Scott thought about the situation, the angrier he became. “All this because he came to Lancer! That’s twice he saved the ranch and still Murdoch refuses to see that he’s changed! Now, not only is he unwanted by us – he’s unwanted by his former compatriots!” Scott spat the words with disgust. “Jelly, what can we do?”
“Ain’t nothin’ we can do ‘till he shows his self…” Jelly wiped his hands on his vest and remembered the paper the mail clerk had given him at the general store. “This came ‘fer ya.” He handed the paper to Scott in exchange for the reins.
Scott looked quizzically at the return address and then tore the letter open. After reading a few sentences, a smile cracked at the edges of his mouth.
“Good news?” Jelly asked hoping that the note had something to do with Johnny.
“No… Yes…” Scott muttered as he continued to read.
“Well?” Jelly pushed impatiently.
“It’s a note from an old friend of mine – he’s in San Francisco and he’s asked me to come for a visit.” Scott finished the letter, refolded it and tucked it back in the envelope. His face a mask of concern
Scott regarded the older man for another moment. “I can’t go. Not knowing what is happening with Johnny… but the idea of getting away….”
“Shoot! If yer gonna wait for news on Johnny ya could be waiting for a long time. That boy has mor’n likely gone ta Mexico to think things over. ‘Sides, if I catch wind of any news I’ll send ya a telegram.”
Scott remained pensive. The past 4 weeks had been hard on both him and Murdoch. He needed to get away and rethink his staying at Lancer. It wasn’t the same without Johnny and nothing Murdoch could say or do could make it better – at least not until Johnny returned. “I’ll give it some thought. Let’s get back…” the word home just didn’t fit any more and it stuck in Scott’s throat. “…to the ranch.”
Murdoch sat on his horse at the top of the south mesa. Lancer spread out before him like a beautiful dream. All that he saw was his, but it no longer held the magic that it once had. The last time he had been to this spot he had his two sons with him. He was proud to present it them as their birthrights – their heritage. At the time, he promised them that together they would work to make Lancer even more prosperous for their future and the future generations of Lancers to come. Both of the young men had been captivated by the beauty of the land, the same beauty that had won Murdoch’s heart over a quarter century earlier.
Closing his eyes, Murdoch remembered the looks on their faces. Both of the boys were mesmerized by the enchantment that was Lancer and by the promise of his words. Thinking back, Murdoch remembered the pledge he had given them. At the time, he had meant every word. When had that changed? When had he decided that Johnny didn’t deserve a part of his dream? The boy had practically sacrificed himself during the battle with Pardee; he nearly sacrificed himself again when Warburton threatened to ruin the cattle market. So, when was it that Murdoch’s heart had turned against the boy?
With a shake of his head, Murdoch cast these unsettling thoughts aside. Ben Anderson had been by earlier in the day. He counseled Murdoch to look at the big picture. With Johnny Madrid out of their lives, things would return to what it had been like before Pardee and his ilk had invaded the valley. Scott would forget his brother, and Teresa would smile again. Murdoch knew that Ben was right. Several of the other Association members had already come by to express their relief that Murdoch had gotten rid of the gunfighter. Clive Baker had even sent a wire that he would resume their old contracts now that Johnny was out of the picture.
The proud Scotsman resolved that time would be his ally. Life would go on without Johnny. Lancer would flourish and Scott and Teresa would once again fill the house with the sounds of laughter that had been missing over the past few weeks. In time they would be able to look at him again and smile. And, if Johnny returned, he would be welcomed back, but it would be for the last time. There were only so many new beginnings that he had to offer and so far Johnny had used two.
So, why did his heart hurt so badly?
After leaving Barranca with Bernardo, Johnny found the biggest steak in Stockton, took a bath and turned in. His rest only lasted two hours before the nightmares came. It had been the same nightmare he had since leaving Lancer. Every night, like clockwork, he would once again relive the scene that had played out at the Lancer estancia – Murdoch announcing that his son – Johnny Lancer – was dead. In a daze he then walked out of the house and into Teresa’s garden. A hole had been dug, the size of a grave. Peering down into the opening he saw a body with his face on it! The young man startled awake, consumed with nausea from the dream and wondering when they would ever stop. Breathing hard, he was finally able to quell the sickness in his stomach, but found that he was unable to return to sleep. Deciding to get some air, he made a quick tour of the town, staying in the shadows – avoiding the drunken gunmen that wandered about. In the morning he ate a small breakfast before reclaiming Barranca from the stable. Bernardo had taken good care of the palomino and had even taken the time to clean the blankets that had become dusty from the days of travel.
It was time that he surveyed his new world. Heading north, out of town, Johnny mused to himself that Murdoch had really broke him in. In the old days, Johnny Madrid would have slept until noon. Here it was eight AM and he was ready to be getting to work – only he had nowhere to go. He rode steadily for two hours, taking his time as the heat of the summer day began to build, until he came to the top of a ridge. Dismounting, he took in the view, while Barranca nibbled at the late summer grass. Picking and chewing a long blade for himself, Johnny gazed down upon a valley that was very much like Lancer; rolling hills, streams, thick woods, and lush grasses for grazing cattle. His heart flooded with disappointment, realizing that he would never again see Lancer. With a frown he remounted Barranca to turn back toward town when he heard the distinct sound of gunfire. Standing in the stirrups he found the source of the familiar sound, viewing a group of four men surrounding another man – pulling him off his horse. After taking turns striking him with their fists they hoisted him back on his horse, placed a noose around his neck, throwing the other end of the rope over the branch of a nearby tree. Never one to shy away from a fight, Johnny urgently nudged his steed forward.
As he neared the men he realized that the group was going to hang their intended victim without too much discussion. Johnny decided to make his presence known, boldly riding up to the men who turned to watch his approach. One look at the intended victim and Johnny knew that he would have to tread carefully. The victim was an old friend, a man that he had once sworn to protect. “Morn’n gents,” he said with a tip of his hat. His soft spoken words instantly captured the attention of all the men, bringing a sense of hope to the unfortunate man with a noose around his neck With a smile, he surveyed the group, recognizing the apparent leader, Floyd Brasure – a former henchmen of Day Pardee’s.
Floyd turned and glared up at the intruder. An evil grin curled his lower lip as he recognized Johnny. “This ain’t none of your concern, Johnny Madrid. You had best stay out of this…”
“Floyd,” Johnny nodded his head, acknowledging his former compatriot. “I don’t much appreciate you tellin’ me what my business is or is not. Now, cut him loose.”
“Why?” Floyd challenged. “What’s it to ya?”
“Why ain’t important. Just cut him down and I won’t have to hurt no one.” Johnny countered, continuing to keep his voice calm and quiet as he leaned forward in his saddle, his left arm resting on the horn, while his right hand lay on top of his right thigh – close to his gun.
The men laughed nervously at the calm request while the victim looked on with unease. “The way I see it, there are four of us and just one of you,” Floyd sneered.
“Makes us kinda even,” Johnny retorted, scratching his chin with his left hand.
The other men looked at each other – apprehension growing in their minds. They had hired on to scare ranchers, but Johnny Madrid – he was a first class gunhawk. Not one to back down, Floyd went for his gun.
With lightning like speed, Johnny drew and fired his weapon. Floyd dropped his gun, clutching his bloody right hand with his left. “Anyone else want to give it a try?” Johnny asked, his eyes raking over the remaining men, while he reined in Barranca to keep him still. With his gun, he gestured at Floyd and issued orders to the others, “Get him up and out of here.”
“You’ll live to regret this!” Floyd threatened through clenched teeth – holding his ruined hand. “You’d better watch your back, Madrid!”
Johnny smiled and tugged his hat in acknowledgment of the threat. “Until we meet again…” Silently he watched as the men mounted up and rode away. With the men gone, Johnny focused his attention on the unfortunate man waiting with a noose around his neck. Nudging Barranca forward he moved to a position next to the helpless cowboy. Folding both hands over the saddle horn, he smiled into the blue eyes of an old friend. “Well ain’t this like old times?” He asked sizing up the bruised face of the blond haired young man.
The man tried to smile in acknowledgement, grimacing as he moved his bleeding lip. “You gonna cut me loose or just sit there yapping your jaw?” The man held his bound hands out for Johnny’s inspection.
“Well…” Johnny teased, flashing a grin. Reaching into his boot he pulled out a knife and cut through the coarse ropes. He watched as the young man quickly removed the rope from around his neck and massaged his wrists.
With his hands free, the man turned and extended a hand to the gunman. “Johnny Madrid – how the hell are you!”
“Heath – you old dog!” The two men clasped hands and then embraced tightly slapping each other on the back.
“Johnny – the last I heard you were killed somewhere down in Mexico!”
“Well – I’m happy to say that the reports of my death are untrue!” Johnny sat back and surveyed his friend with a broad smile. “You look good – a bit messed up – but good! What’s it been, a year?”
“Two I think – since that fracas in La Mesa, when you saved my hide…”
“That’s two you owe me!” Johnny laughed. “So what brings you way up here to Stockton?”
Heath smiled, his face beaming. “I’ve got me a family…”
“You’re a daddy?” Johnny looked at his friend in amazement.
“No!” Heath quickly dismissed the question. “You know my mama died a while back – well – to make a long story short I found my father’s family….”
“You found your father?”
“No… my father is dead. But, I found out that I’ve got a new mother, two brothers and a sister.”
Johnny looked at his friend and blinked. He had known Heath off and on for several years. They were as different as night and day. Heath was tall, fair completed with blond hair and light blue eyes, while Johnny was naturally tan with black hair and sharp sapphire eyes. The two had been a pair for a while – both poor, fatherless – raised by their mothers – only Heath’s mother was more of a Christian woman that his own. It shocked Johnny that his friend had found a new family. “You finally got yourself a last name!” Johnny teased and smiled remembering how Heath would go just by his given name, a constant reminder that he had been a bastard. “So, what’s your new name?”
Heath beamed with pride in response to the question. “Barkley – I’m now Heath Barkley.”
Johnny’s eyes flashed before he carefully hid them beneath his hat brim. “You one of them Stockton Barkley’s? Boy- o- boy you sure know how to fall into it! When did all of this happen?”
“’Bout a year ago. I was going through my mother’s things when I found a letter that brought me here.”
“And they accepted you just like that?” Johnny asked, not realizing how much the answer meant to him.
“Oh, I won’t say that it was easy – but after awhile we all got kinda used to it and well now – I’m just part of the family.” Heath responded enthusiastically. “How about you – you ever find your old man?”
Johnny swallowed hard before answering. Heath knew the stories that Johnny used to tell about being Murdoch Lancer’s unwanted kid and how someday Johnny was going to up and kill the man who had kicked him and his mother off his ranch. “Well, I did manage to find my own kind of truth. Turn’s out that I’m just Johnny Madrid. Always have been and always will be…”
“But I thought….”
“For awhile so did I. But it was just another lie told to me by my mother.” Johnny responded, the Madrid mask firmly in place. There was no need for Health to know about the six months he had wasted at Lancer. “So, why was Floyd Brasure after you?” Johnny asked, changing the direction of the conversation – looking after the departing gunmen.
Heath studied the angled plans of his friend’s face. He knew Johnny well enough to know that there was something brewing just beneath the surface, but decided that he would get to that later. “Boy howdy you happened by just at the right time! I thought I was a goner for sure. They’re land pirates,” he smiled appreciatively at his friend before turning serious. “Johnny, we could use some help – your kind of help. There’s trouble coming to this valley…”
“Well if you’re talking about a job – I’m for hire!” Johnny smiled and slapped his friend’s arm.
“Come on, I’ll introduce you to my family….”
In your heart you wonder
Which of these is true
The road that leads to nowhere
The road that leads to you
In Stockton, things were beginning to heat up. A range war was building to a fevered pitch and the Barkley Ranch lay square in the middle. A corporation of eastern investors was looking to purchase large tracts of land for their own development. The founder of the Atlantic Land Corporation was Joel Todd, a Princeton graduate and son of a wealthy Philadelphia business man. For the past six months he had been receiving letters from a former army friend who had suddenly left his home in Boston to become a rancher in the wilds of California. His interest roused, he decided to take a look for himself; arriving in Stockton a short eight weeks ago. What he saw impressed him. The San Joaquin Valley was ripe for all kinds of investing and development, but he quickly realized that the west was a lot more uncivilized than his friend had described in his letters. Joel wanted to be a part of this wild new world, but was not prepared to take the time to establish his own business. Instead, he chose to employ someone to build and run the operation for him; someone who promised to make quick work of creating a sizeable spread.
While on the way to Stockton, he met Ned Bartch – an experienced rancher who had fallen on hard times when the railroad had forced its way through the valley. Ned was from Stockton and convinced Joel, that if given a chance, he could build up a large ranch and show the easterner a quick profit. What he didn’t tell Joel was how he was going to do that. He also didn’t tell Joel how he blamed his former neighbors and Tom Barkley in particular for the loss of his family and property. After Ned was hired, he quickly began to put into play his plan to take away from his former friends and neighbors what he felt they had cheated him out of.
With Joel’s money, Bartch established himself on a small ranch located five miles outside of Stockton – the Circle A. There he surrounded himself with many of the same men who had been hired by the railroad to force him off his land. He hired Floyd Brasure, an experienced gun, to lead the group of ruthless men he had enlisted – men who weren’t afraid of the law. At his direction, Brasure and his men began raids on the surrounding territory – burning barns, killing cattle – scaring off the small ranchers only to turn around and offer pennies on the dollar for their lands. All of this was done while Joel traveled west to San Francisco, where he would await, oblivious of the means that were employed to make his investment grow.
Within a short period of time, Ned began to make headway in the Stockton area – setting his sights on the big prize – the Barkley Ranch.
It took thirty minutes for Johnny and Heath to ride to Heath’s new home. During that time, Johnny quietly questioned his friend about the trouble that was brewing. “Who’s hiring guns?”
“Ned Bartch, he’s the ramrod of the Circle A. He used to be an old friend of the Barkleys – my family. The Circle A is owned by some easterner who wants to take over the entire valley, but Ned – he just wants revenge. He thinks that my father helped the railroad take his property away. Now he wants to take ours.”
Johnny scratched his head. “It don’t seem right, them picking on you – all alone the way they did. Not something you do to an owner’s son. Me, I’d have taken you hostage….”
Heath squirmed in his saddle. “I don’t think that they knew I was part of the family. I’m still kinda new ‘round these parts.
Johnny smiled knowing exactly how his friend felt. It hadn’t been too long ago when he had been a stranger in the area around Lancer. The smile fell when he realized that he was thinking like Johnny Lancer and not Johnny Madrid. “How’s that eye?” Johnny asked pointing at the bruise that was appearing around Heath’s left eye.
Heath gently touched the tender area and winced. “Does it look as bad as it feels?”
“Almost as bad as that busted nose you got a couple of years back…” Johnny laughed, making Heath laugh in turn.
“I sure have missed you Johnny. Where have you been?”
Johnny looked away for a moment. “I been hiring out – you know – to ranchers south of here – keepin’ busy…”
Heath nodded. “Now that you say that, I thought I heard you were down near Morro Coyo a few months back. Did you get involved with Day Pardee?”
“I got involved fighting Day,” Johnny lowered his voice, trying to fight back the tide of emotions that threatened to wash over him.
“You OK, Johnny?” Heath asked concern in his voice.
“Yeah – it was a hard job, but the local ranchers got what they wanted – Day’s dead. When it was over I decided to move on….” Johnny paused, his breath taken away by the three story, southern plantation style house that Heath was now calling home. “Is this where you live?”
Heath grinned from ear to ear. “This is my home!”
“Boy, you sure did fall into it!” Johnny grinned and wagged a finger at his friend.
Heath smiled broadly. “It’s the kind of house that my mama could only dream of.” Heath spurred his horse forward, anxious for his new family to meet his old friend.
Johnny followed closely behind, wondering if he was getting his friend into trouble. Bringing Johnny Madrid home was not an every day event and not many people openly welcomed him. Frowning, he thought of his own family. If his own family didn’t want him how could he expect anything but rejection from Heath’s new family? Pushing the memory of Lancer to the back of his mind, Johnny dismounted behind Heath and followed him to the house. He was Johnny Madrid now.
From the front porch, he could clearly hear the sounds of men arguing. Steeling himself, he entered the beautiful dwelling and stood in the foyer with Heath and watched as two men faced each other, both yelling – trying to be heard above the other. “These are my brothers – Nick, the loudmouth in the black vest, and Jarrod – the lawyer.” Heath whispered as he held Johnny back. Heath wanted to listen to the argument a bit, before introducing Johnny.
“Mark my words this is going to turn ugly fast!” Nick Barkley shouted pacing around the living room. Nick was a tall thin man with thick black hair that was combed off his forehead. Obviously Nick was an outdoorsman – he wore the clothing of a wrangler, his spurs jangling as he moved – punctuating his concerns.
“Well, Brother, just what do you propose that we do about it?” Jarrod shouted back. Jarrod was the oldest brother. He was dressed in a three piece gray suit. Johnny thought, with a smirk, that Jarrod looked like the vision of a high priced Boston lawyer.
Nick paused to glare at his older sibling. “We need to build our defenses. We have to protect what is ours!”
“Nick, dear, please calm down.” All of this was observed by their mother –Victoria Barkley – a petite woman, immaculately dressed in a long blue dress, her gray hair swept up and away from her still pretty face. She was seated on a couch near the fire place, with a piece of mending on her lap. It was a scene that had been played out too many times in the past few weeks. Glancing up at the portrait of her late husband she wondered how many more times she would be placed in the position of fighting for what he had built. “Jarrod has called a meeting of the Cattleman’s Association for help and we’ve sent for the marshal from Sacramento….”
“By the time he arrives it will be too late! What we need are guns – now!”
“You mean gun men.” Jarrod corrected shaking his head. “I don’t like it… There’s too much to be risked by bringing in hired guns.”
“Then what are we supposed to do – wait for them to pick us off one by one?” Nick ran a hand through his thick black hair. “The Mendoza’s left this morning. That was the last ranch on the east side.” He looked to his brother. “You got a better idea?”
As the brother’s squared off in their battle, Heath winked at Johnny and slammed the front door closed. Nick and Jarrod immediately stopped arguing and focused on the new arrivals. They watched as Heath entered the room followed by a dark haired stranger. One look at their brother’s battered appearance and Nick and Jarrod knew that there had been trouble.
“You all right, boy?” Nick asked looking closely at the bruises on Heath’s face and the rope burn around his neck. “What happened?”
Heath looked at his family and gently placed a hand on the raw area. “It was Bartch’s men. I was out checking the eastern range – by the Mendoza place – looking for strays when I was attacked. If it wasn’t for Johnny,” Heath turned and indicated his silent friend. “I would have been swinging from a rope.”
Victoria stood and gently took her son’s hand, seeing the signs that his wrists had been bound. “Are you sure you’re alright?”
“I’m fine mother. Johnny was just in time.”
Victoria looked from her son to the dark haired stranger. Quickly she observed the dark complexion and coal black hair – a Mexican – she thought before being caught off guard by his blue eyes. A half breed, she concluded. “Johnny….?” She extended her hand in thanks.
Johnny quickly removed his hat and wiped his hand on his pants before reaching out to take her hand. “Just Johnny, Ma’am.” He lightly shook her hand and quickly moved back to watch the remainder of the family.
“There!” Nick exploded back at Jarrod – his hand waving in Heath’s direction. “It’s begun. They’re scaring off the smaller ranchers and now they’re coming after us.”
Heath stepped forward to introduce Johnny to his brothers. “Nick, this is my friend -Johnny. He’s got some experience in these matters. He can help.”
Nick surveyed the stranger, disbelieving Heath’s assessment. “No offence, but he looks too young to have any experience…”
Johnny grinned; it was the same old familiar story. He was too young for what he could do. “Don’t let my age fool you. I’ve got all the experience you need. Tell me what you need to have done and I’ll be the judge of whether I can do it or not.”
Nick was taken by the bold words spoken by Heath’s friend. They were softly spoken and with modesty. “I’m sorry, what is your name again, boy?”
Johnny glanced at Victoria and than at Heath who nodded. “Madrid, Johnny Madrid.”
Nick’s eyebrows shot up instantly recognizing the name. A smile curled the ends of his lips. “Speak of the devil….”
Scott strode into the hacienda throwing his hat on the table. “Murdoch!” He shouted, not seeing his father at his desk. Going to the stairs, he shouted again. “Murdoch!”
Teresa came running out of the kitchen, wiping her wet hands on her apron. “Scott what is it? Is it Johnny?”
Scott shook his head, his face a mask of anger. “Where is Murdoch?”
“He’s out in the barn with Cipriano….” Teresa watched as Scott snatched his hat off the table. “Wait! What happened?”
“I saw Val Crawford this morning…”
“Has he heard from Johnny?”
“No, but he’s heard about something that’s going to happen…” Scott paused. He didn’t want Teresa to know before he spoke with Murdoch. “I’ve got to speak with Murdoch and then I’ll tell you…”
Teresa took off the apron and headed out the door. She was determined to hear first hand whatever news he had to share. When it came to Johnny, she felt she had earned the right to be present and not excluded like some silly girl.
Scott grimly smiled, briefly admiring her pluck, and followed her out of the house. They found Murdoch in the foundry pounding away at a horseshoe as if he had a personal vendetta against the stubborn piece of iron. Sweat was rolling down his face and was saturating his shirt. The older man caught a glimpse of the approaching young people. From the length of Scott’s stride, he could tell that his son was bursting at the seams with news – probably of Johnny.
“I see that you made it back. Did you get all the supplies?” Murdoch asked the benign question as he doused the red hot shoe in a bucket of cold water.
“For the record, yes, Sir.” Scott came to a stop and stood with his hands on his hips. “I spoke with Val Crawford…”
“Oh? And what did Val have to say?” Murdoch kept his focus on the horseshoe, not wanting to meet the cold stare that was waiting for him in his son’s eyes.
“He said that if Johnny shows his face anywhere in the territory that he’s a dead man!”
Murdoch looked up at the comment. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That means that his ‘compadres’ are still pretty angry at him for what he did while he was here at Lancer. Word is out that some are looking to get revenge.”
“What are you talking about? Johnny did nothing wrong since he came to Lancer – at least not to them…”
Scott gave his father a defiant stare before interrupting. “That, Sir, is a matter of perspective. I have it on good authority that they didn’t take kindly to Johnny’s spying on them when Pardee was in the valley. Seems that they figure that Johnny turned on them and set them up to be killed…”
“What did they expect? They were hired guns, land thieves; they deserved to be killed…” Murdoch stopped cold as if listening to his own words.
“Deserved to be killed? Is that what you think – that Johnny deserves to be killed?” Scott raised his voice to match the level of anger that he was now feeling towards his father.
Murdoch sighed and shook his head. “Of course not! You’re changing my words! What I meant was they signed on for a dangerous job, Johnny did nothing but…”
“He got them to ride into an ambush!” Scott glared angrily at his father until Murdoch backed down and refocused himself on the shoe he was making.
“Well, it doesn’t have anything to do with us,” he muttered raising his hammer to strike the metal.
“Doesn’t have anything to do with us? He’s your son!”
“I know that – better than you!” Murdoch snapped, lowering the hammer to point it at Scott. “What can I do? He’s Johnny Madrid – gun for hire! Getting shot at goes part and parcel with the name and the job!”
“You don’t care!” Teresa cried interrupting.
“Of course I care!” Murdoch shouted, his eyes flashing angrily at the two young people for a few seconds before he could no longer take their looks of hatred. Dropping the shoe back into the fire he threw the hammer aside. “Of course I care,” he repeated with the barest of whispers. “I’ve always cared about Johnny. I don’t want to see him hurt or …”
Scott smiled. For the first time, Murdoch had openly admitted that he still cared for Johnny. Encouraged, he pressed for the action he had wanted to take since the day Johnny left. “Sir, I suggest that we go and find him…”
Murdoch sadly shook his head. “It’s not that easy, Scott. I spent twenty years trying to find him the first time. I think that the best we can do is to keep our eyes and ears open for any news…”
“But, it could be too late by then!”
“I know, Son. I know.” Murdoch thought for a moment. “I’ve got to go to Stockton in a few days. Ben Anderson was here this morning to tell me that there’s an emergency meeting of the Cattlemen’s Association to be held in the northern end of the valley – some sort of land war is brewing up there. Perhaps I can put a few feelers out….” Murdoch stopped as he watched Scott’s impassive face. His words were not reaching his remaining son. “Scott?”
Scott reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out the note that Jelly had given him earlier. “I’ve been invited to go to San Francisco to visit an old friend. If you don’t mind, I’d like to go – to get a change of scenery. Do some thinking…”
“Thinking? About what?” Murdoch looked closely at Scott.
Scott looked past his father, his eyes gazing at the grassy hills beyond the fences, the blue sky, and the grazing cattle. The magic was gone – gone with Johnny. “I’m not sure that I fit in around here anymore…”
“Scott…” Murdoch stretched out a hand to touch his son, but Scott moved away, “Son…?” Scott didn’t reply. Murdoch watched as Scott dropped his head and slowly made his way back to the house – much the same way Johnny would after they had had words. Teresa turned away too, silently following Scott back to the building that no longer felt like a home. Murdoch swallowed hard. He could see the dream slipping away right before his eyes. Ben Anderson and his ‘sage’ advice had been wrong. His family would never forgive him. He hadn’t sent Johnny away, it had been the boy’s choice to go without a fight. So, why were they treating him as if he had thrown Johnny out? Why did it feel that way?
“Johnny Madrid?” Jarrod rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Nick, this is not the answer…”
“Let me be the judge of that….” Nick walked over to Johnny and looked him over. “Johnny Madrid – I thought you were killed a while back…”
Johnny ducked his head and grinned, “Yeah, I heard that too.” Bringing his head up, his smiling blue eyes met Nick’s and they both laughed.
“What brings you to Stockton – now?” Jarrod asked, suspicious of their guest. It was all too convenient to have a top gunfighter just land on their doorstep.
“You mean – did someone send for me?” Johnny shook his head – no. “I’ve been south and thought I’d see what was north. I ran into Heath strictly by chance…”
“And right when I needed him!” Heath interrupted.
“What did happen?” Victoria asked, inserting herself into the discussion.
“I was riding the east range when Floyd Brasure and his boys caught up with me – they figured me to be a hand and took it in their heads to hang me…” Heath lifted a hand to show the abrasions that now circled his neck. “Johnny rode up and told them to cut me down. Floyd refused and attempted to draw on Johnny, but Johnny was faster and shot his hand.”
Nick nodded – impressed by the story. “Why didn’t you just kill him?”
“No need,” Johnny responded simply. “He’ll never shoot with that hand again.”
“You know that you probably made an enemy,” Jarrod observed.
“I’ve made two or three of those in my day. I suppose I’ll make a few more before I’m done.”
“What happened next?” Victoria prompted Heath.
“Johnny got them to leave and cut me down. Listen, I know that I’m the new man here, but – we could use his help. Jarrod, I know that you don’t want to use guns; Lord knows I don’t want to either, but Johnny is the best. I’ve seen him work and I’ve worked with him. He can get us the time we need ‘till the Marshall gets here.”
Victoria had listened to the story and looked at the dark haired young man in front of her. “Mr. Madrid…”
Victoria nodded and gave him a smile. “Have you ever been to Morro Coyo?”
Inwardly Johnny bristled at the question, but his visage was the image of calm. “I’ve been a number of places…”
“I have an old friend who lives in Morro Coyo. Weren’t you there a few months ago?”
Johnny looked Victoria in the eyes. There was no lying to this woman. “I was in Morro Coyo…”
“My friend had some trouble with some land pirates…”
“I remember that,” Nick interrupted. “Day Pardee was at the root of that fight. I think he’s dead.” Narrowing his eyes he looked to Johnny. “Which side were you on, boy?”
Johnny looked from Nick to Victoria, his face remaining an impassive look of cool. “I put the first bullet in Day.”
Satisfied with the answer, Nick pulled Johnny into the living room to show him a map of the surrounding area and to discuss his plans for protecting the Barkley ranch, while Victoria guided Heath to the kitchen where she could tend to his rope burned flesh and put a steak on his black eye.
“How well do you know Johnny Madrid?” She asked going to the cooler to get a steak while Heath took a seat at the table.
“You don’t approve?”
“It’s not a question of my approving of him or not. He is your friend….” Victoria eased the piece of cool meat against the puffy eye, causing Heath to give a sigh as it soothed the painful area. “So tell me, how do you know Johnny Madrid?”
“He and his mother came to Strawberry for a while. I was eight and he was ten at the time. They stayed for a few months; she worked in one of the saloons and well….” Heath looked away, uncomfortable to tell his new mother that his old friend’s mother was a whore. Taking a deep breath he continued. “During that time he and I got to know each other pretty good. We had a lot in common – no fathers, dirt poor… He took it upon himself to protect me from the other boys when there were fights. Then one day he was gone. They left in the middle of the night – no goodbye or nothing. I ran into him again, six years later, his mother was dead and he was running with a group of pistolero’s down near the boarder. He was sixteen and already had the reputation for being fast with his gun. Mother, he was different than the others. He never killed out of meanness or spite. He took the time to look out for the weaker people….” “
“That’s not the reputation he has…” Victoria noted, trying to remember all she knew about Johnny Madrid.
“A reputation is just that – a reputation. It isn’t always a true reflection of the person. Take you,” Heath smiled, his blue eyes glistening with mischief. “When I first heard about Victoria Barkley, I heard that she was a cold hearted rich woman, but you’re not.”
Victoria gave her son a warm smile. “Point well taken; so, when was the last time you saw him?”
“Two years ago. It was the time I met Handy Random. Johnny was the one who saved me after Handy back shot me…”
Victoria swallowed hard at the memory of the recent revelation. Handy Random had been an old friend of her husband’s, a drifter, who had helped them in the early years. He returned to the valley for a job after Heath had come to her home. It was then that Victoria had learned the truth – Handy Random was a mercenary of the foulest kind – shooting men on both sides of a dispute to get the most bounty he could. “So, Johnny was there?”
“Yeah, we were on opposite sides of the fight and didn’t know it. When he saw what Handy had done – he came and saved my hide. Not many men would have done that.”
Victoria was silently stunned. Not many gun hawks would have done that. She hated to think it, but she was grateful that Johnny Madrid had saved Heath all those years ago. “And you haven’t seen him since?”
“He drifted back down to Mexico – got a job working for a few of the villages. Last I heard he had been killed – but I’m glad that wasn’t true.”
Victoria smiled at her son. Heath might not be of her body, but he was the same flesh and blood as his siblings – and that made him hers. The fact that Johnny had saved him put her in his debt. Still, there was something about Johnny Madrid that niggled at the back of her mind. The Cattlemen’s Association was holding a special meeting in Stockton in a few days. She had an old friend who lived in Morro Coyo. Perhaps he could confirm which side Johnny had ridden with. There was no way that she was going to let her family get invested in a gunhawk – even an old friend of Heath’s – if he had fought against the ranchers. Until she had confirmation, Johnny Madrid would not be trusted.
Victoria presided over lunch in the formal dining room, insisting that all talk of the current situation be left at the door – steering the conversation towards talk about the ranch. With a watchful eye and a practiced ear she kept tabs on Johnny, catching the looks of envy that flickered across his face when he saw how easily Nick and Jarrod had taken to Heath. There was a lot more to Johnny Madrid than his just being fast with a gun and Victoria was determined to find out what it was.
To everyone’s amazement, Johnny was well versed on the daily workings of a cattle ranch. “Since when did you trade in your gun for cows?” Heath asked after Johnny had pointed out some different methods to irrigate dry pastures.
“A man has to prepare for the future. I won’t always be so quick on the draw,” Johnny responded glancing out the window, avoiding Heath’s prying eyes.
Heath frowned at the response. This wasn’t the easy going Johnny that he had once known.
“Well, I, for one am impressed!” Jarrod spoke up. “So tell us, Johnny, just where did you get your ranching experience?”
A sly grin rounded Johnny’s lips. “I get around some. Spent some time on a ranch south of here for a few months before moving on…”
“Any place we might know?” Nick asked taking a sip of his lemonade.
“Nah, it was a small place. A one man show – the owner was a mean old man, but he needed help. I worked for him for a while – ‘till he could get his son to come and help him out…” Johnny hesitated, trying to find benign words to describe the experience he had at Lancer. They were hard in coming.
“And he told you about irrigation?” Fascinated, Nick urged Johnny to continue.
Johnny sucked in his breath before continuing. “No, the son did. That man was a pretty smart fella – from some town back east. He had all sorts of fancy ideas…”
“Why did you leave?” Victoria asked. Johnny’s words struck another cord with her and she still couldn’t figure out why.
“Like I said, the ranch was a one man show. The ‘Old Man’ – he didn’t need me no more, not after he got his son home – so I left.” Wiping his mouth with his napkin, Johnny excused himself and left the table, his spurs gently jingling as he made his way out the front door.
The Barkleys watched as the dark-haired man left the room. “Not quite what I expected in a gunfighter.” Jarrod commented wiping his mouth on his napkin and placing it back in his lap. “Has he always been so quiet?”
Heath, who had continued to look after his friend, was shaken from his thoughts by his brother’s question. “No…. something’s changed in him.” He stood to follow, but was restrained when Victoria laid a gentle hand on his arm.
“Let me go talk to him, you finish your lunch.” The men stood as she rose from her seat and left the table. “Heath?”
“I don’t know if you are planning on asking Johnny to stay, but I would prefer knowing more about him before we hire him…” Heath opened his mouth to protest, but Victoria raised her hand and silenced him. “I have a friend in Morro Coyo, a member of the Cattlemen’s Association. I’d like to hear it from him that Johnny didn’t work for Day Pardee before we hire him.”
Heath lowered her eyes and shook his head. “My word isn’t good enough?”
“It’s not a matter of your word not being good enough.” Victoria patiently explained. “You yourself said that you hadn’t seen Johnny in over two years. Men change. So, before I have him staying under this roof, I need to make sure….” Nick opened his mouth to make his own protest, but Victoria dismissed his comments with a stern look before they were even made. That left Jarrod smiling like a cat that had swallowed a canary. He was the only one of them less than thrilled to have Johnny in their employ. Victoria locked gazes with him. “If his story checks out, then Johnny will be welcomed here and on our payroll. Any more comments?” Satisfied that all three men were now reprimanded, she continued out the door to look for Johnny.
Heath, Nick and Jarrod looked at each other, each having felt the sting of her comments. “Now what do you suppose she has in her head?” Nick asked before resuming his lunch.
“One thing that I’ve learned, dear brother, is to never question or underestimate our mother.” Jarrod smiled and continued to finish his lunch.
Heath looked out the window and saw Victoria make her way across the yard to the barn that Johnny had just disappeared into. Something was bothering his old friend – and it seemed to have some sort of effect on his new mother. If there was one thing that he knew about Johnny it was that the gunhawk always held his feelings close to the vest – especially when something was on his mind. Heath knew better than to try to get him to talk, but with a smile he knew that Johnny Madrid had never met the likes of Victoria Barkley. If anyone could get through to the sullen gunfighter it was his mother.
Johnny practically fled the house; the conversation had gotten too close to his life at Lancer. Leaving the building he went to find and take care of Barranca. Tending to his horse always seemed to calm him when he felt pressured or cornered. He found Barranca in the barn behind the main house. The building was well stocked and he made sure that Barranca had the best there was to offer. As he combed the horse he had to admit to himself that he was startled by Victoria Barkley’s easy acceptance of her husband’s ‘bastard’ son. If only his own father had been so forgiving, he mused as he started to curry Barranca’s golden mane.
Johnny was so wrapped up in his thoughts that he failed to notice that he was no longer alone. Victoria Barkley was standing in the doorway trying to assess this latest stranger from her son’s past to enter their lives. “Tell me about you and Heath.”
Johnny looked up, startled. “Ma’am?”
She moved closer to and patted Barranca’s flank. “There’s so much about Heath that I don’t know.”
“But you took him into your home anyway. Why?”
“He is my husband’s son and he’s welcome here.” The answer was just that simple.
Johnny bit his lip and shook his head.
“This bothers you Mr. Madrid?”
Johnny dropped his head for a moment and then looked up. “You’re an admirable woman Mrs. Barkley. Not many people would have done that.”
Victoria smiled. “He’s a good man. He fought hard to be here – risking his life in the process. How could I deny him?”
The words echoed…so similar to what Johnny had gone through at Lancer. It was hard to keep the bitterness from his voice. “Not everyone would see things that way.”
Victoria considered the young man in front of her and then took a closer look at the golden palomino. Her hand played over the ‘L’ brand. The niggling she had prior to the noon meal returned. “This is a Lancer horse. You’ve been to Lancer?”
Once again, Johnny inwardly bristled at the mention of his father’s last name, while making sure that his face was a mask of calm. “Like I said, I was in Morro Coyo a while back…”
“Then you’ve met Murdoch Lancer?”
“Yeah,” Johnny admitted cynically. “Can’t go to Morro Coyo without hearing all about the great Murdoch Lancer. I got the horse as payment for a small job I did…”
Victoria raised her eyebrows at the comment about Murdoch Lancer. The niggling in the back of her mind kept getting stronger. Making a mental note, she vowed to check out Johnny’s story with Murdoch herself. She wanted to trust Johnny, but she found it hard without knowing anything but his reputation. “Tell me about yourself, Mr. Madrid. Where are you from?”
Johnny looked away and continued to comb Barranca’s mane. “I spent most of my days around the border towns. My mother was Mexican. My father – some gringo I never knew – kind of like Heath never knowing his father.” Johnny threw out the comment waiting for a reaction.
Victoria measured the response. Johnny was not what she expected. Heath obviously trusted Johnny and, while she wanted to demur to her son’s judgment and hire the fiery young man before her, she remained overwhelmed by his bloody reputation.
With a glance, Johnny could tell that she was still trying to size him up. “You don’t like me much…”
“It’s not a question of my liking or not liking you, Mr. Madrid. I don’t know you well enough to form a proper opinion.”
“What about Heath; don’t his word carry any weight?”
“He understands that I don’t take anyone at face value. These are trying times, Mr. Madrid. Trust is hard to come by.”
Johnny dropped his head and closed his eyes. It was just like Lancer. Victoria Barkley talked a good game, but she had already judged him based on the myth his name stood for. Moving quickly, Johnny put the comb down and re-saddled Barranca. “Well, don’t worry, Miz Barkley, I won’t soil your comfortable world with my presence. If you decide that you need my assistance, I’ll be in town, but don’t wait too long – I might have to hire out for the money.”
Before Victoria could respond, Johnny mounted his horse and galloped away as if the devil were behind him. She was neither happy nor sad that he had left. Johnny was a puzzle that she was determined to solve. Turning back to the house she decided to send a telegram to her friend and invite him to come early and stay with her. That way she could hear first hand all about Johnny Madrid and what had happened in Morro Coyo.
Heath met her at the door. “What happened to Johnny?”
“I’m afraid that Mr. Madrid didn’t like my opinion of him.”
Heath sucked in his breath. He hadn’t liked Victoria’s view of Johnny either. “What did you say?”
“I will not have you or Johnny Madrid questioning my judgment!” Victoria snapped. Moving past Heath, she went to her desk in the living room. Quickly she composed a telegram asking for her old friend to come and help her with the present problem. There was no mention of Johnny, only the plea for help from one old friend to another. “I want this sent out this afternoon.” Heath took the note and turned to leave. With a look, Victoria realized that she had hurt the sensitive young man’s feelings. “Heath?”
“Try to understand…”
“Understand – that my word isn’t good enough for you? That the fact that he saved my life means nothing!”
“No, and you know that isn’t so. I have to look out for this family and this ranch…”
“I thought that was what I was doing too.” Heath’s blue eyes found her green ones and then looked away. “I’ll see that the telegram is sent.” Not waiting for any further discussion or comment, Heath was out the door in search of Johnny.
From the living room window Victoria watched as Heath departed for town. Her heart was heavy from the pain that she had heard in her son’s voice.
“I know that look,” Jarrod had entered the room and watched as his mother gazed out the window at the departing man. “What’s on your mind – Heath or Johnny?”
“Both,” Victoria said turning away from the window and going back to her seat near the fireplace. “There’s more to Johnny Madrid than meets the eye…”
“…But you’re not going to tell me why you feel this way.”
Victoria shook her head and picked up her mending. “It’s a good thing that Audra is in Sacramento and away from this conflict….”
“You’re avoiding my question.”
“I always knew that you’d make an excellent lawyer – nothing escapes you.” Victoria gave her eldest son a mischievous smile before turning her attention back to Nick’s torn shirt. She listened as Jarrod turned to leave the room. “Oh, Jarrod?”
“Have Silas air out the guestroom.”
“I thought that you weren’t going to have Johnny stay here until you checked him out.”
“I’ve invited an old friend to come for a visit. He’ll be here in a few days.”
“Who…?” Jarrod stopped as he watched his mother focus on her mending. “No, I don’t suppose you’d want to tell me that either.” He muttered to himself as he went to find the butler.
“Whoa there!” It took a half hour of hard riding for Heath to catch up with his friend.
Johnny had slowed Barranca to a walk, deciding that there was no need to punish his only compadre with his bad temper. He glanced over his shoulder at Heath and then looked forward, never letting Barranca break his stride.
“Johnny?” Heath pulled up beside his friend.
“Go away.” Johnny said flatly, keeping his gaze fixed on the road.
“She’s got the ranch to think about…” It was lame and Health knew it, so he let it drop.
“Well don’t let her think too long. You know how these things can get!” Johnny snapped. He shouldn’t have let Victoria Barkley and her judgments get to him, but they had and it hurt. It was just like Murdoch all over again. She brought back the feelings of unworthiness that he had buried when he resurrected Madrid. He had met people like Victoria Barkley and Murdoch Lancer before. They were so smug in their self-righteousness – until they needed his help. Then they would come courting him, promising to pay for his time and reward him with a kick in the teeth when they were done with him. It was the same now as it had been in the past. He took small comfort in the fact that nothing had changed during his stay at Lancer.
“I know and so does she,” Heath tried to reason. “You can’t blame her…”
“Can’t I? You’ve seen people like her…”
“Now who’s judging whom?” Heath interrupted.
Johnny looked away for a few moments and sighed. He had no wish to argue with his old friend. Blowing out his breath Johnny looked away and smiled. “So, how about you buying me a beer?”
“You got it!”
It took an hour for Johnny and Heath to ride into town. As they dismounted in front of the hotel, Fred Savage, the local sheriff came striding up.
“Afternoon, Fred,” Heath greeted the older man.
“Heath,” Fred all but ignored the young man and focused his attention on Heath’s dark haired companion. “We don’t need any more of your kind around here, Johnny Madrid. I got enough troubles on my hands with the other riff raff that Bartch has brought to town…”
“Fred….” Heath interrupted as Johnny glared at the sheriff. “What’s this all about?”
“Floyd Brasure’s at Doc’s with a ruined hand. He claims he was bushwhacked by Johnny Madrid,” the sheriff turned and pointed a finger at Johnny. “He said you were trying to kill some poor cowboy and that you shot him when he tried to stop you.”
“Is that right?” Johnny grinned, turning to look at his companion. “Did he tell you what happened to that cowboy?”
“Well,” the Sheriff stammered, “he said that he and his men managed to scare you off and the cowboy rode for the hills….” The sheriff paused, seeing the broad grins on the faces of the young men in front of him. “What do you know about this Heath?”
“Well, Fred, for the record – I ain’t no ‘poor cowboy’…”
The sheriff’s eyes narrowed. “What are you saying – you were the one who was being attacked?”
Heath loosened his collar and showed the sheriff the abrasions around his neck and wrists. “Johnny saved my life. Floyd and his boys were try’n to hang me when Johnny showed up. Floyd drew on Johnny first – it was a fair fight.”
“And you didn’t kill him?” Fred asked incredulously, turning his attention back to Johnny.
“Ain’t no need to kill a man when he can’t shoot again.”
The sheriff was taken by the quiet words and demeanor of the famous gunhawk. This was not what he expected. “Well, if Heath is vouching for you….”
“Then you’re free to go. Just be careful. You’ve made a powerful enemy in Floyd Brasure; he’s not likely to forget what you’ve done.”
Johnny smiled and walked away from the Sheriff, his spurs jingling as he scuffed his heels on the way into the saloon.
“Is that really Johnny Madrid?” Fred asked looking after the young gunman. “He isn’t what I expected.”
“He never is.”
“I’ll take care of Floyd Brasure, but I’m telling you I’m not going to have any gun play in my town. You tell that friend of yours that I want don’t want no trouble.” Fred turned on his heel and headed back to Doc’s.
Heath watched the older man for a few moments before joining Johnny in the saloon. He found Johnny seated at the farthest table in the room, his back against a wall. A bottle of Tequila, two clean glasses and a bowl of salt and limes were on the table in front of him. “You still drink this stuff?” Heath whistled removing his hat.
Johnny gave his friend an amused smile. “I was raised on this – mother’s milk.” Johnny poured two shots. Licking the back of his thumb he then dipped it in the salt, took a bite of the lime and raised his glass. “Saluda!” He downed the glass and licked the salt off his hand before reaching to pour himself another shot. “What did your friend, the Sheriff, have to say?”
Heath looked uncomfortable for a moment. “He doesn’t want any trouble in his town.”
A wry smile crossed Johnny’s lips. “Same old story, isn’t it Heath? Doesn’t matter that I haven’t done anything wrong – they all make it my fault….” Johnny shook his head and then downed his second shot. He always was a magnet for trouble – even if it wasn’t of his own making.
Heath frowned; he could sense the anger Johnny was hiding behind the Madrid mask. Picking up his glass, Heath downed his drink. “Things are gonna get ugly mighty fast Johnny. Don’t make any decisions because you’re angry.” He didn’t like to think Johnny might hire out to Bartch, but Johnny had the right to earn a lively hood.
Johnny frowned, considering his friend’s advice, while he swirled the bit of liquor that remained in his shot glass. “When is the marshal ‘sposed to be here?”
“We’re hopin’ 5 days, but it could be more. What are you thinkin’, Johnny?”
A sly smile playfully lifted the right side of Johnny’s mouth. “I’m a one man show, Heath. Always have been, always will be.”
Heath’s frown deepened. “You’re not going to tell me?”
“Johnny, think about holdin’ off you’re your decision. We still might hire you on…”
“I can’t wait for your family to make a choice, Heath. I’ve got to do what I do. ” Johnny firmly ended any discussion of his plans. “You’ve got a family to think of. Me, I ain’t got no one.” Johnny refilled his glass, downed the contents and put the glass back on the table with a thud. Standing, he extended his hand to Heath who reluctantly took it. “I’ll be seein’ ya.”
“Just don’t do something stupid like gettin’ yourself killed,” Heath shook Johnny’s hand warmly. “Let me know what’s going on.”
With a nod, Johnny stood and made his way out of the saloon, aware that all eyes were on him. His mask firmly in place, he walked confidently out of the establishment. This town was dangerous – a powder keg ready to explode. He would have to be careful and keep his distance from Heath. His old friend had made himself a new life and Johnny wished him better luck than he had with his old ‘new’ life.
Crossing the dusty main street, Johnny opened to door to the hotel to find the pale faced desk clerk was back on duty, looking even more pale than the day before. “Howdy…” Johnny greeted the jumpy young man.
The clerk barely cracked a smile, his eyes darting nervously to the room at the top of the stairs – Johnny’s room. “You want ta go get the sheriff?” Johnny asked quietly, drawing his gun.
Like a jack rabbit, the boy bolted out the front door, running straight into the street. Stealthily Johnny made his way up the stairs, his gun at the ready. Standing to one side he quietly slid his key into the lock of his door. Taking a deep breath, he quickly turned the lock and kicked in the door – diving to the floor – barely dodging the two shots that were fired. Rolling to his back he looked up at the startled faces of two gunmen. “Well don’t that beat all, they must have rented out my room…” Johnny stated, training his gun on the two men before him. “Drop them irons fellas.” he commanded as he slowly began to stand, only to stop when he heard the sound of a pistol being cocked behind his head and felt the pressure of cold steel pressed against his ear.
“Drop it, Madrid.”
Johnny held tightly to his weapon for a few seconds before letting it fall from his grasp. As his gun clattered to the floor, the hard steel barrel was removed from his ear. “Help him up, boys,” the deep voice of the man behind Johnny instructed the others.
One of the men holstered his pistol and then extended a hand to Johnny and helped him off the floor. Without so much as a nod, Johnny turned to face the man who had been behind him. Johnny found himself gazing at a man, about as tall as himself, only several pounds heavier, with graying black hair. A large black mustache hid most of his features, but his eyes were almost as gray as ice – sending a chill down Johnny’s spine. Johnny stood straight and tall, no sign of fear or concern in his countenance. “You want something, mister?” Johnny drawled.
The ends of the mustache curled into a grin. “I heard you had nerves like steel…”
“That comes with the territory.” Johnny held his empty hands out by his sides. “Tell your men to put their guns down.” The older man nodded and from the corner of his eyes Johnny saw that the order had been complied with.
“First, I’d like to apologize for my trigger happy men…” The big man cut a glare at his companions.
“I figure that if you can hire two shots as lousy as these guys,” Johnny indicated the two goons with his thumb. “You can pay for the damages.”
“A wise acre,” The man smiled, approving of Johnny’s cool attitude. “I’ve come to offer you a job, Madrid.”
Johnny continued to study the man for another moment before drawing his conclusion. “You must be Bartch.”
Ned Bartch let the grin on his face widen. “And, sharp as a tack. I’d like you to take a ride with me. I’ve got a proposition for you….”
Johnny was about to respond when Sheriff Savage burst into the room. “Hold it!” he shouted only to find that the room was occupied by four men who were calmly talking. “What’s going on here?”
Johnny turned and gave Fred his best smile. “A simple misunderstanding, Sheriff. Mr. Bartch was looking for me and his two men accidentally shot the door…”
Fred’s eyes narrowed, not believing a word Johnny was saying, but what do you say to a man who seemed to hold no fear or anger against three men who had obviously tried to do him harm? “Who’s going to pay for the damages?”
Ned reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad bills. “Tell the manager that if this doesn’t cover the damages he should send the rest of the bill to me out at the ranch.”
Fred snatched the money from Ned and did a quick count. “This should cover it.” He turned to leave and then turned back. “I have no jurisdiction outside of the town limits, but when you’re in my town there will be no gunplay – understand?” Fred made eye contact with each man. Satisfied that he had made his point, he left.
Johnny let a small smile crack his lips. Bartch had made a show of the cash for his benefit. “I assume that there is more money where that came from?”
Bartch smiled, knowing that he had Johnny where he wanted him. “Plenty,” Bartch headed toward the door with his two men close behind. He stopped short when he realized that Johnny wasn’t following. “Coming?”
Johnny glanced out the window. It was now late in the afternoon. He wasn’t going to go anywhere with Bartch this late in the day. The Circle A was several miles out of town and Johnny hadn’t scouted out the area yet. He’d been back shot before while leaving the camp of a prospective employer; he had vowed that would never happen again. “I’ve had a long day. Tell me where and I’ll see you in the morning.”
Bartch frowned. This was not the reaction he expected, but then he had heard Madrid was the best and that was what he needed now that Brasure was out of commission. “Ten o’clock. Circle A, just head…”
“I’ll find it,” Johnny smiled, bending to pick up his gun. “See you at eight.”
Bartch opened his mouth to protest and his two companions began to turn back towards Johnny, only to notice that the gunfighter had changed his stance. Obviously Johnny wasn’t afraid of the Sheriff’s warning and was prepared to do battle if needed.
“Eight o’clock – sharp!” Bartch growled, indicating that his two companions accompany him.
Johnny smiled broadly and slammed his door shut. So, this was the other side. It was going to be a pleasure to get to the root of this fracas. Somehow, he had the inkling that there was more to the story than he had been told. There was one person that he knew he could count on for the truth, and that was Bernardo Cardoza.
Walking to the window, Johnny watched as Bartch and his two men mounted up, waiting for them to clear the street before he went to the livery to speak with Bernardo. Satisfied that the men were long gone, Johnny left his room and headed downstairs. The desk clerk had resumed his station, keeping a wary eye on the gunfighter as he approached.
“I need a new room; mine has holes in the door…”
The boy swallowed hard. “Yes, Sir, Mr. Madrid…” he turned to grab a key off the rack behind him.
As the boy’s hand reached for number two, Johnny shook his head. Give me room seven – the one at the end of the hall.”
“But number seven is smaller….”
“I don’t need much room. Number seven will do fine.”
With a shake of his head, the boy exchanged Johnny’s old room key for the new room key. “I’ll have your things moved…”
“Thanks….” Johnny started out the door and then turned back. “You got a piece of paper and a pencil?”
“..Yes… Sir,” the boy stammered, handing Johnny the items he requested.
“Gracias,” and with a smile, Johnny took the items and tucked them into his jacket and headed down the street, away from his desired destination. After years of honing his craft, Johnny was painfully aware that it was usually the innocent bystanders who got hurt in the kind of war that was brewing around Stockton. The last thing Johnny wanted was for Bernardo to become a target because he associated with Johnny Madrid.
Taking his time, Johnny wandered down the main street, slowly making his way along the store fronts before he darted down a side street and worked his way back through the trash filled alley that separated the buildings. Being cautious that no one see him, he snuck back to the rear of the livery. Pausing for a moment, he listened for any activity inside the stable before he jimmied open the locked back door. Silently, he slid inside, closing the door behind him.
It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the dim light of the stable, but finally he was able make out the stalls and the workshop area where Bernardo made a small living space for himself. Johnny remained sheltered in the darkness for almost half an hour, watching Bernardo go about his business waiting on customers and caring for the animals left in his charge. To his amusement, he noted that Bernardo took special care of Barranca, murmuring in Spanish to Johnny’s high strung palomino.
When day light was all but gone, Bernardo closed the front door and slid the wooden bar across the hinges. With a sigh, the older man lit a lantern – and went to his little bed to sit down.
“Buenas noches,” Johnny whispered from the darkness.
Bernardo sat up straight and looked around. “¿Quién alli ?”
Johnny stepped out of the darkness. “It’s me.”
The startled man relaxed and smiled. “You scared me. What are you doing here, hiding in the dark?”
“I don’t want to cause you no trouble,” Johnny walked up to the front door and made sure it was secured before he returned to his new friend.
“What is troubling you, mi amigo?”
“I met with the Barkleys today…”
Bernardo smiled, “Bueno!….” but he paused when he saw that Johnny was not smiling. “You did not go to work for them?”
Johnny smiled crookedly and shook his head. “Nope. They didn’t ask.”
The older man stiffened remembering that he had seen Ned Bartch and his men leaving the hotel. “You are going to work for Bartch?”
Again, Johnny smiled and shook his head.
Bernardo’s expression eased as he studied his friend. “So, what is it that you come to me for?”
Johnny took the paper and pencil from his pocket and quickly drew a copy of the map that Nick Barkley had shown him earlier in the day. “Tell me, who owns these lands?” With his pencil he indicated all of the properties surrounding the Barkley Ranch and the Circle A.
“Why do you want to know?” Bernardo peered closely at the paper, wondering at his friend’s intentions.
Johnny bit his lip. He needed Bernardo’s help, but was loath to get him involved in his plans. “Are they like us?”
The eyebrows on the older man went up, wondering where Johnny was going with this question. “Si, they are Mexicano – some. Others are small farmers, peons who work the land.”
“What has been happening to them?”
“They try to fight for themselves. Lately, some have died while others are selling their homes….” Bernardo studied the young man before him. “What are you thinking?”
Johnny gave the man a smile. “I have something in mind…”
“Anything I can do to help?”
Johnny’s smile broadened. “Just keep your ears open. If you hear anything that the Circle A or the Barkleys have in mind you let me know. Leave me a note, in Spanish, tucked in the back door. I don’t want you seen talkin’ to me outright. This could get dangerous…”
Bernardo frowned at the mention of danger. “What are you up to muchacho?”
With a scratch to his chin, Johnny dipped his head. “The Barkleys are too busy protecting their own. I’m not sure what the Circle A is up to, but I intend to find out before I hire up.” Johnny extended his hand to Bernardo, who grasped it hard. “I appreciate you helpin’….. What I got planned…. Well, I’m not sure what is going to happen. Just remember, I ain’t hired on with the Circle A or the Barkleys. No matter what – you understand?”
The old man looked at the younger man quizzically. “What do you mean?”
“You’ll understand. Just remember, I’m giving you my word and this is just between us. Comprende?”
“Si. It is our secret.”
Johnny released Bernardo’s hand and turned to walk away. “One other thing, do you have a good black horse I can use?”
“Why would you need another horse? You have a fine Palomino…”
Johnny walked over to Barranca, who responded instantly to the approach of his master with a whinny. With his left hand, he caressed the nose of his only true friend. “He’s too flashy. I need something that I can ride at night that won’t attract any attention.”
Bernardo looked around the half filled stable. “I have that black one over there. He is very mean….”
Johnny went to the stall of a beautiful young black stallion. After a quick inspection, Johnny nodded his head approvingly. “This will do. How much?”
Bernardo shook his head. “No charge. Use him when you have to…”
“No. I can’t let you get involved…”
“I was involved when you saved my sister. Whatever I have is yours.”
The two men locked eyes for a moment, reaching an unspoken understanding. “Gracias,” Johnny said finally. “Move him to the stall at the far end of the building, and keep that door unlocked. I’m not sure when I will be using him, but I’ll need him to be handy…”
Bernard frowned; he sensed that Johnny was going to be playing a dangerous game. “Johnny, what can I do?”
“Nothing;” Johnny turned and retreated to the back of the stable where he slipped out into the night.
It was easier to hide his actions in the dark, returning to the dimly lit main streets of Stockton. His rumbling stomach reminded him that he hadn’t eaten since lunch at the Barkley’s. His hands on his hips, he scanned the area, his ears listening for familiar sounds in the busy town. Music from an out of tune piano drifted from the Saloon across the street from the hotel. He wasn’t in the mood for the noisy gringo establishment. Closing his eyes, he listened intently until the soft strains of a Spanish guitar could be filtered out of the surrounding noise. Smiling, he turned around and headed toward the poorer section of the growing town – the rundown section that reminded him of – home.
Ambling down the street, his mouth watered for the hot tamales that he had missed over the past few months. Knowing that he was not going to be getting much sleep, he decided to fill his belly. It was going to be a long night.
Murdoch arrived at breakfast the next morning to find that he was alone – as usual. Only Maria was there, silently preparing his meal. Over the past few weeks she had made it painfully clear that she had not approved of the way that he had handled the situation with Johnny. Every morning it was the same – his bacon was burned, the eggs scorched and he had yet to figure out what she did to make his coffee taste so terrible. After six weeks he felt that he had been tortured enough, but clearly she didn’t.
“Buenos días, Maria,” Murdoch greeted trying, once again, to get back into the cook’s good graces. Her only response was to place a cup of bitter coffee in front of him and return to the stove. With a wince, Murdoch tasted the rancid beverage and thumped the cup back on the table. “Have you seen Scott this morning?”
“Si. He ate with señorita Teresa…”
“Where is he now?”
The woman glanced upstairs and returned to her work. It took a moment for Murdoch to catch the meaning before he was on his feet and pounding back up the stairs to Scott’s room. Maria smiled; the jefe was getting a taste of his own medicine.
Murdoch found Scott in his room. From the doorway he watched as the younger man packed a valise. His stomach clenched as he realized that he could be losing another son. “Scott…”
Scott had noticed his father standing at the door and had chosen to ignore him, waiting for Murdoch to make the first move. He made no response to his father’s voice and continued packing, a determined look on his face.
“Son, can we talk about this?”
Scott stopped and turned to his father. “Talk about what? My trip to San Francisco or the fact that you cut Johnny out of our lives? The fact that I could be next if I don’t live up to your expectations?”
Murdoch opened his mouth stunned by the bluntness of the questions and the fact that Scott was questioning his place at the ranch. “Scott, I never asked Johnny to leave and I certainly won’t be asking you….”
“No – you didn’t ask Johnny to leave; you were just forcing him away with your bullheaded behavior!”
“I had my reasons!”
Scott’s interest was now piqued. This was the first time that Murdoch had openly stated that there had been a reason for the way that he had been treating Johnny. “What reasons could possibly justify sending him away?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” Murdoch muttered looking away, unsure how to answer the same question he had been asking himself from the time that he realized that Johnny was gone. “It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you know that you belong here…”
“Johnny felt he belonged and he’s gone.”
Murdoch dropped his head. It was the same argument over and over again. “We’ve been over and over this. I don’t know what more I can tell you, Son.”
“Tell me that you’ll hire the Pinkertons to track him down! Tell me that you care whether he lives or dies! Tell me that you love anything more than each blade of grass out on that range!” Scott took smug satisfaction in throwing his father’s words back at him. With vivid clarity he remembered his first encounter with his father. Scott had never forgotten or forgiven that Murdoch swore that he loved each blade of grass more than anything else that God had created – including himself and his brother. Now, more than ever, he believed it. When Murdoch had no response, he continued his packing. “I’ve got to get away from here….”he muttered, throwing another shirt into his case.
“Scott, believe me, I would never send you away…”
“Sure, not like you sent Johnny away…”
“I didn’t! He chose to leave! It’s not my fault that he overheard a conversation that YOU started!”
Scott’s temper flared at the accusation. “So, now it’s my fault Johnny is gone!?”
Murdoch shook his head and sat down on the edge of Scott’s bed. “No. It’s my fault your brother is gone. I should have spoken to him, tried to understand him….”
“I’m sure he would have appreciated it. It’s hard to understand someone when you never take the time to look or even listen to what he has to say or has done! Ask any one of the men and they can tell you what a good man he was to work with. Go into town and you’ll find that no one there can believe that you let Johnny go! What kind of father are you?” Scott found himself shouting and had to stop himself. Turning to the window, he found that he could no longer look at his own father.
Murdoch had no answer to the question. His only experience at being a father had been twenty years ago when Johnny was just an infant. Then he had anticipated growing into the role of ‘father’ as his son got older. Sadly, he had to admit to himself that he had no idea what it was like to be a father – not to two grown men. From his seat he watched his first born and knew that he was going to lose him too – and for what? Money? The Ranch? In the passing weeks his remaining family had been teaching him terrible lessons with their coldness and constant bickering with him. Slowly he was learning that blood was thicker – and more important than material things. Standing, he walked to the window and tried to reach out to Scott.
As if sensing his father’s approach, Scott turned to face the older man. “You’ve got to find Johnny and bring him back, and when you do – you will have to ask for his forgiveness. If you don’t, you just might end up losing more than you’ll know.”
Murdoch studied his son, his eyes narrowing. “Is that a threat?”
“No, Sir. That is a promise. I’m leaving for San Francisco on the noon train from Cross Creek. I won’t be returning to Lancer until you bring Johnny home.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Then you won’t have to worry about sharing any of the profits with anyone but yourself.” Scott closed the case and headed towards the door. “I’m serious, Murdoch, bring him home.”
Murdoch watched his son leave the room and was gripped with an emptiness he hadn’t felt since Maria left over twenty years earlier. With a groan he slowly made his way out of Scott’s room and headed down the hall towards his own. Along the way he noticed that the door to Johnny’s room was open. He hadn’t entered the room since before the young man had left. Slowly he pushed open the door to discover that the room looked exactly same as it had before and during Johnny’s stay. Walking inside he looked around. Johnny had never taken the time to personalize the room – to make the space his own. The young man had lived like a guest who had finally left. Sorrowfully, Murdoch realized that it was because he had never let Johnny know that this was his home.
Walking to the bed he closed his eyes, remembering nights so long ago – when a small dark haired child had occupied the much too large mattress. The child was so tiny, his dark hair a sharp contrast to the large white pillow on which it rested. In a matter of seconds, the figure morphed into the fully grown body of his now adult son. It was like having the beginning and ending of a story, but no middle – no part where Murdoch had participated. Now he found himself grieving all over again. Twice he had let his son slip through his fingers. Scott was right. He would have to find a way to bring Johnny back. With this new resolve he headed downstairs. He would rehire the Pinkertons. Johnny couldn’t have gotten too far.
As he reached the bottom of the stairs, a delivery rider came up to the house. Scott was already outside and had accepted a crumpled note. “It’s for you, Sir.” He said handing the paper to his father.
With nervous fingers, Murdoch tore open the note and quickly scanned its contents. With a sigh of relief he smiled.
“Sir?” Scott asked, anxious to know the contents.
“It’s a note from an old friend in Stockton. She’s asking that I come early for the Association meeting.”
Scott was flush with disappointment. He had prayed that the note had contained some word about his brother. “What are you going to do? The rider is waiting for an answer?”
Murdoch went inside and quickly scribbled his response. He would head for Stockton in three days – arriving at the end of the week. Coming out, he handed the note back to the messenger along with a nickel piece as a tip. “I’m going to go to Stockton at the end of the week.”
Scott shook his head disappointedly. His father was obviously more concerned about the request of an old friend than he was about finding a lost son. “And Johnny?”
Murdoch frowned. “Johnny will have to wait. I owe my friend a debt…” He paused when he saw the look of disappointment on Scott’s face.
“No explanation needed,” Scott turned his back and headed toward the barn to get his horse. In a voice loud enough for his father to hear he shot out a parting comment. “An old friend is obviously more important than finding a missing son.”
With an open mouth, Murdoch watched as Scott mounted his horse and galloped away. After Scott had passed under the Lancer arch, Murdoch tiredly turned to head toward the house, almost tripping over Jelly who had come to stand beside him.
“You lost him too, Boss?” Jelly asked smugly, standing his ground, hands on his hips.
“Don’t start with me Jelly…” Murdoch growled.
“Don’t start what? Don’t start with the fact that you’re making the second biggest mistake of your life? Ya lost one son. Now yer aim’n to lose another!”
Murdoch turned and watched as Scott became a dot on the horizon. “What can I do?”
“Ya got to go an find Johnny. Plain ‘n simple.”
Murdoch nodded his head. “I’m going to hire the Pinkerton’s again – when I get back from Stockton…”
Jelly shook his head. That would be too late. Scott would be gone for good by then. Jelly gave Murdoch an exasperated look and headed back to the barn where the cows made more sense.
At 8AM Johnny lazily rode Barranca through the gates of the Circle A. It was like calmly riding into the eye of a storm. The ranch was a beehive of crazed activity. Men were running everywhere, yelling and shouting angrily at each other. Johnny’s hat hid his amused eyes. It was like visiting one of those circuses that Scott had told him about one day. Quickly he dismissed all thoughts of his ‘brother’. It was dangerous to go there. He was Madrid. Madrid had no brother and Madrid had never been to a circus.
He rode up to the main dwelling and remained seated as he continued to watch the state of confusion that prevailed. Carefully he took note of the number of hired guns he recognized or men he thought might be gunhawks. Many were young – too young to be killed, but Johnny suspected that in a matter of days they would be dead.
Johnny turned his head to watch as Ned Bartch came striding out of the house, hastily pulling on his vest. “Morn’n’” Johnny greeted his prospective employer. “Looks like ya got some trouble….”
Bartch scowled. “Some damn fool left the gate to the corral open last night. We lost every horse we had!”
“Anything I can do to help?”
“Can you round up one or two of the horses?”
With a nod of his head, Johnny backed Barranca away from the house, turned and rode out towards the open pasture where the horses were keeping their distance from their would be riders. From his saddle, he grabbed his lariat and began to chase after one of the horses. In no time he had one and was leading it back to a waiting hand. With that one delivered, he returned and repeated the process of chasing down another horse until he had it secured. This time he brought the horse back to Bartch. Dismounting, he handed the rope another one of the hands.
“It’s going to take the better part of the day to round up the rest of ‘em,” Johnny observed placing his hands on his hips.
Batch regarded Johnny for a moment before refocusing on the men, shouting orders for them to secure the gates and figure out which one of them had left the corral unlatched. Satisfied that his orders were going to be carried out, Bartch invited Johnny inside.
The dwelling was no plantation house like the Barkley’s. It was a small two story dwelling that was neatly kept and well furnished. “Nice place,” Johnny commented entering the dwelling, pushing his hat off his head so that it hung down his back by the leather stampede strings.
Bartch led him into a wood paneled study and offered the gunhawk a cup of coffee. “I don’t know what you’ve heard, Madrid, but I’m looking to build up a large spread here. Some of my neighbors seem to be blocking my efforts.”
“How so?” Johnny asked, sitting in a leather chair in front of Bartch’s massive mahogany desk, taking a grateful sip of the hot coffee.
“People like the Barkleys. They think that they own this territory and can’t bear the thought of the competition a place like the Circle A will give them.”
“So the Barkleys are giving you trouble?”
“Well,” Bartch hesitated, giving Johnny a knowing grin. “You know what I mean. They’re attempting to block my efforts…” Bartch let the sentence hang, hoping that Johnny would catch his true meaning.
Johnny did and smiled. “So, what are ya looking for me to do?”
“I need a man who is experienced in what it takes to get the neighbors to cooperate….
Johnny’s smile grew. “Like burning a few barns? Bustin’ heads?”
Bartch smiled. “I knew that I would like you Madrid. With Brasure out of commission, I’m looking for a new ramrod for my operation. Besides, Brasure was taking things too slow – chasing one cowboy at a time – hoping that it would scare the others…”
“Like yesterday. That was a mistake. Taking out a lone cowboy don’t mean nothin’ to the surrounding ranchers. I’m looking for someone to lead my men – kinda like what Pardee did last year in the south end of the valley – but with a different result. I plan to succeed where he failed.”
Johnny’s eyes flashed at the mention of his old ‘dead’ friend. “Yeah, ‘ol Day sure had a good thing going until those ranchers got organized….”
“Well, that’s what I’m fighting now – time. The ranchers are getting organized. They’re having a meeting in Stockton on Sunday.” Bartch pulled out a map very similar to the map that Nick Barkley had shown Johnny just the day before. “What I need is for someone to help me ‘persuade’ these small ranchers to sell out, or else…” Bartch indicated an area that bordered the Circle A and the Barkley ranches.
Johnny made a show of studying the map and scratching his chin. “That could be a mighty tall order Mr. Bartch. There’s not much time….”
“I’m willing to pay good money if you can deliver results.” Bartch rolled up the map.
“How much are ya talkin’?”
“Hundred dollars a day, plus bullets.” Bartch watched as Johnny closed his eyes. “What do you say, Madrid?”
Johnny’s eyes flashed open and he stood, quickly walking to one of the windows that looked out over the ranch. The chaos was a little more organized now. “How many men do you have workin’ for you?”
“I have twenty hands…”
Johnny shook his head. “How many of them know how to handle a gun?”
Bartch smiled broadly behind Johnny’s back. “Brasure brought ten men and he was starting to train the regular hands. Bushrod Smith is set to arrive tomorrow with five more experienced guns. That will make a total of thirty-six, counting you. I figure that with you and Bushrod workin’ together we can get those shirttail ranchers rounded up and out of this valley in no time.”
Johnny kept his back to Bartch and frowned. He had words with Bushrod over the happenings with Warburton just two short months ago. It was only the fact that Tallie Warburton had promised to pay the gunhawks her father had hired that had kept the two gunmen from having it out. Johnny doubted very much whether Bushrod would want to work with him. He figured the older gunhawk would rather kill him first. “Well, that could be a problem…”
“Problem? I thought that you and Smith had worked together before?”
“We have, in the past, and ….we don’t get along anymore…”
“Not even for a hundred ten dollars a day?”
Johnny’s eyebrows went up as the fee was increased. Bartch was desperate. “Let me think about it…” Johnny turned and gave Bartch a smile.
“Don’t think too long, Madrid. I need action and I need it now! The boys were ‘sposed to raid a farm near the Barkley place last night, but they couldn’t go on account of the horses that got loose. If it’s more money…”
Johnny shook his head. “No, it ain’t the money. I just like to get a good feel for the lay of the land before I join a fracas. Let me do some thinkin’ and I’ll get back to you – tomorrow.” With that said, Johnny headed out the door only to stop short when he heard a familiar, unseen voice, come from upstairs. The gunhawk couldn’t be certain, but the voice sounded very familiar. Only the face that went with the voice was missing. Without making any physical response that would acknowledge he had heard anything – he continued out the front door with Bartch following close behind.
“Ya, better do something to keep your horses secure…” Johnny observed as one of the hands returned his lariat to him.
Bartch nodded his head in agreement. “Someone is going to pay for this….”
Johnny grinned and mounted Barranca. “I’ll be back in the morning….” Gently he wheeled the horse around and headed out, aware that all eyes were on him. From the corner of his eye – he caught the glint of a spyglass from a hill about a mile away. His presence was now being monitored and it made him smirk.
“Well?” Bartch asked expectantly as his partner entered the study.
The other man helped himself to a cup of coffee and watched as Johnny slowly made his way back to Stockton. “He’s a tough nut to crack. If we don’t get him on our side we’ll have to kill him.”
Bartch smiled and nodded in agreement. “Either way he’s a dead man – he just don’t know it yet.”
“I saw him there right as rain!” Nick Barkley shouted at Heath as they both entered their home for lunch.
“It don’t mean nothing, Nick!” Heath tried to argue, but he had to admit that it did look bad.
“He’s here one day and the next he’s at the Circle A. I tell you he can’t be trusted!”
Heath raised his eye brows at the comment. Just yesterday his brother was all fired up to hire Johnny Madrid. Now he was ready to hang him. “Nick, you don’t know anything…”
“Well then, tell me that he was just…”
“Boys!” Victoria Barkley interrupted the argument as she descended the stairs. “I can hear your voices into next Tuesday. Now what is going on?”
“I saw Heath’s friend – Johnny Madrid – over at the Circle A….”
“And just how did you do that?” Victoria interrupted, putting her hands on her hips.
Nick paused looking slightly sheepish. “I was just riding by…”
“Just riding by? Nick we have been over this many times! It’s too dangerous a situation for you to be going over to the Circle A to spy. What if one of those gunhawks had seen you?”
“I was up in the hills, using a glass….”
Heath, who was standing beside Victoria, smiled briefly as his brother squirmed under Victoria’s scrutiny.
“So, what did you see?” Victoria asked impatiently.
“Well, when I first got there the place was like a tornado had hit it. Someone had let the horses loose….”
Heath’s eyes sparked at the mention of this. “Someone had let loose the horses? Did you see who?”
Nick gave Heath an annoyed look. “No. They were all out by the time I got there.” He then pointed at Heath with his index finger. “I did arrive in time to see his friend riding up on that showy palomino of his!”
“And did Johnny stay?” Victoria asked calmly.
“No. He went inside for a long time before he rode out again. Sure as my name is Nick Barkley he went and hired on with them – against us!”
“Heath?” Victoria turned to her other son. “What do you think of this?”
“It’s a free country – and we didn’t hire Johnny when we had the chance…”
“So you agree with me!” Nick said with an air of satisfaction.
“He could have gone just to see what Bartch had to offer.” Heath ground out, tired of being interrupted by his brother.
“Is that what you think? That your friend just went to look?”
Heath dropped his head and shook it sadly. “He’s a gunhawk, and not just any gunhawk – he’s the best there is…”
“Nick, will you stop interrupting?” Victoria gave her son an impatient glare before turning back to Heath. “Well?”
“I can go and talk to him. See what his intentions are…”
Victoria laid a hand on her son’s arm. “People change, Heath. It’s been a long time since you’ve seen Johnny. He could have changed.”
Heath shook his head and headed out the door.
“I just know….” Nick started in a boisterous voice.
“Not another word Nicholas!” Victoria admonished. The situation was going to be hard enough without her sons fighting between themselves over the likes of Johnny Madrid. There had been one thing that she had noticed and she decided to question Heath about it before he headed out.
Leaving Nick to stew, Victoria caught Heath as he was mounting up. “Heath?”
“The horses getting loose….”
Heath smiled. “That was Johnny, I’m sure of it.”
“How can you be so confident?”
“Men like Johnny don’t change that much. He pulled the same thing down in Madeira several years ago. He snuck into a rustler’s camp at night and cut loose their horses. Boy howdy, they spent days trying to find their mounts…”
“And you think Johnny had something to do with the horses at the Circle A?”
“I don’t know, but I can find out.” Heath turned and mounted his horse.
As he turned to leave, Victoria caught hold of Charger’s bridal. “Be careful, Heath.”
A warm feeling filled the man as he soaked in her concern. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Scott rode to Cross Creek to catch the train to San Francisco. He felt guilty leaving the ranch and Teresa while things were so unsettled. His trip to San Francisco was two fold. He would visit with his old friend and check with the Pinkerton office to see what it would take for them to track down his brother. Not another day could be wasted before the search for Johnny was started. He had wasted enough time, hoping that Johnny would return on his own. Clearly that wasn’t going to happen. It was also clear that his missing brother was a low priority on his father’s list. He shook his head and frowned, remembering how Johnny rated lower, on Murdoch’s scale of importance, than visiting with an old friend.
Scott’s thoughts then turned to his friend – Joel Todd. Joel had been the same rank as Scott in Sheridan’s brigade, but he had never been distinguished in his service. At the same time that Scott had been languishing in a prison camp, Joel had been living the highlife in Washington. Scott had never characterized his relationship with Joel as close – not like him and Johnny, but they had been born in the same social class and corresponded as dictated by etiquette. Since Scott’s move to California, Joel had been sending him almost bi-weekly inquisitions regarding the opportunities the wilderness presented. From his last note, Joel had apparently decided to act on the information that Scott had provided and was looking to build a ranch of his own in California.
Thinking of San Francisco, Scott smiled. The town on the bay was somewhat civilized – like life in Philadelphia where Joel had been raised – but it was nothing like the open wilderness of the San Joaquin Valley. Joel was in for a big surprise if he felt that he could build a ranch in the valley from the town by the bay. If Johnny didn’t return to Lancer, Scott pondered the possibility of joining Joel in his investment and building a ranch with his old friend. With their joint funds, and Scott’s new ranching knowledge, they could purchase land and have a spread comparable to Lancer in no time. The Boston native could no longer see himself living at Lancer without his brother. His father had made it clear how little he valued his youngest son and Scott had the feeling that despite his father’s protests he would be next on the elimination list.
Johnny. There was so much about the man that Scott had admired. He had survived and thrived under the worst circumstances that life could possibly throw at a man. The scars to his flesh were solid testament of the hardships he had endured and yet, the man had an indomitable spirit that could not be crushed – except by one man – Murdoch Lancer.
Scott had spent the better part of his six months at Lancer acting as a buffer between his father and brother and even he had never seen Murdoch’s words coming. Up until the time of their late night chat, Scott had felt sure that the two men had been making progress in their relationship. Johnny had indicated that he wanted to make a go of changing his life from Madrid to Lancer. Surely something had happened that had caused his father to change his thinking about Johnny. The older man had alluded to an ulterior reason, but had stopped short of actually saying what it was.
During the ride, Scott tired to pin point the time when Murdoch had seemed to change. Things had been working out well – father and son had bridged the morass that had formed when Johnny left with Wes. Murdoch had even forgiven Johnny for his part in the Warburton affair. Yet, about two months ago things began to change – just after a Cattlemen’s Association meeting. From that day on, Murdoch seemed to turn a cold shoulder toward Johnny. Perhaps something had happened there that Scott needed to investigate – later. His primary concern now was to find his brother and figure out what their future was – together. The one fact that Scott knew was that once he found Johnny he was never going to let him go again – father or no father.
Arriving at Cross Creek, he left his horse at the livery for one of the hands to pick up later, and caught the noon train to San Francisco. The ride would take nine hours, with many stops in between. Scott resolved that during the layovers he would debark and check with the local sheriffs to see if they had heard any news of Johnny Madrid or the men who might be hunting him if he showed up. In any case, it would be a long ride. Scott’s one hope was that at the end of the journey he would have a plan to locate his brother.
It was mid afternoon when Heath arrived in Stockton. During the ride he had puzzled over how to best approach his old friend. If Johnny was the one who had set the horses loose, then his friend was up to his usual tricks. If he wasn’t – then Heath had to consider that Johnny had hired on with the Circle A and would be leading an attack against the ranch. Dismounting in front of the saloon, Heath bit his lip and made his decision. He was going to play this close to the vest and pray for the best. Entering the drinking establishment, he saw that Johnny had resumed his seat at the back of the room, giving him a clear view of the comings and goings of the people who patronized the bar.
With eyes sheltered by his hat, Johnny watched as his friend approached. Heath stopped short, not pulling out a chair, his face a mask of anger. “Johnny.”
“Heath,” Johnny responded coolly leaning back in his chair.
“Want to tell me what you were doing out at the Circle A?”
Johnny smiled and let his chair rock forward while he reached for his bottle of tequila. His hand never made contact as Heath snatched the bottle away – slamming it down on the far side of the table. Johnny looked up, his eyes a flame of anger. “You got something to say?”
“What were you doing out at Bartch’s?”
“Man offered me a job.”
“How much did it take for you to turn your back on an old friend?”
Johnny glared at Heath, his anger building. “Is that what you think of me?”
“You tell me! It’s been a long time Johnny. Men change…”
“I don’t!” Johnny hissed under his breath.
Heath startled at the tone of Johnny’s voice and then backed down, his voice a whisper. “The horses?”
Johnny smiled and let his anger wane. “Go back to your ranch, Barkley. Go suck up to that pretty new mama you found and let me be.” The words were said loud enough for everyone in the bar to hear. In a matter of seconds you could hear a pin drop on the dusty floor.
Heath grabbed Johnny by the collar and hauled him to his feet. Pulling his right hand back he made a fist that landed square on Johnny’s jaw. Before Johnny landed on the floor he had his gun out and pointed at his old friend. With his left hand he dabbed at the cut to his lower lip. “Got a death wish, Barkley?”
Heath backed up keeping his hands held out in plan sight. “Stay away from us, Johnny.” Heath warned as he backed out of the establishment, while Johnny slowly came to his feet.
“Watch your back, Barkley!” Johnny shouted as Heath finally turned to exit through the swinging doors. He next turned his attention to the patrons of the bar. “What are you looking at?” His face was a mask of anger as he retook his seat and finished pouring himself the drink that Heath had interrupted. Raising the glass to his lips he smiled and then winced. The game was afoot. All he needed now was for all of the players to take their part – then the real dance would begin.
Floyd Brasure sat on the sheltered porch of Doctor Merar’s clinic, nursing his injured hand, when he saw the blond haired cowboy from the day before backing out of the saloon. With interest, he continued to watch as just a few moments later Johnny Madrid came sauntering out, heading for the hotel. The injured gunhawk had learned quite a bit since he came to the doctor’s office for treatment. He learned that the blond was none other than Heath Barkley – the bastard son of Thomas Barkley. Floyd now remembered the fair haired young man from some other place and time – a time when Johnny Madrid has risked his life to save the life of a boy who had been back shot. Floyd remembered how Johnny rushed out in the middle of a range war to pull the wounded boy to safety. Now, seeing the two so close together, Floyd was positive that the boy Johnny had saved so long ago was now a Barkley. The gunhawk figured that there was no way Madrid would ever turn his back on a man he had risked so much for. With a smug smile Brasure concluded that Johnny was up to his old ways and was acting as a spy for the opposition.
His right hand throbbed with pain, reminding him of his need for revenge against Madrid. Not only had Johnny ruined his hand, he had heard that Bartch offered Madrid his old job at the Circle A. Floyd laughed bitterly, remembering how Bartch had come to him and told him he was through. Now Floyd knew that he was going to have the last laugh. An ugly smile flashed across Brasure’s weathered face. Bushrod Smith was arriving in the morning and Floyd understood there was no love lost between Smith and Madrid. Rumor had it that just two months earlier, Johnny Madrid had acted as a spy during a cattle war and not only got Bushrod’s boss killed, but he had personally killed Sexton Joe Hughes and Isham as well. Both Sexton Joe and Isham were top drawer gunhawks – old compatriots of Floyd and Bushrod. To Floyd, it read the same has it had six months earlier with Pardee. Floyd was there the day Johnny had somehow tricked Pardee into chasing him – right smack into an ambush at the Lancer Ranch. He had lost a lot of good friends that day. That memory, compounded by the flashes of white hot pain that now coursed through his hand, filled his mind with resolve. Madrid had a lot to answer for and with Bushrod by his side he would see that Johnny paid – dearly.
On unsteady feet Brasure tottered back into the Doctor’s house. It was time for his pain medication and, unlike Madrid who made a show of hating the stuff; Brasure welcomed the calming affects the narcotic gave him. Without the pain, he would make his plans for his revenge against Johnny Madrid and it was going to be sweet.
After nine long hours, Scott Lancer arrived in San Francisco. Every seat had been taken, adding to the sweltering heat of the summer day – making the trip all that more miserable. Scott’s hopes of speaking with the sheriffs at the local stops proved to be impossible. If he had stood, his seat would have been taken. With the cars as packed as they were, he would have been left standing or left behind. As it was, he was sharing his bench seat with a lady who had two small children. For nine long hours, the children had whined, squirmed and fussed. It left Scott wondering about the need for procreation. When the train pulled into the station, the young man was torn between proclaiming his new found freedom to the world or just going straight to hotel and buying himself a stiff drink. He did the later.
It was nine o’clock by the time he had managed to step into the cool misty night air of San Francisco. With bag in hand, he walked the five, long, uphill blocks to the Grand Hotel – located on the corner of First and Market Streets. It was an impressive structure – four stories of gray stone that were brightly lit with gas lights. The striking building occupied an entire block of the new city and shone like a beacon as Scott trudged his way up the steep hill. In many ways, San Francisco reminded him of Boston – with its cobbled streets and hills. It had its good areas and areas that he had been warned away from during his first visit. Both towns bordered the ocean and were known for their vast shipping interests.
With a sigh of relief, Scott entered the building and within a matter of seconds was painfully aware that he looked more like a rough cowhand than a gentleman of refinement. The scornful looks he received from the other guests were a source of amusement for the Boston Brahmin. Choosing to ignore the other guests, he made his way to the front desk.
“I’m sorry, Sir. We’re full…” The desk clerk sneered in response to Scott’s shabby appearance.
Scott was not put off and reached into his jacket pocket for his billfold. “Scott Lancer. I believe I have a reservation….” Scott made a show of thumbing through the wad of bills that he had pulled out.
With one eye on the money, the clerk checked the reservation book and was stunned to see that the man before him had booked a suite with a private bath. “Mr. Lancer – from Moro Coyo?”
“That’s me,” Scott said with a smile.
The clerk was about to protest, in spite of the money, when the manager appeared – having overheard how a returning guest was being turned away. “Mr. Lancer! How good it is to see you again!” The manager, giving the clerk a look of disapproval, quickly took over the chore of checking Scott in. “I trust you had a good trip, Sir.”
“It was tolerable,” Scott responded with a smile and shot a condescending glance at the desk clerk.
“And your ranch, Sir, was it everything you hoped it would be?”
Scott, who had been signing the register, paused to consider his response. “It had been for a while…” He caught the puzzled expression on the manager’s face and smiled. “It’s been a long day. I trust that there is hot water for the bath?”
“Yes, Sir, you have the same room you had before – just as you requested.”
“Very good,” Scott accepted the key and made his way to the grand staircase. “By the way, where can I find Mr. Todd?”
“Room 309. It is just down the hall from you. Shall I send a man up to let him know that you have arrived?”
“No. I’ll see him in the morning.” Taking two steps he paused and turned back toward the desk. “Have a bottle of your best brandy delivered to my room in a half hour.”
“Our very finest!” The manager assured him.
Scott nodded and once again started towards the stairs. Giving the grand staircase an evil glance, he started his second climb of the night. In many ways he felt guilty for being in San Francisco. He knew that his room was richly appointed and the bed comfortable. He doubted that his brother had ever experienced a hotel like this one and the thought saddened him. Casting the thought aside, he wondered where his brother was tonight. Was he safe? Was he staying out of trouble? Was he still alive?
A dark figure rode through the night as if the devil himself was chasing after him – a close estimation of the men who were several hundred yards behind. Earlier, he had arrived at the Circle A, hiding in the darkness of the new moon waiting for his opportunity to strike. Guards were now posted around the corral where the horses were kept. A smile crossed his face knowing that this was done in response to his little escapade from the night before. The guards’ presence did not dissuade him. Instead, he turned away from the house and rode out towards the north pasture where the herd of cattle was bedded for the night. Dismounting he crawled amongst the dozing animals, laying the string of fireworks he had picked up at a cantina earlier in the day. The small explosives had been meticulously strung together with several hundred feet of fusing that had been purchased from a miner’s camp.
Like a black shadow, he wove the string of explosives in and around the unguarded animals. Once the line was spent, he lit the fuse and ran for his horse. He was mounted and urging the young stallion forward just as the first firecracker popped. The noise startled the sleeping cows into a stampede – splitting the herd and sending them into two separate directions. The rider smiled at the effectiveness of his plan. It had been child’s play. Leaving the herd unprotected was a greenhorn mistake that would not be made again.
As he had spurred his horse back towards town, he heard a shot and felt the breeze of a bullet as it sped by his head. “Damn!” He swore urging the horse to move faster, laying himself flat against the animal to make himself a smaller target.
Like the wind, the dark horse flew across the open fields until the rider guided it toward a wooded area, bringing the animal to an abrupt halt. Dismounting, he led the horse deeper into a thicket where they hide until the following men gave up their search and headed back to the Circle A.
Cautiously, the rider waited until the hunters were long gone before remounting and heading back towards Stockton.
“Where is he?” Ned Bartch’s voice boomed through out the lobby of the Stockton Hotel an hour later.
“Who, sir?” the night clerk asked.
“Madrid – you damn fool! Where is he?” Bartch had sent his men up to room one, only to find it now occupied by an elderly couple.
“R…room seven, at the end of the hall,” the clerk stammered, pointing towards the other end of the hallway.
This time, Ned made his way upstairs, directing his men to break down the door to room seven. With a crash, the door was busted and the group stormed the darkened room. They hadn’t gone two steps when they heard the unmistakable sound of a gun being cocked. “No false moves, boys.” a soft voiced drawled. There was the sound of a match as it was being struck against the washstand and suddenly the room was flooded in a soft yellow light as the lamp was lit.
Johnny Madrid was sitting calmly on the edge of his bed; a gun in his right hand and the lighted lamp on the bedside table to his left. The gunhawk was shirt and shoeless, apparently sleeping in his pants. It appeared that he had been sleeping for some time. “Mr. Bartch, you got something against the doors in this hotel?”
Ned stared at the half-naked man. This was not what he expected. “Someone stampeded the herd from here to the Nevada line….”
“And what does this have to do with me?” Johnny asked, continuing to point his gun at Bartch’s heart.
“Well….” Ned started uncomfortably. His partner had suggested that Madrid had been behind the horses and now the cattle. Bartch had come to Stockton to see if Madrid was where he was supposed to be. They felt certain that there was no way that Madrid could have returned to Stockton so quickly without being seen. The desk clerk denied seeing Madrid since he retired for the evening – several hours earlier. Now, seeing Madrid in his bed, Ned realized that perhaps he had been wrong. Opening his mouth to explain, he was interrupted by one of his men who entered the room in a hurry.
“I checked his horse, just like you asked Mr. Bartch. That palomino ain’t gone nowhere tonight.”
“Thanks,” Ned mumbled under his breath waving his men from the room.
“You mind explaining what’s going on?” Madrid asked lowering his gun.
“Like I said, someone was out at the ranch…”
“And you thought it was me?”
Bartch was already in deep, so he asked the obvious question. “Where you been tonight, Madrid?”
Johnny smiled and put the gun back in his holster. “I’ve been sleeping. I was figuring on riding out to the Circle A bright and early and get a jump on the job…” Immediately Ned’s face brightened at the thought of having the famed Johnny Madrid on his payroll. His happiness was short lived. “Don’t know if I can work for a man who don’t trust me…”
“Johnny – I trust you…”
Johnny shook his head. “Nope. Can’t say as I can work for a man who would barge into a man’s room in the middle of the night and make false charges…”
“Look, Madrid, it it’s the money – I’ll make it a hundred-twenty dollars a day….”
Johnny only shook his head. “Let me think on it until later – maybe around noon?”
Wordlessly Bartch could only nod his understanding as he backed out the doorway. Going down the stairs he couldn’t believe that he had been so wrong. He was positive that Madrid had been the one who had stampeded the herd. It sounded like something that he would do – but with no proof… Halfway down the stairs, Bartch saw the sheriff entering the hotel.
“I hear you busted another door,” Fred stated, watching as Ned descended the remainder of the stairs.
Reaching into his pocket, Ned pulled out a thick wad of bills and handed it to the waiting lawman. Without missing a step, Bartch continued out the building to where his men were mounted, waiting to ride back to the ranch.
From his window, Johnny watched as the Circle A crew left town. He smiled to himself, satisfied in knowing that that his plan was working perfectly. Another night had gone by and the smaller ranches had remained untouched. It was a good thing Bernardo had been able to meet him at the edge of town to take the young stallion to his sister’s place for a cool down. It had been tricky, but he had managed to weave his way through the back alleys, to the hotel, where he climbed the rear trellis to the second floor. He had made it just in time, stripping off his sweaty shirt, jacket and dirty boots – wiping himself down with a damp towel so that it looked like he had been sleeping.
“Mr. Madrid?” A timid voice came from the hallway.
Johnny smiled to himself before turning around. It was the young desk clerk. “Yes?”
In his hand the boy held another room key. “You want number eight across the hall?”
“Yep.” Johnny bent and retrieved the pile of hastily discarded pile of clothing from the floor on the far side of the bed. “Can you grab my boots?” Johnny asked as he exited the room and crossed the hallway.
The boy went to get the boots and was dumbfounded to find them covered in fresh manure. “You want me to get these cleaned for you, Sir?” the boy asked as he brought Johnny his boots.
“Nope,” Johnny smiled and handed the boy a ten cent piece. “How about you keeping those dirty boots just between you and me?” The gunhawk made a point of glancing from the boy to the boots to his gun.
“Yes, Sir, Mr. Madrid!” wide eyed the boy rushed away from Johnny’s room and was back at the front desk in no time.
Chuckling to himself, Johnny closed and locked his door. So far, his plan was working like a charm.
Scott Lancer was up and about early the next morning. He remembered when he had first ventured to San Francisco over six months ago that he had slept until noon. Now, he was ready to go and it was only seven in the morning. To his own amusement, he dressed in his usual ranch clothes – sure that it would aggravate the other high brow guests. His time in the west had taught him that it was not the clothes that made the man – his brother had proven that to him within a few days of his arrival at Lancer. He also had learned that plaid just wasn’t the style for living on a working ranch.
After dressing, he went in search of breakfast. Fortunately, the hotel had a fine restaurant where he ordered a large breakfast, and set about reading the newspaper he had purchased from the newsstand. The front page was ablaze with news of a brewing range war in the northern end of the San Joaquin Valley – near Stockton. He figured that was where his father was headed. Shaking his head, he still refused to believe that his father would be more interested in the Cattlemen’s Association and an old friend than in finding Johnny. Scott resolved that after his meeting with Joel that he would find the nearest Pinkerton office and begin his own search for his errant brother.
With his breakfast done, and the paper read, Scott went to Joel’s suite. Knocking on the door, he smiled when his old friend greeted him. “Scott Lancer!” The two men heartily shook hands before Scott was invited in. “The west certainly agrees with you.” Joel noted, ushering Scott inside. There was a silver tray with a pot of coffee on a table near the fireplace and he quickly poured his guest a cup. Joel had last seen Scott when he had been released from prison camp. He remembered his friend as being very pale and sickly looking. The man before him today had added several pounds to his still lean frame. Scott’s face was tanned and his hair sun bleached. Joel was relieved that Scott had recovered from his ordeal. He had felt guilty that while Scott had languished at the hands of their enemies, he had been re-stationed to Washington at the request of his father. Their last meeting had been very strained, as if Scott were angry at him. There was no sign of that anger in Scott’s face now.
Scott considered and then smiled at Joel’s comment. The west had agreed with him. It had given him a sense of purpose that had been missing from his life in Boston. Taking the offered cup, Scott sat and studied his friend. Joel was even more pale and out of shape that he had been during the war. To Scott’s amusement, his friend was wearing plaid pants with a silk vest that stretched tightly across his broad belly. It was hard to believe that the men were the same age. “Thank you, Joel. I do like it out here.”
“Don’t you miss civilization? I mean Boston and your grandfather?”
Scott shrugged. “There wasn’t much for me to do in Boston. My grandfather was taking care of everything for me. After serving with the General, I was used to being my own man. I’ve found that out here I can put to use many of the lessons that he taught us…”
“Like how to plan a battle?” Joel asked licking his lips.
“Battle?” Scott questioned putting his cup down.
Joel stood and paced the floor. “Scott, I told you in my letter that I am looking to build a cattle ranch. Your letters inspired me, so I have started to make land acquisitions in the Stockton area….”
Scott opened his mouth to comment, remembering the newspaper article that he had read. “Joel, you’re not behind the range war…”
“No, No!” Joel quickly insisted, offended by the idea. “I’ve hired a man who is familiar with the Stockton area. He has been making small discrete purchases for me. Everything is above board – I swear it!”
Scott studied his friend. Joel seemed to be sincere in his statements. “So, what is it that you are looking for from me?”
The eastern businessman sat next to his old comrade. “I need your help. You know these people out here. Some of the older ranchers are causing problems for my man. I’m looking for a partner who can help smooth the way or who can give me advice…”
Scott looked up at the mention of the word partner. “Well, as luck would have it, I might just be interested in a partnership.
A puzzled look crossed Joel’s face. “I thought that you were one third owner of your father’s ranch – Lancer?”
“I’ve been giving it some serious thought that I should strike out on my own – get out from under my father’s shadow…”
“But, what about your brother? Won’t that leave him as heir to the entire ranch?”
“No,” Scott shook his head. “My father is a very difficult man and…. Well, let’s just say that my brother is now out of the picture – least ways at Lancer. I’m hoping to lure him into a new separate venture with me…”
“On a new ranch – maybe in Stockton?” Joel asked hopefully.
“If things work out, yes.”
Joel smiled broadly. This was better than he had expected. As much has he liked the idea that Bartch could build him a ranch, Joel just didn’t trust the brusque man. Scott, on the other hand, was a man whom Joel knew he could trust – a man of breeding and refinement. Scott also had something else that Joel could use – money.
For the remainder of the morning, the two men spoke of their dreams and visions for a vast cattle empire. At the end of two hours, they both felt comfortable in thinking that they could work together.
“I’d like to go to Stockton and have a look at this ranch of yours.” Scott said as he stood to leave.
“I get a weekly report from my man every Thursday. Why don’t we make arrangements to go to Stockton for the weekend – leave here on Friday morning.”
Scott nodded in agreement. That would place his arrival in the cattle town at the same time as his father. He sobered at the thought of seeing his father and knowing that perhaps it might be the last time that they would see each other. There was no chance that Murdoch would ever try to find Johnny – Scott recognized that his father would always find an excuse for not looking for the man – and that was not acceptable.
Leaving Joel, Scott spent the rest of the day reacquainting himself with San Francisco. His first stop was the Pinkerton office where he left a one hundred dollar deposit to pay for a search for Johnny Lancer, aka Johnny Madrid. It was doubtful that after hearing what Murdoch had said that Johnny would be keeping the Lancer name. The former gunhawk would more than likely resume his life as Johnny Madrid. Scott could only pray that the Pinkertons would find him before anything happened. Knowing that he was leaving for Stockton on Friday, Scott had given the agency the address of the Circle A as the place to mail the reports.
Satisfied that he had finally done what he should have done six weeks earlier, Scott returned to the hotel and began to write a check list of things that he wanted to know about the Stockton area and about the ranch that Joel had started. For the first time in weeks, Scott was beginning to feel optimistic about his future again. The Pinkertons would find his brother, and together they would build an empire that would surpass Lancer.
Will you find the answer
in all you say and do?
Will you find the answer
“Mr. Barkley!” Brad Riley, foreman of the Barkley ranch, ran into the dining room interrupting the Barkleys as they were eating breakfast. He went directly to Nick, hat in hand and an anxious look on his face.
Nick and Heath both rose to their feet in response to the urgent tone in the foreman’s voice. “What is it?” Nick asked taking charge.
“The fence along the south border is all torn out and Circle A cows are mixed in with the herd!”
Nick glanced at Heath who only shrugged in response. “Any idea what happened?”
“I’ve got a crew out there standing guard until you come. One of the Circle A men said that someone stampeded their herd last night. Half of it went north onto our range and the other half went south and into a ravine.”
Nick smiled at the good news. “I’ll be right there!” Grabbing his hat off the buffet he turned to see if Heath was following. “You coming?”
“Wouldn’t miss it!” Heath turned to follow, only to be held back by his mother.
“You think this is more of Johnny’s work?”
With a silent nod, Heath confirmed his opinion and then ran out after Nick.
Victoria turned back to the table and sat down. Picking up her cup of coffee, she reviewed what Heath that told them last night. In no uncertain terms, he said that it had been Johnny who had cut loose the horses the night before last. He was convinced that Johnny had a plan, but the gunhawk had refused to share what it was. Now, the Circle A herd had been stampeded – once again occupying the men of the Circle A – preventing them from mounting any further assaults against the smaller ranches. “Jarrod?”
From the far end of the table, Jarrod had been silently observing his mother. “Yes?”
“Are you going to Stockton today?”
From the tone of her voice, Jarrod recognized that it was more of a suggestion than a question. “I think that I could find something to do in my office. Why? Would you like to come along?”
Victoria smiled brightly and took another sip of her coffee. “Why thank you for asking. I’ll be ready in fifteen minutes.”
Jarrod glanced at the anniversary clock that sat on top of the mantel. As usual, she was not giving him much time to finish his breakfast so he quickly finished his coffee and headed towards the door. “I’ll have the carriage ready out front in fifteen minutes.” He paused long enough to give her a quick kiss on the cheek before leaving to pack his briefcase with the briefs he’d planned on working on in the library. He could tell that there was something on her mind; probably Johnny Madrid. Jarrod had heard what Heath had said about the gunhawk last night, but he wasn’t convinced. As a defense attorney he found it hard to believe that a man of Madrid’s reputation would willingly become involved in a range war without getting paid. Someone had to be paying him and his money was on Ned Bartch – everything done in the last two nights was a set up so that Bartch could launch a retaliatory raid on the Barkley ranch.
It took little for him to convince Nick that they should place more men on watch – especially during the nights of the new moon. They both wanted to believe Heath, but until they saw Madrid fighting against Bartch – Johnny wouldn’t be trusted.
The ride to town was a silent one. Jarrod drove the horses, occasionally glancing at his mother. There was something on her mind. “Want to talk about it?” he asked finally.
“It’s a very dangerous game…” She commented looking off into the distance.
“Johnny Madrid,” she shook her head and frowned. “Heath is convinced that he is not working against us. If I don’t believe Heath – he’ll think that I don’t trust him, which I do. It’s just that Johnny Madrid is a wild card. I just don’t understand why a gunhawk would do the things that Heath thinks he has without getting paid. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
“Look at it this way, perhaps he is playing both sides against each other…”
“And who would win in a war between us and Ned Bartch?” Victoria shook her head; there was no third party that she was aware of.
“Alright, perhaps he is looking after the smaller ranchers. We’ve got all that we can to do protect our own interests. We haven’t been successful in protecting anyone but ourselves…”
Victoria looked at Jarrod skeptically. “Why would he do that? There’s no money in it.” She bit her lip, appreciating her son’s attempt to play devil’s advocate.
“So, what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to have a talk with Mr. Madrid…”
“Whoa!!!!” Jarrod pulled back on the reins and brought the buggy to a quick stop.
“Jarrod, for heaven’s sake!”
“Don’t tell me ‘for heaven’s sake’!” Jarrod admonished his mother. “You are not going to meet with him by yourself. You could be putting yourself in jeopardy just being near Johnny Madrid.”
Victoria smiled; proud of the way her son wanted to protect her, but this was not a time for his male pride to interfere. “Trust me, I know what I’m doing…”
“I think not!” Jarrod protested. “Mother, you don’t know what kind of men he’s working for. If he’s working for Bartch, he could take you prisoner. If Johnny’s not, he’s a walking target for anyone who wants to challenge him. I’m afraid that you could get in the way and be hurt!”
“I’ll be safe.”
“And just how do you know that?”
“He’s a friend of Heath’s, and he gave Heath his word. I have to trust that. I also have a feeling that there is more to Johnny Madrid than what Heath knows; perhaps even more than what Johnny Madrid would admit to himself.” Victoria placed a reassuring hand on her son’s arm. “Trust me, Jarrod. He will talk to me and I’ll be safe.”
Jarrod slapped the reins for the horses to go forward. “Well, I don’t have to like it,” he huffed under his breath.
“I know, Dear, but this has to be done before someone is killed.”
There was no reply the son could make to his mother that would keep her from speaking with Johnny Madrid. She left him no choice but to let her do what she wanted. Victoria Barkley was a bright and intelligent woman. She was also as stubborn and determined as any man Jarrod had ever met. In his own way he almost pitied the gunhawk for what he was sure she was going to put him through – the Barkley inquisition.
They arrived in Stockton a little before noon. Jarrod hitched the horses to the rail outside his office and with a kiss, he watched his mother as she made her way to the hotel where Johnny was staying. She cut quite a figure in the black pants, vest and blue shirt she wore – her black riding hat sitting squarely on her head. It amused Jarrod to watch as the men stepped aside for her as she strode her way down the sidewalk. Her marching stride was a stride he knew well from his own childhood although it was a stride that Nick knew better than most. Whenever Nick had done something wrong and was due for a whipping, Victoria would come after him with that walk which spelled trouble. In that instant, Jarrod knew his mother would be alright – it was Johnny who had better be watching himself.
Halfway to the hotel, Victoria saw Johnny exit the building and head for the livery. The young man appeared to be in a hurry, so she quickened her stride to catch up with him before he rode out. Glancing around the stable she made sure that Johnny was alone before stepping in the doorway. With admiration she watched as he cared for his horse, softly speaking to the beautiful palomino in Spanish before throwing an Indian blanket over its back. There was a gracefulness in his movements that she hadn’t seen in many men. His lean muscles moved smoothly and efficiently as he effortlessly bent to pick up his saddle. “Going somewhere, Mr. Madrid?”
Johnny stopped and immediately straightened his right hand hovering near his gun. For the briefest of instants, a smile played on his lips. He had felt that someone had been watching him, and was prepared to defend himself if needed. He couldn’t say that he was completely surprised to find that Victoria Barkley had come to see him. “Afternoon, ’mam,” he acknowledged her presence with a tip to his hat and went about his business, picking up the saddle and throwing it over Barranca’s broad back.
“Are you going somewhere?” Victoria repeated, fully entering the barn and closing the door.
If it had been a man closing the door, Johnny would have gone for his gun, but he just continued to saddle his horse. “I don’t see where it’s any concern of yours.”
“That’s right. We didn’t hire you. So, you’re on your way to the Circle A?”
“And if I was?”
Johnny stopped and considered the question. “Why what?”
“Why are you doing this? Heath said that you were the one who let the horses loose the other night…”
“Heath has a big mouth,” Johnny said brusquely. He finished saddling Barranca and went to grab the reins only to have Victoria take hold of them first. “What do you want?” Johnny asked with some irritation.
“I want to know why?” Victoria studied the man before her, trying to find the answer to the niggling that had started in the back of her mind again. She stepped closer to Johnny, and took notice of the ‘L’ that was tooled into the leather of his saddle. Something clicked in her mind. Why would he have a horse and a saddle with the Lancer mark? The pieces were beginning to fall together, so she continued to press on. “Why did you do it?”
Johnny laughed a light and easy laugh. “First off, how do you know I did it? I could have lied to Heath….”
“No. I don’t believe it, not for one second. Why are you here Mr. Madrid? Why are you risking yourself in this game you’re playing?”
“If you haven’t noticed, I’m a gunfighter. Risk is a part of what I do. I’m not Heath with a family that cares about what happens to me.” Johnny responded sarcastically, reaching for the reins, only to have Victoria take a step back. “What do want from me?” annoyance was reflected in the tone of his voice.
“I can’t believe that there is no one who cares about you.” She watched as Johnny bristled at her comment. Her words had struck a raw nerve in him and put the last piece of the puzzle together in her mind. Inwardly Victoria chastised herself for not putting the pieces together sooner. Taking a closer look at Johnny, she studied his features intently. His dark complexion and hair were a sharp contrast to the deep sapphire eyes. It all made sense to her now. She knew who he was “What I want, is to know is why you are here and not back in Moro Coyo with your family?”
A flash of anger crossed Johnny’s deeply tanned features as he ground out his response through clenched teeth. “I don’t have any family…”
Victoria shook her head, knowing better. “Murdoch Lancer visited here about 20 years ago with his wife – Maria. They had their son, Johnny with them. He was a beautiful baby boy with the same dark complexion as his mother – but he had his father’s bright blue eyes.” She paused and took a deep breath, hoping that she was guessing right. “You’re Johnny Lancer – aren’t you?”
A large smile crossed Johnny’s face and he burst out laughing. “I don’t know where you got that idea – me the son of a rich man. Let me tell you what I do know; Johnny Lancer died 20 years ago. Murdoch Lancer has one son – Scott by his first wife Catherine….” Johnny stopped, realizing that he was saying way too much.
Victoria frowned. None of what Johnny was saying made any sense. “I received a letter from Murdoch Lancer a few months back. He said that he had found both of his boys alive…”
“Johnny Lancer is dead,” was the firm response. “’Ol man Lancer has one son.” In a swift move, he grabbed Barranca’s reins from her and headed for the door. It was her words that stopped him again.
“What is it about Heath that bothers you so much – the fact that he found a family who wanted him or the fact that your family didn’t want you?” The words had their desired effect. Johnny stopped cold in his tracks, but in her desperation to get through to Johnny she realized her words were the wrong ones. She stopped immediately, wanting to take them back. “I’m sorry I had no right…”
Without turning around, Johnny’s voice came as a soft whisper, filled with bitter emotion. “I found my family. I did everything that I thought I should’ a done – I came, I fought – I nearly died. I worked hard and tried to make a place for myself. You know what my old man said? He said that I was dead to him. Now, you tell me what was I supposed to do but leave?”
Victoria could only stare at the unmoving back of the man before her. His response had stunned her. “Did you try to talk to him?”
“Talk to Murdoch Lancer?” Johnny asked cynically. “You don’t talk to Murdoch Lancer. You just jump when he says to – and don’t stop to ask how high!” He paused and calmed his voice again. “He’s got Scott and the ranch. That’s all he needs. I’m giving him what he wants. Johnny Lancer is dead.”
Victoria swallowed hard, taken by the sadness of Johnny’s words. “What do you want?”
“Me? I don’t want nothin’. I don’t need nothin’. I’ve got my gun and my horse. I ’spect that I’ll be dead before too long – so what I want don’t matter.”
“Is that what you really think? Is that what you’re trying to do – get yourself killed?” Victoria was shocked by Johnny’s confession. Pulling on his arm, she turned him so that she could see his face. The bitterness there struck her like a bad memory – like Heath when he first came to the valley to claim his birthright. There was so much hurt and anger in that boy; it took months of patience and love for him to accept that he was wanted in spite of the circumstances of his birth. Whatever had happened at Lancer had hurt the young man deeply.
“There’s nothin’ else to think. I’m Johnny Madrid – the ‘famous’ gunfighter – this,” Johnny pulled his gun from his holster and held it up for her to see. “This is what I do. I live by it and I’ll die by it. That’s all there is.” Johnny spat the harsh words and stared at Victoria waiting for her to tell him he was wrong.
The older woman considered the words and didn’t miss the tone of self loathing that was reflected in them. “But what about Johnny Lancer?” she asked finally.
“He ain’t me,” Johnny whispered.
“What are you going to do?” Victoria asked, almost afraid of the response.
“I’m Johnny Madrid. I’m going to do what I do best – until the Marshall gets here. Then he can take over…”
“That’s too dangerous. Come and work for us. We can help…”
Johnny shook his head. “I work best alone. Just ask Heath. You don’t need to risk your family. I’ll do what has to be done. Just make sure the law don’t take too long in getting here…” Turning away, he threw open the door to the livery and led his horse out into the light of day.
There was so much hurt inside that boy. Victoria had to wonder if in some small way, Johnny wasn’t wishing for this life to be over so the hurt would be gone. He had come out and said that he didn’t expect to have a long life. Did he mean that he was looking for the means to end his existence – that he had nothing to risk – not even his life? With a shake of her head Victoria Barkley resolved that he wouldn’t die – not here, not now. She would see to it that whatever happened between Johnny and Murdoch Lancer was resolved.
Victoria stood alone in the stable. She couldn’t imagine what had transpired between Murdoch and Johnny. In his letters, Murdoch said that he was happy to have both of his sons home. What could have happened to make Johnny believe that Murdoch wanted him dead? Murdoch Lancer was due the day after tomorrow. Her old friend had a lot of explaining to do.
“Well?” Jarrod asked anxiously as his mother entered his office. His smile of relief reflected his appreciation of the fact that she returned unharmed. The fear he had for her safety was replaced by concern for the anger that seemed to seethe out of every pore of her body.
“I found out what I needed to know…” Victoria took off her hat, threw it on Jarrod’s desk and began pacing the spacious room.
“He’s in this for himself,” Victoria sighed as she sat heavily in one of the large leather chairs in front of his desk.
“What is that supposed to mean?” the lawyer went to his liquor cabinet and with his eyes asked if she wanted a drink. When she nodded in response, he poured two brandies and carried them back to the chairs.
“Jarrod, you’ve got to promise me that you will never repeat what I am going to tell you.”
“Mother, if it has something to do with the law, as an officer of the court I can’t be a party…..”
“No, not like that,” Victoria vigorously shook her head. “As my son, you have to swear that you will never repeat what I am going to tell you – especially to Heath.”
Jarrod had raised his glass to his lips and froze, stunned by the request. “Not tell Heath? What did he tell you? He is working for Bartch,” the attorney concluded.
“No. Remember Murdoch Lancer – my friend from Moro Coyo?”
“Yes – the man you sent the telegram to the other day. What about him?”
“He is Johnny’s father!”
“Johnny said that?” Jarrod found the idea preposterous.
“No. Murdoch and his wife, Maria, were here twenty years ago – you would have been about eight years old. They had their son with them – Johnny. Jarrod, Johnny is their son!”
Jarrod whistled. “So, Johnny Madrid is really Johnny Lancer? Doesn’t that beat all? So why is he here in Stockton?”
“He said something about his father telling him that he wished he was dead.” Victoria took a sip of her brandy and swirled the amber liquid around in her mouth. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Well, you’ll have to ask him when he gets here tomorrow.” Jarrod picked up a telegram that was lying on his desk. “This was delivered while you were talking to Johnny. Murdoch Lancer will be arriving tomorrow.”
Quickly, Victoria scanned the contents. “You’re right, he’ll be arriving early tomorrow afternoon. Well,” Victoria put the telegram down and took a sip of her drink. “He’s got a lot of explaining to do. Somehow we’ve got to find a way of reuniting them…” Victoria got a far away look in her eyes, an obvious sign that she was up to something.
“Mother, you’re talking about meddling in a family…”
“Jarrod, I’m talking about saving that young man’s life.”
Johnny rode out of Stockton, his emotions in turmoil. The last thing he needed was to be reminded of a life that was no longer his and a future that led to nowhere. Victoria Barkley had no right butting into his business the way that she had. Why should she care who he was or what he did as long as he wasn’t targeting his guns at her ranch?
It took several miles before the young gunhawk could cool down so he could think rationally. So far, he had been successful in diverting Bartch’s attentions away from the smaller ranches, but he was running out of time and tricks. He had only succeeded in forestalling the inevitable. Bushrod Smith was arriving sometime today. That meant the Circle A would have enough men to guard the house, herd and still have enough men left over to start raiding the smaller ranches again.
Johnny was on his way to meet Bernardo Cardoza at his sister Consuelo’s place; one of the few remaining ranches between the Barkleys and the Circle A. Johnny was a betting man and his money was on the fact that Bartch would be viewing Consuelo’s small parcel as a necessary jewel to achieve his goal – the removal of all of the obstacles between the Circle A and Barkley ranches.
Thanks to Victoria Barkley, he was already running late for his meeting with Bernardo, putting him even further behind in his meeting with Bartch. In a hurry he rode up to the small ranch house. Bernardo was sitting on the front porch waiting for him.
“We expected you sooner….” The older man looked anxiously past Johnny, relieved to see that he was alone. “What happened amigo?”
“I got delayed,” Johnny took his hat off and wiped his sweaty forehead on the back of his sleeve. “There isn’t much more I can do to keep Bartch’s men occupied at the ranch tonight. That means there’s going to be a raid tonight – probably here.”
“Madre de Dios!” Bernardo swore making the sign of the cross. “What do we do?”
Johnny looked around. It was a pitifully small place – a one room ranch house and a small stable for the horses. From his jacket pocket he pulled out a wad of cash, the last remnants of Murdoch’s thousand dollar blood money. Quickly he counted off several bills and handed them to Bernardo. “Have your sister and her husband leave now. They can use the money to stay at a hotel or anywhere Bartch can’t find them. If they can’t be found, they can’t sign a bill of sale….”
“What of this place…?” Bernardo asked indicating the house.
“It’ll probably get burned…” Johnny answered, looking away not wanting to see the disappointment in his friend’s eyes.
“Is there nothing you can do?”
Johnny shook his head sadly. “Tell your sister that I will try to keep them from burning the house, but it is more important that she live. Can you do that?”
“Si. I will make sure they are gone….”
“Good. Have them light some lamps before they leave so the place don’t look deserted.” Johnny extended his hand to the old wrangler. “Hopefully I’ll see you later. Adiós.”
“Adiós, amigo,” Bernardo whispered as he watched Johnny ride off to the west and the Circle A. His sister came out and he rapidly told her in Spanish all that needed to be done. When she protested, he showed her the three one hundred dollar bills that Johnny had given him. It was then that they both understood how dangerous the game was going to be. In no time, Bernardo helped his sister and her ailing husband to pack up their meager possessions and head into town. The owner of the Cantina had an extra room where the older couple could hide until the Marshall arrived to straighten out this mess.
With a parting glance to the west Bernardo observed that Johnny was quickly disappearing into the vast landscape of the hot summer day. He had a bad feeling about the departing man; a feeling that he might not be see his friend again, at least not alive. “May the angels keep watch over you, mi amigo.” Bernardo whispered as he mounted his own horse and headed back to town.
Once again, Johnny rode out to the Circle A to find the ranch in total turmoil. Makeshift guard towers were being built and fortified to secure the perimeter of the residence. It was like riding into a war zone, a war that had been started by one man – Johnny Madrid. Johnny took no pride or pleasure in the fact. He had only done what needed to be done to protect the smaller ranchers.
Riding up to the house he saw Bushrod Smith had arrived as expected, accompanied by several men who had been in Moro Coyo during the Warburton affair. Bushrod was seated on the front porch with his men standing nearby. Johnny dismounted and headed for the stairs.
You ain’t needed here, Madrid.” Bushrod threatened from his chair.
Johnny continued up the stairs, ignoring one of the younger men who pulled out his gun and aimed it in his direction. “Bushrod,” Johnny coolly acknowledged the older man with a nod of his head, never breaking his stride or giving any consideration to the young gun. The kid was obviously nervous, his hand was shaking and sweat poured from under his hat. Johnny had nothing to fear, because in his haste the kid didn’t even have his finger on the trigger. Johnny knew that by the time the kid thought to move his finger, he would be in the house.
Just as the tension escalated, Bartch stepped out onto the covered porch. “Madrid, glad you could make it!”
“Somehow I think you’re the only one…” Johnny smiled, turning towards the now red faced Bushrod.
“Nonsense! There’s work enough here for everyone. Come inside. Bushrod….” Ned indicated that the older gunhawk should join them inside. Johnny was led back into the library with Bushrod following close on his heels – only to stop short of entering the room. Ned went to pour drinks only to find that Bushrod was still standing in the doorway. “Is there a problem?”
“The only problem I see is Madrid,” Smith drawled.
Johnny smiled, his eyes never leaving those of his adversary. “You got something to say?”
“Yeah. I don’t work with traitors or spies.”
“Is that what you think I am?” Johnny squared his stance and faced Bushrod as if ready to meet his challenge.
Ned watched the interaction between the two guns, a smile twitching at the edges of his lips. He had been told that putting Smith and Madrid together could be explosive, and it was proving to be true. “Gentlemen,” Ned interrupted. “There’s no need for this…”
“You’re wrong, Mr. Bartch.” Bushrod said evenly. “I won’t work with this dog…”
Johnny smiled at the comment, his right hand hovering near his gun. “Well, I guess then you’re ready for my bite…”
“Enough!” Ned intervened forcefully. “You both are here at my request. I don’t care whether you get along or not! There’s a job to do and I need results, now.” Ned nervously moved to his desk and pointed to the map he had spread out. Warily, Johnny and Bushrod made their way to the desk, in an unspoken truce. Bartch was pointing out three smaller ranches, all that remained between the Circle A and the Barkley ranches. “I need the deeds to these three ranches no later than Sunday.”
“Any reason for the Sunday deadline?” Johnny asked quietly. He didn’t like the idea that Bartch was now in a rush to have all of the remaining deeds. Having a deadline only 3 days away would make it hard on the young gunhawk to keep up with his plans to keep innocent people out of the line of fire.
“Because I said so!” Bartch growled.
Bushrod smiled to himself as he scratched his chin studying the map. He glanced at Madrid who maintained an impassive mask on his face. “Which ranch are you figuring on us hitting tonight?”
Bartch studied the map. “Two of the ranches are owned by farmers. The third is owned by some Mexicans…” Both Bartch and Smith looked to Johnny for some reaction; there was none.
“I say that we divide our men in two groups and hit both of the farmers,” Bushrod suggested. “The Mexicans can wait until tomorrow. ‘Sides, they’re in the middle. They just might skip out knowing once they find their neighbors got burned out.”
“No! I don’t want them skipping out! I need a bill of sale to show that the land was purchased.” Bartch turned to Madrid. “What do you say?”
“I say that we do whatever Bushrod wants. Don’t matter to me.”
Bartch smiled. “Then it’s settled. You hit the two farmers tonight. Madrid will lead one group and Smith the other.”
“Is that all?” Johnny asked pulling his hat back on his head and heading towards the door.
“You goin’ somewhere, Madrid?” Bushrod challenged.
“I was going to go take a siesta, if it’s all the same to you…”
“OK. I just don’t want you wandering off to warn those farmers….”
Johnny turned and gave Bushrod an icy stare. “These people don’t mean nothin’ to me…”
“Not like back in Moro Coyo?” Bushrod dared, hoping for a reaction.
“There ain’t no one back in Moro Coyo who means anything to me either.”
“Is that right?” Bushrod smiled a toothy grin. “That ain’t what I heard…”
“I don’t care what you heard. I’m here and not in Moro Coyo.” Johnny gave Smith a parting glare and once again headed toward the door.
“Johnny,” Bartch spoke up. “I was hoping to arrange a little target practice for the new men. I thought that you might want to show them how things get done.”
Johnny turned and regarded his employer’s request. “What do you want done?”
“The hands need to be taught how to use their guns….”
“Have Bushrod show them. I ain’t here to be a teacher…”
“You’ll do as I say!” Bartch pushed.
“I’m here to break a few heads and burn barns. Teachin’ is a whole ‘nother thing. Which is it?” Johnny held his ground, returning Bartch’s glare.
In response, Bushrod made a move for his gun. In a flash, Johnny pulled his own weapon, clearing the holster before Bushrod had even touched his grip. Both of the older men stopped, caught off balance by Johnny’s action. Seeing that he had their attention, Johnny smiled. “Now, is this really what you want me to teach the men – how to draw on their boss?”
“You got a lot of practice doing that!” Bushrod spat.
Johnny responded with a crooked grin, but made no comment. Bartch swallowed nervously and shook his head. “Alright Madrid, you win this time. Go take your siesta….”
With an air of defiance, Johnny returned his gun to its holster and continued out the door. He paused briefly at the doorway, listening, but not hearing the familiar voice he had heard the last time. However, he did smell something familiar – the distinctive aroma of an expensive cigar; another clue to the identity of the owner of the voice. Stepping out into the sunshine, Johnny was sure that in time he would be able to place a face with the voice. He could only hope that he could figure it out before all hell broke lose in the valley.
“Damn Mex!” Bushrod swore once Johnny was out of sight.
“I know you don’t trust him. Neither do I,” Bartch placated the angry gunhawk. “We need him for now. Later, you’ll be able to take him out.”
“And that will be on the house!” Bushrod smiled and followed Madrid out the door.
Once the gunmen were gone from the building, Bartch’s partner entered the room. “Is that what you had in mind?” Bartch asked.
“It will do nicely.” The husky man sat in a chair and looked out the window to see that Bushrod had formed a makeshift firing range and was showing the ranch hands what was going to be expected of them. The young guns that Smith had brought with him were eagerly showing off for the cowboys, while Madrid, true to his word, had settled down near a tree and had tipped his hat over his eyes. “Don’t trust Madrid, and don’t hit those farmer’s houses tonight. Hit the Mex house…”
“But Smith said….”
“I don’t care what Smith said! You’re the boss. Tell him you changed your mind and that you want the Mexican taken out – tonight!”
“And where will you be?” Bartch asked nervously.
“Once it gets dark I’ll be heading out. I’ve got to make a show of arriving with the others on Saturday….”
“And if things get out of hand?”
“Then make sure that Madrid is taken out….”
“And the Barkleys?”
“Their time is running out – just like Lancer’s.” A broad grin formed on the man’s mouth.
“What about Todd? He’s supposed to be coming in for the weekend.”
“Let him come. He’ll take one look at what is happening and hightail it back east and leave all of this to us!”
Bartch smiled; this was going to be even bigger and better than he had ever dreamed. Once all was said and done, he would be part owner of a spread the size of the entire San Joaquin Valley.
In Stockton, Floyd Brasure was taking notes. He had seen a lot of strange things since he was shot, and he didn’t think that it was due to the medications the Doc had given him for pain. Silently he had watched as Madrid had snuck out the window of the hotel the night before, going to the livery and leaving on a black horse. A few hours later, Bartch had come to town with an entire crew of men looking for Madrid, only to find that the gunhawk was ‘supposedly’ asleep in his bed. Earlier in the morning, he had watched Victoria Barkley as she entered the livery after Johnny had gone in to get his horse. A few minutes later, Madrid was galloping out of town like his pants were on fire.
Floyd had moved out of Doc’s place and had found a small room above the Cantina. He didn’t like being around Mexicans, but it was clean and cheap. As he was settling in for an afternoon nap, he became aware of a commotion out in the hallway. Bernardo – the liveryman was helping an older couple into the room next door. They were speaking rapidly in Spanish, but the one word that they said that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end was – Madrid! Opening his door a bit wider, Brasure got a good look at the couple and recognized them as the owners of a small parcel of land that bordered both the Circle A and the Barkley Ranches. In his mind he figured that somehow Madrid had warned them and had told them to go into hiding.
Softly, Floyd closed his door and lay down on his small cot. Madrid was up to his eyeballs in whatever was happening out at the Circle A, Floyd was sure of it. The wounded man was biding his time so that he could play his cards just right. He’d be meeting with Bushrod Smith in the next few days and he would be making it his business to make sure that Johnny Madrid wouldn’t be meddling in anyone’s business ever again.
Nick and Heath returned to the Barkley home at dusk. They had spent a long day sorting out the cattle and repairing the damaged fence. “I tell you, Brother, this has been one long day. I’m hungry enough to eat a horse!” Nick announced as he strode into the house, throwing his hat on the marble entrance table.
Victoria, who had been watching from the parlor window, went to greet her sons. They were both filthy, covered from head to toe with dust from the dry summer range. “Why don’t you boys go clean up? I’ll tell Silas to get dinner started…” She watched as both young men started up the stairs. Both were clearly exhausted. “Heath…?”
Both men paused, but Nick continued up the stairs after seeing that his mother wanted to speak alone to Heath. The tired cowboy stopped where he was and waited for his mother’s questions.
“Did everything go alright this afternoon?”
“We got the cattle sorted if that’s what you mean…”
“Any idea who stampeded the Circle A herd?”
Heath shook his head and came down the remainder of the stairs to speak directly with his mother. “The ranch hands from the Circle A said that someone snuck out to the herd in the dark and lit a string of firecrackers. They say that Ned Bartch thought Johnny had done it, but when he went into town – Johnny was in bed.”
“So it wasn’t Johnny?”
Heath smiled. “I didn’t say that.”
“So, you think that it was?”
“Let’s just say, that I would put my money on Madrid any day of the week…”
“What if Johnny didn’t do it?”
Heath frowned not wanting to consider that there was another player involved. “Do you know something?”
“I just know that we need to be careful.” She gave Heath a smile and turned to head towards the kitchen. As Heath started up the stairs, she once again called after him. “Heath?”
“My friend is coming from Moro Coyo tomorrow…”
“The one who knows Johnny?”
“Yes. His name is Murdoch Lancer…” She held her breath as Heath stopped cold, his eyes narrowing.
“What’s he going to tell you – that Johnny is a gun fighter?”
“It was his ranch that Pardee was raiding….”
“Johnny has a horse and a saddle with the Lancer brand on it. Has he said anything to you about Lancer?”
Heath considered what Johnny had told him a few short days ago – that the stories his mother had told him about Murdoch Lancer being his father were all lies. The young man saw no need in sharing that bit with his mother. “No, he’s never mentioned him…” Heath turned and this time moved quickly up the stairs before his mother could ask anymore questions.
As Heath disappeared from view, Victoria was convinced that her son knew more about Johnny’s relationship to Murdoch Lancer than he was saying. For whatever reason, Heath was not going to tell her what he knew. She was disappointed, but then – hadn’t she disappointed him too? With a sigh, she turned back to the kitchen and her dinner preparations.
There was no siesta for Johnny Madrid. From his shady spot, Johnny spent his day evaluating the men that Bartch had recruited. Some of the men were good – very good. He had recognized at least five of the men from prior jobs. Some of the others were greenhorns – young guns; boys just waiting to make a name for themselves. They were the dangerous ones, the kind that would just as soon shoot a man in the back as face off on a street. The way he saw it, there were about six of them in the remaining bunch of cowboys.
From under his tree, Madrid listened as a skinny red haired boy, kinda like the clerk back at the hotel, ranted and boasted; making snide remarks about the lazy half-bred has-been who was sleeping under his hat. Johnny had nothing to prove to these men. By sitting out the practice, he let the young guns pump up their egos with false bravado and exaggerated skills. In the end, he knew who would be the fastest. His time in the mountains had served him well and he was more than ready for any new comers.
The only time he rose from his spot was when chow was served. A cow had been roasting on the spit the entire day and had been cooked to perfection. As much as he would have wanted to remain excluded from the group, Johnny decided that he needed to eat. He waited until the others had been served before going for his own dinner. The cook was a Mexican who had been watching Johnny the entire afternoon. The cook found it hard to listen to the rude comments that had been thrown out about the sleeping gunhawk.
“How is it that you let them say those things about you, señor?”
Johnny smiled and watched as the young man filled his plate with tenderloin that had been reserved for him. “Oh, I don’t pay them no mind. Let them talk all they want. I’ll be doing my talking with my gun.”
The cook smiled broadly at this remark. “You will make them pay?”
Johnny bit his lip and looked away, avoiding the question. “What are you doing here?”
“The Circle A, it pays well and I have mucho niños to feed…”
“You need to find another job,” Johnny whispered as he dipped his hat over his eyes and walked back to his tree, his spurs jingling as he scuffed up the dusty ground.
The cook looked on puzzled, but decided that if Johnny Madrid was warning him off, then he better take heed. This would be his last night at the Circle A.
Johnny ate slowly, making observations of the ranch as it began to button up for the night. Just before sunset, a man Johnny had never seen before came riding into the Circle A. The thin man dismounted in a hurry and rushed into the house. An hour later, around dusk, the thin man and a heavy set man both exited the building. It was hard to distinguish the men through the darkness, but the heavier man definitely caught Johnny’s attention. He watched as the man mounted a horse that had been brought up from the barn and headed out. There was something in the way that the man moved that Johnny felt was familiar, but he couldn’t place it. It was too dark and the distance too far for him to make an accurate identification. It concerned Johnny that he had heard a voice and had now seen the shadow of a man that he thought he knew. There was more going on at the Circle A besides a local range war – of that Johnny was certain. Until he knew the entire game, he vowed to be very careful.
At nine o’clock Bushrod and Johnny stood on the front porch of the ranch house. The men who would be going on the raid had gathered to listen to the plans for the evening. As they were about to be given their instructions, Bartch stepped out onto the porch. “There’s been a change of plans, men. You’re going to stay together and hit the Mex place!”
A cheer went up. None of the men had liked the idea of hitting the white farmers, but it was alright that the Mexicans get burned out.
“Why the change of plan?” Johnny asked quietly.
“Why, you got a problem burning out your own kind?” Bushrod snickered.
Johnny ignored the comment and turned to Bartch and repeated the question. “Why?”
“It makes more sense not to split our men up. Besides, once the farmers see how the Mexicans were treated, they’ll be easier to deal with.”
Johnny nodded his approval. “Sounds reasonable.” With that said, he turned to Smith. “You ready?”
“After you, Madrid.”
Johnny led the way to the horses and quickly mounted up. In the darkness he hid his relief that they wouldn’t be burning out the innocent farmers. He wasn’t sure how or why Bartch had changed his mind, but he was thankful for it. Spurring Barranca forward, he led the men east towards Consuelo’s place.
It took thirty minutes for the crew to reach their destination. The place was small and quiet – too quiet. Bushrod signaled for one of the men to dismount and sneak up towards the dimly lit house. After a few moments, the man returned. “All’s quiet Mr. Smith.”
“Any sign of anyone being in the house?” Bushrod asked anxiously.
“There are a few lit lamps, but I didn’t see no one…”
Bushrod turned towards Johnny, “you know anything about this Madrid?”
Johnny glared at the man through the darkness. “How could I? I’ve been with you all day?”
Bushrod had to admit that it would have been pretty tough for Johnny to warn the Mexicans from the Circle A. “Burn it.” he ordered the men.
“What if they’re still inside, only hiding?” one of the men asked anxiously.
“Then they’ll come out pretty quick.” Bushrod sneered. “Burn it and lets get back to the ranch….”
Johnny watched as four of the younger men placed dry straw around the edges of the house, struck their matches and then ran. In no time, the small building was fully engulfed in flames, turning the night sky into orange. It wasn’t the first time that Johnny had witnessed an innocent’s home being burned, but he prayed that it would be the last. The farmers would be the targets for tomorrow. Somehow he would have to get word to them to get out of harm’s way.
“Looks pretty,” Bushrod commented as he pulled his horse along side Barranca. “So, you’re done down in Moro Coyo?”
“Yep.” Johnny responded quietly.
“What happened to that old man of yours?”
Johnny sucked in his breath not wanting to remember his father. “I hope he rots in hell.”
“You mean that this time?”
Johnny turned toward the other man, his voice low and cold. “You got something to say?”
“Not me, Johnny Boy!” Bushrod laughed. “It just seems to me that the Circle A will be expanding, and that could mean towards the other end of the valley. You prepared to butt heads with your’ol man again?”
For a few moments, Johnny remained silent as he absorbed this latest bit of information. Whatever was happening here in Stockton was just the beginning. He reached up and settled his hat on the top of his head. “I ain’t got no feelings for him. I’ll be going where the money is….”
Bushrod wasn’t fooled. He had heard those words back at the Warburton camp. “I’ll be watching you, Johnny Boy….”
“You do that.” Johnny turned Barranca and kneed him forward.
“Where you going, Madrid?” Bushrod called through the dark when he realized that Johnny was not headed back to the Circle A.
“Back to town and my room; Bartch knows where to find me. Tell him to knock rather than bust the door again!” With that said Johnny quickly spurred Barranca and disappeared into the night.
“I’ll know where to find you, Madrid.” Bushrod mumbled under his breath as the other men gathered round. “Let’s get out of here.”
Scott Lancer met Joel Todd at eight AM for breakfast. They met in the plush dining room of the Grand Hotel. Joel was dressed in a smart, dark blue day suit, his cravat creased just perfectly, while Scott still chose to wear his ranch clothes. What was the point in having money if you couldn’t be self indulgent and wear what you wanted to wear?
After they ordered their meal, a bellman came to their table carrying a small silver tray. “A telegram for you, Mr. Todd.”
Joel tipped the boy and opened the small white envelope. A smile crossed his face as he read the content. “Good news, I hope?” Scott commented as he watched his friend’s face become animated with glee.
“I should say! My man has just managed to hire some of the best protection in the area….”
“Protection? I thought that you weren’t involved in the range war.”
“I’m not, but the ranch still needs to be protected from aggressive neighbors.”
“Did your man say who he hired?”
Joel smiled broadly. “Well, even I have heard of Johnny Madrid…”
Scott, who had been taking a sip of coffee, dropped his cup and spewed the contents of his mouth at the floor. “Johnny Madrid?” he choked.
Joel raised his eyebrows at Scott’s reaction. “Yes! Isn’t it grand! I hear he has a reputation for being a first class gun….” Scott grabbed the note from his friend and read the content. “See here! There’s no need for being rude!” Joel complained, offended by Scott’s actions.
“I’m sorry,” Scott said still reading the telegram. “It’s just that I’ve been looking for Johnny Madrid for almost 8 weeks.”
“Looking for Johnny Madrid? Why would you be looking for him?”
Scott swallowed hard and handed the telegram back to his friend. “He’s my brother.”
Joel opened his mouth for a few seconds and then closed it. “Your brother is a notorious gunfighter?”
“Ex-gunfighter,” Scott curtly corrected his friend. “He had been living with me on my father’s ranch until eight weeks ago. Something happened, and….he left. I just hired the Pinkertons yesterday…” Scott stood and threw his napkin on the table. “I’ve got to get to Stockton.”
“I’ll go with you,” Joel stood and signaled for the waiter who brought their check.
Going to the front desk, they found that the next train for Stockton was leaving at nine o’clock. “If we rush we can make it…” Scott observed checking his pocket watch. “It’s 90 miles from San Francisco to Stockton – that should take us about 4 hours ….” As Scott headed up the stairs he realized that Joel was not following him. “Is there a problem?”
Joel shook his head. “You’ll have to forgive me, Scott. There is so much that has been done out at the ranch without me, I’m afraid that things could be getting out of hand.”
Frowning, Scott descended the stairs. “What do you mean? I thought that you said you weren’t a part of the range war.”
“I’m not – I don’t think,” Joel paused slightly flustered. “To tell the truth, I don’t know what my man has been doing behind my back. That’s why I wanted your expertise….”
“You’ve got it!” Scott smiled grabbing his friend’s arm. “Now, get packed. I’ll meet you back here in fifteen minutes.”
Murdoch Lancer decided to escape the ranch and head for Stockton a day early. He had had enough of Teresa’s pouting, Jelly’s arguing and Maria’s burnt eggs to last him a lifetime. It didn’t matter how much he promised he would start looking for Johnny, once he got back from Stockton, they still refused to relent until the young man was home. Bringing Johnny home was a miracle that Murdoch was unsure he could deliver. As much as the others had driven him crazy over the past few weeks, it was nothing compared to the mixed emotions that he was feeling over the entire affair.
Part of him felt guilty for the words that had been said. He had been keeping his thoughts deep inside of him, hidden by the prayer that Johnny would fit in. If only Scott hadn’t pried them out of him – he would have continued to try to work things out with Johnny. But, after six months of trying, he had to admit that the young man still had not fit into his vision of the ranch. He had always dreamed of running the ranch with his two sons by his side. Murdoch ruefully shook his head at the thought. Since when had his vision been Johnny’s? He realized that he had never taken the time to learn what Johnny’s vision was.
From the report he received from the Pinkertons, he felt an immediate bond with Scott. As much as he detested Harlan Garret, his former father-in-law had provided Scott with the best of educations. Scott, himself, had proven himself during the War Between the States as a brave and loyal officer. Scott had lived up to every dream a father could have for a son. Johnny was different. As a father, he was torn between his view of his youngest as the man he could have been if he had been raised at Lancer – and the cruel, vicious man depicted in the Pinkerton report. After eight weeks of listening to Scott, Jelly and Teresa, Murdoch had learned that Johnny was neither. The rest of the family saw him differently. They saw him as a trusted friend and brother – a person that Murdoch never gave himself a chance to know.
Conversely, he admitted to himself that he was enjoying the peace that came with Johnny’s departure. No more strangers haunted the ranch, looking for their opportunity to shoot it out with Johnny Madrid. He knew that Scott, Teresa and Jelly didn’t feel that way, but Johnny’s presence had been a threat to the safety of everyone. Besides, having a hired gun in residence did not bode well with his neighbors and business associates.
Settling into his seat on the train, Murdoch closed his eyes and began to dream of a life that had never been – a life where Johnny had grown up on the ranch. In his dream he envisioned the baby that quickly grew into the ruggedly handsome man that Johnny was today. His mind created memories that had never happened. A frown creased his face when he briefly awoke and realized he had been dreaming. The happy times of his dreams had never happened and could never be. He mourned the lost opportunities of the past. It struck him as odd that he never had mournful thoughts about Scott. Was it because Scott had never lived in the great house? That he had never held Scott as a baby, cradling him in his arms and speaking to him of his future like he had with Johnny? Or, was it because he felt such guilt over the poverty and hardship that had been the hallmarks of Johnny’s life?
In his heart he admitted he was ashamed of having a killer for a son. That, however, was not the only shame that Murdoch Lancer bore. There were the lies that he had told to convince himself and his friends that he had done the right thing over nineteen years ago. Murdoch had told everyone that he spent a lifetime looking for Johnny. That wasn’t the truth. He had actually stopped looking after the first year, deciding that if Maria wanted to be left alone, then he would oblige her and give up all rights to his son. Twelve years passed before he would try to find Johnny again, but that was only after he learned Maria was dead. He hired the Pinkertons and they had been successful in locating the lad, but by then Johnny was no longer going by the name – Lancer. His dark haired baby boy was now the hired killer known as Johnny Madrid. Murdoch was crushed by this discovery and decided it would be best to leave his son to the life that he had chosen for himself. That resolution worked until Day Pardee arrived in the valley. It was only after he had been shot, and Paul O’Brien killed that he hired the Pinkertons for the final time. It only took the Pinkertons three months to find the boy – now a man. Three months and they brought home the killer he needed to save the ranch. Now, six months later, Johnny was once again gone from Lancer, but not from his life.
Eight weeks ago Murdoch honestly thought it would be better if Johnny was gone – dead. He was wrong. Now he knew he had made a mistake. It had been wrong to take the advice of others and to place his business above the life of his own flesh and blood. The quiet he so coveted prior to the return of his sons shrouded the estancia like a tomb. The silence was a constant reminder of the laughter and merriment that would no longer resound within the adobe walls. Scott was right. Johnny did belong at Lancer. He rethought his business dealings, wondering why he had felt it so necessary to give a higher priority to those relationships than to his relationship with his own son. Settling in his seat, he resolved, again, that he would search for Johnny after his business in Stockton was concluded.
Johnny slept late. The clock in the town hall tolled nine o’clock before the gunhawk woke for the day. After leaving Bushrod, he had returned to town, anxious to learn the identity of the man who had left the Circle A at dusk. It was after midnight when he returned to the livery. Waking Bernardo, his friend had reassured him that Consuelo and her husband were now safely hidden above the cantina. Unfortunately, he had no idea who had returned to town an hour after dusk. The only men he had seen were an express rider and a heavy set man who had been visiting at the Circle A off and on for the past two months. To the best of Bernardo’s recollection, the man was heavy set and smoked a cigar – but he had never set foot in the livery.
Getting up, Johnny decided that today was a good day for a bath and headed to the barber shop. With him he carried his other set of clothes. He would leave his dirty blue shirt and pants to be washed. Today he would wear his favorite shiva red shirt. Johnny had to confess had never heard of the color before it was chosen for him by a Huichol medicine man who had tended to him several years ago after he had been injured saving the son of a chief. The Shaman had told him that the warm color was the color of his spirit. It was the last bright color that filled the evening sky at sunset, fighting away the coming darkness of night. On his wrist, Johnny wore the beaded bracelet that the Shaman had made especially for him. He had been told that the shiva and blue beads would give him great power over his enemies. He was told to wear it always on his gun arm. In a vision, the man had seen Johnny as a fighter of darkness. Johnny had a hard time believing that when he thought of all of the men he had killed, sending them to eternal oblivion. At first, the young man didn’t believe the metaphor or that a single color or combination of colors could give him power, but the more he wore the shirt and beads, the better he felt about himself. At times, he felt like the sunlight, fighting the darkness that threatened to take his life away. He smiled ruefully, remembering how he wasn’t wearing his special color the night he let Murdoch Lancer’s dark words send him from the ranch. Today was different. He didn’t know why, but today he felt that he needed all of the strength he could muster.
Going to the barber shop, Johnny quietly opened the door and entered the building. A smile cracked his lips when he realized that all eyes were on him. The only sound in the building was the soft jingle of his spurs as he made his way to the empty chair near the back of the room. Shortly thereafter, the local gentry cleared out leaving the barber all alone with the gunman. With a sigh, the barber frowned, counting all of the money he was losing just because of one man. “What can I do ya for?” the balding man asked wiping his hands on his apron.
From his pocket, Johnny pulled out two bits. “I need a bath and a shave.”
The man took the money, inspecting it closely before to putting it in his pocket. “I got a clean tub and a kettle of hot water in the back…”
Johnny followed the man into the back room, going to the lone dressing room to disrobe. Peeling out of his smelly clothes, he realized that it had been too long since he had a bath. “You got someone who can clean my clothes?” Johnny called from behind the screen.
“Sophie Harrison runs a laundry a few blocks down. You leave them here and I’ll see that she gets them.” The barber had filled the wooden tub with hot water from a large copper boiler. Your bath is ready, Mr. Madrid.” The man stepped from the room so that Johnny could get into the tub without being observed.
‘Mr. Madrid’ Johnny smirked. He had lived with that name for the better part of his life, but it still wasn’t the name he wanted. It wasn’t the name of who he really wanted to be – at least not any more. With a sigh, he settled into the hot water and leaned his head back against the wooden rim.
The barber returned in a few moments with his straight razor and lather cup. The man wrapped a warm towel around Johnny’s face and began to talk. “You’re the second man to have a bath and a shave today. Why the first man was from out of town, Spanish Wells, I think. He insisted on smoking a cigar the entire time he was in the tub…”
Johnny sat up straight taking the towel off his face. “That man have a name?”
The barber gave Johnny an odd look. “Come to think of it, he didn’t say his name…”
“Then how did you know he was from Spanish Wells?”
“He had a ticket for the eight AM train in his coat pocket….”
“What did he look like?”
The barber started to apply lather to Johnny’s face as he gathered his thoughts. “Big man, about six foot, but heavy. Solid gray hair and….”
“Green eyes?” Johnny asked quietly.
“How ya know that?”
Johnny settled back and let the barber continue to shave him. It was all making sense. “You know if he’s supposed to be coming back?”
“That’s another odd thing. I think he’s coming back on Saturday for the Sunday meeting of the Cattlemen’s Association…”
Johnny grabbed the man’s arm just as he was going to scrape the razor along the left side of his neck. “The Association is meeting here?” This was news to Johnny and suddenly Bartch’s new deadline made sense.
The old barber had just about had enough of Johnny’s interruptions. “Are you going to let me finish or not?”
“Sorry,” Johnny mumbled as he released the barber’s arm.
“Like I was saying, the Barkley’s called an emergency meeting of the Cattlemen’s Association to discuss the goings on at the Circle A….” the man paused, realizing that Johnny had been linked to the Circle A. “Is there going to be trouble, Mr. Madrid?”
Johnny closed his eyes. If the Association was coming to town, then there was a good chance Murdoch Lancer was too. Time was running out for Ned Bartch and his mystery partner. Once the Association assembled, the law wouldn’t be too far behind. That was why Bartch was stepping up his attacks on the remaining property owners. He wanted the deeds to the ranches next to the Barkleys so that he could go after them directly.
“Yeah, there’s going to be trouble…”
“Well, it had better not happen in Stockton. Sheriff Savage won’t brook no fighting in his town…”
“It’s not the town he should be concerned about…” Johnny muttered more to himself than to the barber.
It took five more minutes for the barber to complete his task. He left Johnny to finish his bath and to dress in relative privacy. Johnny took his time bathing, doing the ritual as if it was going to be a very long time before he would have the chance to bathe again. Getting out of the tub, he patted his body dry with a rough towel before putting on his clean clothes. Both the shirt and the silver concha seamed pants hung smartly on his lean frame. Slowly he put on the leather belt he had hand tooled himself. He had enjoyed working with the leather; it had made him feel like he had accomplished something permanent. The two buckles were an extravagance, but were well worth it. Lastly, he put on his gun belt, making sure that it was cinched tightly to his slim hips. Looking in the cracked mirror, he reflected on how much he enjoyed the look of power the clothes gave him. Something told him that he would need it.
His mind was awhirl with the endless scenarios for the days to come. He was surprised that the Association was meeting in Stockton. That could be a problem. If he was right, Bartch’s partner held a high position in that organization. Who was going to believe the word of a hired gun over the word of a respected cattleman? In his mind, he thought of how his father would react. He could almost hear Murdoch laughing at him. Johnny’s gut was telling him he was right. Over the past twelve years, it had never steered him wrong. He could only pray that somehow he could find someone who would listen and that an all out range war be avoided.
Leaving the barber shop he headed to the little restaurant that adjoined the saloon. There he ate a quick breakfast before going to his next stop – church. Johnny never considered himself a religious man. He had no use for the institution of the church, but that did not mean he didn’t believe in God. After all, someone had to be looking after him all these years.
Stockton had two churches, one of which was an old Spanish mission. Quietly, Johnny entered the cool interior of the building. His mother tried to raise him to be a Catholic. In remembrance of her teaching, he used the holy water to cross himself before entering the sanctuary. At the alter a priest was praying on bended knees. Knowing he had little time, Johnny gave a little cough to make the holy man aware of his presence before heading to the confessional. He sat rather than knelt on the kneeler and waited a few moments for the priest to enter the other confessional and slide the door open.
“How can I help you, my son?”
“Well,” Johnny faltered for a second before starting. “God already knows that I’ve done, so I don’t see no need in going over it….”
“Then what is it that I can do?”
“Father, my whole life I’ve been looking for something. I live the life of a gunfighter, but that is not what I want to be. I thought, for a while, that I had a chance to change – but I learned I was wrong. Now I’m back being and doing what I hate. It’s wrong and I don’t know how to turn away. It’s like being trapped and not knowing which way to turn to be set free.”
There was a moment of silence before the priest spoke. “My son, you are a Pilgrim. You are on the journey of your life. God has set before you different roads. Who you are is determined by which road you choose to travel. You must have faith in God, and he will set you down the path to who you really are.”
“But when?” Johnny asked impatiently, a touch of sadness crept into his voice. “When will I know?”
“Yours is a long path. But in the end, like all Pilgrims, you will be rewarded with what you seek – the truth.” With that said, the priest slid closed the panel, ending the discussion.
Johnny sat motionless for a minute, trying to absorb what had been said. Some journey, he thought ironically. He had been journeying his entire life only to be told that he would have to keep on moving. Well, if he survived this brewing range war then he would keep on the journey. If he didn’t, he was positive that the Devil would be sure to tell him who he was.
Floyd Brasure had watched as Johnny entered the barber shop. Creeping around the back alley, he found a knot hole near the bathhouse. Intently he listened to the conversation between Johnny and the barber. Johnny sure was all fired up to learn about the heavy set man – a man whom Floyd knew to be Bartch’s partner. From the sound of it, the Mex may have figured out who he was. In the weeks that Floyd had spent out at the Circle A, he knew that the identity of Bartch’s partner was kept secret – even from him. If Johnny Madrid knew, then that could mean trouble for his former associates. Sneaking away from the bathhouse, he rounded up his horse and headed out to the Circle A.
It took forty-five minutes of hard riding for him to arrive at the ranch. He smiled to see Bushrod Smith sitting on the front porch. Dismounting, he handed the reins to one of the hands.
Bushrod smiled at his old friend and pointed to the right hand that was now crippled and held in a sling. “Is that what Madrid done to you?”
“Yeah. I’m looking for the same to happen to him…”
“It ain’t gonna happen as long as he works for Mr. Bartch…”
“That’s why I’m here. Madrid ain’t working for Bartch…”
“How do you know that?”
Floyd smiled like a Cheshire cat. “What did you find when you went out to that Mex ranch last night?”
“Nothing – they was gone.”
“You know why?” Floyd was giddy with the knowledge he was about to impart, but obviously Bushrod was not impressed. Realizing that he had better keep talking, Floyd continued. “Madrid gave them money to hide out in town. They’re in a room above the Cantina…”
“And just how would you know that?”
“’Cause I saw them there and heard ‘em talking about Madrid and the money…And, that ain’t all!”
“Well?” Smith asked impatiently.
“Nope, this I gotta tell to Bartch.” Floyd’s chest was swelled, knowing that he now held all of the aces.
Bushrod waved for him to come up on the porch and enter the house. The two gunhawks found Bartch in the study going over his maps. “Mr. Bartch? Floyd here says that he has something important to tell ya.”
Ned looked up impatiently. Floyd Brasure had been a nuisance during his tenure at the Circle A, he couldn’t imagine what the former gun man could tell him that would mean anything. “This had better be good, Floyd…”
Floyd nervously licked his lips. “I been watching things in town, Mr. Bartch – you know, keeping an eye out – specially on Madrid….”
“And…” Bartch asked with a tone of annoyance.
“I seen him ride into town the other night, just before you came in looking for him. I seen him climb the trellis of the hotel and get in his room right before you got to the hotel…” Floyd paused when he saw the look on Bartch’s face change from annoyance to interest. “I also seen the Mexican couple whose house burned last night. Madrid has got them hid in a room over the Cantina…”
Bartch slammed his fist down on his desk in outrage. “Damn him! Bushrod, get the men together! We’ve got to…”
“That ain’t all, Mr. Bartch,” Floyd interrupted, his face split with a grin from ear to ear. “Madrid had been doing some nosing around and I think that he knows who your partner is!”
Bartch stood and grabbed his gun belt from the top of his desk. “Get the men together…”
Bushrod held up a hand. “Mr. Bartch, why don’t you let us do what we do best? Madrid has suckered me for the last time. It will be my pleasure to take care of him. Just let me do it my way….”
Bartch, put his gun belt down as he heard the words, but his anger continued to flare. “I don’t care what you do, so long as he is dead before the noon stage arrives with the first man from the Cattlemen’s Association. You got that!”
“It will be my pleasure!” Bushrod nodded at his boss and passed by Floyd on his way out to round up his men.
“Mr. Bartch?” Floyd asked meekly. “I was kinda hoping….”
“Yeah, you did good.” Bartch opened the desk and pulled out a hundred dollar bill from an envelope. “Now get out of here. I don’t got no use for a gimp gunman. But, I do have use for a spy.”
Floyd took the crisp bill and crumpled it into his left front pocket. “I can do that, Mr. Bartch. I won’t let you down.”
Victoria Barkley descended the front stairs of her home just as Nick and Heath were heading out for the day. “Heath?” She called.
“Go ahead, Nick. I’ll be out in a moment.” Heath reassured his brother before turning to respond to his mother. “Yes, Mother?”
“I’m going into town this morning and I would like you to accompany me…”
“Mother, I would love to but, boy howdy, there is a pile of work to be done and… well… Nick will be as angry as a polecat if I don’t help him….”
“I can handle Nick. It is you that I need with me in town.” Victoria put her hat on and headed towards the door.
Heath grabbed her arm pulling her to a gentle stop. “Has this got something to do with Johnny?”
Victoria turned and faced her son. Heath’s concern for his friend was palpable. “Yes. I think that he might need you….”
“What’s going to happen?”
Victoria frowned unsure how to answer the question. “I’m not sure, but I would feel better if you were there.” She gave her son a quick smile and a pat on the arm. “You are a good friend to Johnny. He just might need a friend…” Victoria dared not speak any further about what she had planned. She was sure that Heath would try to talk her out of it but someone had to take the bull by the horns. Today, one way or another, Johnny Madrid and Murdoch Lancer were going to work out their differences.
There was no need for Johnny to return to the Circle A that morning, so he returned to the saloon to take his usual seat at the back of the building. One of the working girls came over to him, solicitously asking for a drink, but he turned her away. He had to think. How could he get the Cattlemen’s Association to listen to him? His voice held no weight. He was a nobody.
With his options dwindling, he realized that he would have to ask for help. That meant that he was going to have to confide in someone what he had been doing and what he was going to be doing. Heath was his first choice, but his friend did not have the voice that he would need to use with the association. Pouring himself a drink, he thought of the one other person in Stockton that he held respect for – Victoria Barkley. He would seek her out the next time he saw her. Surely, she would believe him if he was straight with her. If she didn’t, then there would be little he could do to prevent the coming war without putting himself at great risk.
Murdoch watched with interest as the train approached Stockton. It had been three years since he had last been to the bustling town – and it appeared to have grown quite a bit in his absence. The outskirts of the town seemed to stretch on for at least two blocks. The rancher briefly wondered if there would be enough room for all of the people who were steadily flocking to the west. As the train slowed, he gathered his case from under his seat and his hat from the overhead rack. In the pocket of his jacket was Victoria’s note. Again he wondered at the cryptic nature of her request that he come for an early visit – the Association meeting was scheduled for Sunday. With a grim smile he acknowledged that the note could not have come at a better time. With Scott gone, there was no one to mediate between himself and the hands and Jelly was becoming constantly argumentative with him. Murdoch knew that he had to make plans to find his missing son or he would never have any peace at the ranch. There was a Pinkerton office in Stockton. Visiting it would be a priority for him.
Once the train stopped he waited for the rest of the passengers to debark before he finally made his way down the steep steps to the platform. Squaring his hat on his head, he squinted against the bright afternoon sunlight for a sign of his friend.
The tall rancher looked to his left to see a small hand waving above the crowd. Pushing his way through the throng of people, Murdoch caught sight of Victoria Barkley. She was still as beautiful as ever – a slim, petite woman with a flare for fashion.
“Victoria!” Murdoch dropped his case and swooped the woman up in his arms giving her a hug. “It’s been too long!” he announced before placing her back on the platform
Victoria blushed for a moment, flustered by the open display of affection. Once, a long time ago, she had been attracted to Murdoch Lancer – but she had quickly learned that there was only one love in his life and that was his ranch. For a moment she thought of Johnny and frowned. She was determined to get to the bottom of what had happened between father and son. Looking up at Murdoch, she smiled. “It’s good that you’ve come – we can use your help….” She looked past the big man hopeful that his oldest son had come too. “Oh, you came alone. I was looking forward to finally meeting your sons…” She mentioned innocently.
The smile fell from Murdoch’s face. “Scott went to visit a friend in San Francisco earlier in the week.”
“And Johnny?” again Victoria asked with an air of innocence.
Murdoch sighed. He had been hoping to get away from all discussions concerning his youngest. “It’s a long story, but he’s gone his own way – left Lancer. He’s back in Mexico I suppose…”
“You must be so disappointed. Waiting all those years to find him and then to have him leave,” Victoria slipped her arm around Murdoch’s and gave him a sympathetic squeeze. “You can tell me all about it over lunch. I thought that we’d have something to eat in town before heading out to the ranch.”
The two walked from the station, arm and arm. Murdoch took notice of the large number of armed men walking the streets. “Is this part of the problem you alluded to in your note?” He nodded toward two young gunmen who had passed nearby.
“I won’t lie. We’re in trouble, but we can talk about that over lunch…” Victoria stopped as Heath walked up. Murdoch, unaware of who the tall blond young man was, bristled in preparation of a confrontation. “It’s alright,” Victoria reassured her old friend. “Murdoch, this is my son – Heath. Heath, this is Murdoch Lancer…”
Two sets of eyes flared in surprise. Murdoch’s because he was not familiar with this son and Heath because he had now come face to face with the man Johnny had once thought was his father. “Mr. Lancer,” Heath nodded extending his hand.
“This is Tom’s son. He and Heath’s mother had a relationship and when she passed he came to us.” Victoria slipped her free hand into Heath’s. “He’s been a fine and welcome addition to my family.”
Murdoch swallowed hard grasping what Victoria had so casually announced. She had welcomed her husband’s bastard into her home and had accepted him as one of her own. “I’m pleased to meet you – Heath.”
Heath nodded coolly in response. “Mother, I’m going to go finish loading the wagon. Let me know when you’re ready to leave…” He bent and placed a kiss on her cheek before heading down the street.
“He seems like a fine young man.” Murdoch observed as he noted the look of pride showing on Victoria’s face.
“Oh, he is.” Victoria responded, looking fondly after her son. “He had a rough time of it as a child – children calling him names – it was hard growing up without a father. His mother was sickly and he spent a lot of time caring for her before she died. After that, he drifted for a while – he even spent some time down south in Mexico… Didn’t you tell me once that Johnny lived in Mexico?” Victoria saw Murdoch stiffen and smiled to herself. Her words were having their desired effect.
“Maria took him there after she left…”
“It must have been hard for him too – growing up without a father…” They were now at the little restaurant that was partitioned off from the saloon. “They have the best steaks in town here.” Victoria announced as she let Murdoch hold the door for her.
“Victoria!” Martha Clark, the proprietor of the restaurant greeted her friend. Martha was a plump widow about the same age as Victoria. “My, who is this handsome man?”
“This is my friend – Murdoch Lancer – from Moro Coyo. Murdoch, this is Martha Clark. He’s come for the special meeting of the Cattlemen’s Association…”
“I’m mighty pleased to meet you Mr. Lancer.” Martha took Murdoch’s hand and pumped it vigorously.
“Nice to meet you Martha,” Murdoch greeted, trying to rescue his hand from Martha’s strong grip.
“I’ve got your table all ready, Victoria. If you’d come this way.” Martha led them through the dining room to secluded table near the back. Before going to the train depot Victoria had learned that Johnny was in the saloon, at the table in the back. With some luck, she hoped that perhaps she could get father and son together and resolve their differences before the fighting escalated.
Murdoch pulled out Victoria’s chair before taking the seat across from her, his back to the partition. “You haven’t changed a bit.” he commented, smiling at his old friend. “You’re as beautiful as ever.”
“And you are a flatterer,” Victoria smiled. “So, tell me about your sons. Scott is the oldest – Catherine’s boy.…”
Murdoch sighed in relief. He didn’t wanted to talk about Johnny and welcomed the opportunity to extol the virtues of his eldest son.. “Scott is 26 and is the splitting image of Catherine; fine features, well educated and mannered. His grandfather brought him up right – sending him to Harvard, training him to be an accountant. During the war he fought for the Union and served as a lieutenant under Phil Sheridan. He had a distinguished war record….”
“And you didn’t have any trouble getting him to come out west?” Victoria interrupted, amazed at how Murdoch was practically gushing over Scott. She couldn’t wait to ask him about Johnny.
“Well,” Murdoch looked at his hands for a moment. “I promised him a thousand dollars for an hour of his time to come and see the ranch. When he arrived, I offered him a partnership, which he accepted. He’s taken to ranching like he was born to it! There’s not a better horseman on the ranch…” Murdoch smiled broadly, recounting Scott’s accomplishments.
“And what about Johnny?” Victoria interrupted, again looking closely for Murdoch’s response.
A cloud crossed Murdoch’s eyes and his smile turned to a frown. “He spent too much time south of the border to ever become a rancher. I don’t know how to say this, but he is a gunfighter – Johnny Madrid.” The words were clearly embarrassing; his shame at having a gunfighter for a son was written on his face.
“He came all the way from Mexico and didn’t help to fight for the ranch?” Victoria asked incredulously.
“Well,” Murdoch hemmed for a moment. “He fought in his own way. Scott and I had one plan and Johnny had another. It ended up that he was shot in the back by Day Pardee during the fight at the ranch. He nearly died…” Murdoch closed his eyes thinking of the terror he had felt – seeing Johnny shot off his horse, the blood that streamed from the gaping wound – remembering the nights he had spent by his feverish son, bathing the hot body with cold compresses. Shaking his head he stopped the memories. “It was close, but Johnny survived.”
“But he didn’t want to work,” Victoria tisked with a shake of her head. “I know how lazy Mexicans can be – especially Mexican gunfighters…”
“No,” Murdoch’s eyes flashed in his son’s defense. “He worked harder than anyone on the ranch. He’s a natural horse wrangler and cattle drover. In fact, he was the only man on the ranch to out ride Scott…” Murdoch paused realizing that he was now extolling Johnny’s virtues – something he had never done before. His face reddened, his eyes catching the innocent expression on Victoria’s face. “Did Scott put you up to this?” He growled.
“I have never seen, spoken to or communicated with Scott,” Victoria responded indignantly. She let her eyes meet Murdoch’s – letting him know that he had crossed the line with his assumption. “Tell me, what happened to Johnny?”
Murdoch dropped his head and blew out his breath. “We got up one morning, about eight weeks ago, and Johnny was gone…” There was much more to the story, but Murdoch wasn’t about to discuss it with Victoria. It was a private matter.
Murdoch couldn’t believe that Victoria wanted to press this conversation further. “I don’t know – when he was there all we did was fight. Talking to Johnny was like talking to that wall over there- he would never listen to a word I told him…”
“Do you miss him?” Victoria had to know if this relationship was worth fighting for. Victoria had to hear for herself that Murdoch didn’t care.
“Miss him?” Murdoch closed his eyes for a moment and searched his heart. During his arguments with Scott the question had never been raised. It was only when he was alone in his room or looking at the sunrise, that he wondered where his son was and prayed that he would be alright. With a sigh Murdoch gave his answer. “I miss the arguments, his stubborn nature, the way he can make people smile, the way that he makes his brother laugh…” Murdoch paused in mid sentence. “I guess that I love him in spite of the fact that he’s a killer…”
“Is he?” She asked quietly. “How well did you let yourself get to know your son?”
“He’s my son, I know him as well as I know my own hand!” Murdoch stretched open his fingers and laid his hand on the table. “Johnny just didn’t have the hands of a rancher.”
Victoria placed her hand on Murdoch’s, remembering how he couldn’t stay away from the dark haired toddler during his visit so many years ago. The image of him walking with Johnny’s little hand wrapped tightly around his index finger was vivid in her memory. “You knew his hand as a child. Tell me, did you take the time to know his hand as a man?”
Once again Victoria’s words pierced his heart. Raising his head he looked into Victoria’s eyes, desperate to change the conversation. “Tell me – how did you take in your husband’s bastard and love him?”
“Well, for one thing – he is not a bastard and I will not have you or anyone else speak about him that way!” Victoria fired back taking her hand from his. “Heath is a compassionate young man. He came to the ranch – looking for his piece of the pie. But, by God, he earned his place – he fought along side his brothers and he loves the land like they do. You tell me – how could I refuse him? I loved my husband very much. I didn’t love him less because he strayed. I look at that boy and see a child who suffered his whole life because of the actions of his parents. Tom and Mary had their passion and Heath paid for it his entire life. It wasn’t his fault that their love created him. It wasn’t his fault that he was branded a name that he never deserved. Tom never knew about Heath and it would have broken his heart to know that any son of his was treated so badly…”
“Like Johnny,” Murdoch whispered, shamefaced, closing his eyes. “He has paid his entire life for the mistakes Maria and I made. And I’m still punishing him. It’s not his fault he’s gone – it’s mine…”
“There’s always time,” Victoria responded hopefully.
Her hopeful thoughts were interrupted by the sounds of rowdy men outside as a large group of riders descended on the town. Bushrod Smith and his boys had arrived in Stockton.
Johnny sat at his table, back against the far wall and watched Bushrod Smith and five other men crowd through the door of the saloon. They bellied up to the bar, speaking in loud voices, grabbing at the saloon girls and generally causing a disturbance. “Beers!” Bushrod shouted.
The bartender quickly came forward with cold drinks. “I don’t want no trouble…” he said nervously, handing the men their beers.
“We’re not looking for any trouble,” Bushrod reassured the profusely sweating bartender. The man shook his head at the reassuring words before heading to the other end of the bar.
“Well looky here! Why if it ain’t our own sleepy chilly bean!” The young redhead from the day before lifted his beer in Johnny’s direction. His companions laughed and raised their glasses as well before taking long drinks of the cold brews. When Johnny failed to make any response, the redhead continued. “You know, for a chili bean you’re a long way from Mexico!” The boy practically giggled while Bushrod moved away, taking a table near the door to watch.
Johnny ignored the comments and took a sip of his drink.
“Well if that don’t beat all – a deaf Mex!” The men laughed as the young man went to stand by Johnny’s table. “He must think he’s better’n us jus ‘cause he totes a gun!”
“Yeah, he’s a real hot tamale!” another man laughed.
“How about it – you a vaquero or a cobarde?” The young gun continued to tease with a bad Spanish accent.
To the frustration of the men, Johnny ignored them – continuing to drink his beer.
“Well, I heard that he likes to run with the ladies…. If you know what I mean!” another man laughed.
“I heard tell that he’s not too particular – that he’s boinked everything willing in skirts from El Paso to Senora!” The red-haired boy laughed taking a drink of his beer, spilling it onto his shirt.
“You know, he ain’t jus any Mex – he’s a half-breed!” Bushrod added quietly from his table. Buckshot had ridden with Johnny before and knew that Madrid had two soft spots – his mixed heritage and his daddy. Before entering the saloon, he had shared that bit with his companions.
A grin filled the face of the boy who had been taunting Johnny. He turned to face the quiet Madrid. “I heard tell that his daddy had a taste for Mexican whores, did his boinking and left!”
Before the others could laugh, Johnny rose from his seat and struck like a snake – his fist striking the redhead in the mouth, sending the gunmen flying across the room. Johnny then pulled his gun and pointed it at the crowd. “Keep your guns in your holsters, boys.” He announced coolly. “This ain’t none of your fight.”
The boy stood, wiping his bleeding lip on the back of his hand. “Outside – Now!”
Johnny smiled putting his gun back in his holster. “You got a death wish today?”
“You backing down?”
Johnny turned and finished his beer in a long gulp. Wiping his mouth on the back of his sleeve he gave a short bow to another boy with a death wish. “After you.”
Bushrod watched as Johnny ambled toward the door behind the fool headed red-haired kid. He couldn’t resist catching Johnny’s eyes just as he left the building. “You’re a dead man Madrid. You just don’t know it yet.”
Victoria closely watched Murdoch as they eavesdropped on the confrontation in the other room. With interest he listened to the slanderous remarks that were being directed at a Mexican cowboy. He couldn’t help but wonder if that was what Johnny encountered on a daily basis – and if so, how did he stand it? Apparently the Mexican was taking it all in stride, letting the degrading remarks roll off his back – all the remarks except the last one about his being a half-breed. Murdoch nearly cheered when he heard the sound of a fist striking a jaw, and a body crashing to the floor. His cheer stopped when he heard the voice that spoke the next words. “Johnny….?” He whispered. At the sound of Johnny’s voice his heart constricted and his face paled. Standing, he was able to look over the partition and watch as Johnny, his back turned to him, finished his beer and headed into the street to answer the challenge of the other gunman. “No…”Murdoch started to follow only to be pulled back by Victoria.
“Isn’t this what you wanted? You said that you sent him away…”
Anger flashed on Murdoch’s face. “No. This is not what I wanted!”
“Well, what do you want?” Victoria challenged.
“I don’t want this!” Murdoch grabbed back his hand and strode from the building.
Once out of the building, Johnny’s eyes stole around the street as he took his position. Either Bushrod was lying just to throw him off or he was a sitting duck – an easy mark for a second gun. Johnny watched the boy walk into the street towards his position. The boy was good, but even on his best day he wasn’t as good as Johnny Madrid. Quickly Johnny let his eyes once again glance around the street. There was something about this that was too convenient. The saloon crowded with Circle A guns so early in the afternoon wasn’t right. A tingling down his spine had him worried that Bushrod hadn’t been lying – there was a second shooter somewhere in the crowd.
The boy marched about a half block away and turned to face death. A pale hand hung nervously over the handle of his gun waiting for Madrid to make his move. “Well?” the boy dared.
Johnny dropped his head slightly, his eyes never leaving the boy’s hand. He had his own hand at the ready, fingers relaxed but his arm was coiled as tight as a spring.
As the redhead finally went for his pistol, Johnny crouched, drew and fired his gun. The boy looked at his chest to see a growing stain spreading across the fabric of his brown shirt. His hand had never touched his gun and was already dead. After tottering for a few seconds, the boy fell, face down, into the dust and the crowd breathed a sigh of relief.
Once his opponent was on the ground, Johnny’s eyes flicked across the landscape of the town; his gun at the ready. He was scanning for a second shooter; his senses screaming at him to be at the ready. That’s when he heard a voice from his near past calling to him.
“Johnny!” Murdoch Lancer had stepped out onto the boardwalk and had witnessed Johnny Madrid in a gunfight. He had never seen Johnny in a street fight before. Holding his breath and his tongue, he waited until the smoke had cleared before making his presence known.
Johnny couldn’t help but let his eyes flicker towards the source of the voice. In the next instant, he heard the loud report of a rifle, spun and felt a sharp pain in his right side. The crowd moved back to the safety of the boardwalk as Johnny dropped to the ground, his gun still tightly held in his right hand. Fighting for awareness, he frantically searched the direction from where the shot came; completely ignoring Murdoch’s now insistent calling of his name.
A movement on the saloon roof caught his attention – the glint of a steel barrel in the sunlight. Rolling to his left, Johnny fired a split second before the report of the rifle could be heard again. Dirt flew into his face as a rifle slug harmlessly furrowed into the street. Johnny’s shot had been better. The rifle, and the man who had been holding it, tumbled to the ground in front of the crowd.
Heath, who had been at his brother’s office, arrived just as Johnny was slowly struggling to his feet. He got to his friend just steps ahead of the man his mother had introduced him to earlier – Murdoch Lancer. “Easy there,” he reassured Johnny as he slipped a strong arm around his friend’s slim waist. Johnny leaned heavily against him, biting his lip to keep from moaning aloud.
“Johnny…?” Murdoch arrived and reached out to touch his son.
Johnny considered the hand coldly before turning to his friend. “Get me out of here.” He whispered between clenched teeth.
Puzzled by Johnny’s reaction to Murdoch, Heath glanced at the big man before guiding his friend down the street to Dr. Merar’s clinic.
Murdoch stood open mouthed as Johnny turned away. It hadn’t been Johnny Lancer, his son on the street. It had been Johnny Madrid. There was no sign of the man who had tried to be Johnny Lancer in the cold eyes of the injured gunslinger. He was too late.
Victoria was by his side in an instant. “Well?” she asked impatiently.
“He didn’t want my help.” Murdoch dropped his head, his eyes focusing on the damp spot in dirt that was wet from his son’s blood.
“What did you expect – for him to just turn to you?” Victoria grasped her friend’s arm. “Go after him!”
“Why? He doesn’t want me…”
“You are a stupid fool, Murdoch Lancer! Of course he wants you – he’s your son! Now go after him!”
Murdoch glanced at his friend. Victoria Barkley was a strong woman who always spoke her mind, but this time he felt she was wrong. “No. When he needs me he’ll let me know…”
Victoria glared at Murdoch, shaking her head at his hopelessness before walking quickly down the street – following Heath and Johnny.
Heath ended up half walking, half carrying Johnny to the doctor’s office. The closer they got to their final destination the more Johnny was leaning into him. “Just a few more steps…” Heath promised as they made their way to the small, neatly kept house of Doctor Howard Merar. As they got to the front stairs, Johnny passed out, leaving Heath with no choice but to scoop his friend into his arms and carry him up the stairs. With his hands full of Johnny, Heath knocked on the door with the toe of his boot.
Howard Merar was an older doctor who was well acquainted with the Barkleys. The man opened the door and quickly took in the sight of Heath holding a bleeding man. “This way!” The door was opened wide as Heath carefully negotiated the opening, carrying Johnny to the examination room. “I heard the shots,” the doctor said as he quickly tore open Johnny’s shiva colored shirt. There was a large hole, about the size of a quarter just above Johnny’s right hip. “Rifle?” the doctor asked. Heath nodded and the doctor shook his head in dismay. “Help me roll him over,” gently they rolled Johnny to his left side and saw that there was no exit wound. “Damn!” the doctor swore, palpating the area where the bullet should have exited. His sensitive fingers felt the lump of a piece of lead just below the surface of Johnny’s skin. “That bullet has got to come out.” The doctor applied some gauze to the entry wound and, with Heath’s help, rolled Johnny to his stomach. “This a friend of yours?”
“An old friend,” Heath confirmed. “Is he going to be OK?”
“It depends on whether this bullet hit anything inside or not.” The doctor rinsed his hands with alcohol before picking up a scalpel. “You want to watch?”
Heath quickly shook his head, retreating to the waiting area, closing the curtain behind him.
With Johnny already unconscious, the doctor decided to forgo medicating him and made a quick incision where he had felt the lump of lead. The new wound bled profusely, but the doctor pressed on. With his fingers, he dug into the opened area and felt around for the piece of lead he knew was there. Finally, the tip of his right index finger touched something not natural to the human body. Grabbing a pair of large tweezers, he inserted them into the incision and dug out the bullet. Once the slug was out he continued to explore the wound, feeling for anything that felt amiss inside. Satisfied that the bullet had only torn through flesh and muscle, the doctor finished debriding the wound, picking out pieces of Johnny’s shirt from the damaged tissues. Sure that there was nothing more to be removed, he poured alcohol onto the wound before closing it.
Johnny, who had been unconscious, awoke at the onset of the pain caused by the liberal dousing of alcohol. The sudden sting shocked him to consciousness. A burning ache was searing his back. With his right hand he tried to swat away the offending bringer of pain.
“You’ve got to lie still,” the doctor commanded.
Johnny swallowed hard, unable to prevent a moan from escaping his lips. “What….?”
“You were shot. I had to dig out the slug. Now I’ve got to sew you up. You need something for the pain?”
“No….” Johnny whispered weakly as he gritted his teeth against the hurt that he knew would be coming next. “Jus’ get to it.” With both hands, he held a death grip on the legs of the table while the doctor sewed up his back.
Murdoch reluctantly followed Victoria to the Doctor’s clinic. “Where is he?” Victoria asked Heath as she entered the building.
“He’s in the back. The doc has to cut out the bullet,” Heath’s eyes turned from his mother to gaze at the tall gray haired man he had been introduced to earlier. His anger at Murdoch was evident. “Exactly who are you mister?”
Murdoch, not liking Heath’s tone of voice, raised his chin in response. “I’m Johnny’s father….” Before he could say another word, Heath pulled back his right arm and then flung it forward, his knuckles slamming into the side of Murdoch’s face. Stunned, the big man went down to the floor.
“Heath!” Victoria yelled, grabbing her son’s arm before he could land another blow.
“He nearly got Johnny killed by distracting him!” Heath shouted, his glaring eyes never leaving the white face of the older man. “What kind of man tries to get his own son killed?”
“I didn’t mean to…” Murdoch tried to explain, his hand rubbing his jaw. “I thought it was clear!”
Heath continued to glare at Murdoch while Victoria led him to a chair on the far side of the waiting room. She then turned and helped Murdoch to his feet. “Can I trust the two of you to remain calm while I check on Johnny?” Her eyes flashed from one man to the other before she was satisfied that they would remain apart. With an exasperated shake of her head, she went through the curtain that separated the waiting room from the surgery. “Howard?”
The doctor looked up from his handiwork. “I’m almost done here, Victoria.”
“Hurts like hell,” Johnny responded before the doctor could answer.
“The bullet went through muscle. He is very lucky…”
Johnny chuckled through clenched teeth at the comment. “Don’t feel so lucky…”
“There’s someone here to see you,” Victoria approached Johnny and knelt so that she could gaze into his eyes.
“Ain’t no body I need to see,” Johnny sucked in his breath as the doctor finished tying the last stitch on his back and applied a dressing.
“I need you to roll to your back. Can you manage?”
Johnny took a deep breath and used his left hand to push himself up so that he could roll over.
Murdoch entered the room and watched for a second as his son struggled to turn over. “Let me…” He went to Johnny’s side and was about to touch the injured man when…
“Get away from me Old Man!” Johnny hissed, his blue eyes flashing without ever actually focusing on his father.
“Johnny….. I’m sorry. I never….”
“That’s right – you never!” Johnny spat as he was finally able to lie on his back, his chest heaving from exertion.
“Is this really necessary?” The doctor asked, concerned that the entry wound was now bleeding though the temporary bandage.
“No, it is not,” Victoria waved Murdoch from the room and then laid a gentle hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “You rest. There is plenty of time for you to speak to your father…”
“He ain’t my father,” Johnny grasped Victoria’s arm with his left hand. “He don’t want anything to do with me, so I ain’t got no use for him…”
Victoria patted Johnny’s hand before she gently pried her arm from his grasp. “You rest and let the doctor finish.”
Johnny watched as she left the room. Whatever she had in mind was wrong. He had heard the words come from the great Murdoch Lancer himself. Johnny Lancer was dead; the Old Man had no use for a gunhawk as a son. “You almost done?” Johnny asked the doctor as he felt the sharp point of a needle digging into the flesh above his right hip.
“Why, you going somewhere?” The two men’s eyes met and they shared a moment of understanding. Howard realized Johnny wanted to leave, but the young man was in no condition to be moved.
Johnny, on the other hand, realized that he had met yet another doctor who would not be swayed by any of his charms. “I guess not.” A sigh escaped his lips and he let himself relax into the hard surface of the table.
Satisfied that his patient wasn’t going anywhere, Howard resumed his suturing. “Are you sure you don’t want anything for the pain? This is going to hurt.”
Johnny shook his head and found a focus point on the ceiling – a fly caught in a spider web. “You just do what you need to get done and I’ll stay still.” Steadying himself by taking slow breaths, Johnny focused on the fly as it desperately attempted to free itself. Johnny knew exactly how it felt.
When he was done, the doctor applied another piece of gauze and helped Johnny to sit up so he could wind a bandage around Johnny’s waist to hold the smaller bandages in place. When he was done, he helped Johnny lie back again. “I want you to stay here and rest while I go and speak with… your friends.” Johnny nodded his understanding and watched as the doctor picked up a rag to wipe his blood stained hands before making his way to the waiting room.
“How is he?” Murdoch anxiously stood up and went to face the doctor.
“Who exactly are you to that young man?” Howard asked the question as much to Murdoch as he did to Victoria and Heath.
“He’s my son…” Murdoch moved to go around the doctor, only to be held back as the doctor held up a red stained hand to bar Murdoch’s entrance to the surgery.
“Not according to him…”
“I don’t care what he says, I am his father!” Murdoch’s temper flared as he moved to go around the doctor.
“Strange,” Heath remarked moving to stand by the doctor. “Seemed to me that you were trying to get him killed out there.”
“I made a mistake. Now, please, let me see my son!”
Once again, Victoria moved to stand between the men. “Shut up all of you!” She commanded looking at all of the men. Only Heath had the decency to back off and move away in compliance to her wishes. “The only important thing here, right now, is Johnny. How is he, Doctor?”
Howard focused on his hands, trying to wipe the drying redness into the damp rag he held. “He lost some blood, but not a lot. The bullet only hit muscle. There doesn’t appear to be any internal injury. He’s got seven stitches in the back and five in the front. Is there any place he can go to rest?”
“We can take him back to the ranch,” Victoria offered. “We’ve got a wagon in town. Heath will bring it around when he’s able to be moved. Will that be alright?”
“That should do fine,” the doctor noted with grim satisfaction. “Now, tell me – is that really Johnny Madrid?”
“No,” Murdoch spoke up, his voice now focused and calm. “That’s my son – Johnny Lancer.”
Victoria gave him a small smile of approval. “Can we see him now?”
The doctor moved aside, allowing Victoria followed by Murdoch and Heath to enter the surgery. They found the table empty and the back door flung open wide. The doctor’s eyes opened wide in amazement. “Of all the fool hardy….”
“Heath, go see if you can find him.” Victoria ordered. With a quick nod, he ran out the back door of the building in search of his friend.
“Why?” the doctor asked looking at Victoria and the tall stranger.
Murdoch sighed, deflated. “My guess is that he doesn’t want to have anything to do with me.”
“He would jeopardize his health just to get away from you? If you’re his father, this doesn’t make any sense.”
“Nothing with Johnny ever does.” Murdoch put his hat on his head and stormed out the back door in search of the missing man.
“What do we do when we find him?” Victoria asked, reaching into her purse to pay the man for his troubles.
“You know the usual, Victoria. Keep him still and try to get some fluids into him to help replace the blood he lost.”
“Thank you, Howard,” Victoria pressed a wad of bills into the man’s hand and quickly followed Murdoch out the back door.
Howard shook his head, wondering what the entire story was. Was the man he just operated on Johnny Madrid or someone else? Turning to clean up the room, he decided that he would find out some other time. Scanning the messy area, he noticed that the door to the medicine cabinet was open. Curious, he did a quick inspection and found two small bottles missing – a brown one and a blue one. One he understood, it was a pain killer, but the other…? “Now what would anyone want that for?” Shaking his head once again, he closed the cabinet and began cleaning the blood that had stained his table.
Johnny had only made it around the block to an alley before he had to stop, the pain in his side taking his breath away. “Damn!” he swore as he pressed one hand against his back. In the other, he held the medicines that he had taken from the doctor’s office. He hated to steal, but if he survived the next few days, he would see that the man was repaid.
Bracing himself to move on, he heard the voices of two men as they approached where he was standing. Looking around the alley, he saw the opportunity to hide himself behind a wood box. As fast as he could, he slipped behind the box and held his breath, just as the two men came to a stop.
“Bushrod says that Bartch will give a hundred dollar bonus to whoever kills Madrid!”
The other man whistled. “Can’t imagine what Madrid did from last night to this mornin’ to get the boss so upset.”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care. A hundred dollars is a hundred dollars. We just got to make sure that he don’t leave town – alive!”
Hearing the words, Johnny sank back on his heels and leaned against the wall. Closing his eyes he thought furiously, something had happened. Somehow, Bartch now saw him as a threat. There was nowhere he could hide and recover – not with a bounty on his head. Opening his eyes, he peeked out from behind the box – the coast was clear. Before moving out he tucked the small bottles in his belt. It was a dangerous game he had been playing and now it was coming to an end.
Standing, he steadied himself against the wall of the building as he slowly made his way out to the street. He was trying to make it to the livery and to Barranca. Thinking that the only way he could get away would be on his horse. He was wrong.
“Madrid!” A man stepped out from the shadows of a building across the street.
Johnny stopped in the middle of the side street recognizing the voice of Floyd Brasure coming from behind him. Slowly he turned around to see that Brasure was standing twenty feet way with his gun pointing directly at Johnny’s heart. “I guess that I should have killed you when I had the chance.” Johnny said softly, straightening his stance.
“You always was a soft one, Madrid!” Brasure sneered. “I got a hundred extra dollars comin’ to me when I kill you. It won’t make up for this,” he held up his useless right hand. “But, it will make me feel better.”
Johnny exhaled and stared at the crippled gunman. Brasure had never been proficient shooting with his left hand. Now, he was holding the gun and it was wobbling. Johnny knew that if he moved just right, he could take Brasure. With steely eyes, Johnny watched as Brasure’s finger moved on the trigger of his gun. Johnny drew his own weapon, and the two guns fired simultaneously. Both men stood still for a moment before Brasure fell to the ground – dead.
A new sting sliced across the left side of Johnny’s ribs, and he felt the warmth of blood as it began to stream from this new injury. The pain was exquisite. Reaching into his belt, he took a small sip out of the blue bottle and tucked it back in its hiding place. The taste was bitter, just as he remembered, and he smiled as he felt the liquid it take hold of his body.
Once again, Heath appeared on the scene just after the shots had been fired. He arrived to see Floyd falling to the ground. Now he watched in horror as Johnny began to wobble on rubbery legs. Before he could reach him, Johnny crumpled to the ground. He was too late.
Murdoch arrived just a few seconds behind Heath; his eyes beholding the sight of his son lying on the dirt in the middle of the street. “Johnny!” Mustering whatever speed he could from his legs, he ran to where Heath was already kneeling beside the still form. “Help him!” Murdoch yelled.
Heath had placed two fingers against Johnny’s neck and hadn’t felt a thing. “Johnny!” he yelled shouting at his friend. There was no response. There was no breath, no rise and fall of Johnny’s chest, only the new red stain that had already stopped growing. “He’s….”
“No!” Murdoch, shouted, dropping to his knees, taking the still form of his son in his arms. “Come on Johnny! Wake up! You can’t die on me now!” For the first time, he had an opportunity to gaze at his son’s face. The sapphire eyes were open and the pupils fixed. The fire that had once sparked the orbs was gone. “Oh, God!” Murdoch groaned as he closed his son’s eyes before holding him close to his chest.
Heath stood, transfixed by the sight. The old man sat in the dirt, clinging to the dead body of his son. He never moved as his mother and the sheriff came running up. “Heath?” She asked, fearful of the sight that she was seeing.
The two o’clock train from San Francisco arrived to a silent town. There was no one at the station to meet the passengers as they debarked. Immediately Scott sensed that something was wrong. With no regard for Joel, he strode to the ticket booth. “Where is everyone?” he demanded.
“They all gone ta see the sight. Johnny Madrid ‘jes got hisself killed ….”
Scott’s eyes flew wide and his mouth opened. For a few seconds he was unable to speak. “Where?”
“Two blocks down on the right…” The clerk stared as the young man dropped his bag and ran down the street as fast as his long legs could carry him.
There was a crowd at the end of the street, and Scott had to fight his way through to get a look at what he prayed was a mistake. It was no error. His eyes beheld the sight of his father, sitting in the dirt, cradling the limp form of his younger brother. “No!” Scott shouted running up to the pair.
“He’s gone,” Murdoch whispered, his eyes brimming with unshed tears. He looked up at the stricken features of his eldest. For some reason, it just seemed natural that Scott was here. He didn’t know how or why – but Scott had appeared just when he needed him the most.
Scott knelt beside his father and reached out to touch the cooling face of his brother. Already the lips were turning blue. “You killed him…” Scott accused, wrestling the still form from Murdoch. “You must finally be happy. Johnny Madrid is dead…”
“No, Son….” Murdoch hadn’t the strength to maintain possession of Johnny’s body, but he would be damned if he were going to be blamed for this.
“Don’t speak to me!” Scott stood, cradling the limp form in his arms. “Where’s the doctor’s office?”
Heath was reeling. His friend was dead, and yet his secrets were still coming to light. Just minutes ago, he had learned that Murdoch Lancer was Johnny’s father. Now there was a blond haired man who arrived – only to be called ‘son’. Heath was too shaken to know how to respond to that. “This way,” He said, breaking through the crowd that had gathered. “Who are you?” he quietly asked the newcomer as the crowd parted.
“I’m Scott Lancer and this is my brother – Johnny.” He shot a hard look back at his father before turning to walk beside Heath. “Where is the doctor’s office?”
“This way,” Heath led Scott to Dr. Merar’s office. “Johnny never said he had a brother…”
“We just met a few months back. Our father….” Scott choked on the word as he shifted the limp body so that Johnny’s head now rested against his shoulder, his brother’s right arm swinging freely as they moved. “He can’t be dead…” Scott whispered, leaning his cheek on the crown of his brother’s head.
Heath shook his head knowing the truth. Johnny was gone. Heath opened the door to the small building and Scott hurried in, taking Johnny back to the surgery where the doctor was still cleaning up from his last treatment.
“Help him!” Scott pleaded as he laid Johnny on the table.
“What happened?” Howard asked, stunned to see his patient returned – unconscious.
“Doc,” Heath gave Howard a warning look, shaking his head.
“Help him!” Scott insisted.
Howard put his stethoscope in his ears and listened intently to Johnny’s chest. There was no heart beat, no breath sounds. “This man is dead,” he pronounced.
Murdoch recognized the wail that came from the doctor’s office. It was Scott’s voice, crying for the loss of his brother. His worst fears had now been confirmed by a doctor. Johnny was dead. The old man slowed his step, hesitant to once again enter the clinic. Suddenly he felt a hundred years old. Reaching the stairs, he leaned against the railing, trying to master the ache that was spreading throughout his chest. Closing his eyes, he feared what he would find inside. From the sound of Scott’s cry, he had every right to fear.
Victoria came up behind him, accompanied by the Sheriff. “Murdoch?” she asked gently, placing a hand on his. “Are you alright?”
“Alright?” Murdoch whispered, unable to fathom the depth of the question. He didn’t think that he would be ‘alright’ again – ever. Scott’s wild accusation out on the street was correct. He had finally killed Johnny Madrid and his last chance to know Johnny Lancer. “I may never be alright again in my life.” Murdoch responded despondently. Gathering himself, Murdoch stood tall and stoically climbed the steps to enter the building.
Accompanied by Victoria, Murdoch made his way back to the examination room. Scott had flung himself over Johnny’s body and was crying. “Scott….” Once again, Murdoch tried to reach out to a son, only to be turned away.
“You killed him!” Scott angrily accused Murdoch, slapping away the outstretched hand, his face smeared with bits of dirt that had clung to the wetness on his cheeks.
“Scott, I had no idea this would happen….”
“You never had any idea about anything, did you?” Scott accused. “You thought that it would be better to just turn your back, send him away. Well, this is the result! He’s dead! Do you feel better?”
Victoria moved to stand by Heath, silently slipping her hand into his. The young man stood, transfixed by the sight. For many years, he had thought of Johnny as a kindred spirit, a brother he never had. Now, that was gone. He stared at the tortured features of the blond stranger who claimed to be Johnny’s brother. Heath had no idea of the how’s or whys, but it was evident that Scott Lancer loved Johnny.
Wiping his face on the sleeve of his jacket, Scott turned away from his father. Scott called upon every bit of his military training to calm his emotions before reaching out to touch Johnny. Trembling hands stroked the still face, tracing the features as if to forever etch them in his memory. “Leave us,” Scott ordered in a whispered voice, unable to make eye contact with his father.
Howard looked to Victoria and together they gathered everyone from the room. Initially, Murdoch hesitated, but decided that perhaps it would be best if Scott got to say his goodbye in private.
Once the curtain was closed, Scott sat down on the doctor’s stool and studied Johnny’s face. It was as if the young man was in a deep unnatural sleep. In the months that they had been together, Scott could only remember one other time when Johnny had been so still. That was after he had been shot in the back by Pardee. The doctor had been able to save him then. There was no miracle now.
“I guess I always knew it would come to this.” Scott whispered, fingering a few strands of Johnny’s hair. He noticed that Johnny was noticeably thinner than he remembered, concluding that his brother’s last days had probably been unkind. “I’m sorry, Brother. I should have done more. I just didn’t realize that you were right – he did hate you. This never should have happened.” Scott closed his eyes, determined to fight back the tears that threatened to overwhelm him again. “I just want you to know, that the past six months have been the best of my life. That having you as my brother completed me in a way that I never knew I was missing…” A sob hitched in his chest, but Scott persevered to whisper the words that he had never said aloud. “I love you Johnny.” The tears fell now, dropping like rain onto Johnny’s chest. Scott took Johnny’s right hand in his own and raised it to his lips. Gently he kissed his brother’s hand. Before laying the hand back down, his fingers brushed against the beaded bracelet Johnny always wore. Wanting something to remember him by, Scott took the bracelet and wrapped it around his own wrist.
The devastated man stood and sucked in a deep breath. “Good bye, Johnny. God speed.” He turned and quickly made his way to the waiting room brushing past his father and out into the sunshine of what had once been a promising day.
Murdoch entered the room, his hat in his hand. This never should have happened. For once in his life he felt the full burden of his own actions. He had sent Catherine away to be safe; she died giving birth to Scott. He had turned Maria away with his cold indifference and had given up on his infant son at the same time. Six months ago, he summoned the boy back to help save the ranch. He had used Johnny – and once he was done, he readily threw the young man away like so much trash. Never had he taken the time to get to know or appreciate the man that the rest of his family loved without question.
Taking a seat on the stool, Murdoch put his hat on the side table and picked up Johnny’s hand. Victoria was right. He had never taken the time to get to know the man whose hand he had once held as a child. His self absorption in the ranch and his insistence on always calling the tune blinded him to the opportunities he had to get to know this son. He had relied on second hand information from that damned Pinkerton report and the reactions of his business associates rather than forming his own opinions. For the second time in his life, Murdoch lost Johnny. Only this time there was no bringing him back. He was gone.
With a shaky hand, he touched Johnny’s face. He looked so much like his mother, whom he had once loved with all of his heart. Closing his eyes, he remembered the baby that used to sleep so soundly in his arms. That child had loved him unconditionally. The remembrance jarred loose the block in his heart – flooding him with memories of how he had returned the love of that child tenfold. He remembered how Johnny’s birth had melted his cold Scottish heart and made his soul sing. The Lord had blessed him with a second son. Now his heart broke knowing that he had destroyed that same blessing – for a second time.
“Johnny,” Murdoch whispered as he studied the unmoving form. “My son…” He choked back the threatening emotions. He had to say the words. “I loved your mother. You were conceived of love – not by accident. When you were a child I loved you with all my heart – probably too much. That may have been part of what drove your mother away – I don’t know for certain. When she took you, I thought my love for you died with my love for her. I was wrong. I built my walls high to keep you out. There is no reason – no excuse that I could possibly give to explain it – except I was wrong. It was my head that was always getting in the way of the love for you that has always been there. I should have done more to find you. I should have done more to get to know you. I’m sorry, Son, for being a foolish old man. I swear, I never wanted you dead. I never wanted you to leave Lancer – ever. It was where you were born and by God, it will be where you are laid to rest. It is your home….” The dam broke and the tears began to flow. “I’m sorry that I never said these words to you. I can only pray to God that you can hear them now. I love you, John Lancer. I hope that someday we will meet again and I can tell you…”
The old man sat for a long time, letting the tears flow. He had once heard that tears were God’s gift to man, a way of washing away sin and making the soul clean again. In his heart, Murdoch knew that no amount of crying could ever wash away the stain that was now permanently a part of his spirit. Wiping his face on the handkerchief he pulled from his back pocket, Murdoch kissed his son’s forehead. Standing, he placed his hat back on his head. “Be with the angels, my son. One day we will be together….” With that said, Murdoch slowly made his way back to where Victoria was waiting.
On the table, the last rays of the afternoon sun were streaming through the lead paned windows. An almost ethereal light surrounded the still form, illuminating the path of a single tear as it coursed its way down an unmoving cheek.
“I want to take him home, to Lancer…” Murdoch announced to everyone present. A quick sweep of the room with his eyes confirmed that Scott was already gone.
“Fine. I’ll have the undertaker come…” Howard started.
“No undertaker!” Murdoch’s eyes flashed. “I want him to stay here. I don’t want prying eyes trying to catch a last glimpse of ‘Johnny Madrid’. Can you do that? Keep him here? I’ll have a ….coffin…” Murdoch faltered, but pressed on. “One will be sent over, but I don’t want him laid out for everyone to see. It won’t be for long…”
Victoria looked to Howard, who nodded his understanding – for her sake. “That will be fine. I’ll take care of preparing the body….” With nothing more to say, Howard returned to the examination room where he locked the back door and drew the curtains.
Satisfied that his wishes would be carried out, Murdoch stepped out into the waning daylight. “Just tell me – why? What was Johnny doing here?”
“That, Mr. Lancer, seems to be the thousand dollar question,” Fred responded looking to Heath for some help. “Heath?”
Heath looked at the group. “You had better round up Scott, ‘cause I’m only gonna say this once.”
At five o’clock, a group assembled in Jarrod Barkley’s office. Among the expanded assemblage was Nick Barkley and an unknown friend of Scott’s who was there at the insistence of the grieving Lancer.
Heath had the floor, pacing slightly. “Johnny Madrid arrived here several days ago looking for work. As many of you know, we’re in the middle of a range war with the Circle A…” The eyes of Scott’s friend grew wide with surprise, but the man remained silent. “I tried to hire Johnny on at our ranch, but I was met with some opposition…” Heath cut a glare at his family.
“What my son is trying to say, is that I didn’t know who Johnny Madrid was and under the circumstances I thought that it would be best if we checked out his story – that he fought against Day Pardee six months ago. That is initially why I sent for you, Murdoch. Johnny said that he was there and I wanted to hear your side of that fight. It was only yesterday that he told me that he was your son….” Heath’s eyes flashed at this new piece of news. The look did not go unnoticed by Victoria who turned to address her son. “I’m sorry Heath. He seemed so… ashamed of it that I couldn’t tell you. It was something that he would have to do for himself…”
“Ashamed?” Scott harrumphed. “He’s not the only one…”
“Scott…” Murdoch started, but Scott had refused to turn to face him.
The tension in the room was mounting by the second. “I think Heath should continue,” Jarrod said trying to regain control of the situation.
Heath gave his brother a grateful smile, and continued. “I’ve known Johnny for almost ten years. I’m sure that many of you know him by his reputation, but I know him differently. At one time he rode with a rough crowd and did some bad things – but that was when he was young, a long time ago. To me, he has always been a good friend and a good man. When he found out what was happening here, he decided that someone needed to take up for the smaller ranchers – the ones without the means to protect themselves. He made it his mission – placing himself at risk. He was the one who set the horses loose the other night. He was the one who stampeded the cattle. He did it all so that the men of the Circle A were too busy to go out and hurt anyone – until last night.”
“What happened last night?” Scott asked with interest.
“The Circle A raided the home of a poor Mexican couple, just because their ranch lies between the Circle A and the Barkley Ranch. What they didn’t know was that Johnny had been to that ranch earlier in the day and he had given the couple three hundred dollars to find a place to hide in Stockton…”
“How do you know that?” Scott interrupted.
“Bernardo Cardoza, told me. It was his sister’s place that was burned.”
“So, if Johnny was riding with the Circle A men last night – what happened today?”
Jarrod stood and moved from behind his desk to stand next to Heath. “As near as we can tell Ned Bartch must have gotten wind of Johnny’s deceit and ordered him killed…”
“Murdered? My son was murdered?” Murdoch’s mind was reeling. He had thought that Johnny was killed in a simple street fight – so typical of the life of a gunman. Now, he had just learned that Johnny had actually been fighting for something that had gotten him killed.
“Mr. Lancer,” Fred started. “I’ve spoken with a wrangler who quit the Circle A today. He said that the gunmen were sent to town to make sure that Johnny Madrid….your son, was killed. I’m told Ned Bartch put a hundred dollar bounty on your son’s head and the instructions were not to come back until Mad… Johnny was dead.”
“Oh, God,” Joel groaned from his chair.
All eyes turned to the stranger. None were more piercing than Scott Lancer’s. “What do you know about this?” he demanded.
“Who are you?” Jarrod asked for the benefit of everyone present.
Joel looked about the room; sickened that he was the one ultimately responsible for all that had happened. “I’m Joel Todd. I own the Circle A.”
Jarrod looked at his family and then at the white faced easterner who now claimed to be the owner of the Circle A. It seemed incongruous that this fleshy young man could be the driving force behind the recent raids. “Tell us, Mr. Todd, what do you know about all of this?”
Joel glanced nervously about the room, carefully avoiding the stares of Murdoch and Scott Lancer. “I met Ned Bartch a few months back. I told him that I, and a group of investors, have money and were willing to pay for the biggest ranch in the valley. He said that he knew Stockton and that if I gave him the means, he would get me the results that I wanted. I just never thought that he would turn to violence….”
“And just what did you think he’d do?” Nick Barkley had been silent long enough. His family had been placed at risk for a business venture. One man was dead, families burned out of their homes – he had had enough.
“I never thought that he would use violence…” Joel repeated, not liking the glare the tall rancher was giving him.
Nick snorted and walked up to the sniveling easterner. “Well I got news for you – he did! You should see what your money has done to this valley….”
“Nick!” Victoria sharply called to her son, reminding him of his place.
Rolling his eyes, Nick returned to his seat, fuming at the waste of it all.
“So, you own the Atlantic Land Corporation?” Jarrod asked, raising his eyebrows.
“Yes. I own it with a group of investors from back east…”
“Damn easterners…” Nick fumed.
“Not another word, Nicholas!” Victoria warned.
“But that don’t make no sense…” Heath had been quietly taking in this new information, and was trying to fit it in with the bits and pieces of news he had heard around town. “From what I hear, Bartch has a partner who was recently out at the ranch. The barber told me that Johnny had been asking questions about him…”
“I’ve never been to the Circle A,” Joel admitted quietly.
Scott sat up straight in his chair. “Do you think that is why Bartch had my brother killed?”
“It would make sense,” Jarrod concluded. “If Johnny was nosing around and found out something Bartch wanted to keep secret – then he’s ruthless enough to order a man killed…It isn’t any secret that he hates us. It could be that Ned and his partner were trying to figure a way to make a run at our ranch – using Mr. Todd’s money! Mr. Todd, does Ned know that you were coming to town?”
“Yes, I sent him a telegram this morning, telling him I was coming in with Scott Lancer….”
“Then you should go. Find out what you can and then come back to town…”
Joel’s eyes grew wide with fear. “I can’t! What if he finds out that I know about his other partner?”
“How can he know that? The only one who knew was Johnny and he’s dead…” Jarrod stopped, realizing how cold his words were.
“I’d like to go too.” Scott stood and all eyes were on him. “Joel’s telegram said that he was bringing me….”
“Scott, no!” Murdoch Lancer, who had been silent for much of the discussion, was finally compelled to say something.
Scott regarded his father with cool blue eyes. “Someone has to do this – for Johnny. I need to know if my brother died for something…”
Murdoch hung his head. There would be no arguing with Scott about Johnny. Not anymore. “I just don’t want something to happen to you, too.”
There was nothing that Scott could say in response. “It’s too late for us to go out today. Let’s get a room and head out in the morning…”
“You could stay at the ranch…” Victoria suggested.
“Is he,” Scott nodded towards his father, “staying there?”
“Then, thank you, no. I don’t think I could stomach the thought of staying under the same roof with him.” With that said Scott and Joel excused themselves and left.
All eyes drifted toward Murdoch. The tall man seemed broken. He had lost so much in just one afternoon. Victoria felt for him, realizing her own small part in the tragedy that had happened. “Come home with us, Murdoch….”
“I have one chore to take care of.” Murdoch put his hat on and headed toward the door.
At nine o’clock Val Crawford came riding into the Lancer ranch, his horse lathered from the hard ride. Jelly, who had been up with Cipriano tending to a foaling mare, came out of the barn, wiping his messy hands on his pants. “Val? What in blue blazes brings ya out at this time ‘o night?”
Val dismounted and nervously glanced at the house. “Is Teresa up?”
Cipriano came out of the barn to see what was going on. The old Segundo had an immediate bad feeling about the presence of the lawman at the ranch so late. “What is it Señor?”
“I got news from Stockton…”
“Oh God, Murdoch….” Jelly whispered fearing that something had happened to the boss. “Come on, I’ll get ‘er up….”
As they headed toward the door, Val caught Jelly’s arm and held him back. “It ain’t Murdoch…”
Jelly and Cipriano stopped cold in their tracks. “Not Murdoch? Then what…?”
“Inside…” was all that Val could muster. There was no point in saying what had to be said twice.
The massive door opened as the men stepped onto the porch. Teresa stood in the light, her robe clutched tightly about her. “Val? What are you doing here?” she asked as she let the three men in.
Val immediately walked to the sideboard and poured himself a stiff drink. Wiping his mouth on the back of his hand he looked nervously about the room. “A telegram came into town tonight – from Stockton….” He pulled a crumpled paper from his jacket pocket. “I didn’t want you hearin’ this from jes’ anyone…”
“Val, you’re scaring me…” Teresa looked at Jelly and Cipriano for strength, only to find that they too were nervous about Val’s news. All were convinced that something bad had happened.
Jelly slipped a supporting arm around the girl’s waist. “Go on – git it said…”
Val looked at the whiskey bottle wishing for one more sip of courage before continuing. “The telegram is from Murdoch…” his heart broke when he saw the look of relief on Teresa’s face. The next words were going to be the worst he’d ever spoken in his entire life. “It’s about Johnny… he’s dead.”
Val watched Teresa who, like a slow moving cloud, turned white and collapsed against Jelly. There was a sudden flurry as the three men scrambled to prevent her from falling to the floor. Cipriano scooped her up in his strong arms, carrying her to the couch where he gently laid her down.
“Por favor, Señor – what does the Patron say?”
“He says that there was some sort of trouble and that Johnny got killed. He wants Jelly to bring a wagon and meet him in three days at the train station in Green River. He wants Johnny buried at home…”
“Home?” Jelly looked around the grand living room. “This ain’t Johnny’s home; that boy ain’t got no home – ‘ol Murdoch done seen ta that!” Jelly cursed as the tears began to brim at the corners of his eyes. “That boy wer jus too good for Lancer….”
Val chewed his lip, completely understanding the emotions Jelly was trying to contain. Johnny had been too good for Lancer. The lawman swore to himself that he would find out what happened and if there was any avenging to be done, he would do it. Val took off his badge and placed it on Murdoch’s desk. “I’m going to Stockton and I’m going to find out what happened. Who’s going with me?” Both Jelly and Cipriano stood tall, volunteering to accompany the former law man. Val smiled knowing that it was Johnny who had inspired such loyalty. “One of you will have to stay here until Mr. Lancer gets back.”
Jelly and Cipriano looked at each other, each wanting to be the one to go. Finally, Cipriano shook his head. “I will stay here – until they bring Juanito home.”
“Good man….” Val stopped as Teresa seemed to be coming around. “You’d better get Maria and tell her what happened. Teresa is gonna need help…”
“Si…” Cipriano nodded and went through the dining area to the kitchen where Maria had a small room of her own.
“When you thinkin’ of leavin’?” Jelly asked.
“First thing in the morning; someone’s gonna pay for this – pay dearly.”
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