Reunion by Laura Roybal

Word count 196,885

Part 1


Two men, alike as brothers.  Both had dark hair and pale eyes.  Both wore stylish short jackets and polished boots.  Silver spurs jangled at their heels.  Both wore heavy cartridge belts weighted down with a pair of pistols.  One was twenty-five, mustached, pale skin turning pink from the intense sun.  The other was still seventeen, smaller, slimmer, his warm, ivory complexion seeming to drink up the sun, not fry in it.  Together they pushed aside the heavy woolen blanket that hung over the doorway of the cantina, stepping from the heat and light outside to the cool, dark inside.  Tom Pardieu and Johnny Madrid.  Pardieu, the mustached one, stepped immediately up to the bar.  Madrid stayed near the doorway, his back to the cool adobe of the wall until his eyes adjusted better to the gloom.

“Dos cervesas,” Pardieu called in poorly accented Spanish, banging on the bar.

“Lo siento, señor, no tenemos cervesa.  Tenemos jugo de manzana que esta muy fresca.  Pero no cervesa.”

Pardieu looked at the bartender long and slow while asking in English,  “Did he call me a dog?”

Behind him, Madrid chuckled.  “El jugo esta bien, gracias,”  he called to the bartender.


“The man has no beer, Tom.  He offered us apple juice.”

“Apple juice?  Juice?  Not even cider, I suppose?”

“I guess not, he said it was fresh.”  Madrid moved to a table that kept his back in the corner, still grinning at his companion.

“Hell!”  Pardieu slapped a hand on the bar again, causing the bartender to jump, slopping the juice he was pouring from a stone jug over the tops of the glasses and onto the floor.  The glasses were brought around the bar to the table and were deposited in front of Madrid, even though it was Pardieu who had made the initial order.

“Gracias,”  Madrid said, sitting upright.  “Tienes comida aquí?”

“Si.  Posole.”

“No tienes enchiladas?”

“No.  Solamente posole.”

“Posole por dos, entonces.  Y pan.  Tienes pan?  Tortillas?”

“Pan frito. Veinte-cinco centavos cada uno para la comida.”

“Bueno.  Traigalo.”

The barkeeper vanished through another blanketed doorway to the back.  Pardieu slid his right hand gun out of its holster and pointed it at the blanket.  “Bang!”  he shouted.

Madrid picked up one of the glasses of juice and slouched back into a comfortable position, feet up on the table, smiling.

“Hell of a bar they have in this town!  No beer.  How do they stay in business?”

“Serving meals and tequila, I suppose,”  Madrid said, sipping the juice.  It was cold from the stone jug and tasted of little sweet-sour apples.

“What did you order us for dinner?”  Pardieu asked.  He put  his gun away and walked over to sit at the table.

“Posole and fried bread.”

“Goddamn it!  What are we doing down here, Johnny?  Seriously, son, what are we doing here?  We’re wasting our talents in this dump.  We could be hitting it big time up in the States.”

“We’re getting paid good.”

“We could be getting paid better.  We should demand a cut of the final deal.”

“What final deal?  These two patrons are going to fight it out, they’ll kill a few men, a few sheep.  Big deal.  When it’s all over and done, you know who’s going to get most of the land?  The Mexican Government.  Not you, not me, not the men who are paying us to fight for them.”

“Not if we were working in the States.”  Pardieu said.  The bartender arrived with their dinner on a tray:  two big earthenware bowls full of a boiled corn soup with mutton fat and neck bones, and a basket of greasy fried bread.  Pardieu looked at it and spat.  

“Bah!  Sheepherder food.  You know,”  his voice changed as he changed the subject.  “Up north right now there’s prime hunting for men like you and me.”

“Sure there is.  That’s why we came down here in the first place.”

“We came down here in the first place because that one sheriff was getting too pushy.  No.  Listen.  In the southwest, the territories are entirely open land….”

“Except for where there’s already people living.”

“Right, right.  But see, there’s a lot of people who don’t think the Mexes should be allowed to keep what they should have lost after the war with Mexico, right?  And then there’s these smart types who came in and laid claim to thousands of acres they got no real right to.  So now, especially now with all the soldiers home from the War and looking for something new, there’s a lot of settlement going on.  People come in to claim their hundred and sixty acres from the government, and there’s people already living there, without papers.  There’s going to be a lot of fighting.  People are going to be willing to pay, pay big, for someone to do the killing for them.”

Madrid just shook his head, smiling, and ate his dinner.


“You’re crazy, Tom.”

“Why?  Cause I admit what we do for a living?  You and your damn ‘body guard’.  Call yourself a ‘body guard’ if you want, all you are is a hired killer.”

“So?”  Madrid said.

So… Pardieu had no answer to that.  He laughed instead, the way Madrid always laughed at him.  He laughed, and Madrid laughed, and he stood up and walked out of the cantina without even giving a thought to paying.  He was a pistolero.  Pistoleros didn’t pay, they took.  Besides, he hated posole and fried bread.  Madrid, who had finished his meal, stood to follow, but he stopped to leave a small heap of coins on the bar on the way out.  The money covered the meals twice over, and the bartender smiled warmly and waved when he left.

On the street, Madrid easily caught up to Pardeiu.

“This place is dead,”  Pardieu said flatly.  “I’m moving out.”

“I guess I’ll stay.”

“Why?”  Pardieu demanded.

Madrid shrugged.  “Why not?”

“I don’t understand you!”  Pardieu said with a sudden rush of anger.  “I just don’t….”

Madrid’s hand flew to his gun so fast it was out and speaking before Pardieu’s words even trailed to a halt.

My best friend’s killed me, Pardieu thought wildly.  And even as that thought struck, a white-hot fury engulfed his mind.  He would die, but Madrid would die for killing him.  His rage was so intense that his hands shook and he clawed at the gun at his side instead of being able to slide it out in one fast, sure move.


The gentle voice cut through his rage instantly, an anchor for him to cling to in the tornado of his fury.  That voice had grounded him before many times, speaking softly, drawing him back to reality, convincing him to flee or take other action rather than wallow in his anger.  He blinked, became aware that Johnny was nodding.  Not nodding, pointing — in that odd southwestern habit of his — with his chin.  Danger.  But what did danger mean when he was dying, dying, and he would take that smug son-of-a-bitch down too…


He looked in the direction Johnny was indicating, seeing nothing at first, thinking, it was a trick to get him to turn his back so Madrid could shoot him again.  But then he realized there was a man lying behind him on the street, a man already dead from the massive wounds in his chest, but whose hand was still spasming around the butt of the gun he held.  It took a moment for the fury to fade enough for Tom to realize that Johnny had not killed him.  He had saved his life.  He had not shot Pardieu.  He had shot past him, at a man who was threatening both of them.

Shot past him.

“Don’t do that again!”  Pardieu growled.  Those shots had been too close for comfort, even if they hadn’t hit him.

“Just doing my job,”  Madrid said.  He ejected the three empty shells and replaced them with fresh cartridges before putting his pistol back in its holster, sliding it back gently without any silly twirling or playing about.  Pardieu walked over and looked down at the dead man.  There were three neat holes in his chest, close enough together that he could cover all three with a playing card.  At least one of them had hit the heart.  He glanced up again at Madrid, standing there, smiling softly.  Pardieu searched his face, but Madrid’s eyes, as always, were in the shadow of his hat brim, shaded and unreadable.  Pardieu felt a shiver on the back of his neck, but he stopped it before it could get loose and slide down his spine.  He himself liked to kill men for the feeling of power it gave him.  He knew men who liked to see blood or suffering, or just plain didn’t like people, any people.  They made good killers.  This boy was different though.  He didn’t like it, wouldn’t talk about it, and did it with a cold-blooded efficiency Pardieu could not begin to match.  And the thing was, he knew that if he could believe Madrid would shoot him point blank like that, it was because — even after four years together, not to mention that they had just sat down to a meal together – he could. 


It was well before dawn when Murdoch Lancer gave up any pretense of sleeping and rolled out of bed.  Though it was mid-summer, the thin, dry mountain air held a bite to it that made him shiver as he splashed cold water on his face and pulled on clean clothes.  To avoid waking anyone else, he slipped quietly through the silent house and out to the stable before putting on his riding boots.  But standing there in the dark, he knew no one else was stirring.  The ranch held a feeling of stillness that could only mean that everyone in the house, and in the bunk house, was asleep.  Even in here, it was quiet.  The humid dark was laced with the gentle breath of equine dreams.  Murdoch saddled his horse in the pitch black, wincing as the door creaked when he opened it.  He led the sleepy horse out into the dooryard and paused, staring at the broad back of the big house, its many windows gleaming like square pools in the light of a nearly-full moon, and, opposite, at the bunkhouse nestled at the foot of the hills.  No light shone anywhere.  No smoke rose from the chimneys.  It was too early even for the cook to be stirring.  If anyone was likely to see him swing into his saddle and walk his horse slowly out of hearing range before kicking it into a gentle lope, it would have been Johnny, who was nearly as restless at night as Murdoch was himself.  But Johnny was off on the far side of the ranch, checking fences with Scott.

The horse shook its head in protest at being forced into service at such an hour, but the road was familiar and the moon was bright and soon they were loping along at a steady, even gait.  Which Murdoch immediately slowed.  Town was a good distance away and it would take hours to get there, but if he rushed the trip, he would arrive before anyone there was awake, and he knew he would be unable to sit quietly, waiting.  He’d gone to bed, knowing he could do nothing until morning, and this was the result.  He had to learn more.  But the information would not be available until after first light.

The missive that had stolen Murdoch’s rest was a note scribbled on the back of an unused sales invoice that had been handed to Mills Johnson late yesterday afternoon when Johnson was leaving town with the ranch’s weekly mail packet.  The note was from Harlow Benson, who had run the dry goods store in town from 1855 to 1888, and now spent most of his time sitting on the porch of the big, new store, rocking and listening to gossip while his grandson and three hired girls worked behind the counter.   All it said was,

“Fellow in town claiming to be a Texas
lawman asking a lot of questions about you and
    your boys, specifically probing into July of
   1870.  Thought you should know.”            

Johnson had stuffed the note into the packet of mail and handed the whole thing to Teresa when he rode in.  Teresa had, in turn, dropped it on the desk in the ranch office, leaving all the mail for Scott to deal with when he came back from his fencing trip.  Murdoch, just by chance, had been in the office after dinner and, noticing the packet, had leafed through it in idle curiosity.  Nothing personal was in it, and the bills and other documents were not urgent.  The note fell to the floor, sliding from where it had been stuffed between envelopes, and he almost tossed it away when he first glanced at it, seeing it was blank on the face.  Then he saw the writing.  Then he read it.  And his agitation had been growing ever since.

It was probably nothing.  What would a Texas lawman have to do with any of them, after all?  Murdoch knew he had never been to Texas, and was pretty sure neither of his sons had either.  Scott had lived in the east before moving out here, and he had left the state only once since, that one business trip to meet with the Australian cattlemen.  Johnny, of course, had been all over the west in his younger days.  Johnny could have been anywhere.  And when it came to Johnny — or Scott, for that matter — certain dates stuck out clearly in Murdoch’s mind.   Most specifically, July of 1870.  July 18th, 1870.

Murdoch caught himself urging the horse faster again, and eased back on the rein.  The animal pranced sideways, unhappy with his apparent inability to decide whether or not he was in a hurry.  He was in a hurry.  But all he could do was wait.  And all he could think about as he rode, the night stilling and starting to lift around him, was riding home to the ranch thirty-seven years ago, and finding it empty.  He’d been gone nearly a month, pushing stock to the mining camps to the north.  It was a drive very much shorter than the ones that would become famous in later decades, as cattle were driven from the plains in Texas and Montana to the railheads in places like Belle Fourche, Abilene and Dodge City, but it was still a great deal longer than he had wanted to be away from his wife and son.  The boy might have learned to walk while he was gone!  Or started talking!  He wasn’t sure how early babies could do those things, he just knew he wanted to get home, get there as quickly as possible, see his wife, see his son, hold them both till they squirmed to get free.  He had run up the ruined front porch yelling, “I’m home!  Espe!  I’m back!  Johnny?”  But there’d been no answer.  He thought at first maybe she was in the back somewhere, maybe working herself on one of the old rooms, maybe meaning to surprise him by fixing up a bedroom.  The huge house was mostly a ruin — they lived entirely in the big, main, front room.  He meant to fix it up, make it livable, make it the palace they deserved.  In fact, he had already started on the project, shoring up walls, replacing rotting wood.  But right now, they needed cash money to pay taxes and buy little shoes and dresses for the baby, and he’d gone off to get them that.  And came home to an empty house.

Well, it was summer.  The weather was fine.  Maybe they’d gone down to the creek for a picnic, or to go fishing.  But he searched the creek, the barn out back.  He looked everywhere, and couldn’t find a trace of them.  And the more he looked, the deeper his sense of dread became.  The chickens and turkeys were living wild:  no one had fed them or gathered eggs in weeks.  The cow in the pen out back had died:  no one had let it out to graze or watered it.  The horse, he realized slowly, was gone.  And what else?  Her trunk.  Her clothes.  The baby’s things.  Exhausted as he and his horse both were, he swung back into the saddle and rode hard into town.

He asked questions, banged on doors and demanded information from strangers when friends couldn’t help him.  Where were they?  Where had they gone?  With whom?  How long ago?  He finally found someone who had seen her leaving town, more than three weeks ago in the company of a man who had come through, selling hoop skirts and corsets.  Without even stopping to pack, he started after them.  He rode from town to town, remembering to eat only when he became too dizzy to stay on his horse, eventually falling off, lying in the mud in a forested section of road, and sobbing.  Because they were gone. He was never going to find them.    Esperanza had been dumped by the drummer at the first town they came to.  He had liked her pretty face and full, young figure, but hadn’t cared for the screaming of a baby.  But Murdoch hadn’t found her there.  He followed one lead after another, and finally the leads trickled off, faded.  He left messages wherever he went:  Please, come home.  I love you!  Please come home!

But he never saw them again.

Winter came, and icy winds blew through the open window holes and leaking roof of the huge, old house.  He stayed huddled in a narrow passage behind the front stairs, an area he was certain the original builders had specifically designed as a safe place, where arrows and bullets could not penetrate.  Winds could, if not so well as in other areas, and eventually he made a fire.

And that was the start of the healing.

He built a fire to keep warm.  Then he started cooking food instead of nibbling on the hardtack and dried fruit that was all that was left in the pantry.  Then he washed himself.  Soon, he discovered that the pain was more bearable if he worked than if he sat reflecting over and over on what had gone wrong, what had caused her to leave, why she would take his son with her and disappear like that.  He threw himself into work, working on repairs by lamplight long into the night after riding all day around the acres, checking cattle, checking water.  He bought a dog to help with the stock.  He planted a garden in the spring.  He worked and worked, and years faded past, one after another.  Eventually there were outbuildings, hired hands.  Even fences.  And then there was Eugene O’Brien, a neighbor with a small spread, sinking fast.  A neighbor who was never much good at anything, and who sat and did nothing when his wife left.  His wife had left behind his daughter, though.  Murdoch thought he was extremely fortunate for that, even if Eugene thought it just meant more work for himself.  Murdoch and O’Brien became partners, and Murdoch invited the man and his daughter to come and live in the big, rambling — and very, very empty — ranch house with him.  So, there was a child living there, finally.  A girl-child, and not his own, but that was what the house was meant for:  family.  He hired a woman to look after the girl and do the cooking and cleaning, and the big old place began to resemble a home.

And he gave up on any thought of ever seeing his son again.

Until he woke out of a fever dream one day to have Teresa clutch tearfully at his hand and tell him, “They’re coming!  I sent for them just like you asked, and they’re both coming.”

A sniper, waiting up in a church steeple for just such an opportunity had shot Murdoch and O’Brien both in the back as they were riding home from a town meeting, called to see what could be done about the gun-happy land-grabbers that had infiltrated now that land and cattle were both worth real money.  O’Brien, he discovered, had died instantly.  He himself had a bullet lodged near the spine and had been operated on twice.  Sometime in his fever or drug delirium, he must have talked about his sons.  Not just the baby that Esperanza had taken, but the other one, too.  Scott.  He hadn’t even thought about Scott in years.  Before he had come to California, before he had met Esperanza and her aging father, before he had invested in the ramshackle house and the few acres that originally were all that went with it, he had had another wife.  Larissa Sebastien.  He’d been working as a freight driver, hauling goods between town and the dwindling coal mines of the Appalachian mountains, and Larissa had come west with her father to inspect the hole in the ground in which he had been offered shares at a rock-bottom price.  He was not impressed.  For good reason: coal, in the 1840s was not a terribly lucrative proposition.  Coal mining would peak again  in twenty or thirty years, when mining all over the west, railroads and industry became major players in the American economy, but it was not at that time a good investment for a high-powered Bostonian lawyer.   He had been even less impressed with the big, raw-boned, sunburned man who had taken to sitting with his daughter on the hotel porch in the evenings.  He threatened to have Murdoch run out of town on a rail.  Murdoch left before he could:  he and Larissa eloped.  Sebastien had offered Murdoch a job to bring his daughter back into the family, back to Boston.  Murdoch had declined, laboring instead in the dusty coal mines when Larissa complained that the freight-driving job took him too far from home and kept him away too long.  They had gone to Boston, though, a year later.  When Larissa found herself with child she allowed her family to take her back into the comfort of their big home, and Murdoch had found himself apprenticed as a clerk in her father’s big law firm, a job he hated  even more than digging for coal, but tolerated for her sake.  It was, at that time, considered fashionable for young ladies to be too delicate for the rigors of childbirth, and after Larissa suffered no more than three hours of early-stage, mild labor, the family physician decided to end her “torment” with a Caesarean delivery.   Surgery was in its infancy in those days, such things as anesthetics had not yet been developed.  It took her father, two uncles and both brothers to hold Murdoch down when he tried to run upstairs to end the screams as the doctor cut into her flesh.  She and the child survived the ordeal, but Murdoch sat by her bed for two weeks, watching her die slowly of infection and blood poisoning, holding her hand as she slid farther and farther away from him.  The family blamed him, of course.  Turned him out of the house, fired him from his “job.”  He considered demanding his son from them, but the boy was being cared for by his doting grandmother and a wet nurse, and they convinced him that Scott deserved this chance not only at a comfortable upbringing and good education, but at life itself: a man alone could not care for an infant.  So, he left Scott behind, traveling west in search of a new life, a new beginning.  He’d barely known the boy, had been too heartbroken, mourning the loss of the child’s mother, to even give a thought as to what handing over the infant meant.  Then.  Later he had regretted it.  But later he had had Johnny:  a fat, laughing, dark-haired baby with his mother’s round cheeks and Murdoch’s own blue eyes.  Murdoch had gotten to see him grow from a helpless bundle interested only in warm milk and dry nappies to a small person with an actual personality.  He hadn’t liked beets.  Murdoch remembered how he had turned his head away, screaming, shaking it violently if you tried to feed him mashed beets.  He had liked oat porridge though.  With lots of brown sugar and raisins.  He’d open his little pink mouth and let you put a spoon of that inside.  But no beets, thank you very much.

And Murdoch remembered him crawling around the dusty yard outside, exploring, poking his fat little fingers into everything — and then sticking everything he grabbed into his mouth…

And they were coming.

“How?”  he asked.

“I hired those Pinkerton men to find them,”  Teresa said, young enough to be proud of herself, to be totally unaware of the fear and pain in Murdoch’s eyes.  “It was easy enough finding Scott.  You still had his grandparent’s names and address.  Johnny was much harder, because he was using a different name.  But they found them both, and they’ll be here, any day.”

“What did you tell them?”  he asked, wondering why two boys — no, they’d both be grown men by now — would agree to come clear across the country to the bedside of a man they had never known.

“Just that you were in trouble,”  Teresa said, but she avoided his eyes, and finally he pried the whole story out of her.  She’d bribed them!  She’d used his name and sent messages that he would pay a thousand dollars cash just to see them again, to talk to them for a few moments.

He’d been horrified.  He tried to send messages to cancel the whole thing, but it was too late by then.  He’d been laid up for over a month, and both boys were already on the road somewhere, on their way to see him.  He had his lawyer sell off some mining shares and managed to get together the cash Teresa had promised them (A thousand dollars each! Her father’s daughter all right.  Money had never meant anything to O’Brien either — especially when someone else supplied it!).  And he had waited, walking a bit each day, until he was at least ambulatory if still damaged when they arrived, both on the same day — July 18, 1870.

He hadn’t been able to bring himself to face them immediately.  He waited in his own room until they were given rooms, given a chance to look around.  The place was something to be proud of now.  If Scott knew anything about him, it would be that he’d been an unemployed nobody when he left Boston twenty-five years ago.  If Johnny’s mother had told him anything — or if (was it possible?) he remembered anything himself — it would be memories of an ancient, leaky ruin, poverty and hard work.  But the house was fully restored, now.  All the downstairs floors were of polished flagstone.  They were big, spacious rooms, with fresh, white plaster, and clean, oiled log ceilings.  The kitchen was big, comfortable and well stocked.  There was a small but formal dining room off the kitchen, and upstairs a whole row of bedrooms that all opened onto balconies that faced the rising sun, not to mention several suites downstairs, with private walled gardens…

He met them in his office, his favorite room in the sprawling house.  It was nearly as big as the living room and, added on to one side of the house, it had windows facing three directions.  There was a huge stone fireplace with comfortable couches and chairs arranged around it, real mahogany coffee and end tables, an elegant silver tray with decanters and glasses for drinks.  At the last second (the boys had already been in the house when it occurred to him) he pulled down the big wedding portrait of himself and Esperanza that hung over the fireplace (Johnny might think it was there to influence him; Scott might think it was in insult that his mother wasn’t up there — but he had no pictures of Larissa!), and looked lamely around for something with which to replace it.  He’d found, just in time, a huge, plaster Circle-L brand that Teresa had made for him for his last birthday.  And he was standing under it — trying to pretend he was not out of breath from hanging it — when they walked into the room.

He still remembered that first meeting, clear as if it were happening in front of him again.  He had tried to look nonchalant, pointed out their money envelopes to them, made some ridiculous comments about having their mothers’ eyes, or some such nonsense. A blatant lie, of course, they both has his eyes.  But they each did have their mother’s look about them.  And, sons!  He had long ago given up on the idea of having a family.  He’d lost his boys, both his wives, and with a legal wife alive some-unknown-where, he couldn’t go looking for another one.  He had enjoyed parenthood vicariously for several years, watching Teresa grow through gawky adolescence into young womanhood.  But these were his sons.  His blood.  And it was clear immediately.

Scott walked in dressed in a finely tailored gray business man’s suit, looking every inch the lawyer his grandfather had raised him to be.  He was nearly as tall as Murdoch, though more slender, finer-boned, and had Murdoch’s dark blue eyes and bright blonde hair.  He had his mother’s fine, aristocratic features, though, and that look she always had of being faintly amused by something no one else could understand.  And Johnny… he looked so much like his mother that Murdoch almost couldn’t stand to look at him.  He was small, like her, with her dark hair, her delicate mouth and high-boned cheeks.  His eyes were a different color, but they held her look: wary, guarded.  Closed.  And that quietness in him, that calm patience as if he were waiting for something, that was a gunman’s attitude:  Murdoch found out just before they arrived that the reason they had had so much trouble locating Johnny was not only that he was using a different last name, but that he was a hired gun, wanted both in several states and in Mexico.  And faced with their adult indifference, he had found himself blurting out that he would give them each a third-share of the ranch if they would help him save it from the land grabbers.

Where had that come from?  Had he been thinking that if Teresa’s bribery got them here, a bigger bribe might keep them?  No, he was pretty sure he said it, without planning or rehearsal, because he meant it.  He had spent his life building a home, and had never had a family to share it with.  They were his family, and he wanted them to stay.

He hadn’t thought they would.  Scott was on the verge of becoming a partner in a successful law practice back in Boston, had half the debutantes on the east coast warring for his attention.  Johnny had… nothing.  Nothing except a life-long grudge against the father he thought had abandoned him, and a long-term alliance with one of the gunmen who had shot Murdoch and Eugene O’Brien.  Johnny had stayed in town, visiting that man, playing cards with him, drinking with him… A lost cause.  Or so they thought.  But both boys had surprised him.  Scott had organized the ranch and even the neighbors with all the skill of a military officer — which in fact he had been during The War — and had set up defenses to safeguard the ranch.  Johnny, so it turned out, had infiltrated the opposition to murder their leader.

“You had your plan, I had mine,”  was all he said about it later.

And they stayed.  Both of them.  Not because of Teresa’s bribe, or Murdoch’s, but because they wanted to.  Starting on July 18, 1870.

And for twenty years, Murdoch had had his family:  both his sons, Teresa, and now three grandchildren.

But there was no statute of limitations on murder, and a lawman asking questions about the Lancers, about that same time when Johnny Madrid came to this area and ceased being Johnny Madrid, scared him as bad as the vision of walking up his front steps to find his house empty.


“Where?”  was all Murdoch said when he pulled his horse up in front of the dry goods store.  Town had changed from the two or three blocks of frame and adobe houses that had stood here in 1870.  There were paved streets now in the center of town, water and sewer pipes and gas mains cris-crossing under them.  Train station, new hotels and restaurants, houses stretching out miles past where they used to reach, all of which brought town closer to the ranch than it had been in the past.  In less than ten miles, instead of over twelve, one could reach stores and other civilized conveniences, which only meant that the last two miles of his journey had Murdoch riding in town, not in open country.  He tried to move slowly, but his impatience won out, and it was not even seven o’clock in the morning when he found himself in front of Harlow’s store.  Most of the town was still asleep, or at least at home having breakfast, but Harlow, as usual, was sitting on the sidewalk, watching the world go by.

“Levy’s,”  he said back.  “You know, it’s a funny thing…”

But Murdoch, who normally enjoyed a good gossip session with Harlow, wasn’t in the mood.  He swung his horse around and trotted across the street, through the alley, and down two more blocks to First Street, the first street ever built at right angles to Main, and the one that still housed the most saloons.  Levy’s Saloon was a two-story wood-framed building, almost half a block long, with girls sitting out to sun themselves on the porch upstairs, relaxing, no doubt, after a hard night’s work.  He ignored their cheery calls and lewd invitations as he tied up his horse and walked inside.  The barroom was dark and nearly deserted, except for the daytime barman, cleaning up from the night before, and two men  sitting at a table near a window with plates of meat, eggs and beans and mugs of coffee in front of them.  One of the pair was a kid, barely older than Murdoch’s granddaughter (named Larissa after her grandmother).  The other was a pale, lean man in his mid-thirties, with a somber look and a dark moustache.  Murdoch thought he couldn’t look more like a lawman if someone had printed the word across his forehead with one of those newfangled India rubber stamps.  He walked up to the table, stilling the conversation with his looming presence.

“I understand you’ve been asking about me,” Murdoch said, without introducing himself.  “If you want information, Mister, you should always go to the source.”

“Sounds logical,”  the man said.  “And you would be…?”

“Murdoch Lancer,”  Murdoch said flatly, with the same challenge in his voice.

“Pleased to meet you, sir,”  the man wiped his moustache with a napkin and offered up a hand.  A soft hand, Murdoch noticed.  Limp.  Damp.  “I’m Brenton Sandlewood, and I have been asking questions all over town about anyone who might be interested in purchasing their own piece of the future.”

“Huh?”  Murdoch  stared.

“I see you are a man of vision, Mr. Lancer,”  the man said.  “A man with vision enough to see that the Ninteenth Century is almost at a close…”  And to Murdoch’s dismay, he pulled a large sample case off the floor and slid back his chair so he could set it in his lap and work the latches.  Across the table, the kid started laughing.

“Bren, he’s looking for me,”  the kid said.

“I beg your pardon?”

The kid also used his napkin, then stood and offered his hand.  Murdoch could see then the lead-colored badge pinned to his vest, half-hidden under the open collar of his shirt.

“Sargent Pierce,”  the kid said.  Murdoch took the hand, and reluctantly found himself responding more favorably.  The kid’s grip was firm without being challenging, the hand itself was clean, but rough with calluses.

“Murdoch Lancer,”  Murdoch repeated.

“So I heard,” the kid said, looking amused. “Listen, Bren, would you mind if we moved to another table?  Nothing personal, but we have some business to discuss.”

“I never interfere with a lawman working in the line of duty,”  the drummer said, holding up a hand.  “In fact, you can have this table.  I have an important meeting with the mayor.  Very soon every lawman in this fair city will be ushered, a decade early, into the Twentieth Century, and you will be able to say goodbye to crime forever!”

He was eating even as he was talking, and when he finished, he wiped his mouth again with a flourish, stood, picked up his bag and, with a bow, walked off. 

“What is he selling?”  Murdoch asked.

“I have no idea,”  the kid said.  “And he sat there trying to sell one to me for almost half an hour.  Auto-somethings.”

“Horseless carriages?”

“I doubt it.  They wouldn’t fit in that case, would they?  Well, he’s gone, so you might as well sit down.  How about having a plate yourself?  If you rode into town this early, I bet you missed breakfast.”

“Well, I…”

“Jeff!  Another special,”  the kid said, though, calling out to the barman as he and Murdoch sat down opposite each other.

“They have breakfast at the hotel,”  the kid said confidentially as he put his napkin back in his lap.  “But they don’t serve chile there.  I spent enough time in the southwest, I don’t eat my eggs without chile.  And yes, sir, I have been asking questions about you.”

“What did you want to know?”  Murdoch asked.  He tried to sound gruff, but he wasn’t sure if it was coming off right any more.  That drummer had broken the mood.  He felt like an actor who stepped on stage to discover he had rehearsed for the wrong play.

The kid wiped his hands and reached inside his vest to pull out a long leather wallet that was filled with folded papers.   “I’m looking for this gentleman,”  he said, pulling out the top paper and passing it over, “I have reason to believe you may be able to help me.”

Johnny!  Murdoch thought in panic.  But it wasn’t.  He studied the picture closely.  Except for the damaged face, it did look a good deal like Johnny, but not quite.  This man was about Johnny’s age, maybe a little older.  He had dark hair and pale eyes, a full moustache over a small mouth and a high-boned face.  But the mouth was all wrong, the undamaged part still looking like a leer.  And the ears… not Johnny’s ears at all.  This man had small ears, lobes almost non-existent and tucked up against the side of his head.  And his eyebrows, and the shape of his eyes…

No, it was just a dark-haired man and a moment of panic.  The poster didn’t look anything like Johnny at all.  Having determined that, he looked at it closer.

WANTED!  it said in large bold letters across the top, TERRENCE T. PALMER.  Then the pictures, a left profile that looked normal, handsome even, and the full-face view, which could only be described as grotesque. Something had smashed the right side of this man’s face — looked like he’d been kicked by a mule — caving in the cheek bones, and from the flat, limp look of the scars, knocking out all the teeth as well.  There was an empty socket where the eye should have been, and jagged scar tissue drew the man’s brow down and his mouth up in a hideous expression that looked like glee.  Smaller print at the bottom announced that the man had robbed a bank in Waco, Texas one month ago, killing seven people in the process.  Since a relatively small amount of money had been stolen, no reward was offered by the bank, but if anyone had information on his whereabouts, they were asked to contact Captain Eduoard Janiver, Texas Rangers.  El Paso Office.

“You’re a Texas Ranger?”  Murdoch asked, still staring at the picture.

“Special Forces Division, El Paso Office, Special Investigations Team,”  the kid said, flipping back his collar so his badge showed more clearly.  It was a Ranger badge, the signature circle with a star in the center.  TEXAS RANGERS, was impressed into the metal on the top of the circle, and  SPECIAL FORCES DIV., EL PASO on the bottom, with a number, 283, stamped into the center of the star. 

“You don’t look old enough to be out of school,”  Murdoch commented.

“I’m nineteen,”  the kid said.  “Which ain’t much, I admit, but I was sworn in almost a year and a half ago.  Now, Mr. Lancer, about this man….”

“I’ve never seen him before in my life,”  Murdoch said, handing the paper back.  “Is that all you wanted?”

The kid looked at his wanted poster, frowning, instead of putting it away.  “Are you sure?”

“That’s not a face I would forget,”  Murdoch said.

“Yeah,”  the kid agreed thoughtfully.  “As I understand it, he claims to have gotten this scar in the War.  But apparently, he also claims to have fought for the North, for the South, and for a variety of different regiments, depending on who he’s talking to at the time.  The scar might not be near as old as he claims.  He might not have looked like this when you knew him…”

“I guarantee you, I do not know that man,”  Murdoch said, and he started to leave, but just then Jeff brought his meal.  He still might have left, but the smell of food made his stomach growl.  He’d look pretty foolish, he thought, walking away now.  Besides, the kid flipped a coin at the barman, who caught it easily and walked away.  Paid for.  So, Murdoch cut a small bit off the steak, rubbed it in the beans, egg and chile like the kid kept doing, and put it in his mouth.  He already knew it would be good.  Levy had some of the best meals in town.

“I hate these pictures,”  the kid said, still looking at his poster.  “I wish we could get some photographs or at least a pencil drawing, with more shadings.  Nobody ever recognizes these.”

“I assure you…”  Murdoch said.

“And I was looking around for an artist,”  the kid continued, “Who could bring it back in time a little, maybe take the scars out.  Because people look at those scars, and they don’t know him, you know?  It’s possible, like I said, that his face was normal when he was in this area.”

“When would that have been?”  Murdoch asked, doing justice to the meal in front of him.  He was hungry.  And with the ranch’s cook away, he hadn’t had a decent meal in nearly a week.

“Well, my source put the date as late as 1880, but honestly, she’s not the most reliable person on the planet.  Lies about her age, which puts all the other dates out of whack.  From my own research my guess is it’s much farther back than that.  In fact, I doubt it can be later than… maybe July of 1870.”

July of 1870.  The blood didn’t quite freeze in Murdoch’s veins, but it seemed to go cold and slow, time stopping for a moment as the dread that had plagued him all the long ride into town came back.  In force.  July 1870.  July eighteenth, 1870.  The memory was suddenly so clear, it was as if he were there again: his heart thudding uncomfortably in his chest, sweat breaking out on his upper lip, partly from the exertion of hiding that painting at the last second, and partly in fear, real gut-deep fear, as he hears the thump of boots on the stairs, hears their voices… They’ve met already, are talking as they come down to meet him.  What do they think of each other?  What do they see?  And then he sees them, Scott so distinguished and elegant, Johnny so like his mother, and he says something stupid like, “The money’s all right there, on the table.  You can count it if you want to.”  Scott barely even deigning to glance that way, Johnny picking up the envelope, staring at his name in bold, black ink as if trying to decipher what it says.  Neither of them interested in the money.  Both of them came for another reason.  He’d known that instantly.  He’d known they could still be a family, even this late.

A moment ago when he saw the poster, heard the question, he had thought his worry that something was threatening his family was pointless, an old man’s worry.  But it was back now.  In spades.  A stranger’s face, a kid’s easy chatter, but that date again…  A date that was important enough for the Texas Rangers to send a kid out here to look into things…

 “The thing is,”  the kid went on, focusing on his breakfast again, “apparently it’s not a great picture anyway.  Mind, I’ve never laid eyes on the man myself, but I have talked to people who have. This one lady…”

“The unreliable one?”  Murdoch asked.

“Nope, very reliable,”  the kid grinned infectiously before continuing.  “She said it didn’t look at all like him because of the way they drew him, kind of leering like that.  She said they made him look evil on purpose, because he’s wanted.  But, she said, he don’t really look that way.  He had a nice smile, she said.  And such a pleasant way with him that you didn’t even notice the scar.”

Murdoch shuddered.  “Scar!”  As if it were a mark, like the tiny white spot on the kid’s own face, almost like he’d nicked himself shaving, except that it must have been older and deeper because it made a dimple in that one cheek when he smiled.  That was a scar.  What happened to the face of the man in the wanted poster wasn’t a scar.  It was a nightmare.

“I don’t recognize the name either,”  Murdoch said.

“Well, that was something we couldn’t be totally certain of anyway.  That’s why they made out a John Doe warrant on him.  Men like him tend not to use their real names.”

“How about if I ask you a question,”  Murdoch suggested, the feeling of dread still licking around the edges of his stomach.

“Shoot,”  the kid said amiably.

“If this man robbed a bank in Waco, Texas barely a month ago, why do you care where he was in July of 1870?”

“Very good question,”  the kid said.

“And what connection does it all have with me?”

“Another good question.  I guess it goes back to why did he rob the bank.”

“To get money, I would suppose,”  Murdoch said.

“Yeah, but he usually got a lot more money than that without breaking any real laws.  He was a con man.  The Rangers and about a dozen other law enforcement agencies have files on him, but he’s got no record, you see?  He was never actually charged with anything.   He had it made.  Then he robbed this bank in broad daylight and shot all those people to do it.  Now he’s going to hang.  So, what was so important to him that he had to rob that bank?”

“I give up,”  Murdoch said.  “Anyway, I asked you.”

“That you did.  And I’ll tell you honest, no one really knows for sure.  But, I got a theory on that.  See, in the course of our investigation, we had to interview people who knew him.  In particular, there was this woman, lives behind the Bull Dog Saloon on Front Street. Now, see, Palmer made his living swindling widow-women out of their fortunes.  His current victim-to-be tossed him out when she found out about the, er, working girl over at the Bull Dog.  So, of course I went and talked to her, and discovered, among other things, that Palmer had been with her the night before the hold up.  He’d just lost his con victim and was in a foul mood, drinking heavily and acting very morose and sullen.”

“So?”  Murdoch asked.

“So.  You ever heard of a woman named Rose Bolivar?”

“No,”  Murdoch said instantly.

“That might not be her actual name, either, but it’s the only one I could get out of her.  Now, you may be thinking how would you know a saloon girl in Waco, but I may have accidentally misled you a bit there.  You see, this ‘girl’ is probably pushing sixty years of age.  She used to live in California, claimed to have had a family in this area, and from the story she told, despite the dates she tried to put on it, it couldn’t have been later than July of 1870.”

“So what?”

“So, I asked her what she and Palmer had been talking about the night before the robbery, and she started telling me this long, long story about her life in California, twenty years ago.  When she got to the part about Murdoch Lancer…”


“Yes, sir.  Your name came up.  More than once.  You say you never heard of this woman, but she’s got a grudge on for you hard enough to break rocks with.”

“Was this the reliable witness?”  Murdoch asked.

“No, sir.”  That grin popped up again.  “She’s definitely the unreliable one.  But here’s the thing.  How many Murdoch Lancer’s do you suppose there are in California?  I’ll give you a hint.  I checked all kinds of records in Sacramento and I only found one.”

Murdoch nodded.  It was not, as the kid hinted, a common name.

“She named this town, and it exists.  She named you, and you exist.  Granted some of the other things didn’t check out exactly, but…”

“But why come here at all?  A man robs a bank the morning after he hears my name in a conversation and you came looking for me?  Son, I may not be a detective, but that doesn’t sound like much of a case to me.”

“Maybe because I neglected to mention that when she spoke your name he jumped up and yelled,  ‘He’s alive?  That…’  Well, uh… ‘that so-and-so is still alive!’  Then this man, who had been sullen and silent all evening, couldn’t sit still any longer.  He strode back and forth cussing you out, till the sun came up.  Then he walked into the bank, grabbed some traveling money, and disappeared.”

The feeling of dread that Murdoch had carried like a burden since last night, suddenly became even heavier.

NEW MEXICO TERRITORY:  MARCH (Date unknown)1870.

The horse was not moving.

Slowly, he raised his head and looked around.  The trail crossed a creek, a small one, but it was running high and fast now with spring run-off and the cold mixed rain and snow that had fallen all night long, and without a rider to urge it forward, the horse had simply chosen to stop there.  He would have to kick it to get it moving again, except that he could no longer feel his legs.  He was too exhausted to feel alarmed at this revelation, so in lieu of panic, he tried reason.  He did not remember how many hours he had been in the saddle.  Twenty-four at least, perhaps as much as twice that.  He had stayed on horseback, moving and resting, because he knew that if he ever managed to get himself out of the saddle, he would never get back up again.  The pain had become a living thing, a demon that rode with him and tormented his every breath, and the only good thing about the weather was that he was so wet and cold he was now more likely to die of hypothermia than of fever.  He wasn’t going to live through this.  He knew it.  He knew that if he quit fighting, that if he dropped off the horse onto the ground, if he just lied down and quit, he would die faster.  The pain would be over faster. But quitting wasn’t part of his make up.  Fighting was.  He’d been fighting for every breath, every bite of food, most of his life.  He couldn’t stop, not even now.  He just didn’t know how.

He sat a moment longer, looking at the swollen creek and the sagging head of his horse, at the pines and aspens dripping cold water on them both, and thought, Maybe Tom was right.  Maybe loyalty wasn’t the virtue he had always thought it was.  Maybe loyalty was, like Tom said, a foolish ideal that got otherwise intelligent men killed.  He should have left when Tom did.  He should have left when he knew there was no hope, when it was no longer a land war, but a revolution against the local government that he was mixed up in, before, instead of just an outlaw, he had become a “dangerous revolutionary”.

He was north of the border again, he was fairly certain of that, though the thought afforded him little comfort.  For one thing, the men after him would not balk at crossing imaginary map-lines in pursuit of such valuable prey.  For another, he was a wanted man out here in the Territories, too, which was why he had kept riding and riding, skirting wide around what few populated areas he had come to, despite his desperate need for medical care.  And now, a creek had stopped him.

No.  No, by God, it wouldn’t!

His left arm still worked.  The right one hung limp, broken by one of four bullets that had hit him, but he threaded the reins through the nearly-numb fingers of it and swung his left arm free.  Pain tore through his gut at the movement, a burning so intense that he broke out in a sweat despite the fact that he was so chilled.  But he swung the arm again and managed to slap the horse on the shoulder.  The horse’s head jerked, but then sagged again, surprised by this sign of life from upon its back, but too exhausted to move another step.

“If I can do it, you can do it,”  Johnny muttered through gritted teeth, and he swung the arm again.  Slap!  The horse, like its rider, was also used to not quitting.  It picked up a hoof and took a step.  It hesitated again, hock-deep in the rushing water, and Johnny swung his arm again.  The horse moved forward, pushing knee-deep into the water.  But getting it to move sapped all of Johnny’s strength.  He closed his eyes, counted on his balance to keep him in the saddle, because he couldn’t hang on, not with hands or legs.  If the horse slipped or jerked at all, he would fall off in the flood and probably drown, being too weak to even pick his head up out of the water.

There was a clack as a hoof hit a stone, and Johnny opened his eyes.  The horse’s front feet were on dry land.  Another two steps, and they were on the broad, flattened area on the other side of the crossing, the trail stretching ahead, a narrow, twisting line between the trees.

“Come on,”  Johnny urged softly.  “Come on, boy.  Keep moving.”

“No.  Hold it right there,” a voice said.  The horse stopped, and Johnny fought against gravity to lift his chin off his chest.  Someone barred the path, someone in a slicker and… bonnet?  Holding a rifle aimed at his chest.

“Who are you?”  the person demanded.  “What are you doing here?  Drop those guns right now, mister, or I’ll shoot!”

Dark blue calico, rain-soaked, hung below the slicker to the top of a pair of brown, button-sided boots.  He looked at the boots a moment, because looking down was easier than looking up, and slowly, very slowly, he raised his head.  Bonnet, all right.  Rain-wet hair streaming loose under it.  Big, round blue-gray eyes, frightened, not threatening.  Though a scared woman with a gun was more dangerous than any man, he knew that from experience.

“I won’t… bother you,”  he managed to say through numb lips.

“I know you won’t,”  the girl said.  “Not if you drop your guns now.  Drop them!”

But Johnny never heard the last command.  His hearing dimmed as did his vision, and the only thing he was aware of at all was the feeling of slipping, slipping sideways out of the saddle…


The fence line stretched down one side of the steep slope and up the other, crossing a narrow neck of open land in between.  In that neck, in the light of the rising sun, three men struggled with fence wire, posts and tools to restore a broad gap in the fence.

“This would explain why none of the men ever found a hole in the fence, yet we’re losing cattle, as if there were one,”  Johnny said.

“Just let them wander out at night, fix everything up nice in the morning,”  Scott said, adjusting the left lense of the binoculars to bring the men below into sharper focus.  “Sweet.”

“I suppose we should let them know we know what’s going on,”  Johnny said.

“Oh, definitely,”  Scott said.  He snugged the binoculars down near his feet and reached to take the reins from Johnny.  It was Johnny’s wagon, and Johnny’s horse (Scott’s was tied behind the wagon), but he didn’t object, just bent to arrange the rifle on the wagon bed next to his foot while Scott slapped the reins lightly against the horse’s rump to start him moving along the narrow path that would lead to the bottom of the slope.  The wagon was small, not a full-size ranch wagon, perfect for things like hauling fencing materials in rough country.  Still, it made a great deal of noise, clacking and banging its way down the path, and the men heard them coming long before they reached the bottom.  Heard them, saw them, but — as Scott had hoped — didn’t seem too alarmed.  Two armed men on horseback would spook them instantly, probably resulting in gunfire, injuries or even death.  But the two of them, rocking along in the little wagon, made the men more curious than afraid.  They paused in their work, shielding their eyes, spoke to one another and laughed.  Next to Scott on the wagon seat, Johnny was slumped low as if sitting upright were too much effort.  The posture alone added at least ten years to his appearance, and Scott knew that the cheaters he wore and his half-silver hair relaxed them even more.  Couple of old codgers, nothing to worry about.  Good.  He really, really did not want to have to kill anybody before breakfast. 

“Howdy,”  he called as he pulled the wagon up within easy speaking distance.  “Doing a little fencing work, I see.”

“Yeah, well, we’re starting up a spread up north of here,”  one of the men said.  “Don’t want any of our cows getting lost in these little canyons and ending up with Circle L brands.”

“Nope, nope.  Sure wouldn’t want that,”  Scott agreed amiably.  “Would we, Mr. Lancer?”

“No, Mr. Lancer, we would not,”  Johnny agreed, lifting his head just enough to let the men see that he was not asleep, as he may have appeared.

“Mr..?”  The talkative one, the big one with the heavy fencing pliers in his hand, continued being the spokesman for the group.  “Now, look here!  There’s no law against a man fixing a fence, even if he don’t own it.  Shoot, we’re doing you a favor.”  

“We can see that,”  Scott said.  “We’re much obliged.  Saves us a lot of work. I can see if we’re going to have you as neighbors, things are going to be very pleasant and peaceful around here.”

The men, who had tensed up at the mention of the Lancer name, visibly relaxed again.

“Well, sure,”  the big one said.  “That’s the way we like things too.  Pleasant and peaceful.”

“I bet you do. You look like very peaceful fellows.  Tell me, in case some of your cattle did get through, what brand should we be looking out for?”


“Yes, sir.  What would your brand look like?”

“Oh, well, uh, Circle Box.”

“Circle Box,”  Scott thoughtfully.  He tried to sound both ignorant and interested.  In fact, he was thinking that that was the lamest attempt he had ever heard of to cover the Circle L brand.  From the slight movement of Johnny shoulders, he knew Johnny was thinking the same thing.  And trying hard not to laugh out loud.  Brand doctoring was simple enough to prove.  All it took was killing one steer to look at the hide from the inside.  And, this being high summer, it had been some time since they had butchered.  His mouth was watering at the thought of some good thick T-bones and sirloins.  He cleared his throat and swallowed.  No need to let gluttony interfere with business.

“Circle Box, is it?  Sounds like that would be kind of hard to make.”

“Oh, it’s easy,”  the youngest of the group crowed cheerfully.  “All you need is…”

“Is a ready-made iron,”  the big man said, shooting an angry glare at the kid.

“Well, of course,”  Scott said.  “I was just thinking, you boys know, of those times when you’re out alone, far from the home place, and you see a cow with a calf that hasn’t been branded,  And you have to fix it up right then and there.  Of course, you’re right though.  A hot cinch can make the circle, maybe, and the box would just be straight lines.  Have you got your registration papers?”

He switched from the nodding musings to the question so suddenly that it took them a moment to figure out what he had said.


“Papers,”  Scott repeated.  “As is required by California state law.  ‘Any person or persons intending…’ Oh, that gets a little lengthy and wordy.  How about if I just paraphrase the actual law?  Anybody using a brand or earmarks to mark livestock of any kind must register that brand with the state, renew it regularly, and be prepared to show any brand inspector the papers giving you the legal rights to that mark.”

The three men had started to look worried.  Now, they began to relax, even grin.  “Yeah,”  the big man said.  “But you ain’t no brand inspector, Mr. Lancer.”

“Actually, I am,”  Scott said, and he flipped out a badge to prove it.  “Among other things.  Now gentlemen, I think perhaps I should quote you some more state law.  Or at least, paraphrase again.  Using an unregistered brand, that’s only a misdemeanor.  The fine can vary from fifty to two hundred dollars, depending on the judge’s disposition and the attitude of the offender.  But, if you happen to slap that unregistered brand on someone else’s cattle, say, someone who’s own brand could be effectively obliterated by that unregistered brand, that changes the charge to grand theft — livestock, colloquially known as rustling, which I do believe carried a death penalty last time I checked.”

“Death penalty it is, Mr. Lancer,”  Johnny agreed.

“Yes, I thought so.  Thank you, Mr. Lancer.  Now, there is another clause which says that landowners who suspect theft of their livestock may perform a citizen’s arrest and personally transport…”

“You mean the two of you plan to bring us in?”  the big man demanded.  Then he laughed, and laughed louder as a fourth man materialized out of the rocks, with a rifle trained at the wagon.

“You know, Scott,”  Johnny said.  “That law stuff you keep quoting is mighty boring.”

“You think so?”  Scott asked, sounding almost disappointed.

“Yes, I do.  I’ve looked at those books of yours and I can tell you, there ain’t much that can put a man to sleep faster.”

“Is that a fact?”

“Yes, I’m afraid it is.  Oh, they’re alright for men like you who like big words and all, but me, I’ve always preferred picture books.”

“Do you think pictures would be appropriate in a law book?”  Scott asked.

“I think so.  After all, those monks in the Dark Ages put pictures in the books of God’s law, didn’t they?”

“Now that you mention it, they did,”  Scott agreed.  “And do you know, brother, that those beautiful illustrations they made were called ‘illuminations’?  They were put in there to illuminate, or enlighten, the reader.”

“There, you see, that’s just what we need here,”  Johnny said.  “We need to illuminate that law a bit for these gentlemen.”

The conversation sounded so ridiculous that the men were caught off guard, staring at them, glancing at one another, wondering if they were dealing with sane men or not.  That was all Johnny needed to whip the rifle out and have it at ready position before they could shoot.

“Easy now, let’s not do anything foolish,”  he said amiably, leveling the barrel at the other rifleman’s gut.

“Kill ’em, Red!”  the big man shouted.

“How about, no,”  Johnny suggested.  “Easy for him to give that order when he doesn’t have a rifle trained on his belly, isn’t it?  You ever seen a man who was gut-shot?  Takes them a long, slow, painful time to die.  No, I have a better idea here.  We’ll just do that ‘illuminating’ we were talking about.  Now, if you all would look behind you, up the canyon about a hundred and fifty yards is an old weathered sign post, left over from when this used to be more of a thoroughfare than it is now.  And there’s a knot in that sign post…”

“And you’re going to fire that rifle in the air, then tell us to go check,”  the big man said.  “For all we know, there’s not a knot at all, but a bullet hole in that post!”

“Tell you what,”  Johnny said.  “Send someone to go check.  Go on,”  he added when they all hesitated.  “Take a look.  I’m not going to shoot anybody — if you don’t force me to.”

The big man hesitated a moment longer, then gave a jerk of his head. The youngest of the group dropped the tools he was holding and trotted off.  A hundred and fifty yards is a long distance. It took him several long, tense moments to reach the spot.

“There’s a post here all right,”  he hollered back.  “With a board on it.  Can’t read it any more, but there’s a big old knot in….”

Johnny’s rifle cracked suddenly.  The explosion of the shot roared down the narrow canyon, bouncing off the walls for several seconds before it started to die away.  Everyone froze in shock.  Slowly, the big man turned to see if his young companion were still standing.  He was.  His face was white and bloodless, but he was standing, and not leaking blood from any visible hole.  He was just terrified, because from that angle he had heard the whip of the bullet past his body, felt the slivers of wood that were sprayed out when it hit the knot in the sign.  On unsteady feet, he started back towards the other men. The secret, Johnny had long ago told Scott, was to make it look easy.  No matter how long you take picking your target and figuring your shot, do it ahead of time, make it look like a quick snap.

“You coulda killed Blondie!”  the big man accused.

“Does he look like a pine knot?”  Johnny asked.  “I was shooting at a pine knot.  And mister, I always hit what I am shooting at.”

“That’s true,”  Scott agreed.  “He does.”

“See, what I am trying to illustrate here is that you stand very little chance of getting out of this canyon alive if you decide to start shooting.  And if you do get out, you don’t even have to see me coming to feel the tear of one of my bullets through your body some day.  I can pick you off like wooden target duck at the carnival from so far away, you won’t even know someone’s shooting till you drop right out of your saddle.”

“I’ve seen him do it,”  Scott agreed nodding.

“I ain’t gonna hang,”  the big man roared, and he grabbed for the gun at his hip.  The rile cracked again, and the gun jumped, spinning a dozen feet through the air before landing in the dirt with a loud thud.

“You try that again, I’ll shoot off your hand instead,”  Johnny said.

“Now, let’s just all calm down,”  Scott said. “No one said anything about hanging.  The way I look at things, hanging is just one of several options here.  For one thing, we can go back to your camp, count up how many head of cattle you’ve borrowed from us, and you can just pay us for them.  The going rate right now runs about thirty-five dollars a head.  Call it thirty dollars, since we’re neighbors and all…”

“But, we got over a hundred head!”  Blondie wailed.

“Shut up!”  the big man said.

“I take it you don’t have the three thousand dollars,”  Scott said.  “Well, that stands to reason.  If you did, you’d have bought the cattle — and paid for registering your brand.  But, like I said.  We have options.  You could, for example, give us back those cows, and no one would be out anything.”

“Except the one we already et,”  Blondie commented.

“Would you shut up!”  the big man demanded, slapping the boy with his hat.  “Are you trying to get yourself hung?”

“We’re not going to quibble over a single beef a hungry neighbor helped himself to,”  Scott said with a shrug.  “That sort of things happens now and then.  What say we amble over to your camp and work this out like gentlemen.”


“I told you we had options,” Scott commented, reining in his horse to let the cattle stream past him.  The big man, whom they had learned was called Ace Bundy, pulled up nearby.

“Yes, you did,” he agreed.  The last of the cows trotted past, and Blondie and another man began closing up the fence – between Scott and Ace.  Johnny was already through, standing in the wagon box, braced against the seat, double checking his own head count.

“That brother of yours does pretty good,” Ace commented.

“Yes,” Scott said.

“I mean, most men couldn’t have seen that signpost, much less the knot it in, from where he was.”

“Johnny seems to have been born with better than average eyesight,” Scott agreed.

“He must’ve been!  I mean, I reckon he knew the post was there, but shooting out that knot…!  Most men couldn’t shoot that good even sober.”

“And what makes you think he isn’t sober?”

“Well, uh…”  The sudden cooling in Scott’s tone wasn’t lost on Ace, but he didn’t back down.  “He had been drinking,” he said with certainty.  They had been close enough, counting cattle and going over the details of returning them, for him to smell the whiskey on Johnny’s breath.  The cool demeanor, the sharp eye, and the steady hand didn’t seem to him to make sense combined with whiskey-breath at this hour of the day.  Only men he ever knew to drink in the morning were, to put it bluntly, drunks.

“A glass of whiskey doesn’t make a man drunk,” Scott said as if he could read that thought.

Ace couldn’t help but look up at the sky, where the sun still rested well on the morning side of noon.  He caught Scott watching him, and glanced away, wishing he had never brought up the subject in the first place.  Surely, the man wasn’t that foolish….  He was saved from further embarrassment when Johnny circled the wagon around and pulled up near them.

“Hundred and eleven, counting the bull,” Johnny said.  “You’ve been busy fellows.”

Ace dropped his eyes for a moment, and did not comment.

“If you’ll just sign this, then,” Scott said, passing over a pencil stub and a piece of paper.  The paper was a bill of sale:   he regularly kept several blank ones in his wallet for emergencies.  Back at the rustler’s camp, he had filled it out with his name and Ace’s name as a transfer of property. All it had lacked was a number, which he penciled in before passing it over. One hundred and eleven head of Circle Box cattle officially and legally belonged again to Lancer, as soon as Ace scrawled his signature where Scott indicated.

“Even a brand inspector has to account for cattle wearing the wrong brand when it comes time to sell,” Scott said, accepting the paper back.

“Listen,” Ace said.  “I just want you to know, I ain’t no coward.”

“No one accused you of being one, Mr. Bundy,” Scott said.

“Well, they will.  Backing down like I did from… well, from you two.  But, the way I figured it, you must have been up above somewhere, watching us for a long time.”

“We spotted you yesterday,” Johnny said.

“Yeah.  And I reckon you showed us you could have picked us off like flies any time you felt like it.  If you’d come into town with four corpses and one hide showing that doctored brand, no one would have checked over them law books you was quoting to see if that was legal, would they?  They’d have patted you on the back and thanked you for clearing some scum out of the country.”

“Most likely,” Scott agreed.

“And that would have been a lot safer for you than coming in to talk like you did.  Why Red, there, he could have plugged you cold…”

“Possibly,” Johnny said.

“Um, right.  Anyway, you played us fair, Mr. Lancer.  More fair, honestly, than we deserved.  The law…”

“Mr. Bundy,” Scott said.  “I have practiced law most of my life.  But law was invented for people with neither manners nor common sense.  You’ve shown both today.  Continue on the way you’re going, and you will never need to find yourself on the wrong side of the law.  And incidentally, if you are serious about starting a spread near here, there is some good  land still open and available.  Four men, four homestead lots, you could get yourself a good start.  Good, honest neighbors can always count on Lancer for help.”

“We’ll think about that,” Ace said.  He glanced at both of them hesitantly, then held out his hand.  He looked relieved when Scott accepted it.  Johnny rose up off the wagon seat to lean over and shake also.

“I reckon we best shove on out of here,” Ace said.

“You do that.  After you finish fixing that fence,” Scott said, turning his horse to leave.  He turned back, though, and added, “By the way.  We are polite, not stupid.  Now that we’re on to your game, the guard all around the perimeter will be watching out for all of you.”

“Yes, sir.  I understand clear.  We ain’t stupid neither,”  Ace said.

After a pointed glance towards Blondie, Scott put spurs to his horse,  Johnny flicked the reins, and they both headed off down the valley, the fencing supplies in the back of the wagon rattling loudly with every jolt of the wheels on the rough ground.

“Think we should stick around for a day or two?”  Johnny asked.

“No,” Scott said.  “Now that we’ve got it figured out, the boys can handle it.  We should get back home.  We were out longer than we expected.  Murdoch will be worried.”

“Not to mention your wife,” Johnny said. They rode for several long minutes in silence before Johnny said, “Or maybe I should mention your wife.”

“Or maybe not,” Scott said.

“She sounded a bit unhappy with you the day we left.”

“You were listening?”  Scott demanded.

“Didn’t mean to.  Didn’t hear what was said.  But the volume got a little loud there towards the end.  Scott…”

“Drop it, Johnny.”

“I was just thinking.  Maybe you should take her on a trip somewhere, just the two of you alone for awhile, no one around to interfere…”

“I said ‘Drop it!’” Scott repeated.

“Well, okay, I just….”

Scott reined in his horse and sat there until Johnny stopped the wagon as well.  The wagon didn’t back up easily, so Scott moved up next to it.

“How long have you been married?”  he demanded.

“You know I’ve never been married,” Johnny said.

“I’ve been married over seventeen and a half years,” Scott said.  “When you have that much experience, maybe you can give me some advice on the subject, but until then drop it!”

“Sure,” Johnny said.  “Okay.”  He flicked the reins again and the wagon moved off, Scott riding silently alongside.  Of course, Scott was right.  Married life was something Johnny knew nothing about.  But he did know Teresa.  He had known her as long as Scott had, down to the second – the three of them met at the same time when she came into Spanish Wells to meet the stage coach they both arrived on.  And he hadn’t meant to give advice on marriage, just on Teresa.  But, maybe Scott was right.  Maybe being married to her gave Scott a knowledge that Johnny, as an outsider, could never have. Still…  He’d seen trouble brewing for some time.  He wasn’t sure what it was, but there was a tension there that he was pretty sure shouldn’t have been.  Not that he was any expert.  His only real role model on male-female relationships was his mother and her long line of male friends, ending with that bastard, Madrid, whom she had called Johnny’s “step-father,” though she had never married him.  And those few weeks twenty years ago that were as close as he would probably ever come to know married life had, honestly, been as full of pain, anguish and fury as they had been of sweetness, so, maybe, that was what being married was really about:  hurting each other.

And hating yourself for it forever after.

Maybe when they got back he could discuss Scott and Teresa with Murdoch.  Maybe Murdoch would have some advice.  He had been married twice, after all.  Never for very long, but still, he knew more than Johnny.  And if his advice was to butt out, Johnny would have to be content with that.

Either way, he was glad to be going home.  Maybe a soak in a hot bath would ease the pain in his leg.  The reason they hadn’t caught those rustlers in the act yesterday was because he had slept in too late after having drunk himself to sleep the night before.  He didn’t like drinking.  There was nothing about it, from the taste to light-headed feeling of drunkenness to the loggy way it made him feel the next morning, that he found pleasant.  Sometimes, though, it seemed like the only thing that could kill the pain, allow him to sleep without feeling as if his leg was being chewed off by fire ants.  And it always did its job.  However, even as the pain died away, the memories seemed to come flooding in, the feeling of guilt would wash him like a tide, and he’d be lost in the nightmares and the memories, and wake, as he had yesterday morning, wondering why he had ever bothered to drink himself to sleep in the first place.

Odd that drink did that, but it did: brought with it a flood of memories, memories so real that the pain of them, the guilt they brought, stayed with him sometimes for days.  He still felt, clear as if he were reliving it now, the dizzy, rushing feeling of falling, could smell the blood and feel the cold rain, even in the dry, summer heat of the morning.

And even after all that, the pain in his leg had come back.  He had avoided waking up hung over this morning simply by not sleeping last night at all.   One or two drinks would cool the burning a little, without him becoming sodden-drunk, though “a little” relief  wasn’t much.  He couldn’t sleep like that, but he could function normally.  Still, he would be glad to get home.  At home, there wouldn’t be rustlers lurking about.   Maybe he could go to bed early tonight.

Scott glanced out of the corner of his eye at Johnny, sitting morose and silent in the wagon, and knew he should apologize.  Obviously, he never meant to hurt Johnny’s feelings.  But, damnit!  Where had that come from?  Take her on a trip?  Scott realized that Teresa was somewhat isolated on the ranch.  He and Murdoch and Johnny had each other: blood relations and comfortable friends.  It was different for a woman.  Since Johnny never married, and Murdoch seemed to decide to call it quits after two wives, Teresa was pretty much alone out there, with no other female for companionship for miles – except their daughter, and he knew that that didn’t exactly count.  Larissa was a good girl, but she was still more of a chore to Teresa than a friend.  Maybe eventually they could be friends, but not now.  So, who could Teresa talk to, confide in, discuss things with?  Mrs. Winger, he had assumed, or the ladies at the church socials, maybe.  But suddenly he wondered.  Did she talk to Johnny?  Johnny was her friend, he knew that.  Johnny even shared some history with her that he never would.  Oh, he hadn’t known her any longer, but he had grown up in the same part of the country, knew something of the life out here, even shared the pain of being the child of a run-away wife. They talked about that, he knew, discussed what it was like to be taken, and what it was like to be left.  And that was good.  That was something they’d both had to work out, and they were fortunate to have each other for that.  But, surely, Teresa didn’t tell him anything personal, anything about their relationship – or the problems in it…? No.  He wouldn’t believe that.  Even if that comment had struck a little too close for comfort to the argument he and Teresa had been having now for several weeks.  Which, as it happened, centered on a trip.

He had received an invitation to a cousin’s wedding in Boston.  Not even a cousin, actually, the son of a cousin, a boy he’d never met in his life.  The only reason he’d even mentioned it to Teresa was that he had intended to send a nice gift, something small but elegant and useful, and he felt that needed a woman’s advice.  But no, Teresa wanted to go.  She wanted him to travel three thousand miles to a wedding!  In May!  Scott had tried to explain that even if such a trip were feasible, May was a bad time of year.  The calves would be ready for branding and castrating, there would be grass and feed problems to check and decide, miles of fence repair after the winter storms.

“You love this ranch more than you love me!”  was her wholly unreasonable response.  And one thing Scott did know was how futile it was to attempt to reply to a statement like that!  Anything he said could be taken the wrong way, so he had just kissed her and left.  And Johnny knew.  Or maybe he didn’t.  Maybe he was just trying to be nice.  Like Murdoch, who suddenly came up with the idea of opening an office in Sacramento, an office that one of them would have to be at several months out of every year.  “You and Teresa could live in town for awhile.  Take in some shows, do some shopping, put Larissa in a ladies’ college…”

“We’re fine!”  Scott said aloud.

“Sure,” Johnny said.  “I knew that.”

“But. We’re late,” Scott added, as if he had been talking about their mission against the rustlers, and not thinking aloud about himself and Teresa.  This was his normal way of apologizing for unseemly behavior: ignore it.  Pretend it never happened.  And Johnny seemed to take a deep breath and sit up a little straighter on the wagon seat.

“Only by a day,” Johnny said.  He also believed in ignoring some things to make them disappear.  For instance, he would never mention his deplorable condition of yesterday morning.  And neither would Scott.

“You know, all things considered, we should take the time to check more fence line on the way home.”

“Put us there tomorrow, late,” Johnny said.

“Not if we split up.  You take the north east boundary.  It’s got the fire line along it so the wagon can follow it easily.  I’ll grab a pair of pliers and a roll of wire and come in along the southern section fence.”

“And last one home makes dinner,” Johnny said.

Scott returned his grin.  That was an old bet, one they used to make frequently back when one of them probably would have to make dinner.  With Mrs. Winger in residence, the bet was unnecessary, but they still made it often.

“You can make me Burgundy Beef,” Scott said.

“You can make me enchiladas!”  Johnny said back.  Scott laughed.  They stopped for a moment so he could pick some tools out of the wagon bed in case he needed them, and tuck them away securely in his saddlebags.  Then with a cheerful wave, they parted company, heading their separate ways.  Two men, going two directions with two different means of conveyance, but both with the same ultimate job and goal.  It was, both of them thought as they rode through dapplings of soft shade and hot summer sun, a good feeling.


He was lying flat on his back on the ground.  And he was moving.

At first these two things didn’t mean much to him.  He was lying on the ground.  He was moving.  Slowly enough reason seeped into his mind to wonder how he could be doing both.  It was hard to concentrate.  He was so cold, so very cold, and he hurt all over.  Certain places hurt more than others, like his arm, his foot…

His foot?

And memory came at once, a story he had heard  somewhere, somewhen, when he was a small boy.  The story of a man who was mauled by a bear, then dragged, still alive,  into the bushes where the bear buried him, intending to come back when the meat was older and softer.  He did not recall where he had heard that story, but it  had always terrified him, and he was certain that was what was happening now.  A bear was trying to eat him.  He flailed out, trying to fight, trying to move, expecting his movement to cause the bear to drop his foot and come back and finish him off.  Better, though, to be eaten dead than eaten alive.

But, “Hush, now. It’s alright,”  a voice said.  Not a bear’s voice, a girl’s.  He struggled to get his eyes open and found her leaning over him, her dark, wet hair brushing his face.

“I’m sorry, I know it must hurt,”  she said.  “But we’re almost there.  I have to get you out of this rain.  I’m sorry, but please don’t fight.”

“You were at the creek,”  he recalled.

“Yes,”  she said.

“There’s bears at the creek,”  he said.  “They go there for the raspberries.  You… you must never go to the creek alone.  They’ll eat you.”

His voice died into a whisper, and she leaned closer and whispered back, “It’s too early for raspberries.  They won’t be out for months yet.”

“Worse,”  he said.  “That means they’re hungry.  They’ll eat you.”

“I have a gun,”  she said.  Or maybe she said he had a gun.  He did, but he couldn’t move his hand to get it, and anyway, all he was carrying now was his pistols.  His rifle was… gone.  He’d lost it somewhere.  He didn’t remember.  People had been chasing him, and he… dropped it?  When they shot him in the arm and he couldn’t hold it.  Yes, that’s how he lost it.  And a pistol wouldn’t kill a bear.  But maybe she said she had a gun.  Yes, he recalled a girl, by the creek, dripping wet in the rain.  Toting a gun.  Bear hunting, obviously.  Why else would anyone come out here in the rain with a gun?

Movement stopped.  The rain no longer splattered on his face, but he could hear it, dripping.  Plopping.  A wet, cold sound.  He was cold.  He had stopped shivering, though, a long, long time ago.  And now he slept.

But the demons were at him.  He’d forgotten about demons.  He had grown up on stories of Hell and punishment, the battle between good and evil.  But he had known only evil in his life, and he still did not fully understand how fighting evil could be evil, so he had given up on the Church and its teachings, and he had forgotten.  He knew his soul was black with unconfessed sins, both mortal and venial.  He had thought of confession, not that long ago.  He had ridden past a church and had considered stopping in, talking to the priest.  But what God could forgive a man who had done the things he had done?  No, better not to be scolded and condemned.  He would not repent anyway.  Well, maybe some of them he would, but not that one: the one he had always known he was going to Hell for.

And now he was in Hell.  He had died fleeing from those men who wanted to kill him, and he was in Hell.  Pity that it wasn’t hot like he had thought it would be.  He was so cold.  So cold that his flesh seemed to burn, so maybe he was hot and didn’t even know it.  Demons, he had learned as a child, would be allowed to torment souls in Hell.  With red-hot tongs and pincers they would torture the damned, and they were doing that to him now.  He could feel them, all over his body, poking and probing and attacking with their weapons.  And it hurt, it hurt.  Oh, it hurt.  And from this hurt there would be no relief, he knew, because he was damned, and they could torture him forever, which was much longer than a boy of eighteen could even imagine…


Teresa came into the stable while Scott was still unsaddling his horse and announced, “Murdoch invited someone over for supper.”

Not, “How was the trip?”, Scott noticed.  Not, “Welcome home,” or, “We missed you.”  Just this announcement, which he could only assume was leading to something else.  Leading somewhere, he had a feeling, he did not want to go.

“That’s nice,” he said, neutrally.  “Anyone we know?”

She didn’t seem to hear him at all.  She continued speaking as if he hadn’t said a word.  “In fact, he invited him to spend ‘a day or two’, rode all the way in to town this morning to do it.  Do you know anything about this?”

“Teresa,”  Scott said, patiently as he could.  “I’ve been searching for lost cattle with Johnny for a week. I’ve been back maybe five minutes.  There’s not really much of a chance I could know about this, is there?”

“Where is Johnny?”  she asked, looking around as if she expected him to be hiding in one of the stalls.


“He’s alone?”  she demanded.

Scott sighed.  “We split up,”  he said.  “He should be here any second, if he isn’t already.  I haven’t had a chance to check yet.  Why was it you thought I would know about this guest?”

“Well, I just assumed Murdoch had been planning it for some time, and nobody considered it important enough to bother telling me,”  Teresa said, all her indignation remembered after her brief side-track.   Although, Scott mused as he heaved the heavy saddle off his horse and dumped it nose-down on the ground, she had just said that Murdoch rode into town this morning to make these arrangements.

“It’s news to me,”  he said.  “Anyway, I suppose Murdoch has the right to invite people over if he wants to.   The house is still his, isn’t it?”

“The man has been complaining about my cooking for twenty-five years, and he picks now, when Mrs. Winger is gone to go inviting people, with no notice to me, mind you…”

“Why is Mrs. Winger gone?”  Scott asked.  Keeping kitchen help at the ranch had never been easy.  Mrs. Winger was the best cook they’d had in years, and she’d been with them the longest, too.  The thought of having to replace her wasn’t pleasant…

“Oh, she said her daughter is ‘sick’ and she had to go visit her,”  Teresa said.  “The girl’s just having a baby, not like it’s an emergency.  Now, here I am all alone and I have only a couple hours left to fix up a guest room and get supper on the table.  There’s no way I can manage it all!”

“Get Larissa to help,”  Scott said, picking up the brushes to wipe the sweat and dust off his horse’s coat.

“I don’t know where she is!”  Teresa said, waving her hands in the air.  “She took off this morning — again!– out wandering around, as usual…”

“Without permission?”

“Well, no.  I told her she could go.  But then I didn’t know I was going to need help!  And who knows if she’ll even be back by dinner!  And the boys cause more trouble than getting help from them is worth, and Murdoch is upstairs resting because inviting people over was too much work for him for one day.”

Murdoch was over seventy years old.  The ride into town must have been important for him to make the round trip all in one morning.  It probably was too much work for him for one day.  Scott sighed, knowing what he had to do to make peace now, and dreading it.  He wanted a hot bath, a change of clothes, and a tall, cold drink.  He wanted to sit down and rest his own tired, over-worked muscles.  He wanted to sit out the rest of this blazing afternoon in the shade, talking grass and cattle and watching the boys play in the yard.

“I can help,”  he said instead.

“Good!”  Teresa said.  Not, “Thank you,” or “Oh, don’t bother, I know you’re tired.”  Just, “Good,” and, “You can see to the fitting up of a guest room then.  And you can tell Murdoch that in the future, he should give a person more notice before he does this sort of thing.  He didn’t even have the courtesy to mention it this before  he left.  No, he sneaks off before dawn, comes in after lunch and announces…”

Her voice faded because she was walking back to the house as she spoke, waving her arms, emotional, distraught.  Upset.  Over a guest of all things.  Scott sighed again.

“At least one of us can get that rest,”  he said to his horse.  He finished brushing the animal down and sent it into a stall with a slap on its rump.  He climbed up to the loft to fork down straw for bedding and hay into the manger, then climbed back down to haul water from the pump outside to fill the trough.  The horse taken care of, he went back to where he had left the saddle, untied his pack, rifle, canteens and saddle bags, and hauled the saddle itself to the racks in the back of the long, cool adobe building.  There were nine racks: short, fat logs protruding three high and three abreast from the back wall of the building.  The old saddle Murdoch seldom used any more was on one of the top racks because even old as he was getting, he was the tallest in the family, and Johnny’s saddle was next to his, gleaming with a recent oiling, but unused in over five years.  The two small saddles for the children were on the bottom row, with the saddle both Teresa and Larissa used now in the middle.  Scott placed his own saddle in the middle row.   He looked at the blank space next to where he had placed his saddle and thought it was time Larissa had a rig of her own.  She had outgrown the child-sized saddles, which were now Gene and Jack’s, and some day she and her mother might both want — or need — to ride at the same time.  It seemed stupid though, to have another saddle made — or even buy a used one — when there was a perfectly good, serviceable saddle hanging right here in the back of the stable.  Who’s idea had it been to retire Johnny’s saddle, anyway?  Well, maybe it was for the better.  He was still sensitive about being unable to ride anymore.  Scott had heard him make a comment not too long ago that a man without a horse in this country was only half a man.  Flaunting his saddle in front of him with someone else sitting in it might not be such a good idea.

On the other hand, Larissa would like Johnny’s saddle.  It was definitely pretty enough for a girl, with its rose blossom carving and silver conchos.  The matching bridle had long reins of woven silver strands and black leather braided together, with a rose carved forehead strap and silver conchos at the cheek on both sides.  It could be adjusted to fit…whatever she was riding these days.  He realized he didn’t know what animal was her personal favorite since Queenie had to be retired.

Too damn many things getting retired on this ranch, Scott thought.  Years were creeping up on all of them.  Twenty years he had been out here.  He wondered what his Grandma Sebastian would say if she could see him now:  dusty, range-worn as an old pair of boots, his face lined as a man much older than his forty-five years from all the time he spent in the sun and the wind.  Something disparaging, no doubt.

Sounds of commotion near the henhouse brought him back to the present situation.  Much as he would have liked to stand here and daydream about saddles, Scott had made a promise to Teresa.  If he didn’t take care of getting a room ready, she would probably work herself into a fury long before dinner time.  That he didn’t need.  Stopping only long enough for a drink of water by the trough, Scott hurried inside to fulfill his obligation.

Housing guests was no problem at Lancer.  The huge old house, which Murdoch had restored slowly over a period of almost two decades, had originally housed the extended family of one of California’s ancient Spanish dons.  Built on to over the years as the original owner’s family expanded, it was a warren of wings and suites, sometimes one story tall, sometimes three, mostly two.  Over the years, the family had moved around among the multiple bedrooms, finally settling where they each felt most comfortable.  Johnny took over the third-floor attics above the center of the house.  Low-ceilinged, with upright beams here and there but no individual rooms at all, the eerie, empty spaces seemed to suit his need for privacy.  One small area was set up like a bedroom, but all the third floor belonged to him, and he was welcome to it.  What ancient treasures and discarded junk the family had accumulated was stored in the unused south wing, which might have originally been part of a monastery or some similar edifice as the rooms were tiny and cell-like, built of rock and heavy, oiled beams and all served by a single, dark, narrow corridor.

Scott, on the other hand, had moved down from the second-floor guest rooms he and Johnny had both originally occupied.  Even before Scott married Teresa, he had usurped a small suite of rooms on the ground floor.  Two bedrooms, a dressing room and a sitting room, all accessible only through the door of the sitting room, opening out onto a small enclosed courtyard, complete with fountains and flower gardens that Scott tended himself, for relaxation.  The dressing room was now mostly Teresa’s, and the second bedroom – now an office – had for years been a nursery, but the rooms were still and always Scott’s haven in the big, rambling house.  Murdoch preferred a simple, single bedroom on the second floor, from which he had a marvelous view of the back end of the ranch.  The boys, Jack and Eugene, shared a two-room suite now on the first floor, next door to Teresa’s and Scott’s rooms, and Larissa had a second floor bedroom to herself, leaving four empty bedrooms up there and  another small suite downstairs, all free for guests.  Scott considered the suite, and found that it had not been cleaned recently.  Getting it ready for a guest would mean beating rugs and scrubbing floors in two rooms. He might have found the time for that, but he did not find the energy.  Instead, he went upstairs and picked one of the empty bedrooms, the bedroom closest to the end of the corridor by the back stairs to the kitchen, one or two removed from the rest of the family.  For privacy.

It was a nice room, and well-enough cared for that all he had to do was open a window, make up the bed and lay out fresh soap, water and towels.

The day was hot and dry.  The room was stuffy.  With the window open, a hot breeze blew through from outside, smelling of dry grass, pine trees and animals.  He stood on the tiny balcony, letting the wind dry the sweat that still soaked him, making his shirt feel cool and clammy against his hot skin, and a sense of deja vu came over him suddenly.  Twenty years melted like snow on a sunny day.  Same room, same view.  Things outside had been a little different then:  fewer stables, less activity, fewer fences.  A ranch dying, and two young men, strangers, brothers, looking at it through very different, but equally critical and curious eyes.

This had been Johnny’s room, Scott realized, back at the beginning, back when they had both arrived, on the same stage, in the middle of a range war.

Was it a day after, or that same afternoon, that they had both stood in this room, side by side, staring out at a new world?  A wealthy view of grasslands spread out behind the building.  A hard, opinionated old man, stranger to both of them, waited downstairs.  And they had looked at each other and thought strange new thoughts, like Father, and Brother.  And Home.

Scott wondered suddenly exactly what thoughts Johnny had had that day.  He had never been easy to read.  Scott knew the paths his own mind had taken, though.  The grandparents who had raised Scott had told him that his father was dead.  His mother had died, and they merely extended the real death into an additional, fictional one for what they considered convenience.  He had been raised by his mother’s family, who were wealthy and prominent in Boston.  His Grandpa Sebastian was a lawyer, so were several uncles and great-uncles and cousins, and it was expected that Scott would be a lawyer, eventually.  He was trained in law and finance from a very early age.  He was presented at balls and parties so he could choose a suitable wife from the right class, the right family.  He was sent to Harvard to study, had even taken a Grand Tour of Europe, as all fashionable young men of that time did.

What had happened to all that?

The War in part.  After the War, after the fighting and the dying — sometimes tens of thousands at a time — writs and clauses seemed… insignificant.  He’d lost interest.  He’d lost direction and headway.  He was floundering, drowning in satin and silk and propriety, and making a living because it was Expected, not because it was needed, and a Pinkerton man had shown up out of the dark of night like a character in a dime novel to tell him his father was alive and living in California and that he needed help, would even pay for it, all Scott had to do was go out there, meet him.  Talk to him….

“What are you doing in here?”

The voice didn’t clear away the daydreams at once, because it was part of the daydreams:  Johnny’s voice.

“What are you doing in here?”

“Looking for you….”

Ah, but that was twenty years ago, and this was now.  Johnny’s voice was different.  He’d been just eighteen then, he was closing in on forty now.  His voice was rougher, whiskey-edged.  And the tone was different, just curious now, not accusing, and his crutches thumped on the floor when he came into the room.

“I was fixing up a guest room,”  Scott said, turning slowly from the window.  “Teresa said Murdoch invited someone out to the ranch for a few days. I don’t suppose you know anything about that?”

“How would I know?”  Johnny said.  “Smoke signals?  By the way, I beat you by almost fifteen minutes.”  He stumped across the hardwood floor, and joined Scott by the rail of the narrow balcony.

“Still pretty, isn’t it?” Scott said.

After twenty years of working together, twenty years of feeling out each other’s thoughts and the directions in which they ran, Johnny didn’t have to ask what Scott had been thinking about.

“I don’t like to remember that summer,”  he said.

“I know,”  Scott said.  It was obvious in his eyes, in the way he held his body, every time some old memory was dredged up.  What Scott had never fully understood was why.  Johnny had been shot in that fight, but from the scars they found on his body when they were dressing the wound it certainly hadn’t been the first time, or — Scott knew for a fact — the last.  He had healed quickly, with no infections or other complications.  Then he had taken the thousand dollars Murdoch had offered each of the boys for coming to his aid and left.  Scott had been sorry to see him go.  He had been looking forward to building a friendship with his younger half-brother.  Then, just as unexpectedly, about three months later, Johnny had returned.  He moved back into this very bedroom and took up work around the ranch as if he had always lived there, as if those three months — and in fact the eighteen years which preceded them — didn’t exist.

 Scott took a breath, intending to ask again where Johnny had gone at the end of that summer, but the habits of reticence, of respecting each other’s privacy, were too deep.  Instead he said, “You remember standing here then?”             

“Yeah,”  Johnny said, drawing his shoulders in as though a chill air had suddenly struck his chest.

“What were you thinking that day?”

“What were you thinking?”  Johnny countered.

“I was thinking it made sense,”  Scott said.

“Sense.”  It wasn’t quite a question, but Scott could tell he was asking for enlightenment.

“Boston didn’t anymore.  Not for me.  Life back east had turned into an elaborate dance.  You step and turn and bow and step because that’s the way the dance goes, no other reason.  And everyone else is doing the same thing, so if you miss a step, you cause confusion.  I looked out this window and I saw a different kind of life.  God, how I love watching the seasons change, the grass come up in the spring, being there when a calf is born.  Law is important, never mistake that.  But this… this is life.”

“You thought of all that the first time you stood at this window?”

“No.  But I felt the stirrings of it. I knew what it was Murdoch was fighting for.  I knew I would help him, whether the old bastard wanted it or not.  Remember that first day?  When he said he’d split the ranch into three equal shares, only policy and decisions would rest entirely with him.  I didn’t know whether to laugh or be hurt when I heard that one.”

“He was hedging his bets,” Johnny said.  “He didn’t know either of us, after all.”

“What were you thinking about?”  Scott asked him again.

Johnny stood silently, staring across the broad fields to the low foothills of the mountains beyond.

“Belonging,”  he said finally.

Scott knew there were parts of his brother he could never really understand:  they had grown up too far apart, separated not just by distance, but living in entirely different worlds.  But he wondered now what belonging had meant to Johnny twenty years ago.

Belonging had always been natural for Scott, it was only the location that had changed.  True, he had grown up thinking his father was dead, but he had done so in the center of a loving family.  Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, all around, all the time.  He joined sports teams and clubs at school, had been a natural choice for officer when he joined the military during The War, had even been elected “governor” of the small corner of Hell he had occupied briefly in Andersonville prison.  But Johnny had grown up alone.  Moving from town to town, there had never been playmates at school – when there even was school for him.  There was an unstable mother, a series of false “step-fathers,” most of whom resented the presence of the boy in their homes.  With little or no formal schooling, on his own and on the road before he hit puberty, Johnny had grown from a naturally shy, quiet boy into the very definition of a loner.  Belonging must have been a strange concept to him then, something alien an potentially dangerous.  Scott tried to imagine thinking of a word like “belonging” with the kind of fear Johnny’s tone implied, and found himself incapable.  He also, even after all these years, could not understand how Johnny had managed it:  going from that kind of loneliness to being part of this family, fitting in.  Belonging.

“So, how do you feel about it all now?”  Johnny asked, breaking into Scott’s musings.  “Any regrets?”

Scott considered the question seriously. He thought of the pretty young girl, still a teenager really, whom he had married seventeen years ago.  And he thought of Teresa, down in the kitchen, banging pots so hard in her fury that he could hear them even up here.  When had that change come about?  Was he the cause of it?  He had never meant to cause her any hurt.  He did regret that, if it were true.  But then he heard, through the clear summer air, the shouting of boys playing in front of the house.  He heard locusts buzzing in the heat and horses stamping, and smelled the smells of barnyard and fresh grass, already seasoning to gold under the summer sun.

“No,”  he said.  “I have no regrets.  How about you?”

“No,”  Johnny said quickly.  Too quickly.  Johnny may never have been that easy to read, but some things Scott had learned over the years.  Like, what a poor liar he was.  Scott was saved from deciding if he should pry into that question deeper when Johnny suddenly said, “Rider coming in.”

Scott squinted into the sun, shading his eyes with his hand, and made out the distant shape of a rider coming up out of the Hidden Lake Trail.  “Probably Murdoch’s guest,”  he said.

“Riding double from town?  I doubt that.”

“Are you sure,”  Scott asked.  He could see a horse, but it was small and distant.

“Two riders, one horse,”  Johnny said.  Then he added, “That’s a girl on the back of that horse!”

When he said that, Scott recognized the skirt – a sweep of faded denim – the plain calico print blouse, his own old, discarded straw hat, usurped by his daughter as a sun hat.


“Yep,”  Johnny agreed.

“Who’s she with?  One of the hands?”

“I don’t recognize the horse,”  Johnny said.  “Palomino coloring… big animal, though, looks like part apaloosa maybe.  Definitely a stranger.  Want me to shoot him for you?  Give me another hundred yards, I could pick him off without so much as disarranging her hair.”

“Let him get up to the house,”  Scott said.  “If her hair is disarranged, then you can shoot him.”


When they rode into the dooryard behind the big house, Scott was there, waiting.  Johnny had been right about the horse:  it was yellow and it was big.  It strode into the yard, all long legs and youthful energy, tossing his head and trying to get enough rein to run, even loaded as it was.   Not only was the horse carrying two riders, but a rifle, saddle bags, two half-gallon canteens and a full saddle pack.  Whoever this stranger was, he was packed for a trip.  And loaded for bear.  Besides the rifle in the scabbard (a good, serviceable Henry), the snout of a shotgun peeked out of the pack, a big knife was shoved into one boot and he wore a pair of Remington .44s on a heavy cartridge belt around his hips.  Bounty hunter, was Scott’s first assessment, and the thought definitely soured his mood.  On top of being tired and stiff and in bad need of a bath, there was Murdoch’s unexpected guest, Teresa’s tantrum, and now a bounty hunter was giving his daughter a ride home.  He’d had better days.

He waited, watching, while the stranger got the horse under control, aware of the firm hand on the reins, the way he used knees, thighs and heels to give commands to the horse.  A good horseman, he thought with grudging respect, not just some clod on top of a good horse.  Well, in his business, he probably had to be.  The horse stopped.  The stranger slid to the ground and reached up to help Larissa down from the saddle.  Not help, actually.  Lift.  Entirely.  He picked her up and set her on the ground, and Scott couldn’t help but think that she hung on to the stranger a moment longer than was necessary, that she smiled too long a thank-you up into his eyes.  He considered that he may have been overreacting.  He didn’t think so, though.  What had happened to the little girl who wanted only to please her daddy?  This young woman seemed a stranger to him sometimes.  And it irritated him when total strangers paid this much attention to her. Of course, it irritated him just as much when men like this didn’t pay attention to her, as if that meant there was something wrong with her.

“Larissa,”  Scott said, maybe a little sharper than necessary, and she dropped her hands at once, turning to him with a faint flush creeping into her face.

“Oh, Pa.  Hello!  I was just…”

“Just walking up at Hidden Lake again?”  Scott guessed.

“Well, yes, I…”

“Lissa, how many times have you been told…”

“Pa!  The lake is right on the ranch, and not that far away!”

“No, it’s not that far,”  Scott agreed.  “But as this gentleman just proved, it lies on a back trail into the place that is not altogether unknown.  It’s not safe for a young lady.  On foot, alone, no dog… I bet you don’t even have a gun with you!”

It seemed a safe bet, since he couldn’t see one, but her embarrassment turned instantly to indignation.  “Of course I do!”  She slid her hand into her skirt pocket and extracted a pistol, which she handed to Scott for him to examine.  It was a tiny thing, a little .22 derringer with silver plating and mother-of-pearl grips, specifically designed for use by a lady.  He had never seen it before, but he could be pretty sure it was a gift from Johnny.  Trust Johnny to know just what sort of weapon a girl could be enticed into carrying.  Scott always tried to get Larissa to carry a shotgun, or at least a good target pistol.

“Won’t do much good against a bear,”  he said, handing it back.

“I don’t believe bears were what you were worried about,”  she said.  Getting altogether too smart, he thought.  He found himself now in the uncomfortable position of being embarrassed, and from the look on her face, Larissa evidently thought he deserved it.  He tried to cover his embarrassment by saying, “You’re needed in the kitchen.  Right away.”

“May I make introductions first?”  she asked, coldly polite.

“I’ll take care of it,”  Scott said.

She was angry, and he didn’t blame her.  But she really didn’t understand the dangers of being alone in a distant place like Hidden Lake, or of strangers.  He didn’t think he could ever get that through her head, without terrifying her completely of everyone and everything — which might not, he thought, be such a bad idea.  But that would come later.  For now, she spun on her heel to march away, and just as suddenly, that stranger grabbed her and spun her back.  By the time Scott opened his mouth to protest, it was all over.  Larissa was safe in Scott’s arms, the stranger was walking away, leading the horse that had, a moment ago, nearly taken Larissa’s ear off with its teeth.

“Are you all right?”  Scott demanded.

She, too, realized a little late just what had happened.  Or what could have happened.  Her eyes were wide, and the hand she lifted to the side of her face shook slightly, but there was no skin missing, her ear was still there, no blood was pouring…

The stranger tied the horse securely to a rail of the corral fence.  “Sorry about that.”

“Foul tempered horse,”  Scott commented, releasing Larissa now that the animal seemed to be restrained.

“Not so much bad tempered as always pushing to see what he can get away with,”  the stranger drawled.  “You got to be quick around him, never let your guard down.”

“Doesn’t sound like the kind of horse you’d want to travel far on,”  Scott commented.

“Oh, I got used to his habits.  He may snap now and then or try to run you into a tree, but a dog wouldn’t be a better night guard, and he’s got stamina and to spare.  He’s a fine horse.”

Scott found his foul mood dissipating somewhat under the kid’s easy attitude.  Partly, maybe, because he was just a kid.  Even if he was taller than Scott by an inch or so, he was not that much older than Larissa.  He was long-legged and youthful as that horse, with a shock of gold hair and wide-set, brown eyes:  a big, slow-moving lad with a gentle grin and a drawling voice that was already thick with low, masculine tones.  Although, he had just proven that he could move like lightning if the situation warranted.

“Hhmm.”  Scott stepped warily around the horse, looking at the line of leg, the solid hip, the broad chest….  Johnny wasn’t the only one in the family with an eye for horses.

“Appaloosa and… mustang?”  he asked, looking up again.

“Yeah,”  the stranger grinned, apparently pleased at Scott’s identification.  “You can even see a few spots on the back end — well, you can when he’s not so dusty.”

Scott slapped the animal appreciatively on the rump, a gesture that caused it to turn its head as much as its rein would allow and roll one liquid brown eye his direction.

“He was a gift, actually,”  the kid continued amiably. “My godfather said he looked too much like me to belong to anyone else.”   Larissa giggled, and Scott found himself softening even more.  Anybody who could laugh at themselves couldn’t be all bad.  Scott began to feel he could actually like this kid, if Larissa hadn’t been standing there, smiling up at him, totally infatuated.  Good thing he was a bounty hunter.  It gave Scott an excuse to run him out of here.

“I’m sorry,”  the stranger said.  “Didn’t mean to get sidetracked before we even began our introductions.  I’m Sargent Texas Butler Pierce of the Special Forces Division of the Texas Rangers, El Paso Office, Special Investigations Team.  I’ve been making some inquiries locally concerning a man wanted in the state of Texas who may have been out here about twenty years ago, mostly likely mid-summer of 1870…”

“We can’t help you,”  Scott said flatly, the good feelings that had been growing gone suddenly cold and dead.

“Pa!”  Larissa exclaimed in surprise.

“Bounty hunter or lawman, there’s nothing we can do for you.  You can leave now,”  Scott said.

“Pa!  Grandpa invited him out here!”  Larissa said.

That definitely put a different slant on things.  “Why, Mr. Pierce?”  was all Scott said.

“Tex.  And, I ain’t real sure, honestly,”  the kid said.  “He came into town this morning, and we discussed the case some.  He didn’t know this fella, but I think he wanted me to talk it over with the rest of the family.  See, the man I’m looking for is a Terrence T. Palmer, at least that’s what we know him as currently.”  The kid pulled out a leather wallet while he spoke, extracted the wanted poster and handed it to Scott.  Scott’s reaction was similar to Murdoch’s.  He searched for a resemblance to Johnny, and didn’t find one.  And he relaxed when he saw that the man was known to have been in Texas as recently as a month ago.  Johnny hadn’t been farther from the ranch than Spanish Wells in several years.

“What has this got to do with us?”  Scott asked.  “And why twenty years ago?”

“That’s what I was trying to explain to … your father?”

“Murdoch is my father, yes.  I’m Scott Lancer.”

“Pleased to meet you,”  the kid said, shaking his hand.  “See, one of the witnesses I interviewed…”

The words froze in his throat as a loud, high-pitched scream tore through the air.  A moment later, Jack came pelting around the side of the house, still screaming, running as hard as he could, a big, rangy cow dog hard on his heels, barking furiously.  Before Scott could open his mouth to tell them both to shut up, the stranger’s gun — a heartbeat ago secure and tied down in his holster — was out and speaking.     


He shot the dog dead, then dropped to his knees to grab the boy by the shoulders.

“Are you all right?  Did he bite you?  Boy!  Are you all right?”  Tex yelled in Jack’s face, giving him a little shake when the boy just stared at him blankly.  Before Jack could answer, Gene showed up, also running, also screaming.  Gene had mud smeared on his bare chest and face like war paint and was brandishing a toy tomahawk.  He skidded to a stop, yells dying in his throat, as he took in the scene, and Tex stared back at him, eyes wide, mouth hanging open.

“Where did you come…?”  he whispered.  He looked down at Jack again.  “It was a game?  You’re not hurt?  It was a game?”

He gave Jack another shake, this one a little harsher, and Scott pulled Jack out of his grip, pulling the boy back against himself protectively.

“What happened to Bingo?”  Gene asked.

Tex dropped to a sitting position on the ground as if even kneeling his legs could no longer support him.  “Oh, dear God!  There were two of them!”  he murmured, and he put his face in his hands.

The sound of gunfire had brought the rest of the family on the run.  First Teresa, then Murdoch ran out the kitchen door.  Johnny seemed to materialize out of nowhere, and dropped into the grass next to the body of the dog.  Several ranch hands appeared, armed with a variety of firearms and tools.  “We heard shots, Mr. Lancer!”

“It’s okay,”  Scott told them.  “Go on back to work.  It’s okay.”

“It is not okay!”  Murdoch thundered.  “Scott, what on earth is going on here?”  The hands, who had started to turn away, now hesitated.

Tex took a deep breath and drew himself to his feet.  “It’s my fault, Mr. Lancer. I thought…. The kid was screaming, and I thought… I shot the dog,”  he admitted.

“You shot…?”  Murdoch stared.

“There was a lot of screaming,”  Scott said, wondering as he did why on earth he was defending this young idiot.  But, it was true.  The screams had startled him, and he was used to the boys’ rowdy games.  And Tex… Tex was obviously upset by what happened, by what he had done.  If he hadn’t been, Scott would have run him off the ranch on the spot, no matter who had invited him.  

“It sounded a good deal worse than it was,”  Scott continued.  “Jack, you have been told before….”

“Don’t you dare try to blame this on him!”  Teresa said, and she grabbed Jack away from Scott’s embrace, dropping to her knees to hold him fiercely in her arms.  “He’s just a boy!  He has a right to expect to be able to play safely in his own yard!”

“I only meant…”  Scott started, and stopped.  This was too much like the argument they had had when he and Johnny were packing to go on their week-long  fence-fixing excursion.  They had wanted to take the boys.  Teresa had insisted they were both too young, despite the fact that she herself had been helping with ranch work when she was younger than Gene, and that Larissa had been allowed on these overnights before she turned six.  But, Scott wasn’t about to start that argument again, not here and now.

“Is the dog actually dead?”  he asked Johnny instead.  Maybe there was some hope.  After all, it had been so sudden, a fast draw, a snap shot.  Not likely to be a great aim like that.

But, “As a doornail,”  Johnny said grimly.

“Bingo’s dead?”  Jack asked.  Shock was beginning to wear off both boys, and while Gene was trying to look brave, Jack’s lower lip quivered.  “You killed my dog!”

“I’m sorry,”  Tex said, looking down at Jack’s disconcerting stare.  “I thought he was hurting you.”

“Bingo would never hurt me,”  Jack said.

“Perhaps,”  Scott said, interrupting, “You children need to organize a funeral.”

“That’s a good idea,”  Larissa said as she realized her father was trying to distract the boys.  “Bingo needs you to do this for him, Jack.  You can’t let him down.”

Jack sniffed while he considered.  “Can we put him in the family cemetery?”

“No, he’s not…”  Scott said.

But Teresa talked right over him.  “Of course!  He was family, wasn’t he?  But you’ll need a coffin.”

“Can we build one?”  Gene asked hopefully.  One thing he liked better than torturing his younger brother was hammering, and the idea of an involved carpentry project was even pulling his attention away from the tragedy.

“Certainly,”  Scott said.  “I believe there’s plenty of wood and nails in the barn.”

“Can we have black armbands?”  Jack demanded.  “Like the Carey’s all wore after Mr. Carey died?” 

“I think I can make you some,”  Larissa said.

  He would mourn the loss again and again in the future, but for now, Jack was distracted enough that with one last searching look at the stranger, he allowed Gene to lead him away to the big barn that now doubled as a carriage house and workshop.

“Someone needs to keep an eye on those two,”  Murdoch commented, and Teresa hurried after them.

“As for you,”  he said, turning his attention to the Ranger.  “I understand that what happened out here was an unfortunate misunderstanding…”

“Sir, I….”

“Shut up!  From now on, you will go about this ranch unarmed, is that clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“The only reason you’re not swinging from a rafter in that barn right now is that… ”  Murdoch sighed.  “Is that I know how much screaming that boy does.  Not that that’s any excuse!”

“No, sir.”

Murdoch stalked angrily back into the house. Scott walked across the dooryard to where Johnny still knelt by Bingo’s very lifeless body.  Larissa and the ranger both trailed after him.

“You should have let me shoot him,”  Johnny said as they walked up.

Scott, of course, knew what he meant, but the statement startled Larissa.  “Shoot Bingo, Uncle Johnny?”

“No.  Shoot this trigger happy idiot,”  Johnny said, waving a hand at the kid.  He reached out and caught both his crutches in one hand and planted them firmly together to heave himself upright.  Once he was standing, he arranged them, one under each arm, and looked up, only to find the kid staring at him.

“What’s the matter?”  he demanded irritably.  “Never seen a one-legged man before?”

But his challenge didn’t seem to bother the stranger, who continued to stare, not at his missing limb but at his face.  “Uncle Johnny…?  John Lancer?”  he asked finally.

“Yeah, why?”  Johnny said.

“Johnny Madrid?”  the ranger asked.

Johnny did not react noticeably, though his eyes suddenly went flat and dark.  Johnny eyes were warm and gentle most of the time, but Scott had seen that look in them before:  all the warmth melted away into something hard as flint, cold as ice.

“You were right the first time,”  Johnny said in the flat, emotionless voice that only a few people knew hid his most deadly furies.  “It’s Lancer.  You understand that, kid?”

“Yes, sir,”  the stranger  said, but he continued to stare at Johnny, even after Johnny turned his back on him and walked into the house.

“What..?”  Larissa started.

“Liss, please go see what’s burning in the kitchen,”  Scott said.

She instantly spun around and raced into the house.  Which left Scott, finally, alone in the yard with the young stranger.

“Well,”  Scott said.

“Maybe I should leave,”  the kid said, and he turned to go back to his horse.

“Why?”  Scott asked.  “Just because you made a total ass of yourself twice in less than five minutes?  Let me tell you something I learned from hard experience:  it happens to everybody now and then.”

The young man didn’t turn around, but he paused, allowing Scott to continue.

“At your age, it’s called the foolishness of youth.  But unfortunately it doesn’t end there.  At my age, all a man can say is, ‘I’ve had a rough day’.  By the time you catch up with Murdoch, you have to be more careful because everyone suspects creeping senility.”

The young man snorted softly, amused but refusing to show it, and turned finally, to face Scott again.  Across the yard, his horse was making a serious attempt at kicking a hole in the side of the adobe stable.

“Why aren’t you mad at me, sir?”  the ranger asked.  “I did kill the boy’s dog.”

“I am mad,”  Scott said calmly.  “I’m furious.  And I’m still shaking inside.  What concerns me is not the dog, but how close you came to taking one or both of those boy’s lives.”

Tex looked down, and swallowed hard, closing his eyes.

“Around here, we’re fairly used to Jack’s screaming.  But it does occur to me what that might have looked like to someone who wasn’t familiar with the boys.”

“It didn’t sound like a game…”  the stranger started.

“I know.  And you’re afraid of dogs, aren’t you?”

There was a hesitation before the stranger admitted it.  “Yeah.  I thought I was over all that by now, but when he came running around the house, screaming like that, with the dog chasing him…”

“Deja vu?”  Scott suggested.       


“A feeling that you’ve been there before.”

“Oh.  Yeah.  Like that.”  He stared for a moment at the corner of the house, where the dog was lying still in the dust.  Two holes were gouged in the adobe plaster of the lower wall where the bullets, after passing through the dog, struck the building.  “I really should leave, I think, sir,”  he said, still staring at the house.  “You can’t get a man who hates you to talk about the past, it won’t work.  I made a mess of things…”

“You came here on legitimate business, apparently,”  Scott said.  “And Murdoch didn’t send you packing when you shot the dog, so he must think there’s something we can do to help you.  So.  Put your horse up in the first stable, the one he’s tied to.  There are racks in that stable for saddles and tack, your gear will be safe there.  And your guns.  All of them.  When you get everything settled, come in through the back door of the house, and Teresa or Larissa will show you a room where you can leave your pack, and get cleaned up before dinner.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And incidentally, I’d like some proof that you are with the Rangers, as you claim.  You can present it when you present yourself for dinner.  At seven o’clock.  Good day, Mr. Pierce.”

“Yes, sir.  Thank-you sir.  Good day, sir.”


He opened his eyes.         

He could see.  It was light… yet, it wasn’t.  It took a few moments for him to understand.  It was broad daylight outside, but he was not outside.  There was a roof over his head, and walls… three walls, made of crumbling, unplastered adobe.  The fourth wall was missing, and a section of roof.  But there was a roof over him, and it must have been solid enough, since he was dry.  He remembered rain….

He twisted his head and looked around more.  There was a small fireplace in the corner, a home-made looking affair of stacked, flat rocks that made a little hearth, but did not have a chimney.  It did not look like a structure anyone would want to use much for cooking, yet there was a small fire crackling in it, and a tin pot balanced on a rock near it, which was giving off the sound of boiling liquid and a very enticing odor.  There was no table in the room, and no cupboards, but some rocks and a bit of board made a small shelf on which a few mismatched cups and plates and cookware were neatly stacked, and a small section of log near the hearth looked like a makeshift bench.  Surely, he thought, no one would live in a three-walled house.  But the grassy floor was swept clean of loose leaves and debris, and a little vase of early spring irises sat on the bench.

Demons came to his mind again, but he dismissed them as fever dreams.  Surely, this was no way-station in Hell.  It looked more like a child’s playhouse set up in an old abandoned building.  Besides, he could see his horse outside, grazing contentedly in the sunlight.  And that was his saddle in the corner, resting on its end to protect the wooden frame, his bridle and spurs draped over it.

Another look showed him to be lying on his own bedroll tarp, his blankets tucked under him for more padding, and a clean, if somewhat ragged quilt draped over him for warmth.  His right arm was splinted and bandaged, and though he could not see the rest of his body, he could feel the bindings on his belly and foot and thigh as well.  Four bullets had hit him, he recalled that now.  And four places were bandaged.  But by whom?

There was a girl…

No, that was surely part of the fever.  Hadn’t he dreamed that she had been eaten by bears?  That he was in the mountains here and not in a home or doctor’s office must mean that he had been caught by the Mexicans, and would be taken back to face a firing squad, instead of shot again and left to die here.  Well, that was fine with him.  The longer they delayed killing him, the greater the chance he had of getting away again.

He moved the fingers of his right hand, and found he could do so, though it sent shooting pain up through his whole arm.  Now was as good a time as any.  He would leave now, while his horse was here and they weren’t.  He knew they weren’t because of the quiet.  A squad of military police was never this quiet.  He threw back the quilt and tried to sit up, and instantly he tipped over and hit the ground solidly, darkness and stars dancing in front of his eyes.  He was just thinking he would have to move slower to start with, when there was a rustle of petticoats, and a warm hand on his shoulder, and a girl’s voice saying, “You mustn’t try to get up yet.  You’re still weak.  You rest.  I’ll get you some soup.”

The darkness swam away and he saw her crouched near the hearth, feeding the little sticks she had been gathering into the flames.  Goldilocks.  Who hadn’t been eaten by bears after all.  Only her hair wasn’t gold, it was a flat dirt brown, tied tightly back in one of those fancy braids that seems to start at the top of the head and run all the way down to the end of the hair.  Tiny wisps of curl escaped to feather around her face and neck, and the braid was tied at the end by a strip of pink gingham cloth.

“Who are you?”  he asked, his voice sounding hoarse and rough to his own ears.

“My name is Hilary,”  she said.  “And you’re the one they’re looking for, aren’t you?”

“Who?”  he asked.

“The Mexican soldiers.  The sheriff was angry when they rode into town, said they had to leave at once, they have no jurisdiction here.  But they wouldn’t go.  They said they had chased a dangerous revolutionary across the border and they knew he was in town and they wouldn’t leave ‘til they found him.  I was going for the doctor when I saw them.  Then I decided I had better not let anyone know you were here.  The sheriff, well, everyone, seems to think if you were just handed over to them, they’d go away and we’d all be safe again.”

“Likely,”  he croaked.

“What would they do if they did catch you?”  she asked.

“Kill me,”  he said.

“They talked about taking you back for a trial….”

She stopped when she saw his head moving slowly from side to side.  “Tried and convicted in advance?”  she asked.

“Pretty much.”

“I thought you might be worth more to them dead than alive,”  she said, stirring the pot on the stove.  Chicken soup.  He could smell the broth, pick out the odors of onion, garlic and sage in the steam.  He closed his eyes and prayed that some of that was for him, that it wasn’t just her picnic lunch.  He didn’t care for chicken soup, generally. But his stomach was burning from hunger, and the smell was making his mouth water so that he was almost drooling.

“Why?”  he asked, mostly to distract himself.

“Your horse.  It’s a fine animal.  And that saddle — it must be worth a lot of money.  Even your guns.  Silver-plated, ivory grips…”

“A gift, actually,”  he said, a smile touching his lips.

“Expensive, though.  If they take you back, all that is confiscated by the government, isn’t it?  And if you happen to die out here somewhere, and they happen to find all those expensive things just lying around…”

“Funny, you look a lot more innocent than you talk,”  he said, opening his eyes again.

“I am sixteen,” she said, primly, returning to sit next to him with a cup of the broth in her hand.  “And a graduate of the New Orleans Academy of Domestic Sciences.”

“What’s that mean?”  he asked.

“That they taught me how to sew and cook,”  she said with a shy grin.

“I thought maybe you were a doctor.”

“A doctor?”  she said,  and she shook her head with a laugh.  “Oh, I can just see that!  I doubt they’d let me into medical school on the basis of an education in Domestic Sciences!  Anyway, I’m not much good at books and things.  I always did terrible with arithmetic and spelling.  That’s why Pa sent me away where I would learn more practical skills.  Although, I’m still lousy at embroidery. I can cook, though.  But I can’t get this into your mouth with you lying down.”

“I can sit up,”  he said, struggling to get an elbow under himself again.

“No you can’t.  Don’t be ridiculous.  Here.  Wait.”  She set the cup down on the bench and slid closer to his head.  Gently she lifted his head and placed it in her lap, then she shifted closer and rested his shoulders in her lap, holding his head up in the crook of her arm, and she reached for the cup again.  It was a stretch, but she managed it, and she held it, blowing on it for several seconds before offering it to him.

The tin was hot and scalded his lips, but he let the soup touch his mouth before pulling his head back, and licked it off his lips.  Heaven.  Pure heaven.  How long since he had eaten?  He tried to guess, but since he had no idea what day this was, it was impossible.  When she offered the cup again he managed a small sip.  The hot, salty liquid slid down into his hollow stomach, burning a trail through him as if he were a hollow shell, not a man.  He could actually feel it in his stomach, rolling around in there, and he thought that he knew now how a barrel felt with just the tiniest drop of whiskey left inside of it.  He sighed and closed his eyes, and heard her murmur, “It’s all right.  Take your time.  You don’t want to eat it fast after all this time.”

“How long?”  he asked.

“You’ve been here since the day before yesterday,”  she said.  “I got a little tea into you yesterday, do you remember?”

He shook his head.  All he recalled were the demons.  Or the dreams of them.  They faded into total unimportance now that he was warm, relatively comfortable.  His head was pillowed against the girl’s chest, and he could hear the gentle beat of her heart through the fabric of her dress.  He was still hungry, very very hungry, but exhaustion won out, and he fell asleep in her arms.


Discretion is the better part of valor, Tex knew from the decent education he had had, was a line from an old play spoken by some goof-off who had just spent most of a major battle playing dead.  He had been told that the line was supposed to be humorous, though he had personally found it, and the character who uttered it, to be smug, self-centered and cowardly.  Still, there were times when staying out of the way was the better choice – cowardly or not.  Like this afternoon, when the Lancer family gathered at a fenced plot of ground slightly above and north of the house to lay the body of their dog – stuffed into a poorly-made and ill-fitting box – in the ground.  He was pretty sure that if he had chosen to participate in the funeral, he would not have been sent away.  Still, all things considered, he thought it better to stay out of sight.

Actually, he considered just leaving, even after Scott Lancer talked him out of it.  Apparently, he had come here primed with false information.  If Johnny Madrid was alive, and not lying in a shallow unmarked grave in Sonora, Mexico since July of 1870, that changed things.  Changed dates anyway.  It didn’t, he concluded after wrestling with the question of leaving for several long minutes, change what he had heard in that interview in Waco.  Murdoch Lancer’s name had definitely come up.  That part was still accurate, and now that the year was changed – the year, apparently when Johnny Madrid ceased to exist and Johnny Lancer came into being – maybe they’d all quit telling him they couldn’t help him before he had a chance to tell them what he was asking about.

He’d wondered about that, coming first from the old man, then from his son, Scott Lancer.  Nerves, he had thought.  Stubbornness, maybe, or the protective instincts of the father of a beautiful young girl. It made sense though, once he realized that Johnny was alive.

He had seen the old wanted posters, of course.  None of them had even these poor pen-and-ink drawings, just a description: “Mexican Male, approximately 25 years of age.  5’8″ tall, 150 pounds, brown hair, brown eyes…”

Well, they’d had the hair right, anyway.  Height and weight  – not even a good guess, and the age on those 20-year-old posters was off by more than half a decade.  And of course, to some lawmen he knew, anyone with dark hair and the ability to speak Spanish was a “Mex”, never mind what side of the border they had been born on (not to mention their parents, grandparents, etc.).  Small wonder he’d never been brought in, that he’d been able to change his name and just disappear completely.

Discretion meant not interfering in this case, but Tex tried to stay inconspicuous and in sight at the same time.  He had spent the past few weeks on the road, and he had been taught that a good lawman is only as good as his horse.  So, while he waited on the family, he tended Showboy’s hooves, not just cleaning them, but pulling each shoe off  completely, checking and refitting them, trimming and filing the hooves.   He re-nailed each shoe carefully, filing down the tops of the nails where they poked out of the hooves. And while he worked, he snuck peeks now and then at the funeral up on the hill.  Black armbands had been produced for both boys and all three of the adult men.  The woman and the girl had little squares of black on their heads.  Meant to represent veils, was his guess.  The older boy had taken charge as a sort of combined preacher and master-of-ceremonies, delivering a eulogy, then leading them all in singing Silent Night, which Tex thought was an odd choice until he realized it was probably the only song the boy knew all the words to.  All in all, very touching, he supposed.  Personally, he agreed with the blonde man, Scott, who – he was sure – had been about to protest that a dog doesn’t belong in a family plot when he had been overruled.  Tex himself  never had understood what people saw in dogs. Nasty, dirty animals.  Vicious. That dog in particular was big and rangy and dangerous-looking, and Tex broke out in a cold sweat all over again, remembering that second boy coming around the corner of the house when he had just fired his gun that direction!  The dog scared him, he’d admit that, but when he realized how close he had come to killing that boy, he started shaking all over again and some feeling he could not name clenched in his gut like a ball of cold steel.

Though he was bent over with a hoof clenched between his knees, a mouth full of nails and a hammer in one hand, he could still see under the belly of his horse everything that was going on.  He watched, pretending not to, as they all filed past the grave, dropping in wild flowers.  Scott Lancer still had an  arm around his daughter’s shoulders, as he had through most of the service. The dark-haired woman (he never had learned her whole name, but he figured  Mrs. Lancer was a good bet) knelt in the dirt to wipe the tears of the younger boy on her apron.  Jack, they had called him. The older boy had his grandfather’s blonde hair and blue eyes, but the younger one was as dark-haired as Madrid.

Lancer.  He’d have to remember that.  No need to put them all on the defensive again.  Johnny Lancer managed to drop his flowers into the grave, even though he needed both hands to manipulate the crutches, especially on that uneven terrain.  He stopped to give the dark-haired boy a warm hug and lightly touch the woman’s hair before he and the other men headed for the house.  So, the wanted posters may not have been too accurate, but the stories were, apparently.  Gentle, he had been told. Kind and compassionate.  Which had never made the least bit of sense to Tex.  His own reaction to almost killing a boy by accident was still violent enough to be physical, yet this man had once taken money to kill people.  To commit murder.  No self-defense involved.   No need to protect others, like a lawman in the line of duty.  No rage or anger or, near as he could tell, any feeling at all.  Just hand over the cash and bang!  You’re dead.

Totally incomprehensible.  Although, in a way, Tex was glad to see it was true.  It had been something  of a shock discovering Madrid was still alive, but it was nice to know all his information wasn’t suspect. 


Murdoch, Johnny and Scott headed straight to the office and helped themselves to glasses off the tray on the end table.  Murdoch poured drinks, and the three of them all settled into their favorite chairs.

“I didn’t see that kid all afternoon,”  Johnny commented.  “He leave?”

“He’s out near the barn,”  Scott said.

“Doing what?”  Johnny asked.

“Near as I can tell, taking all the shoes off his horse, one by one, and replacing them.”

“Why?”  Murdoch asked.

“Killing time.  Waiting for us,”  Scott said.  He turned to Murdoch and asked, “Did you know he wanted to ask questions about the summer of 1870?”

“Yes,”  Murdoch said.  “That’s why I went looking for him in the first place.  I heard he’d been asking a lot of questions, not just about the date, but about Lancer specifically.  I thought if he wanted to gossip about the Lancers, he could go to the source.  But, now, I’m not so sure I want him here.”

“Oh, I’d like to have him stick around a little longer,”  Scott said.      

“Why?”  Johnny demanded.

“The way I figure it, he’ll have to explain himself in more detail before he can reasonably expect any information from us.  The name he gave me wasn’t familiar.  Had you ever heard of Terrence Palmer?”  he asked Murdoch.

Murdoch shook his head.

“So?”  Johnny asked.

“So.  I want to see how many more slips he makes.”


“Of the tongue,”  Scott said, but he didn’t elaborate.  Johnny frowned, considering, but he couldn’t think of any “slips.”  Maybe it was something the kid had said when he and Scott were alone together.

“The kid’s gun-happy,”  Murdoch said, sourly.

“We disarmed him.  Anyway, I don’t think you’re right about that.  I think he’s very much aware of how to handle a gun.  He was really scared of that dog, but his habits of carefulness went deeper than his fear.”

“What are you talking about?”  Murdoch demanded.

“You were studying the dog, Johnny,”  Scott said.  “What do you think?”

Johnny’s whiskey glass was already empty, but the chair he had picked was close enough to the drink tray that he could reach the decanter without getting up.  He reached for it now, uncapped it, and refilled his glass, all with a thoughtful frown.

“Had he moved, from the time he shot until the time we all got out there?”

“No.  Not significantly.”

“What?”  Murdoch asked again.

“He wasn’t quite at the corner of the house,”  Johnny said.  He took a mouthful of whiskey and swallowed, trying for as little contact with his taste buds as possible.  He paused, grimacing at the taste, before continuing.  “But, he was close to it.  For a couple seconds, when they first came into sight, Jack and Bingo would have been almost running straight at him, dead on.  But they swerved when they came around the corner of the house, and cut directly between him and the building at a right angle.”

“Yes,”  Scott said.

“Did you see him draw?”  Johnny asked.

“It was like lightning.  You wouldn’t have believed it.  I can hardly believe it.  His gun was out and level before they got to the corner of the house.”

“So he hesitated?”  Johnny asked.

“Just for a moment.  A second.  Maybe a fraction of a second.  For a minute I thought he had realized his mistake and wasn’t going to shoot at all, but the hesitation was too brief.”

“What are you two talking about?”  Murdoch asked.

“A lot of men carry guns, Murdoch,”  Johnny said.  “Most of them do it without realizing what a … an engine of destruction they’re toting around.”

“He’s a gunman, isn’t he?”  Scott said.

Johnny shook his head.  “Maybe.  No, I don’t think so.  Most men who kill for a living don’t have enough conscience to hesitate like that, to make sure their target is lined up so that no one else gets hurt before pulling the trigger.  I’d say he really is a lawman, and a very carefully trained one at that.  I didn’t see the draw, but I saw the pattern.  Two shots, right?”


“Both of them hit, so tight the entrance wounds overlapped.  There were two exit wounds, because the dog was moving, the angle was just a little different, but it looked to me almost like a single entry wound.  And he waited,”  he added, looking at Murdoch, in case the old man was too dense to understand what they had been talking about, “until Bingo was in line with a nice, soft adobe wall that would stop the bullets without causing a deadly ricochet before he fired.”

“What do you think he’s really after?”  Murdoch asked, after he’d thought that over a minute.

“I don’t know.  That’s why I want him to stay,”  Scott said.  “Maybe we can stall him for a day or two.  He said something that really interests me.”

“What?”  Murdoch asked.

“He wanted to know if this,”  he pointed at his brother, “is Johnny Madrid.”

“If he is a lawman, he probably has a whole pocket full of old wanted posters,”  Johnny said.  He finished his drink and refilled his glass for the third time.  Murdoch frowned at him, but didn’t say anything.  The action distracted him enough that it took a moment for Scott’s reply to sink in.

“No,”  Scott said.  “He didn’t say ‘Wow, is that Johnny Madrid?’  He said ‘Lancer’.  ‘John Lancer.’  And he qualified which John Lancer this might be by the name of ‘Madrid.'”

“He connected the names,”  Murdoch realized slowly.

“He connected the names,”  Scott agreed.  “And not by face either, but because Larissa had just called him ‘Uncle Johnny’.”

“How?”  Murdoch said simply.

“I’ve been trying to figure that out since it happened.  Outside the three of us, there’s not all that many people who could have connected the names.  Teresa knew, but none of the kids did, not even Larissa, though once she’s through worrying about the dead dog she’ll start to wonder about it.”

“There was the Pinkerton agent who found you in the first place,”  Murdoch said.  “He was killed on a raid to capture Jesse James a short time later.  I remembered his name when I read the article.”

“And the lawyer,”  Johnny said.  “Remember, when you first split Lancer legally with Scott and me, you told the lawyer to make it Madrid instead of Lancer on the deeds.”

“Just to see what you’d say,”  Murdoch said.

“And I said leave it, but in essence, you told him.”

“He’s dead too,”  Scott said.

“That’s right.”  Murdoch agreed.  “He came west originally because of consumption.  It was only a few months after the signing of the deeds that he went into the sanatorium, and he died a short time later.”

The three sat in contemplative silence for a long while.        

“Jelly,”  Johnny said finally.

Jelly had worked for Lancer for about ten years, mostly as a cook.  He’d been a cowboy for many years, but when he became too crippled up to ride the range any more, he was happy enough to “retire” to the kitchen of the big house instead.  His cooking, rustic though it had been, had been a definite improvement over Teresa’s youthful attempts at feeding the family.  Jelly had lived off the kitchen, not in the bunkhouse, and had been a friend as well as an employee for years.  A part of the family, almost.  And well aware of who every member of the family was.  Jelly was also dead.  Age, cold, whiskey, a touch a pneumonia had ganged up on him all at once, and they had buried him like family in the little plot on the hill, next to Teresa’s father and her one stillborn infant.

“No telling who any of them talked to,”  Murdoch said.

“There was a kid once,”  Johnny said suddenly.  “Jelly told him who I was, and he hired me to kill the men who’d killed his father.”

“You didn’t, did you?”  Murdoch demanded.

“Of course not! But I went with him to look into what happened a little clearer.  Turned out his old man just plain fell off his horse, no one’s fault really.  But it could be the same kid.”

“No,”  Scott said. “I remember that: it was eighteen or nineteen years ago — not long after you came out here, and that kid was already… I don’t know.  Maybe sixteen then.  This kid isn’t old enough to be the same one.  Besides, that kid wouldn’t have had to ask if you were the Johnny Lancer who was also Johnny Madrid.  He’d have just taken it for granted.  And he’d have known you by your face.”

“It’s a puzzle, alright,” Murdoch said.

Scott nodded in agreement.  Johnny reached for the whiskey decanter again.


By the time the ranger stepped into the dining room, the entire rest of the family was already seated.  Without being obvious, Murdoch watched carefully to see how the boy reacted when he came through the door.  Murdoch himself had stopped cold and gaped in surprise.  The table had been set with Scott’s grandmother’s hand-made, lace-trimmed, imported table linens, delicate, antique flowered china, heavy, engraved silver flatware and etched crystal goblets.  There were also heavy silver bowls filled with fresh-cut roses, and huge silver candelabras with so many flickering beeswax candles that the dining room looked like a church.  Larissa’s doing, Murdoch suspected.  Teresa wasn’t likely to want the extra labor of caring for all this antique finery without Mrs. Winger’s help, and Larissa had also appeared at the table with her hair neatly arranged and wearing her best dress.

But the ranger didn’t even blink.  He paused long enough to take in the long, empty end of the table, and the one vacant set place between Johnny and Jack, and he stepped up to the table.  He passed his leather wallet to Scott before sitting down, then slipped into the chair and spread the fancy napkin on his knee and bowed his head to wait for Murdoch to bless the meal.  So.  He might look like the wide-open plains themselves, but someone had gone to the trouble of teaching this boy parlor manners.  He even slid his multiple silver forks to the left side of his plate where, Murdoch knew, they were positioned in the fancier restaurants.

“Get lost on the way to dinner?”  Scott asked, as he started passing the food.

“As a matter of fact, yes,” Tex replied.  “This is a big place you have here.  Very nice, but big.”

“Murdoch practically built it himself,” Scott said.

“Really?  I would have guessed it was older than that.”

“It was older,” Murdoch said.  “When I got this house – and the bit of land that came with it – it was a ruin.  Most of the roof was missing, the floors were all rotted through, no windows.  The walls were mostly all that was left, and the adobe parts of the walls were starting to dissolve.  Some of it I was able to rebuild, but some of it had to come down completely, start again from scratch.”

“The upper stories aren’t adobe,” the kid said, more of a statement than a question.

“Why would you think not?”  Murdoch asked.

“Weight.  You’d need buttresses to hold them up if they were.”

“You did say you’d lived in the southwest,” Murdoch recalled.

“Yeah.  And, I am from El Paso,” the kid reminded him.

“Yes, that’s right.  And you’re right.  The second floor is mostly log, and the third floor, where there is one, is frame.”

The food was all passed out and served, and Tex looked with dismay at the contents of his plate.  Dinner was fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, glazed carrots and corn bread, which sounded wonderful.  But, the crust of the chicken was blackened and grease-soaked, and when he cut off a small bite with his heavy silver knife, the meat inside was pink.  No, it was bleeding.  The potatoes were a gray, gooey, gelatinous mass with large, crunchy lumps, and the gravy tasted like boiled water with cornstarch and salt — too much cornstarch, and not enough salt. The carrots were cooked to the point of being limp and flavorless and the glazing seemed to be a form of sweetened charcoal.  The cornbread was so dry he almost choked on it, and it had all the flavor of rancid grease.

“Is El Paso a very big town?”  Teresa asked.  She may have been angry earlier at not having been given notice that a guest was coming, Scott thought, or maybe, she had been angry at something else entirely and had only used that as an excuse.  But the one thing that could thaw her quickly was hearing about places she had never seen.  She was always interested in stories of new and different places.  Maybe, Scott considered, glancing across the table, maybe Johnny was right after all.  Maybe travel was something that would interest her…

“Hard to say,” Tex said.  “I reckon it depends on what you call big. It’s bigger’n Spanish Wells, but it’s not so big as St. Louis.”

“Have you been to St. Louis?”  Scott asked skeptically.

“Yes, sir, I lived there for about three years.  My ma did a course of study in nursing at a convent there.”

“Really!”  Larissa said.  “Your mother is a nurse, then?  Does she like the work?”

“Oh, yes, she does.” Tex said, turning – to Scott’s displeasure — that grin of his her direction.  “The reason we moved to El Paso, you see, was that there’s a new hospital down there that specializes in surgical procedures, and Ma trained as a surgical nurse.  She’s very good at it….”

“Maybe surgery is not the best topic at the dinner table,” Scott suggested quietly.  But having put a stop to what he considered a flirtation between his daughter and this young man, he suddenly found silence at the table which would have to be filled with eating if someone didn’t say something quickly. Tex must have had the same thought because he turned to Teresa and said, “Ma’am?  I don’t believe we got a chance to introduce ourselves formally. My name is Texas Butler Pierce, I’m with the Texas Rangers.”

“Teresa,”  Teresa said, smiling. “I think you need to find yourself a new summer name, Mr. Pierce.”

“I have been thinking about making one up,”  Tex said.  “But Ma hung ‘Texas’ on me when I was born, and sealed it with chrism oil when I was baptized.  I reckon I’m stuck with it.”

“An unusal name,”  Teresa said.  “Let me guess.  You were born in Texas.”

“Abilene, Kansas, actually,”  he said, grinning.  “No accounting for mothers — if you pardon my saying so.”

Murdoch looked up.  “Abilene, Kansas?  And didn’t you tell me you were… nineteen?”

“Yes, sir,” Tex agreed.

“When exactly were you born?”

“Exactly?”  It seemed an odd question to Scott, but Tex didn’t seem to notice.  “‘’71.  March 12, 1871.”

“Is that significant?”  Scott asked, hoping that if he cut the food up into small enough pieces no one would see how little of it he actually ate.  He thought with longing of the bacon he had made for breakfast, half burned and half raw from hanging on a stick over an open fire.

“That’s about the time Wild Bill Hickock was the town marhsall in Abilene, I believe,“  Murdoch answered.  He looked at Tex.  “Of course, you’d have been too young to remember him….”

Tex nodded amiably, agreeing.

“But were you named after him?”  Murdoch said, making it almost as much a statement of fact as a question.

“Can’t believe you caught that,”  Tex grinned.

“I’ve always been interested in men who live by the gun,”  Murdoch said. “Collecting stories about them is one of my hobbies.”

“I don’t understand,”  Larissa said, looking, from her grandfather to Tex and back again.

“Hickock’s name wasn’t actually ‘William,'”  Tex explained.

“James Butler Hickock, if I recall correctly,”  Murdoch said.   

“You do,”  Tex agreed.  “Ma always called him ‘Butler’.  I believe that’s what many of his friends called him.”

“Your parents knew him?”  Murdoch asked.

“My Pa worked for him,”  Tex said.  “I reckon you could say I was born into the lawman business.  Pa was Hickock’s deputy marshal.”

“Didn’t Hickock kill his own deputy?”  Scott asked.

“Yes, he did,”  Murdoch said thoughtfully.  “And.. wasn’t that in the spring of ’71?”

“March twelfth,” Tex said.

“That’s horrible!”  Larissa gasped.

“Why would he kill his own deputy?”  Teresa asked, apparently so absorbed in the story that she, too, forgot to eat.

“A case of mistaken identity,”  Murdoch said.  “Hickock and a man by the name of Phil Coe were having a disagreement over whether or not the sign for Coe’s Boar’s Head Saloon was ‘pornographic,’ which by law meant it had to come down.  It culminated in a gunfight…”

“Over a sign?”  Larissa demanded, wide-eyed.

“I’ve seen men killed for less,”  said Johnny, who had been sitting at his place as silently as if he were half asleep.

Larissa stared his direction, surprised not by his condition but by the statement, and looked back only when Murdoch cleared his throat loudly before continuing his story.

“Yes, well.  As I understand it, Hickock killed Coe, caught movement out of the corner of his eyes, spun around and fired again, accidentally killing his own deputy.”

“How very tragic,”  Teresa said sincerely.  “And on the night you were born?”

“Almost to the minute, as I understand it,”  Tex said.  “Butler must have felt pretty bad about it because he supported Ma until she was up and around again, and then got her a job in the boarding house where he was staying, cooking and cleaning in exchange for room and board for both of us.  It wasn’t his fault, though.  He had glaucoma.”

“What’s that?”  Gene demanded, forgetting the rules about interrupting adult conversations.

“Disease of the eyes,”  Tex explained to him. “He shot because he didn’t know who was behind him, couldn’t see clear in the dim light.  He gave up marshalling shortly after that, cause he knew it was not a good line of work for someone who couldn’t see. He’d have been stone blind eventually, if he hadn’t died a short time later.”

“Shot in the back,”  Murdoch said.

“Up in Deadwood, yeah,”  Tex agreed.

“Did Wild Bill Hickock teach you how to shoot?”  Gene demanded.

Murdoch and Scott waited, curious, for the answer to that one.  Even Johnny lifted his head to look at the kid.  If they were expecting a foolish slip, though, it didn’t come here.  Tex just grinned at Gene and said, “Shoot, I was just a baby when he died.  I don’t even remember him really.  He left me a letter though, before he left town.  A kind of an apology.”

“Do you have it?”  Gene asked, thinking how impressed his friends would be by a document actually signed by Wild Bill Hickock.

“Not on me,”  Tex said.  “I keep it now in a safety deposit box in El Paso.”

Which, he thought, was where this meal belonged.  Locked up, somewhere far away.  Preferably not a safety-deposit box, but a lock box, one with chains around it, kicked off the deck of a ship, floating slowly to the bottom of the ocean.

“Quit picking at your food and eat it,”  Teresa said sharply, and Tex automatically took another bite before realizing it was the boys she was actually speaking to, not him.

“We’re not very hungry, Momma,”  Gene said at once, and Jack, who had been looking with interest at their guest, suddenly dropped his eyes to his plate and puffed out his lower lip, the picture of a boy in greif.  It worked.  Teresa smiled gently at both of them and didn’t push it.

At the head of the table, Murdoch coughed explosively.  He’s just tried the cornbread, Tex thought.  But Murdoch covered it well.  He grabbed a drink of water and said, “Shouldn’t try to talk while I’m eating!  Now, what was I saying…?”

He hadn’t been saying anything, but the sight of the wallet still sitting beside Scott’s plate saved him.  “What is that here for?”

“I asked Mr. Pierce to bring proof that he works for the Rangers,” Scott said.

“Well.”  Murdoch took the wallet himself and opened it, at the same time flicking open a pair of reading glasses and putting them on his nose.

“A wanted poster for John Doe, alias Terrence T. Palmer,”  he announced, lifting it out.  He had seen it, as had Scott, but Teresa reached over and picked it up curiously,  shocked by the evil, twisted face of the man depicted.

“Is this who you’re looking for?”  she asked.

“He said he would have been in this area about twenty years ago,” Scott said.

“Well, actually…”  Tex started.

“Even if he were here thirty years ago, I’d remember that face if I’d ever seen it!” Teresa said.  “And I guarantee you, I’ve never seen it.”

She passed it back to Murdoch and wiped her hands as if just touching it had somehow sullied them.  Murdoch set it down next to his plate and took out the next sheet in the wallet.

“Extradition papers from the State of Texas for the State of California for one John Doe, aka Terrance T. Palmer, approved by the California supreme court, June 30, 1890.  A letter requesting assistance and cooperation of the California law enforcement officials in searching for John Doe, aka Terrence T. Palmer.  Note attached.”  Murdoch flipped the page to read the attached note.  “‘Permission granted for Texas Ranger T. B. Pierce of the Special Forces Division, El Paso Office, Special Investigations Team, to proceed with his investigations inside the state of California’.  I take it they didn’t care to waste man power on this themselves?” Murdoch asked, looking at him over the tops of his reading glasses.

“No, sir.”

Murdoch nodded, looked down through his glasses again, and shuffled to the next paper. “‘To Whom It May Concern,'”  he read.  “‘The following confirms the identity of Texas Butler Pierce, Sargent, Special Forces Division of the Texas Rangers, El Paso Office, Special Investigations Team.’  Maybe instead of a summer name you can invent a shorter title for yourself.  Let’s see.  ‘Date of Birth:  March 12, 1871.  Place of birth: Abilene, Kansas.’  You already told us all that.  ‘Present Address: 14 Paseo de las Ovejas, El Paso, Texas.’  Sounds pleasant.”

“It is,”  Tex said.  “Roses by the door and everything.”

“Married?”  Teresa asked, thinking of the roses.

“I live with Ma, actually,”  the kid admitted, and seemed unaware of how Larissa’s frown relaxed into a warm smile at that answer.

Murdoch looked down again.  “Where were we?  Ah, yes.  ‘Physical description.   Height, six-foot-four.  Weight, one hundred and eighty-five.  Hair:  Blonde.  Eyes: brown.'”  He paused to study Tex over the top of his reading glasses for a moment, then he nodded, satisfied and continued.  “Distinguishing marks.  Small scar on left cheek, causes dimple in same.’  What happened?”  he asked, looking up again.

“Got hit with a rock at school when I was six or seven.”

“I just wondered,”  Murdoch said, “because I knew of someone who had similar results from a bullet.”

“Just a kid scuffle,”  Tex said, shaking his head.

Murdoch nodded and looked down again.  “‘Seven-inch scar with twenty-seven suture marks on left thigh, still purple in color….'”

“That was a bullet,”  Tex said.

“Not too long ago, obviously.”

“Almost a year, actually.  Broke the bone, though.  Took a couple surgeries to get it all back together right.”

“That’s tricky stuff,”  Scott commented.

“Yeah, well.  Like I was saying, we got us a real good new hospital down in El Paso.”

“Lucky you,”  Murdoch said, and finished the description.  “‘Evidence of animals bites on both…”  He hesitated, almost as if he didn’t wish to read the rest of it aloud, but he did, in as close to the same cool voice as he could manage. “On both legs and feet, hips, back and shoulders and upper arms.  Shotgun pellet wounds on right foot, also last two toes of same foot missing.  All these scars are several years old, faded to white.  Signed, Captain Edouard Janiver.  25 May, 1890.'”

Murdoch’s voice trailed off and he sat for a long time, staring at the paper.  He looked up at Tex and took off his glasses, but didn’t comment.

“I guess that would explain your fear of dogs,”  Scott said.

“The papers weren’t meant to be an explanation, sir, that’s the identification you asked for,”  Tex said.  He glanced up at Murdoch and added, “If you need to examine the rest of the evidence, I’d prefer to wait for a more private moment.”

“The evidence?”  Murdoch asked.

“The judge that OKed the extradition insisted on seeing the ‘identifying marks’ for himself, and so did more than one local lawman I had to contact.”

“Ah!”  Murdoch said.  “I don’t believe that will be necessary just at the moment, Mr. Pierce.”  He passed the entire wallet to Scott, giving him the opportunity to re-examine every paper in it.

“That seems like sufficient identification to prove he is who he says he is,”  Larissa said, looking pleased and satisfied.

“Assuming of course that those are legitimate papers,”  said Johnny, again surprising them that he was paying attention.

“What is that supposed to mean, Uncle Johnny?”

“It means, the description may fit down to his toes — or lack of them.  That doesn’t guarantee anything.  There’s nothing in that packet that he didn’t prime us with, or that we can’t confirm by sight.  We don’t know this Captain Janiver who supposedly signed that paper.  Shoot, you could have written all that upstairs in your room before dinner,”  he added, waving at Tex.  “You’re good with a story, kid, but that doesn’t mean a thing.”

“You can telegraph to El Paso,”  Tex suggested.

“How do we know who’s telegraphing back?”  Johnny said.

“The Captain has a telephone in his office.”

“We could call.  How do we know whoever answers is who you say they are?  You could have someone there waiting to give anyone who calls confirmation of your story.”

“I think you are being unfair, Uncle Johnny,”  Larissa said.  “Tex has been perfectly open and honest with us…”

Johnny just snorted.

“What kind of ‘proof’ would you want?”  Tex asked.

“Photographs,”  Johnny suggested.

“Now, don’t be ridiculous!”  Larissa objected.

Tex, however, considered the matter.  “How about someone in California who can identify me personally.”

“What person, though?”  Murdoch asked.


“If we don’t know who this person is, what difference does his identification make?”  Scott asked her reasonably.

“Would you believe the word of Virgil Earp?”  Tex asked.

“Marshal Virgil Earp?”  Murdoch asked.

“He’s not a marshal any more, but yeah, that’s the one.”

“And he lives in California?  I thought he died in Tombstone.”

“That was his brother.  Virge’s been out here for several years.  He was marshalling in Colton, near Los Angeles, until about a year ago.  Right now he’s running a gambling house in San Bernadino.”

“And he knows you well enough to give you a character reference?”  Johnny asked.

“I didn’t say anything about a character reference,”  Tex said.  “You asked for identification.   Virge can give you that; I grew up around him.  But except for a few letters and a visit recently on my way through Los Angeles, I haven’t seen Virge for years.  I wouldn’t ask someone for a character reference on the basis of having known them when I was a kid.  Kids change.”

“How is it that Virgil Earp knows you?”  Murdoch asked.

“He’s one of the men that shot the dogs off me.”    

“And this was how long ago?”  Scott asked.

“Eight… No, nine years ago.  I was ten years old.”

“So, you were born in Abilene, lived in St. Louis at some point, are in El Paso now, but just happened to be in Tombstone in 1881?”

“From ‘80 to sometime in ‘81,”  Tex nodded.

“I suppose you were an eye-witness to the shootout at the O.K. Corral then,”  Johnny said.

“No.  We’d moved to St.  Louis by then.  Just in time, too.  It was obvious for some time that trouble was brewing, and Ma and I were rather closely allied with one of the two factions forming in town.”

“I can understand St. Louis, where your mother could go to nursing school or whatever that was, and El Paso, because she got a job there, but why Tombstone?  That couldn’t have been a very healthy place for a woman alone with a boy.  If she was a woman alone?”

“And still is,” Tex said.  “Ma never remarried.”

“Then why would she want to move to a raw, new mining town?”

“There are opportunities everywhere,” Tex said, sounding, Scott thought, just a bit defensive.  But then he shrugged.  “You remember me saying that Butler felt kind of responsible for us?  When he moved away, he asked a freind of his to check up on Ma and me from time to time…”

“And that freind happened to be Virgil Earp?”  Murdoch asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Bat Masterson, actually.  But he and Wyatt Earp were friends.  The Earps were all living in Tombstone, and Bat and a friend of his…”

“Luke Short?”  Murdoch guessed.

“Right.  They were on their way south to hook up with Wyatt again.  Bat told Ma she could probably get a decent job there.  She had been working as a kind of live-in cook and housekeeper for a man who’s wife was ill — but the wife was recovered, and she’d been let go.”

“Wasn’t Tombstone a pretty wild town?”  Teresa asked.

“No, actually, by the time we got there, the marshal — that would be Virgil Earp — had things well under control.  He’d slap you in jail if you just rode through town too fast on your horse.  I’ve heard all kinds of stories about dust-ups in that town, but I know for a fact that the entire time he was living there, Virgil only fired his gun inside of town two times — for that now-famous shoot-out, and when I… uh… had some trouble with dogs.”

“Yes, the dogs,”  Murdoch said.  “How exactly did they fit into this gunfighter story?”

“That was because of the food.  See, Wyatt and Bat wrangled Ma a job supplying meals to the jail house…”

“Johnny Beehan’s jail?”  Murdoch asked.

“No, no!  It was the town marshal who bought meals from Ma, not the county sheriff.  Virgil Earp.  That’s how I knew him.”

“Seems like it would be hard to make a living like that,”  Teresa commented.  “I mean, what happens if no one’s been arrested?  There’s no one to sell a meal to.”

“True, but as I said, Virge kept a tight lid on that town.  He averaged thirty or forty arrests a month.  And he was the Deputy U.S. Marshal, too, so sometimes there were federal prisoners he was holding over.  It wasn’t a lot of money, but Ma always had somebody to feed. And, that’s where the dogs come in.  See, I didn’t get much growth on me until my teen years.  When I was ten I was still a pretty scrawny little thing, and lugging around that big basket leaking smells of bacon, ham, gravy and all…  Well, it attracted dogs on more than one occasion.  Eventually it attracted more attention than I could handle.  And, being an idiot kid, instead of tossing the basket for the dogs to fight over, I wrapped my body around it to protect it.”

“Evidence of animal bites on both legs and feet, hips, back, shoulders and upper arms…”

A dog had nipped Murdoch once, many years ago.  Not a deep bite, just a clashing together of teeth that scraped on the sides and bruised in the middle.  He remembered that it had hurt, badly, for several days.  Suppose it hadn’t been just a nip, but a real bite?  What if the canine teeth had actually dug into the skin, tearing, ripping raggedly at a young boy’s soft flesh…

Ten years old.  Barely a year older than Jack was now. Jack, who had come tearing around the house this afternoon, screaming, with a dog hard on his heels.  Dear Lord!  No wonder the kid shot first and asked questions later!


Johnny was drunk.

It was just one of many unfortunate side effects of trying to use alcohol as a painkiller.  Sometimes it actually worked.  Or maybe he just got himself drunk enough to pass out and forget about the pain for awhile.  Today, it wasn’t working so well, and he’d never gotten around to that hot bath.  When they’d arrived late this afternoon, there hadn’t been any hot running water in the room on the second floor he and Scott had converted into an indoor water closet and bathing room.  Just a year ago, they had spent months digging and laying pipe to install running water in the main house.  A large holding tank was set on the hill above the cemetery.  A windmill pumped water to the tank, gravity fed the water through the pipes they had so carefully laid, down to the house where spigots opened in both the kitchen and the bathing room to pour water without any hauling or pumping involved.  They had further upgraded the system by running a series of pipes through and behind the big wood-burning cook stove in the kitchen which heated the water to anywhere from scalding to luke-warm, depending on how much was being used and how hot the stove was.  Ordinarily, Mrs. Winger kept the stove hot all day producing, from early morning until late evening, not only a steady stream of hot meals for the family, but also hot running water.  With her gone, Teresa had obviously been pretty lax in preparing meals: the stove hadn’t been on at all today until she had to light it to make dinner.

Of course, he had taken baths all his life without hot running water.  There was even a stove in the bathing room itself so that water could be heated right there instead of being hauled up the narrow back stairs a bucket at a time.  But stoves take a long time to heat, and water an even longer time, and there had been that funeral this afternoon, which he felt obliged to attend, even if it was just for a dog.  All that ranger kid’s fault, too.  Blasting away like that. Then they all sat down to dinner with him and carried on civilized conversation as if nothing had happened!

Could hardly blame the kid, though, if those stories of his were true.  And that was a question in itself, wasn’t it?  How much of the kid’s tales to believe.  Because they were tales, fairy tales and campfire tales, top-notch entertainment. It was the stuff of dime novels, a kid just happening to be born in the same town, at the same time that Wild Bill Hickock was marshal, taken under his wing only to end up in Tombstone in time to meet up with Earp and his crowd.  The kid had offered to show his scars for his proof of identification, so undoubtedly at some time or another he did get chewed up by dogs.  But Johnny sincerely doubted that Virgil Earp and his friends had had anything to do with the whole thing.  He had been so sure of it, in fact, he half-expected the kid to claim it was Holiday who shot off his toes with the famous sawed-off shotgun he had used in the fight at the OK Corral.  But the kid knew enough to know that that particular shotgun was actually owned by the marshal’s office: Holiday had grabbed it out of the case to go to that shoot out – later, according to the kid’s story, than the incident with the dogs.  No, he had Virge, the famous lawman Virgil Earp, coming to his rescue with a shotgun — possibly that same one, no way of knowing for certain –, damaging the kid while he saved him, and sending little gifts to the boy while he was laid up in bed to assuage his feelings of guilt.


He did not believe the kid’s tales.  Absolutely not.  All those famous gunfighters.  And that about the horse… What about the horse?  He didn’t remember now, but something about the kid’s horse had struck a note in his subconscious. Mustang and Appaloosa. That meant something…. He’d lost it.  Too much whiskey.

No, the kid’s stories were all just too good to be true, but that bit about Virgil Earp Johnny found himself believing.

Funny, he had heard of the famous lawman Virgil Earp before, but he had never made the connection, until this kid blithely called the man by his nickname, the same nickname Johnny had known him by, years and years ago.

He’d had the feeling ever since he laid eyes on him that this kid looked like someone he knew, but he hadn’t been able to place it until now.  Virge.  Virge had not been much older, really, than this kid back when Johnny knew him, and he was very much like the kid:  a big, easy-moving, freindly, smiling man with dark reddish-gold hair, always grining, always able to make a joke, even if he himself were the butt of it.  And if the kid had known Virge when he was younger, he may have picked up some habits Johnny reocognized, though he couldn’t think of any specifically.  Funny to think of it:  chance meeting today, yet in a strange way, their paths had crossed once before.  They both had known Virgil Earp when they were youngsters.  He could even suppose Virge had taught that kid how to handle a gun.  Like he had taught Johnny.

How old had he been when he first met Virge?  He had to think about that, simply because until he came to Lancer, he had no idea of how old he actually was.  Or what his real name was.  His mother had never celebrated his birthdays, seldom even seemed to remember he was around.  If she didn’t recognize them, there was no way he could have known when they were — or how many of them he’d already had.  And, she had always told him his name was Juan, not John.  Juan Francisco.  He remembered seeing the name John Murdoch Lancer for the first time in his life, scrawled on the envelope thick with cash in a bold, backwards slanting hand.  He’d picked it up and stared at it, wondering, is this me?  Is that really my name?  The day after, when Teresa took Scott into town to buy him some work clothes, Johnny had tagged along, feigning indifference, acting casual.  But as soon as they left him alone, he’d gone straight to the church, and asked the priest’s permission to look through the big record book in his office.  Since he wasn’t sure exactly where to look, it had taken him some time, but he had found it.  John Murdoch Lancer.  Born October 9, 1852.  Baptized November 22, 1852.  He wasn’t too good at reading and writing, but he could do sums fairly easily, and he did the math then.  Eighteen.  He was eighteen years old.  He would have guessed he was older, really.  He felt older.  Eighteen didn’t seem like that many years.

So, he’d been thirteen when he knew Virge.  Yeah, that would be about right.  It was barely after the War.  Virge was a stage driver, working a route in southern California and Arizona.  Johnny had met up with him in…. He couldn’t remember the name of the town.  Just that it had been winter, so the nights were cold, and he was sleeping in a pile of soiled hay tossed behind the livery stable to keep warm.  He was bone-thin, hungry and ragged, and he stank, and people shunned him or chased him away, shouting obscenities at him, throwing rocks sometimes.  He remembered standing outside the saloon in a fridgid winter rainstorm, working up the courage to step inside.  He was cold, and hadn’t eaten in so long that his stomach had begun to feel like an enemy, not a part of him: something that gnawed at him like a hungry animal.  Finally, he shoved open the door and stepped inside, shivering violently in the smokey warmth after the chill outside, and instantly, someone shouted at him, “You!  Kid! Get out of here!  You can’t be in here!”

“I need to talk to Virge,”  he said, trying to sound grown up, though his nose and eyes were streaming, making it look like he was sobbing.

Virge was at a table near the fire, a warm, dry table, playing cards with several other men.  They laughed at his announcement, and Virge had laughed too, but when the owner tried to toss him out, Virge had said, “Bring him on over, let’s hear what he wants to say.”

So, he was allowed to stand by the fire, dripping and sniveling, and several men had commented on his smell — which he knew was unpleasant, but there was nothing he could do about it without a better place to sleep.

“You wanted to talk to me?”  Virge asked him

“I wanted to ask you for the job of guard on your stage coach,” he’d blurted.  He knew that the position was empty.  The regular guard had died after he got drunk and fell off the high seat and had been run over.  

The men at the table had howled in laughter, slapped each other and the table in their mirth.  Virge had choked on his drink but managed to keep a straight face when he said, “Well, son, truth is, that ain’t my stage coach.  I just work for ths company.  You’d have to talk to them about it.”

“They won’t talk to me,”  he’d said.  “No one will talk to me.  I really need the job.  I’d work hard…”

“Can you shoot a gun?”  Virge demanded.

“I never had a chance to try,”  he’d admitted, ashamed.  Then he looked up and added, “But I killed a man once.”

The laughter that comment brought tapered off when the other men saw he was dead serious.  They snuck peeks at him and at Virge to see what the big man would do.  Virge stroked his moustache thoughtfully, looking at his friends, looking for a way out of this embarrassing situation. “Tell you what,” he said finally. “You hit a bulls-eye with my pistol, I’ll talk to the company about you.”

They all trooped outside right then and there, in the rain.  For a target, an empty peach can was set on a fence post.  Virge himself slogged through the mud to set it up, then came back and extracted one of the big, heavy pistols from his holster, showed Johnny the double-action on the trigger, made sure the cylinder was spun so that the hammer would fall on a fresh cartridge, and handed him the gun.

He had never fired a hand gun, but he had cleaned them for his step-father before, so he was familiar with the weight of it.  He lifted the heavy weapon easily, pointed it at the can, cocked back the hammer with his thumb and squeezed the trigger.

The recoil knocked him clean off his feet, and the men were laughing so hard, it took them few seconds to realize that the can was no longer on the post.  They found it ten yards away, where the impact of the bullet had sent it, a neat round hole bored straight though the picture on the label.

Virge never actually talked to the stage company, Johnny was sure of that because Virge would always pick him up just outside of town and drop him off before going back in.  But he did teach him how to handle and shoot the big shotgun, bought him clean clothes, arranged for him to sleep inside the barn, on a bed of fresh, clean hay, and shared meals with Johnny in the warmth of the saloon, twice a day.  He gave Johnny a few dollars a month, probably out of his own pocket, for “pay”, and in the weeks that followed, he not only made sure Johnny was clean and fed and warm, but taught him about handguns and rifles, about figuring the drop in a bullet to hit accurately at a distance, and about handling the horses and gear necessary for stage coach driving.  They were held up only once, by men who assumed that a stage without a guard would be an easy target.  Two men where killed in the altercation, and while Johnny never knew if he had shot them or Virge had, Virge gave him half the reward money.

Knowing Virge was one of the what-ifs that Johnny tried not to think about in his life.  What if he had been given a real job with the stage line?  What if he could have stayed on, working for the company, making an honest living….

But one of Virge’s brothers came into the area.  Which, Johnny did not know, but all the Earps were notorious for sticking together, and for nepotism, although Johnny had not been aware of that word in those days.  Virge had talked to the stage company then, got his brother the official job as guard.  He’d felt bad about turning Johnny loose, on his own again.  That was clear enough.  And because he felt bad, he had given Johnny a gift when he told him he couldn’t use him any more:  a fancy pair of matched pistols in a carved, black leather cartridge belt.  He had won them in a poker game, and they were worth a lot of money.  Probably he thought Johnny could sell them if he ever got that hungry again.  But Johnny never had.  Instead of selling the pistols, he had sold himself.

Yeah, most of that kid’s story had been far too good to be true.  But that part, that little addendum to his story he told them towards the end of dinner, that part rang all too true.  The kid may have been making up stuff right and left to entertain them all, but he had known Virge, known his personality, known how he would react in a situation like the one the kid described.  And a thought came to Johnny then that maybe Virge was how the kid had known that Johnny Lancer was the same man who used to call himself Johnny Madrid.  It was a tempting conclusion to make.  In fact, whiskey-addled as he was, he thought it was the right conclusion.  Simple.  Coincidental, but believable.  He had temporarily forgotten himself that he had never used either the names Madrid or Lancer at the time he knew Virge.  Virge couldn’t have passed that information on to the kid because Virge didn’t have that information himself.


“The problem is,”  Johnny said through gritted teeth as he flexed and unflexed the fingers of his right hand, “I just don’t believe you.”

The girl laughed.  “What if I told you I performed my first surgery when I was ten?”

“Flat out call you a liar,”  Johnny said, and he was pleased when she laughed again, not offended at all.  He liked the sound of her laugh, liked the fact that he could be that honest and still hear it.

“It’s true, though,”  she said.  “My father used to be a chaplain for the military.  He was stationed over at Fort Union.  I don’t know why we had a big house all to ourselves, all the other officers had to share.  But we did, so Mama used to take in the convalescent soldiers who needed some care, but didn’t need to be in the hospital.”

“And she let you practice on them,”  Johnny guessed.

“Oh, no!  I wasn’t even supposed to go into that part of the house!  But Mama got sick, and someone had to help them change bandages and so forth.  Papa said he couldn’t be bothered with it, made up some excuse.  The fact is, it made him sick.  He couldn’t stand looking at the wounds.”

“Didn’t it bother you?”

“No.  Not really,”  she said.  She leaned over the pan on the hearth to taste her stew, and added some more wild garlic.  “In fact, I found it rather fascinating, especially sometimes when you could see right inside, at the layers of skin and fat and muscle… I sound like a ghoul, don’t I?”

“I’m not sure what a ghoul is,”  Johnny admitted.  “But I think: Yeah.  You do.”

“But it is fascinating,”  she said, after treating him to a grin.  “Anyway, there was this one solder who had been shot in the leg.  The bullet had gone through, and it seemed to be healing fine, but he kept saying there was something in there, poking him.  He told the doctor and I told the doctor, and the doctor kept insisting it was just his bone, but bones shouldn’t poke like that, should they?  One day, you could actually see something pushing against his skin from the inside, like a baby trying to cut a new tooth.  So, he held the skin tight, and I lanced it, and pulled something out. It was about this long,”  she held her fingers barely a quarter of an inch apart, “but very thin, pointy, and hard.  I showed the doctor, and guess what he said?”

“It was the man’s leg bone,”  Johnny guessed.

“Yes!  How did you know that?”

“I was being… uh..”

“Sarcastic?”  she guessed.  It embarrassed him that he didn’t actually know that word himself, so he just pretended that he had forgotten it.   “But, it was his bone!  A chip that had splintered off when the bullet grazed the bone.  The doctor said — in more detail this time! — that bone chips will sometimes work their way out on their own, sort of come to the surface and slide right out, and he’d been waiting for it, thank you very much.”

“Did you get in trouble?”

“Did I!  And, I was told again to stay away from wounded soldiers — ‘it’s not proper for a young girl!’  But, Mama stayed sick.  Someone had to keep doing her chores.  Though I didn’t lance anything any more.”

“Huh,”  Johnny said, still working his fingers.  Open shut, open shut, each movement causing a burning sensation in his forearm, as well as a dull ache.

“Your bone wasn’t shattered,”  she said, watching him.  “Whoever shot at you must have been pretty far away.  The bone stopped the bullet.  I think it was broken, but it looks straight to me now.”

“Yeah.  Probably just cracked a bit,”  Johnny said.

“And the bullets in your thigh and your side went straight through.  I washed them out good and bandaged them.  You bled a lot:  that’s partly what made you so sick and weak.  But it was a good thing, too.  Made them good, clean wounds.”

“You know, all the people who told you it was improper to dress a man’s wounds were right.  That one in the thigh is.. um.. pretty high.”

“Well, I couldn’t let you bleed to death!”  she said, averting her face.  He grinned, still able to see how red it got, but didn’t comment as she went on.  “Or take you into town, after what Marshal Gonzales said.”

“What did he say?”

“That even if the federales couldn’t legally take you away, you were wanted on this side of the border too, and if they found you, they’d hang you.”

“Huh,”  was all Johnny said.

“You don’t look like someone who’s killed people for money,”  she said.

“You ever met a hired gun before?”

“Well, no…”

“Then how would you know what one looks like?”

 “You keep exercising your hand,”  she commented.  “Which is good.  Making the blood circulate seems to heal things faster.  But we need to work on the foot and leg too.”

“The foot is broken, isn’t it?”  he asked, collapsing back onto his saddle.  Sweat was pouring down his face just from the exertion of repeated flexing of his hand!

“I’m afraid I didn’t do too well with that one,”  she said.  “I can take you to town, if…”

“If I want to be hung,”  he finished for her.  “Thank you, but this is fine.  Uh, that is unless people start wondering where you are and follow you.”

“Oh, that’s the beauty of bringing you here!  I come up here all the time anyway.  No one’s the least bit suspicious.  I think you should eat first, because the exercise will wear you out.  Then I can give you some willow bark tea for the pain, and you can rest.”

“Food sounds good,”  he agreed, pushing himself to a half-sitting position again.  It was good to be able to do that much for himself.  The first week or two, he’d been so weak he’d been helpless as a baby.  She had come every morning, around mid-morning, to check his wounds, feed him soups and herbal teas with lots of sugar added to them.  She’d dressed and re-dressed the wounds, keeping them all clean, removing the splints to massage blood into the broken bones, and — to his enormous embarrassment! — replacing the newspaper pads that she slid under him to catch any blood or other bodily fluids that might happen to leak out of him in his fevers.  He was able to stand now, though only with her help, to move out of the shelter for certain needs.  But they were short trips, and they exhausted him, and he wished, not for the first time, that it was at least a male person, not a female, who was available to help him just now.

But, he had to admit, she was good with wounds.  Worked with the veterinarian in town, she told him, until her father said it was disgusting and sent her off to that school back east.  He was fortunate, really, to have ended up in the hands of someone like her.  She bathed the deep holes in his side and thigh twice a day with some warm, sweet-smelling concoction that kept them clean, and kept the outside from sealing up before the insides were healed so that the draining fluids could come out, instead of building up and causing infection. The arm, too, was coming along nicely.  Sore, but healing clean.  He might soon be able to grip a gun with that hand again.  But the bones in his foot had been broken by the bullet that struck him there.  They were healing, but there was a hump on the top, like a wildly overstated instep, that would be with him forever.  And it did ache.

He fed himself stew and tea and some of the biscuits she had brought with her this morning while she sat, as she often did, sewing in the sunlight.  She had repaired his jeans and jacket:  they were patched, but they’d hold.  The shirt she had given up on and used as bandages long ago, and he suspected, though she never said anything, that she was sewing him a new shirt.  Either that, or she brought her home chores with her when she came.  Which was possible.

When he had finished mopping up the last of the gravy with a biscuit, she offered him more stew.

“Later,”  he said.

She set down the sewing then and came to kneel at the foot of his makeshift bed.  “Then, we should get to work,”  she said.

He tucked the blanket securely around himself as she massaged his foot.  She worked at it for a long time, which was, he knew, exhausting, but she never said anything, just kept massaging and manipulating.  Finally she lifted it to her shoulder and leaned forward so that he had to push first with his toes, then with his heel, bending and flexing all the muscles from his big toe to his hip.  It hurt.  And it was a lot more work than he would have imagined.  Sweat popped out on his forehead, and it seemed like only a few seconds passed before he had exhausted himself.

“Rest for a minute,”  she said, and she stood to get him some cold, clear creek water to drink.  But then she was back, taking the foot on her shoulder again, this time rocking her whole weight so the leg flexed at the knee, straightened, and flexed again.  He put pressure on it himself, but when it was obvious that she was doing most of the work and he had run out of strength, she lowered his leg gently to the bed again.  He got a quick massage then, both feet and lower legs, and a few inches above the knee.  Higher above the knee would have been nice — for the sore muscles of course — but in spite of what she already had to have seen, they were maintaining a fairly high level of decorum.  It was for his own sake as much as for hers, he realized.  It made him more comfortable as well.

“Do you need to, um, get up?”  she asked him.

“I need to rest,”  he said.

“I’ll leave the rest of the stew on the bench where you can reach it easily,”  she said.   She didn’t have to add that the water was there, and some rapidly cooling tea.  She left it all laid out every time she left.

“Tomorrow is Sunday,”  she said as she arranged things.  “I won’t be able to come tomorrow.”

He was surprised at how much that statement bothered him.

“I’m sorry. I snuck out the past couple Sundays.  My father will get suspicious if I keep it up.  But I’m leaving you plenty of stew, and biscuits.  And there are some meat pies in this bag.  And lots of water.  There’s more in the bucket there if you need it.”

“I’ll be fine,”  he said.

She knelt down next to him and waited while he drank down the bitter tea she made from the inner bark of green willow boughs.  Nasty stuff, even with the sugar she added to it.  The sugar, she said, was for strength as much as flavor.  And the willow would ease the pain.  He knew it would.  It always did.  She left him more, and some mint tea as well, gathered up her things and prepared to leave.

“Hilary!”  he said when she had reached the wall-less end of the ruined house.


She looked like a bird, he thought, perched at the end of a twig, ready to take flight at any second.  One hand gently touched the broken wall, the other clutched her work basket.  She was poised on her toes, stopped dead in mid-stride to answer him.  And he really didn’t have anything to say.  It was just… he would miss her.  He’d been alone so long, riding with other men sometimes, but alone all the same, that the thought that he longed for company seemed strange.  But he did.

“See you Monday,”  he said finally, and was rewarded by one of her warm smiles.

“I’ll come all the earlier,”  she promised.

“Hilary!”  he said again.


“Thank you,”  he said.

She grinned.  “You see?” she said.  “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”

The night was hard, though.  A storm moved in and hit just before dawn.  The ruins of the cabin were open to the east, and normally, this was good.  It gave him full benefit of the warm, morning sunshine, and most of the storms and prevailing winds came out of the west.  But this storm was what weathermen of a much later generation would call a counter-clockwise rotating, slow-moving low-pressure ridge.  It did come out of the west, but its circulation was blowing the wind in from the east.  Johnny managed to drag his bedroll into the farthest corner of the cabin, tucked up beside the makeshift hearth and behind the log bench.  But he couldn’t escape the cold winds, the sprays of rain, the hail.  He tried building a fire, but only succeeded in exhausting himself and giving up on the damp twigs and sticks.  He wrapped as much of the blankets around himself as possible and tried to huddle into the warmth.  But water leaked under the wall of the house, cold seeped up from the ground, and when Hilary arrived Monday morning, though the sun was out finally, he was still huddled into the corner, feverish and shaking with chill.  She lit a fire at once, with the dry kindling she always brought with her.  She hung his damp blankets out to dry, and wrapped both of them together in the only dry thing left — his saddle blanket — warming his body with her own until the shaking stopped.  When he finally slept, she spent the rest of the afternoon dragging long sticks and hay into the shelter to build him a warmer, safer place to sleep.


The sound of the scream brought Scott bolt-upright in bed, heart hammering hard against his chest.  Before he could even sort out what it had been and where it came from, Teresa was scrambling out of bed, reaching for her wrapper and slippers in the dark.

“Johnny,”  Scott croaked hoarsely, sleep still clogged in his throat.  He cleared it out and said, “It’s just Johnny.”

“Just Johnny!”  Teresa said.  “You know how bad those nightmares can get!”

“No,”  Scott said.  “I don’t.”  Because those nightmares were one of the things, like where he had gone that summer twenty years ago, that Johnny never talked about.  At least, not to Scott.

“He talks to you about them?”

“No,”  Teresa admitted, and he could hear the disappointment in her voice. Scott was glad, though.  The thought that his brother might share confidences with his wife that he had not shared with him had caused him an uncomfortable feeling in his heart. Jealousy?  He hated to think so, but he was sure that’s what it was.

“Stay here, Teresa,”  he said, trying to make it sound as if he weren’t pleading.

He must have managed, because she didn’t respond as he had hoped.  “You know he’ll wonder if I don’t go up,”  she said, and that was probably true, because she always did run to Johnny’s bedside when he had a nightmare, as if he were one of her children who needed her to care for him and keep the dark at bay.  The feeling, Scott thought as he watched her tug her long, loose hair out of the collar of her wrapper, was definitely jealousy, a feeling he did not like having where it concerned his only brother.

When she was gone, he laid back down on the bed, arms folded behind his head.  Because of the full moon, the room was not pitch dark, and he laid there for some time, staring at the ceiling, listening to the silence in the big house.  The thick adobe walls insulated sound fairly well, but he already knew there was no one else stirring.  The boys could sleep through an Indian attack.  Murdoch, he knew, would have been awakened by that scream, same as he had.  But, without a wife to leave him feeling guilty for his jealous inclinations, Murdoch would probably go back to sleep.  And Larissa… even if she was awake, she knew better than to go wandering around the house in the middle of the night.

After several minutes, he gave up.  He wasn’t going back to sleep, and he knew it.  Instead he got out of bed himself, pulled on a pair of trousers and a robe and walked barefoot out into the livingroom.  West-facing, that room was very dark, but the office, with its many windows, glowed lighter, and he went that way, heading, before he even stopped to think about it, for the drink tray by the couch. He hesitated.  But one drink in the middle of the night when he couldn’t sleep didn’t make him an alcoholic.  An interesting concern.  Funny, how they never talked about Johnny’s drinking, even as they never discussed his nightmares, yet it was in all their minds.

He selected the decanter with the silver top:  imported double-malt scotch whiskey.  That was for enjoying, not for gulping.  He poured himself two fingers in a small glass, then, catching a glint of light reflecting off portrait frames behind him, he turned.  The fireplace, a whole wall of river-rock that Murdoch had painstakingly hauled up from the creek bed, one sled-load at a time, dominated the entire room.  As did the portraits hanging over it.  On the left was Scott’s mother, on the right a portrait of Murdoch with Johnny’s mother, Maria Esperanza Ordoñez.  The portrait of Scott’s mother had arrived more than ten years ago, part of a bundle of freight that had been sent out after Scott’s grandmother died.  He had written to his grandparents and specifically asked them, just months after he had arrived here, not to leave him any Boston properties in their will:  “I love you both dearly, and I am truly thankful for the upbringing you gave me.  But I have found my place in the world, and it is here…”  Instead, they had left him the civilizing influence of his grandmother’s best tableware, and this portrait.  He had hated this portrait when he was a child.  His grandmother had hung on the wall opposite the foot of his bed, where it could smile down at him every night, and he awoke to that face looking at him every morning.  He supposed she had meant it to be comforting, to remind him that he was not alone in the world.  But he had often slept with the covers over his head, hating to have her staring at him, smiling that superior smile, as if she knew every naughty thing he had ever done, and, worse than punishing him, was just going to remind him, over and over, of his shortcomings.  Scott had not been a particularly naughty child, no more, he reflected, than any other boy.  But he had lived for years with feelings of guilt and inadequacy  because of this portrait.  When he opened the crate and discovered it lurking inside, he had been dismayed, and relegated it instantly into the darkest of their storerooms.  Then Murdoch had asked if he could have it, since Scott did not seem to want it.  Murdoch liked to collect family pictures.  He had threatened to have them all immortalized in oil, but had never gotten around to finding a good enough painter, so he settled for photographs, with which he adorned the walls of his bedroom.  Scott had assumed that this portrait would go into Murdoch’s bedroom with the photographs.  But instead of hiding it in there, Murdoch had hung it in here, digging the wedding portrait out of storage to hang next to it.

Scott had made peace with his mother over the years.  In this room, and with himself an adult, he had come to realize that her smile was not weary or accusing as Scott had imagined in his childish fears, but gently amused, the smile of a girl secure in her beauty, in her family, in herself.  He admired her more now that he knew more of her story.  She looked like a frail, useless debutante, but he knew she must have had a great deal of courage, as well as a sense of adventure, to leave behind everything she had ever known and take off into a virtual wilderness with a man who had nothing to offer her but ambition and the strength of his own two hands.  So, he toasted her tonight, raised his glass to this woman who had given him life, who had started the Lancer family, as certainly as Murdoch had, though she had not lived to see what became of them.  And, he toasted the other portrait as well.  Johnny’s mother.  Esperanza, whose name meant “hope”.  He took a sip then, replaced the stopper on the decanter, and a voice said sharply, “Freeze right there, mister!  Don’t even breathe!”


“You don’t mind if I swallow, do you?  That is why I came out here,”  Scott said mildly.

The ranger stepped into the room, and lowered the pistol he had leveled at Scott’s chest.

“I thought I told you to leave the guns in the stable.”

The kid flushed — Scott could see it even in the dim light — and tucked the gun safely away in his waistband.  “It was out there, but when all that screaming started, I… uh…”

“Ran outside in your stocking feet to get it?”  Scott guessed.

The kid looked down at his socks, then up again.  “I had boots on.  I was outside, actually, taking a walk…”

“At this hour of the night?”

“It’s not that late,”  the kid said defensively.  “I was… thinking about the case, about some reports I got to write.  Then I heard that racket… Sounded like somebody was being eaten alive!  I ran into Mrs. Teresa down in the kitchen, and she said it was Mr. Johnny, having nightmares.  Nightmares!  Then I heard someone moving around in here… Mr. Lancer, is this place always this crazy after dark?”

“You hit us on an especially good night,”  Scott said.  “Can I offer you a drink?”

“No.  Thank you, sir,”  Tex said.

“On duty?”

“No, sir.  I just never cared for liquor all that much.  Don’t like the way it tastes.”

“Yet Murdoch said he found you early this morning in Levy’s Saloon.”

“Where, as I’m sure you know, they serve a good breakfast.”

“Very true,” Scott conceded.  He took a sip of the fine scotch in his glass and rolled the smokey-tasting liquid around on his tongue, considering the young man standing before him in the dark.  “Do you remember, Mr. Pierce, the conversation we had in front of the stables this afternoon?”

“Very well, sir.”

“We spoke of the feeling of deja vu.  This ranch has had a veritable plague of deja vu ever since we first heard your arrival was imminent.  It began even before you got here, and is still carrying on.  My brother has not had nightmares like this in years.  What is it you do for the rangers, Sargent Pierce?  Torture innocent people by dredging up memories best left forgotten?”

“I am an investigator, sir.”

“Because of your connections?”

“Because of my successes.”

“Ah.  Success at stirring things up.”

“I never meant to cause any one any discomfort, sir.  I just need to double check on some information I was given by someone else.  If none of you recognize this Terrence Palmer, likely it’s another dead end.  But I have to find out for sure before I start looking elsewhere.  Palmer walked into that bank and shot seven people in cold blood, after peacefully swindling widows for years.  And the only connection I got for that sudden change in behavior is the name  Lancer.”

“You seriously think that is a connection?”

“I’m beginning to have some doubts,” Tex admitted.  “The timing, for one, is probably wrong.  But it’s all I got.  Let me explain…”

“Please,”  Scott said holding up a hand.  “Not now.  I don’t want the details just yet, you can give them to all of us together tomorrow.  Murdoch and Johnny — even Teresa — are more likely to be of help than I am.”

“Yes, sir,”  Tex said, with obvious disappointment.

Scott smiled.  “Oh, we’ll hear your story, Sargent.  Don’t worry.  I am very interested in hearing it, and I know my father and brother are as well.  It’s just…”

His voice trailed off and he turned again to look across the room to where two portraits hung side by side over the mantlepiece.  In the dim moonlight, they were blobs of light and shadow, but Tex had seen them earlier, when he came in this room looking for the diningroom, lost.  The wedding portrait of Murdoch Lancer and Esperanza Ordoñez, painted about forty years ago, showed Murdoch as a mature man in his prime, tall, broad-shouldered, golden haired.  A man, Tex had thought, obviously in love, with a sappy smile on his face and a sparkle in his eyes.  Esperanza had been little older than Larissa Lancer was now, a tiny, plump, dark-haired girl, with a faintly suspicious look in her eyes that he thought the artist would have done well to remove.  The other portrait was a young, fair-haired woman in fancy evening clothes, her blonde hair piled high with jeweled stickpins tucked in it and a single gold curl hanging over one bare shoulder.  She was a delicate, fine-boned girl.  More jewels sparkled on her hands and throat, and her lips were curved in a faint smile.  His first thought was that it was a picture of Larissa, but he realized that the mischievous gleam in those dark blue eyes didn’t look like Larissa at all.

“Twenty years ago — exactly the time period you are interested in…”  Scott said.

“Actually, sir,” Tex started, but Scott didn’t seem to hear, and just kept talking.

“… Lancer was involved in a major land war.  A good many people were killed, including Teresa’s father.  It was… a turning point for all of us, a pivotal year for the ranch and the family.  Quite frankly, if there was some two-bit outlaw in the vicinity, I doubt any of us would have noticed.  We were a little… preoccupied.”

“Yes, sir,”  Tex said.  He moved, preparing to leave, but he paused again.  “Sir?”

“Yes?”  Scott said, still staring at the portraits.

“Is it about his leg?”

Scott turned then, frowning in a puzzled manner.  “Excuse me?”

“Mr. Johnny’s nightmares.  Do they have something to do with him losing that leg?”

“Oh,”  Scott said, nodding with understanding.  “The screaming.  It does sound like a man having a limb amputated, doesn’t it?  I heard that sound often enough in The War.  I am old enough to have fought in the War.  The question is, where would you have heard that sound?”

“On Ranger business,”  Tex said.  “Four of us were ambushed by Comanche renegades out in… well, anyway.  We had to take a man’s arm off with a Bowie knife.”

“I see.”  He took another small, slow sip.  “In answer to your question, Johnny only lost the leg two or three years ago.”  He paused, and considered.  “Or maybe… seven.  I hadn’t realized it had been that long, but Jack was still a toddler. Gene was only five.  They don’t really remember him as he was.” He took another sip of the scotch and shook his head.  “No, it’s not an amputation he dreams about.  Those dreams cropped up… actually, at least twenty years ago.”

“That date again,”  Tex said ruefully.

“Yes,”  Scott said thoughtfully.  He was thinking now that he did not recall Johnny having had any nightmares before he left that summer of 1870, but the first night after he’d come back he’d awakened the entire house with his screams.  Of course, he had never had them every night, even back then when they were more frequent, and he hadn’t been at the ranch all that long before he left…

“So, this has been going on for twenty years?”  Tex asked.

“Oh, not every night.  After a few months, he seemed to get it mostly under control.  Unless he drank.  That was the main reason he never drank much, except for an occasional beer on a hot afternoon.  That and the fact that… he never cared for the taste.”

“I’d say he got used to it,” Tex said dryly.

“Would you now? What gave you that idea?”

Tex hesitated before answering.  “My nose,”  he said finally.  “I sat next to him at dinner.”

Scott nodded.   “His leg hurts,”  he said.

“Excuse me?”

“After he lost the leg, he kept complaining that it hurt,”  Scott shrugged.  “Not the scar, the whole leg:  his knee, his toes, everything.  He has no leg.  Yet, he claims it still hurts, quite often, even after… what did I just say it was?  Seven years.  Some nights he has to drink himself insensible to sleep at all.”

“Doc always said nothing eased his chest and his cough like whiskey,”  Tex said.  “Course, after awhile, the whiskey got to be more than a habit.  Sometimes you can’t stop once you start.”

Scott nodded, looking thoughtfully down at his own glass.  “Hmmmm.  There was a spurt of nightmares again after he started drinking heavily, but they’d died down — as his drinking actually has, too.  Except for occasions. Tell me, Sargent, as a modern investigator, surely you’ve read some  of these theories by that German doctor, Fraud…”

“Freud.  Yes, sir.”

“What do you think of his theories on the meanings of dreams?”

“I can’t help but think that, like most educated people, he over-complicates things.  My ma always said if a man can’t sleep, it’s probably just a guilty conscience.”

“Interesting statement, from a man wandering around fully dressed in the middle of the night.”

“Yeah,”  Tex offered a rather lopsided grin.  “I reckon that hit home, even if I hadn’t meant it to.”


“Meaning, I was restless because I was thinking.  I like being a lawman.  But I was wondering if a man who shoots first and asks for the facts later ought to be in a business where he’s supposed to carry a gun.”  He sighed and shook his head.  “I still can’t believe… When that other kid came around the corner….”  He threw up his hands.  “I ain’t even got words,”  he said.

“But you do have a conscience,”  Scott observed.  “Maybe this incident will help you work through your own fears so you do ask first next time.”

“Thank you,”  Tex said.

Scott nodded.  “Maybe you should try sleeping again.  It is late.”

“Yes, sir.  And you sir?”

Scott looked at the empty glass in his hand, and at the variety of decanters on the tray.  “I might try Johnny’s formula for sleep tonight.  I don’t think I am subject to nightmares, but I do find it difficult to get back to sleep when my wife goes off to take care of my brother…”

“Your wife?”  Tex asked, surprise obvious in his voice.

“My wife,”  Scott agreed.

“Mrs. Teresa…?”

“She and I have been married nearly as long as you have been alive,”  Scott affirmed.   He watched as closely as the dim light would allow as the younger man digested this information, obviously shifting things around in his mind.

“Then the boys…?”  Tex asked.

“Are my sons,”  Scott said.  “All three of the children are ours.  Johnny is a confirmed bachelor.”

“If I may ask then, who’s the blonde lady in that portrait?”  Tex asked, gesturing over Scott’s shoulder.

“Whom did you think it was?”

“Well, I reckon… I guess I thought that was your wife.  Larissa bears quite a resemblance to her, and… ” He let the sentence trail off lamely, embarrassment darkening his face.

“My mother,”  Scott said, looking back at the portraits.  “Larissa does resemble her.  She’s named for her too, actually.  I never knew her myself, but Murdoch tells me Larissa has some of her same mannerisms and gestures.  Interesting that such things can be inherited, isn’t it?”

“Um, yeah,”  Tex said, sounding even more uncomfortable.  “Um, sir?  Can I ask you a personal question?”

“I believe you already have,”  Scott said.  “But, go ahead.”

“Yes, sir.  Well… If Mrs. Teresa is your wife, sir, what’s she doing upstairs with Mr. Johnny?”

Scott turned and stared at the boy until the flush darkened on his face and he shifted uncomfortably under the scrutiny.  After a very, very long pause, Scott finally said, “They’re friends.”

“Yes, sir,”  Tex said, looking down at the carpet.

“I met my wife and my brother on the same day.  At the same time, actually.  We’re all very good friends.”


Scott stopped to peek in at the boys before going back to his own room.  They were both snuggled down in their blankets, dead asleep.  The moonlight cascaded like a flow of silver water over Jack’s soft, dark hair and Gene’s tousled blonde head, turning both to various shades of silvery-blue.  Scott watched  for several seconds the gentle lift and drop of the blankets as they breathed, and wondered if he was getting senile.

He’d made a joke along those lines just this afternoon, he recalled.  But then he had stood in the dark, telling a total stranger — a kid bedsides — personal things about the family that he had never shared with anyone.  He hadn’t done anything like that in his entire life!

No, that wasn’t true, strictly speaking.  Ever since they’d first met, he and Johnny had talked like that, sitting up long into the night after the rest of the ranch was quiet, not playing cards or drinking, just talking.

“I guess we have a lot of catching up to do,”  Johnny had once commented ruefully when they realized the sun had come up and they were still sitting in the kitchen, where they had been since dinner the night before.

But that was two brothers sharing the lost parts of their lives with each other.  This was… Not like Scott at all.  To talk like that to a total stranger, to say those things…

It bothered him that he had said those things, but what bothered him even more was what the kid had said:  that he had thought Teresa was married to Johnny.

Well, they hadn’t actually made introductions.  No one had said, “This is my wife,” or “This is my husband…”  There was too much confusion earlier, and at dinner, the kid had taken care of introductions himself.  More or less.  There were three “Mr. Lancer”s at the table, and one “Mrs. Lancer”, and the kid had had to put things together on his own.

Still… Is that how a total stranger saw them?  Teresa and Johnny — and the boys! — as a unit?  And himself… what?  An outsider?  The bachelor brother-in-law and uncle that was Johnny’s role in the family?  

Scott closed the bedroom door behind him and stepped back into the hallway.  But instead of returning to his own empty bedroom — his own empty bed — he leaned up against the wall and thought about it.

They shared a bed, as they always had.  Shared a room.  Spent hours discussing ranch business with Johnny and Murdoch.  Spent hours, also, discussing more personal things, like the upcoming ball for Larissa’s birthday.

But did that count?  Deciding if the cows should be hayed longer or put out to grass, deciding to hire extra kitchen help for the party so the burden didn’t fall on her or Mrs. Winger… he could have conversations like that with anybody.  And did.  Was all their interaction that cool and aloof, or was he seeing things that weren’t real because of the reaction of a stranger?  Was there a coolness, an isolation, between them?  Is that what Johnny had noticed, commented on today?  Had he backed off from her?  Had she separated herself from him?  Or was it just that it was late, and he was tired, and his wife was gone, and he was feeling lonely enough to tell personal things to a total stranger, then wander around the halls in the dark, feeling sorry for himself?

A sudden, Bang!  Crash! brought him off the wall, upright and alert, his heart pounding wildly, even as his ears registered a startled bellow of surprise.

Johnny!  He’d dropped something, probably, or fallen over, up there in the attic.  He turned, and started down the hall to the back stairs — the only stairs that went up to the third floor — to see if any assistance was needed, when suddenly, Bang! Crash!

Gunshot, he realized then.  He hadn’t recognized it at first because of distance and the muffling of the adobe walls.  The gunshot was far outside somewhere, but the crashing of glass was coming from upstairs:  windows shattering under the impact of the bullets!  Scott dove into the boys’ room and snatched them out of bed.  Dragging Gene by the arm, grabbing Jack around the chest, he drug them both into the broad hallway that ran between the living room and the bedroom suites.  With heavy adobe walls outside and inside, this was the safest place in the house.

“Pa!”  Gene protested.

Bang!  Crash!

            A high, female scream rang out.

“Daddy what is it?”  Jack asked, rubbing his eyes.

“You boys stay right here!”  Scott said.  “Don’t move, you hear me?”  He sprinted up the nearer front staircase, taking the broad steps two at a time.

He crashed into Murdoch on the second floor landing.  “What the…?”

“Get Johnny and Teresa, they’re still upstairs!”  Scott said, and Murdoch wheeled to run in front of him, limping awkwardly as they both raced down the second floor corridor.

Bang!  Crash!          

Larissa was scrambling out of bed when Scott ran into her room.  He grabbed her up in his arms, blanket and all, without a word and dashed down the hallway towards the steps.  It was very dark inside, but there was something darker than shadows on Larissa’s face.

Bang!  Crash!

“Scott!”  Johnny called.  He and Teresa and Murdoch were all hurrying towards the second floor landing now.

“Downstairs, everybody downstairs!”  Scott shouted.  Murdoch and Johnny stumbled behind him as his hurried down the steps.

Bang!  Crash!

“What is it, what’s happening?”  Teresa asked as they ran.

“Maybe it’s Indians!”  Eugene suggested.

“Not likely,”  Johnny said.  “The locals never were hostile, and they’ve been on the reservation more than twenty years.  Teresa, take this.”

Bang!  Crash!

Teresa took the gun from Johnny and held it while he opened a cartridge bag with teeth and one hand, holding himself upright on one crutch with the other. He lost his grip.  Cartridges clattered to the floor and scattered everywhere.  Eugene dove towards the floor and began gathering them up.

Bang!  Crash!

And why not, “Scott, take this?”  Scott found himself thinking.  Because I’m kneeling on the floor here, Scott reminded himself, not as close as Teresa at the moment.

            “Oh, my god!”  Teresa said.  “Oh, my God!  Lissa!  Larissa, are you all right.”

“I’m fine,”  Larissa said.  “Why?”

“There’s blood all over your face, honey,”  Scott said.  “Does it hurt anywhere?  Were you hit?”

Bang!  Crash!

Teresa let out a shriek.

“Calm down.  They can’t reach us in here,”  Murdoch said, cradling his arm around her shoulder.

“The window broke right over me,”  Larissa said, sounding amazingly calm in view of the fact she was the only one bleeding.  “It must have cut my face…”

Bang!  Crash!

“Is that all?”  Scott asked.  His hands, strong and gentle at the same time were still probing her head, under her hair, around her face.  She winced as the fingers touched a bit of glass still protruding from an open cut.


Bang!  Crash!

“Windows,”  Johnny said.

“What?”  Murdoch asked.

“Someone’s shooting out the windows.  Listen.  Every single gunshot, you can hear glass shattering and falling.”

Bang!  Crash!

“Pa, where’s Tex?”  Larissa asked.


“The ranger.  His room is right next to mine.  If my window was shot out, I’m sure his was too!”

Teresa lit a lamp, secure in this sealed section of the house that it wouldn’t make them targets to the outside, and she moved Scott out of the way to probe her daughter’s face herself, picking gently at the glass still embedded in the skin.  Her daughter, Scott thought.  But a stranger had looked at them and had not even seen that relationship.

Murdoch and Johnny had both added extra cartridges to their guns, but they were locked inside, had nothing to shoot at.  Jack, looking frightened, was carefully staying out of everyone’s way.

Bang!  Crash!

“Pa, we have to make sure he’s okay!”  Larissa insisted, trying to brush Teresa aside.

“We’ll make sure you’re okay first,”  Scott said.

“I’ll get some water,”  Teresa said.

“You’ll stay right here,”  Scott said, catching her arm as she started towards the kitchen.

Bang!  Crash!

“All from the east,”  Johnny said.  Scott looked at him, wondering what that meant, but instantly he realized the significance.  They were not surrounded and under attack.  This was a single gunman, one weapon, one position.

Bang!  Crash!

Still, they were safest staying right where they were.  A quick check showed  that Teresa had stepped on glass slivers in her escape and had a small cut on one foot.  Larissa was bleeding from several cuts, but all of them seemed to be small and superficial.  Teresa tried to minister to the cuts, but Larissa protested, saying again that their young guest was stranded upstairs, probably lost or hurt.

Bang!  Crash!

“Can’t we do anything besides stand here and get shot at!”  Johnny demanded in frustration.

“No,”  Scott said flatly.

“Maybe out in the bunkhouse they can get a better perspective on this,”  Murdoch suggested.

Bang!  Crash!

There was the distant sound of shouting, running and a pistol shot outside.  Johnny pushed open a bedroom door and headed towards the sounds of commotion.

“Johnny!  Stay here!”  Scott yelled.  Johnny ignored him.

Bang!  Crash

“Can you see anything?”  Murdoch called after him.

“No.  But it’s got to be by the old cistern.  That place always  was a perfect ambush point.”             

“Ow!”  Larissa said again.

“There, now, all done,”  Teresa said.

Bang!  Crash!

“Twenty,”  Johnny said.  “Now we find out how serious he is.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”  Scott asked.

“You ever look at the house from the top of that hill?  You get a flat view of the back side.  The stables and the courtyards hide all of the ground floor, but between the second floor and the attic, you got twenty windows facing the rising sun — or glinting like water in the moonlight right about now.”

There was a moment of silence.  Everyone had paused, listening.  Eyes met eyes in the flickering lamplight as they waited, tense and silent.  The silence stretched out.  Suddenly, there was shouting, the snap of handgun fire.  Johnny pushed through the crowd again, this time heading for the kitchen and the back door that would lead out to the stable yard.  Scott followed close on his heels, with Murdoch right behind.

“Stay here,”  Murdoch growled over his shoulder when Gene tried to follow them.  He was disappointed, but he obeyed – mainly because Teresa caught him and pulled him back.  The women and the two boys listened while incoherent shouting went on outside the thick adobe walls.  Finally, the door at the end of the passage was flung open again, and the male voices from outside grew loud and clear, getting louder as they approached.

“…Con seen the flashes from the gun and headed up there.  Billy and Gabe’s the ones reached him first though, caught him crouched down right behind the cistern. Must’a taken out every window in the house before we catched him, sir.  Sorry about that, sir.  Where do you want him, Mr. Lancer?”

“Right here,”  Murdoch said, indicating a settee that rested against the wall in the hallway.  Three men, lugging a fourth, unconscious man, squeezed through the second door and headed for the settee.  The unconscious man was far too large to lay on the small seat, but they tossed him there rather unceremoniously anyway.

“I reckon someone ought to take watch the rest of the night,”  one of the men said in a tone that indicated he hoped it would not be necessary.

“Thank you, but you seem to have taken care of the problem,”  Murdoch said.  “We appreciate your fast action, men.  You may have saved lives tonight.  Thank you.”

Murdoch shook hands with each of the  men and they left.  The family all turned their attention to the still form on the settee.  Blood-smeared blonde hair hung over one arm of the couch, and long legs sprawled on the floor.

“Looks like they found the ranger for you,”  Johnny told Larissa drily.


Tex hurt.

At first, he didn’t even seem to have a body.  He was not aware of arms or legs or head or back, just of pain, as if all his being was consciousness, floating in a sea of pain.  Slowly the pain focused.  He had legs that felt bruised and banged and sore.  He had a back and ribs that thudded painfully, arms that were stretched to a painful position, wrists that burned unmercifully, and a head that felt like someone was standing nearby kicking it repeatedly.

“Here,”  a voice said.  Ah, a voice!  He must have ears then.  Maybe he had eyes, too, but he was afraid to open them.  They felt as if they were sealed with shards of glass.

“Come on,”  the voice said.  “Drink.”

Something smooth touched his lips.  A glass.  He opened his mouth, expecting the cool sweetness of water, and the Voice poured liquid fire down his throat instead.  He gagged, tried to cough, swallowed to keep from drowning.  The fire seared down his throat and splashed into his belly, sending hot fumes back up to his head, hitting him with a sudden swirl of dizziness.

“Come on,”  Voice insisted.  “Drink it all.”

He tried to resist, but something was holding his arms, and hands prevented his head from turning.  More liquid poured into his mouth, a flood of it, and he gulped and choked, gulped and choked.

“Pa, you’re going to kill him!”  A new voice, this one female.

“Are you sure it’s a good idea to give him alcohol at a time like this?”  another female voice asked.

“I hope not.”  This voice was definitely male, but not the first voice, not the one that was trying to drown him.  But not a friendly voice, either.

“Come on,”  the original voice said again.  “Finish it off.”

“No.”  That sound, he realized, he had managed to make himself.  He tried shaking his head too, but the hands caught him again, the glass pressed against his lip, forcing the soft inner sides against his teeth painfully, until he opened them reflexively, and the liquid poured in again.

“God!  I hate that stuff!”  he said when he stopped choking.

“It’ll make your head feel better,”  the original voice said.

“I doubt it,”  Tex said.  And they forced more on him.  When they drew back, he opened his eyes, but it didn’t help much.  A blur of totally unfamiliar faces spun around him and he realized he was already drunk.  More whiskey.  Tex struggled against the hands that were forcing the liquor on him and suddenly, the hands were gone.  He felt light for a moment, like he was falling, and when he smacked his face into the flagstone floor, he realized he had fallen.

“Ouch,”  he said into the floor.

“Get him up,”  one of the voices said.  Hands grabbed his upper arms and jerked.  His whole, dead weight pulled on his arms, and he could not fight the hands off, as his own hands were tied — tightly — behind his back.  His own weight dragged at his shoulders and at the bonds on his wrist causing burning pain that for a moment threatened to overcome the effects of the alcohol.  But, only for a moment.

“This ain’t so bad,”  he heard a voice say.  Some part of him realized with a shock that it was his own voice, and he giggled at himself for not knowing it before.  “Kind a like them drugs the doctors give you.  Barkeep!  Another shot of morphine!  On the rocks!”

He giggled again, laughing at his own joke.  But the spinning in his head was making him sick to his stomach and he grew serious just as suddenly.

“I got a leal row tolerance for this stuff,”  he warned the blurred faces and voices.

“I have a real low tolerance for people shooting up my house in the night,”  the original voice said.  Tex squinted, forcing his eyes to focus until he could see the face clearly.  Of course, he could see it double, but it was still an improvement.  Man’s face, mid-forties, lean, angular, blonde hair fading to silver.

“Murdoch Lancer,”  Tex mumbled.

“I’m Scott,”  the voice said.  “You almost killed my daughter, did you know that?  Do you see her face?  That’s from the glass you shot out of her window.  An inch difference, and you could have shot her head off!”

“I didn’t shoot anybody,”  Tex protested.  He shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs away, but they fluttered back over his thoughts at once.  Still, he was sure he hadn’t shot at anyone.  “Why would I want to shoot Larissa Lancer?”

“You were caught in the act,”  the mean voice said.  Tex slewed his eyes to the side and fought to focus.  Another man, much smaller, dark hair, hard eyes.  Johnny Lancer.  Johnny Madrid.

“How come you’re so short?”  he asked Johnny.  “It don’t make sense, you bein so short.  You wouldn’t get shorter if you just lost one leg, would you?”

Somewhere deep inside, behind the rising tide of drunkenness and pain, some spark of reason tried to tell Tex to shut up.  The same spark saw the fury flash in the eyes before him, but he couldn’t seem to do anything about it.  A hand raised up, in an attitude of striking, but a girl’s voice called out, “No, Uncle Johnny!  He doesn’t know what he’s saying!  You two made him drunk, and he was hit hard.  You can’t expect him to make sense!”

“It worked though.”  The first voice, the one that claimed to be someone named Scott Lancer, spoke up grimly.  His hands grabbed the front of Tex’s vest and shook him roughly.  Tex’s head rolled on his shoulders, his vision faded in and out.  “He’s talking now, not fancy stories of famous men, but what’s really going on.  Keep talking, Pierce.  Who are you really?  What do you want here?  Why the Hell did you shoot up the house?”

“Ah!”  It was getting harder and harder to move his tongue, which no longer felt like his tongue, but like some swollen, turgid animal in his mouth.  He tried to spit it out, then tried to talk with it.  It was numb.  “Texas Butler Pierce, Sargent, Spessal Forshes… Speshul Forshes… Spesh….”

“Who are you?” Scott demanded again.

“Texas Butler…. shootin?”  Tex asked.  The face in front of him swam into focus. “He was shootin out the windows.  Had to be from that knoll to the east.  No other good spot. Went out to check… Twenty shots.  Regular, ten second intervals.  Small caliber.  Never meant to kill, not that size and that range.  Two rifles, leaned them against the cistern…”

“Who?”  Scott demanded, shaking him again.  “Your accomplice?  Who was it, Pierce?”

“You said you didn’t know him, Mr. Lancer, so why is he shooting at you?”

“What?”  Scott demanded.  “What are you talking about?  Did you see someone?  What were you doing out there….?”

But the whiskey treatment had worked too well.  Tex turned to Scott to answer and passed out instead.


“Murdoch, Murdoch, Murdoch,”  Marshal Tayback said, shaking his head as if admonishing a small boy instead of a man twenty years and more his senior.  “You can’t pistol whip a lawman, force whiskey down his throat, then tie him up overnight!  Generally we consider that sort of behavior to be… well, illegal.”

“How about shooting at people’s houses in the dead of night, Vernon,”  Murdoch snapped back.  “Isn’t that considered illegal, also?”

“Are you sure he did it?”  Tayback asked more seriously.

“Not completely,”  Murdoch admitted.  “But his tracks go out the back door and up to the hill.  My men found him crouching up there in the dark where the shots were coming from.”

“With twenty empty twenty-two rimfire cartridge shells scattered around,”  Tayback agreed.  “But no sign of a twenty-two rifle — or handgun even, is that correct?”

“Yes,”  Murdoch admitted.  “But maybe he tossed it before they reached him.”

“And maybe he was out there hunting the shooter, same as your men were,”  Tayback said.  “Which would explain why he was there, but the gun wasn’t.”

“There was no other sign…”

“Murdoch.  Did anybody look?”  Tayback asked.  “Or did you grab the kid and assume you’d solved the problem?”

Murdoch didn’t answer.  Tayback nodded.  “That’s what I thought.  Murdoch…”

“Vern, there’s something very fishy about this kid.  He’s got a wallet full of identification…”

“I saw it too…”

“…With nothing really concrete to prove it’s his identification!  And his questions, and… other things. Look, he claims a famous lawman in California can verify everything.  So, let’s give this famous lawman a call and find out how real this kid is.”

“Murdoch, I can’t…”

“Of course you can!  Investigating a suspicious man who claims to be working for an out-of-state law enforcement agency is exactly the sort of thing we taxpayers had in mind when we paid to have a telephone installed in your office.”

Tayback started to protest again, then shrugged.  Murdoch had him on that one.  It was right there in the law that had put the instrument in his office:  checking on suspicious characters, posting information, gathering information.  He might as well get some use out of it, even if he hated the dad-blasted thing.


Inside Larissa Lancer’s wardrobe were several pretty dresses:  school girl dresses, with starched white pinafores to cover them.  Mother was out for the day, however, and Mother’s wardrobe held a few more grown-up things than Larissa’s did. She found a dark skirt, navy calico with a tiny pattern of white and pale pink flowers.  It was tulip-shaped, fitting snugly about the waist, stomach and hips, and flaring broadly towards the ground.  She also “borrowed” a starched white blouse with puffed sleeves and a little black bow tie at the collar.  And an apron, instead of a pinafore.  She fixed her hair carefully, part up and part down, making sure a single curl hung over her shoulder, like Grandma in her portrait.  Perfect.  Simple enough to look like “work day” clothes, but elegant as well.

Larissa returned to the kitchen and carefully fixed a tray.  Chicken soup in one of Great-Grandma Sebastian’s fine china bowls, two slices of bread she had baked herself, fresh this morning.  A cup of coffee, with cream and sugar pots next to it.  Heavy silver soup- and teaspoons.  White linen napkin –  embossed with an “S” instead of an “L”, but still very elegant.  And a small crystal vase with a single red rose tucked into it.  She lifted the tray, balancing it carefully in one hand so she could pull the long skirt out of her way with the other, finding it harder than she would have guessed to climb the stairs in this get- up.  At the second door along the second-floor corridor, she paused, straightened her apron and her curl one handed, and knocked on the door.  She grasped the handle and pushed it open as soon as she knocked, and found the ranger stretched out on the bed with both wrists tied to the bedframe above his head.

Tex turned his head slowly at the sound of the door opening and bit back a groan.  He had been hoping to see one of the Lancer men, come with an apology, perhaps, or at least with his freedom.  Instead it was that girl again, dressed in what looked like her mother’s clothes and carrying a fancy silver tea-tray loaded with flowery china and a bud vase!  Just what he did not need right now!

The girl stepped into the room, at least having the presence of mind to leave the door partially open behind her.  “And how are we feeling this morning, Mr. Pierce?”  she said, affecting a cheery bedside manner, despite the fact that he was a prisoner, not a patient.

“I can’t answer for you, but I’ve felt better,”  Tex said, in sarcastic understatement.  His head ached, his stomach was rolling unpleasantly, his arms were stiff and sore and there were rope burns on both his wrists.  He did, however, regret the sarcasm, and added by way of apology, “Mind the glass, Miss,” as she came around to the far side of the bed.  Despite the fact that her shoes were crunching on the glass shards still scattered over the floor, Larissa misinterpreted the admonition, and used one hand to straighten and steady the bud vase as she bent to set it down on the bedside table.  She reached to pull up the upholstered chair that sat near the window.  As she smoothed her skirt to sit down, Tex said sharply, “Miss!” startling her into stillness.

He regretted that, too.  Not because it startled her, but because the suddenness and volume of the word caused pounding to start up in his head again and the waves of nausea to crest.  He shut his eyes against the discomfort and said in a much milder tone:  “The glass, Miss.  Mind the broken glass.”

She looked down then, saw the shards from the French windows scattered over the seat.

“Of course.  How silly of me,”  she murmured, and started to wipe them off the seat with her hand.

“Miss, please don’t do that,”  Tex moaned.  She paused again, looked around, and finally tipped the chair front, dumping the shards onto the floor.  Though the chair wasn’t perfectly clean, it was safer, and she perched herself daintily on the edge.  With a careful flick of the wrist plucked the napkin off the tray and unfolded it, tucking it, to Tex’s great discomfort, under his chin.

“There!”  she said, pleased with herself.  “It’s been a busy morning around here, Mr. Pierce, and I’m sorry that no one’s come to sweep the debris out of your room yet.  Perhaps this afternoon I can do that for you…”

“That won’t be necessary, Miss.  However, if you could untie me…”

“No, I’m sorry.  I can’t do that.  I have brought you some soup though.  I can help you with that, at least.”

“I think I’ll pass,”  he said, letting his eyes sink shut again.  The soup smelled good, actually, but even that smell made his stomach heave unpleasantly.

“Now, Mr. Pierce!  You must eat…”

“No, thank you,”  he said.

A smile touched her face.  “You don’t have to worry.  Mother is in town, seeing to the glazier and the lumber yard.  I cooked this myself.  And I learned cooking from Uncle Johnny and Mrs. Winger, not from mother.”

“That’s good to know,”  he said, opening his eyes again.  “But, I still think I’ll pass.  There is one thing you could do for me though.”

Larissa leaned closer, eager to hear his request.  She was thrilled with the thought that she could do something for this young man, something he would appreciate more than he apparently appreciated her offer of good, fresh, hot food.  But then he asked it again.

“Untie me,”  he whispered.

She sat back again, color rushing into her face.  “I really am sorry, Mr. Pierce, but I can’t go against Pa and Grandpa Murdoch’s wishes.”

“Oh, so it was their wishes that you came in here alone with this tray of food for me?”

“Well… no.  I thought I’d…”

“Or was it their wishes that you wander out to that pretty lake all alone yesterday, just to enjoy a fine, summer day?”

The color blossomed into a full blush.  “I just went for a walk!”  she said at once.  “I wish everyone would quit treating me like a child!”

Tex relented.  “The thing is, Miss,”  he said more gently, “That they’re not really treating you like a child.  They’re treating you just like what you are:  a very pretty, sweet, young woman.  If I could cut through that back trail, anybody could. And as a lawman, let me tell you, there are lots of people out there you really don’t want to meet when you’re alone and that far from the house — even with a derringer in your skirt pocket. “

Ordinarily, Larissa would have felt insulted at the insinuation that she was not capable of taking care of herself.  But all that she really heard of the speech was the part where he called her “pretty” and “sweet!”

“Promise me that you won’t be taking off like that again,”  he insisted.

And Larissa felt a warm happiness spread through her whole being.  Without mentioning that she had already been forced to make that same promise to her father, her grandfather and her uncle, she smiled warmly, placed her hand over his (bound) wrist, and said, “Of course, Mr. Pierce.  I’ll do whatever you want.”

“Except let me go,”  he guessed.

“I’m…”  she started, ducking her head.

“Sorry,”  he finished.  “I know.  But what I really need…”

“Is for Lissa to get out of here,”  Johnny said from the doorway.  He shoved the door wider and stepped into room, glaring from the ranger to his niece.  He settled on her and said, “What do you think you’re doing in here?”

“I was bringing Mr. Pierce something to eat.  You all forgot…”

“We didn’t forget anything.  And you got no business ever being alone with a strange man in his bedroom!”

Larissa stood up.  “Really, Uncle Johnny!”  she said.  “Mr. Pierce is wounded, and he’s tied to the bed!  I don’t think I’m in much danger in here!”

“If you think that, then it just proves you got no business being in here.  Go.”


“Go!”  he repeated, louder, and she scurried out of the room, holding in the tears only long enough to get down the hall to her own room where she slammed the door and flung herself on the bed, wondering as she wept whether she would ever be able to face the ranger again, after being humiliated in front of him like that.

In Tex’s room, Johnny looked over at the tea tray, the napkin tucked under Tex’s chin, and snorted.

“You hungry?”  he asked

“Nope,”  the ranger said.

“Call when you are,”  Johnny said, and he started to turn and leave.

“Wait!”  Tex said.  Johnny paused and turned.  “Untie me.  I really, really have to get out of here.”

“Give me one good reason,”  Johnny  said.

“What did you eat for dinner last night?”  Tex asked.

This was not the response Johnny had been expecting.  He blinked back his surprise and said, “Um, I don’t know.  Why?”

“Whiskey,”  the kid said.  “You didn’t eat the food, and nobody paid any attention because you’d been drinking.  The kids picked at theirs and faked too much grief to eat.  And your father and brother passed my papers back and forth like they’d found the Holy Grail so they would have an excuse not to pick up a fork.  Unfortunately, my mama taught me that it was good manners to clean my plate. I didn’t.  But I did eat some of that dinner last night, sir.  Believe me.  I really, really have to get out of this room.”

“Let me ask you something,”  Johnny said.  “You lied to us all through dinner last night, why should I believe you now?”

“I didn’t lie to you,”  the kid said.  But his guilt showed clear on his face in the way his eyes dropped, not meeting Johnny’s any more, and the hot color that rose up as he realized Johnny had noticed that.

“Huh,”  Johnny said. It was a shot in the dark, pure and simple, but it had hit home.  Very interesting.  And somehow, knowing that getting caught out embarrassed the kid made him feel better about the lies themselves.

“The chicken was raw again?”  Johnny guessed, giving the kid an out from his embarrassing situation.

Tex nodded miserably.

“Your mama might have taught you manners, but she should have taught you more common sense,”  Johnny said.  He reached a hand up, like a man about to scratch the back of his neck, but instead of scratching he materialized a small, thin, flat-bladed knife from a sheath hidden below his collar.  The ranger didn’t seem surprised at this old border-outlaw trick.  But then, he had a leather thong showing at the neck of his own open-collared shirt.  It was apparently a trick he was well familiar with.  Johnny moved closer to the bed, leaning over cautiously to sever the ropes holding the kid in place.  Tex rubbed his wrists and hands and swung his feet over the side of the bed.  When he stood, he wobbled and almost fell over.  Johnny, braced firmly on one crutch and one leg, caught him and kept him from going over, even though he lost the other crutch in the process.  Tex bent to retrieve it, but Johnny said, “I can get it.  And by the way, you don’t have to go down to the back yard.  We installed a new water closet at the end of this corridor, that’s the next door down.”

“Thanks,”  Tex said.

“And do me the favor of restraining yourself to these two rooms, at least until Murdoch returns.”

“That’s really not going to be a problem,”  Tex said, and he left the room, quickly.  Johnny listened to the next door over slam, then bent to retrieve the fallen crutch.  With them both in place, he went around to the far side of the bed, crunching on broken glass, and picked up the silver teaspoon to taste the soup.  It had a slightly smoky flavor:  obviously made from recycled dinner.  But it was a good, rich, salty, well-cooked broth.  Larissa always had been a better cook than her mother.  He wasn’t sure why.  Maybe she started younger, or maybe she took pride in her cooking while Teresa was more likely to fret about missing something going on somewhere else.  Either way, she’d learned her baking, too.  He helped himself to one of the slices of bread, stuffed it in his mouth and grabbed both crutches with his hands to leave the room.


“Where are the boys?”  Johnny asked, pushing open the door to Larissa’s bedroom.  She sat up quickly, wiping at her eyes, and pretending not to have been doing what she had been doing.           

“I… Uh… they’re out back somewhere…”

“Wasn’t it your job this morning to keep an eye on them?”  Johnny asked, coming into the room.

“They won’t go far, I’m sure, they…”

“Lissa,”  he interrupted her sharply, “Do you think that that ranger was the one who shot up the house last night?”

“No, I don’t!”  she said instantly, eyes flashing.

“Well, did it occur to you that if he didn’t, then someone else did?  And that a man who would shoot up a man’s house would just probably be lurking around looking for other mischief he could wreak?”

That stopped her cold.  Her mouth was still open to protest, but understanding came into her eyes.

“I don’t think he did it either,”  Johnny said.  “Because I got up at first light and checked out the spot where the men caught him.  Their scuffle wiped out all tracks but his, but there was evidence below the hill of a horse having been tied up last night.  Your pa went out this morning with half the men on the ranch to try to trace that horse, or maybe find a spot where someone might be camped out nearby.  Meantime, you were asked to do one thing, keep the boys in the house, because all of us wanted to be sure that the three of you were safe.”

“Uncle Johnny, I’m sorry.  I didn’t think…”

“I noticed you didn’t.”

She dropped her eyes, color rising in her face.  Johnny nodded to himself, satisfied that his message had sunk in.

“Change of plans,”  he said.  She looked up.  Hopefully, he thought.  But he wasn’t foolish enough to put her in charge of nursing their guest back to health.  “Change into something more suitable for work.  I want you to start cleaning up the broken glass.”


            “I know, I know.  Twenty windows make a lot of mess.  But get started, and I’ll send someone up from the bunkhouse to help you.  I’ll keep the boys busy.  Oh, and if you happen to get done before dinnertime, I want mattresses moved into that downstairs hallway, and blankets.  You and the boys will be sleeping there until we find out exactly what is going on.”

“Where will you, and Mother and Pa and Grandpa sleep?”  she demanded.

“Who said we were going to sleep?”  he asked.


“Whoa!  Watch it there!”  Johnny said, catching the flour bag before Gene dumped out any more.

“But we need flour to roll the dough, don’t we?”  Gene protested.

“This much,”  Johnny said, separating a small corner of the pile.  The rest he began scooping back into the sack.  After a brief pout, Gene helped him.  They were still cleaning up the mess when, behind them, Jack let out a high, girlish squeak.  Johnny turned to see that Jack had spilled his glass of water into the pan of hot grease on the stove and sent it shooting up and splattering across the top of the range.  The grease rolling across the stove top ignited at once, even as Johnny snatched Jack out of the way.  He shoved both boys behind the work table and used a lid to put out the fire in the pan.  The other flames died out slowly as the spilled grease burned up.  Johnny waved a dishtowel at the smoke as Gene ran to open the back door.  Coughing in the heavy smoke, Johnny chased them outside, and went to gulp in fresher air himself.  Maybe, he thought, letting the boys help him cook dinner hadn’t been such a great idea after all.

“Anybody hurt?”  he asked when he could breathe again.

Jack held up the middle finger of his right hand, and almost got in trouble for that, until Johnny saw the large white blister on the boy’s knuckle.  Leading them back inside the still smokey kitchen, he broke off a bit of the plant the cook kept for just such emergencies and smeared it on the burn.

“Better?”  he asked.

Jack nodded, but his eyes were still wet, his lip quivering.

“Anything more I should now about?”  Johnny asked.  “Like maybe, all your skin is missing under your shirt?”

Jack shook his head, but then the tears overcame him and he threw himself, sobbing, at his uncle.  Johnny staggered back into the table, but managed to catch himself and the boy.

“There now, take it easy.  All over.”

“I’m sorry!”  Jack sobbed.

“Yeah, of course you are.”

“I didn’t mean to!”  Jack sobbed.

“I didn’t think you did,”  Johnny said, smoothing the boy’s hair.  “Anyway, now you know, water and hot oil don’t mix well.”

He had tried to make light of it, but this statement elicited another sob from Jack.  Johnny tried again:  “We’ll think of it as a history lesson.”

“History?”  Gene demanded.

“Sure.  You know.  Like that book you were reading the other day about the people storming the castle, and how the people in the castle threw hot oil down on them.”

“I wondered why they did,”  Gene recalled.

“Oil sticks to you,”  Johnny said.  “And you can’t wash it off — you saw what water does to it.  And, it lights on fire.”

Even Gene shivered at that thought.  “Those guys in the castle were pretty mean.”

“Yes,”  Johnny said, bending to give Jack a kiss on the burned finger.  “But, you have to remember, they had to defend themselves.  Themselves, their home and their families.  They didn’t have guns.  The cannons they did have back then were as likely to blow up as shoot anything out.  They had to take drastic measures.”

“My dad says a man’s home is his castle,”  Gene observed.  “Does that mean he’d take drastic measures to defend it?”

“As long as you’re here, you bet he would,”  Johnny said.

“Would he throw hot oil on people?”  Jack demanded in a worried voice.

“It is possible,”  Johnny said, “that if someone were threatening you — or your mother or sister — and hot oil happened to be more handy than a gun, he might use that.”

Gene was awed.  He’d always thought of his father as a mild-tempered man.   He’d never even thrashed Gene as some of his friends at school had been thrashed by their fathers for misbehaving, although secretly Gene thought a few licks with a belt might be easier to take than his father’s soft admonitions and sad, disappointed eyes.  But this was a new concept entirely.  That his father would do something drastic to save him was an interesting thought.  Scary, even.

“I think we’d better get this mess cleaned up before your mother gets home,”  Johnny said.

But Gene wasn’t done chasing this particular chain of thought yet.  “It’s my home too,”  he said.  “Should I do drastic things to defend it?”

“Yes,”  Johnny said.  “You have to do the most drastic thing of all.  Both of you.”

“What?”  the boys asked in unison.

“Obey your father.  Especially now, do everything he tells you to do instantly, whether you like it or not.  Don’t hesitate, don’t ask, just do.  Or if me or Grandpa Murdoch tells you to do something.”

Obedience hadn’t been exactly what Gene had had in mind.  It was Jack who said, “So they can keep us safe, and not have to worry about us.  Right, Uncle Johnny?”


“How about what Mother tells us to do?”  Gene asked.

“Obey her too,”  Johnny said.

“How about when she tells us one thing, and you tell us something else,”  Gene said.

“Won’t happen,”  Johnny said with certainty.

“Oh, but it did!”  Gene said, grinning at having caught out an adult.  “Mama said she didn’t want that Ed Casson kid anywhere near the house or Larissa, and you put him to work with her upstairs!”

“Well,”  Johnny said, wondering how to talk his way out of this one.  “What she meant was… Uh… different.  Lissa can’t do all that work alone, and Ed’s the least valuable ranch hand we have, so he got drafted for house work.”

“If you were thinking that he’d take Lissa’s mind off that ranger fella,”  Gene said wisely, “I don’t think it will work.”

“You just get busy and help me clean up in here and don’t worry about Ed and Larissa or anything else!”  Johnny snapped.  But as he helped the boys clean up the mess, he had to admit to himself at least that Gene was probably right.  He had picked Ed to come and help Larissa specifically because she’s shown interest in him in the past.  But then, Ed had been the only boy close to her age in an eight mile radius.  He was barely sixteen, a tall gangly kid at an awkward age:  all elbows and knees and big feet, with pimples and a voice that squeaked when he was surprised.  He might have been appealing enough when he was the only game in town, but he didn’t stand much of a chance against the appeal of that ranger.  More’s the pity.  At least he was honest.


It was well past dark, and Johnny was sitting alone at the table with a sopapilla and a cup of coffee when Murdoch and Teresa came in.

“What happened in the kitchen?”  Murdoch demanded immediately.

“Small grease fire.  Nothing serious,”  Johnny said.

“The paint is all peeled off the back of the stove!”  Teresa said.  “There’s smoke marks on the ceiling and walls!  What do you consider serious?”

“Ceiling and walls burned down?”  Johnny suggested.

“Anybody hurt?”  Murdoch asked.

“Not to speak of,”  Johnny said, dipping his bread in his coffee.  Before anyone could demand more information, he added, “Help yourselves in the kitchen whenever you want.  I had dinner with the kids awhile ago.  They’re in the hallway now, Lissa’s in charge of setting up a sort of sleep-over party.”

Larissa, he did not add, had not taken kindly to the suggestion that she stay with the smaller children, out of sight and out of harm’s way.  Fortunately, Johnny knew — had known for years — exactly how to manipulate her feelings around to where she would volunteer to do what was required.  Never force.  Though she was more amenable than Teresa, she still did not take well to force.  Like a young horse, she had to believe everything she did was her own idea.  So, he hadn’t told her what to do, except for putting the bedding in the hallway.  He had merely come to her, as if he had a problem, wondering how he could get the boys to settle down safely and sleep on the floor.  Making it a party had been her idea.  Now she was Wendy and the boys were Lost Boys, and they were hiding from the pirates while she told them stories, waiting for Peter Pan to come and rescue them.

“I don’t know how you manage her so well,”  Teresa murmured, bending to plant a kiss on Johnny’s cheek.  “But thank you.  You sit Murdoch, I’ll bring us something to eat.”

As she disappeared into the kitchen, Johnny asked Murdoch, “What did you find out?”

“We’ll wait for Scott,”  Murdoch said.  “He rode up as we were coming in.  He’ll be in in a moment.”  He groaned loudly as he lowered himself into his chair.  “I’m getting too old for all this running around!  How did I ever get so old?”

“You married late,”  Johnny said.

“You’re a fine one to talk!”  Murdoch shot back.  “I was younger than you are now when I was married the second time.  What happened with you?”

“What happened?”

“How come you never married?”

 Murdoch wished he’d bit his tongue instead of letting it flap free like that.  He had not meant to ask that question, especially not so flippantly:  it just popped out.  He had long suspected that Johnny’s bachelorhood was do to the fact that he and his brother had both loved the same woman — and his brother won.  But Johnny seemed amused by the question.

“Never met the right girl, I suppose,”  he said.

“Never?”  Murdoch asked.

“Well…”  Johnny stared for a moment at the black, blank windows across the table from him, but Murdoch suspected he was actually seeing something else.  “There was a girl once…”

His words trailed off to nothing, and for several seconds there was silence.   Cautiously, Murdoch cleared his throat, wondering if he should change the subject.

But, “I gave her the locket,”  Johnny said.

“You gave her what locket?”  Murdoch asked, feeling like he’d missed something important.  Johnny quit staring at the wall and turned to look at him.

“My mother’s old locket.  You must know.  You gave it to her, didn’t you?  ‘To Esperanza, my life and my hope.’  At least, I always assumed you gave it to her.  There was a miniature of your wedding portrait inside.”

“I gave it to her,”  Murdoch said, looking amazed.  “The day you were born.  How did you end up with that?  I just assumed…”


“Well… That she sold it.  Or that step-father of yours did.”

“He probably would have.  But she kept it hidden from him.  Gave it to me and told me to keep it for her.  I never mentioned this before?”

“No,”  Murdoch said.

Johnny shrugged.  “Well, she did.  I kept it for  years.  But, since I wasn’t in the habit of carrying around diamond rings just in case I ran into the girl of my dreams on some mountaintop… I gave her my mother’s locket instead.”

“When was this?”  Murdoch asked.

“Oh… long time ago.  Before I came back here.”

“Whatever happened to the girl?”  Murdoch asked.  “What was her name?”

“Doesn’t matter any more,”  Johnny said.  “She died a long time ago.”

“I never knew about this,”  Murdoch said.  “I’m very sorry…”

Johnny shrugged again. “It was a very, very long time ago,” he said.

“What was a long time ago?”  Scott asked as he and Teresa came in from the kitchen, bearing food.

“Nothing,”  Johnny said.

“Sounds exciting,”  Scott commented.  “It was a long time ago, and nothing happened.  Can’t wait to hear the sequel to that one.  By the way, Teresa tells me the new glass could take weeks.”

He sat down at his usual spot, arranging a plate, cup and silverware for himself and passing the extras to Murdoch and Teresa.  Teresa set down the platter of enchiladas, the big bowl of beans and the basket of sopaipillas she was carrying and sat down across from him.

“Let’s hope it doesn’t rain,”  she said as she settled herself.

“No, we need the rain,”  Scott said.  “Grass is shorter than normal and the stock ponds are down two feet from last year.”

“Don’t you ever think about anything but business?”  Teresa demanded.

“One of us has to,”  Scott said.

“We’ll have to board them up,”  Murdoch said.  “Occupied or not.  No use advertising which rooms we’re in.”

“That’ll make things dark,”  Johnny commented.  “But, I’d rather not put up new targets for that shooter until we find out what’s going on.  So, I ask again.  Any luck today?”

“You first,”  Murdoch told Scott.

Scott washed down a bite of the spicy food with a big drink of water before answering.  “Couldn’t pick up a trail from where Johnny saw that horse tied, so we fanned out and looked for camps.  Someone had been staying in the ruins of the Benevidez place, but the signs there are  three or four days old.  Interesting thing though, whoever stayed there swept all the bare ground before they left.”

They all looked up at this information.  Scott did not have to add that an innocent person, strayed onto the ranch, needing a place to sleep for a night or two out of the elements, wouldn’t have bothered to erase his tracks.  A guilty man, on the other hand, would certainly think of it.

“More than one man?”

“I’m guessing they had at least three horses, maybe five.”

“I should have gone,”  Johnny murmured.

“We had that windstorm two nights ago.  And they did a decent job of cleaning up.  You wouldn’t have gotten any more out of it than I did,”  Scott said, but he didn’t sound angry.   “How about you, Murdoch?  How’d it go in town?”

“I got the marshal to call San Bernadino for me,”  Murdoch said.  “And we discovered that Virgil Earp does have a gambling house there.  So, we put in a call to his office, and I spoke to the man personally.  It was a bad connection, and we got cut off, but before that happened, he related to me in detail how his brother, Wyatt, and Bat Masterson looked after Tex and his mother after Wild Bill Hickock left Abilene.  He mentioned Bat writing to the kid’s mother to invite them to move to Arizona after Bat and Wyatt  migrated that direction to hook up with most of the rest of the family.  And he described in detail the incident of the dogs attacking Tex, up to and including how he accidentally shot off two of the kid’s toes with a marshal’s office shotgun when he was shooting at a dog that was gnawing on the kid’s foot.”

“Damn!”  Johnny said.

“I know,”  Murdoch said.  “I figured all that had to be made up.  It was just too good to be real.”

“The kid as much as admitted to lying to us,” Johnny said, and he described his test in the bedroom that morning.

 “But if he wasn’t making up that wild story, what was he lying about?”  Scott wondered.

“Lots of things would be my guess,”  Johnny said.  “I checked his pack.  Besides his Henry and pistols, he had a shotgun, but no .22, and no .22 ammunition anywhere.  However, I followed his boot tracks out the back door and halfway or more up that hill where the cistern is.   He came back down from there and went into the stable, then back into the house.”

“He wasn’t wearing boots when the men found him,”  Murdoch said.

“No, and his sock-foot tracks were harder to find, but there were indications that he came out the front of the house, circled wide around, and came down on the cistern from above.”

They contemplated what that could mean for a few seconds, but Scott said, “That could add up.”  He described his encounter with the kid in the office last night — though not all of their conversation.  “He admitted to having been outside…”

“Why?”  Murdoch demanded.

“Guilty conscience seemed to have been keeping him awake.  Anyway, he took off his boots when he heard me in the office, so he could sneak up and get the drop on me:  I think he thought we were being robbed.  The shooting started shortly after I left him.  It makes sense that since he doesn’t have the priority we all had of gathering the family and making sure everyone was safe, he would determine — as Johnny did — where the shots were coming from, and take the safest route up there to catch whoever was shooting.”

“Or,”  Johnny suggested, “he went out to meet with his accomplice earlier, came back armed when… Well, when I started screaming like a school girl who sees a snake.”

“And he snuck out later…?”  Scott asked.

“To make sure the accomplice got away safely.”

“But why go out there in the first place?”  Scott asked.

“To tell whoever was doing the actual shooting that he had taken care of the problem of the dog,”  Johnny said.

Unfortunately, that made more sense than the kid wandering around because he couldn’t sleep, and just happening to end up only a few feet from where the action later took place.  Murdoch sighed heavily. “Where is that kid now, anyway?”   

“Upstairs,”  Johnny said.

“Please tell me he’s not still tied to the bed,”  Murdoch said.

“In a manner of speaking,”  Johnny said.  “He’s been a bit under the weather today.”

“He has a hangover because of what you did to him last night!”  Teresa said, pushing her chair back.  “I’m going up there and…”

“He’ll survive the hangover,”  Johnny said, grabbing her hand to hold her at the table.  “And the concussion.  Mainly, all day he’s divided his time between lying on his bed moaning and running next door to the water closet.”

“Oh, don’t tell me he ate the chicken!”  Murdoch said.

“Don’t you start in about my cooking!”  Teresa said angrily.

“He ate the chicken,”  Johnny said, swallowing his laughter.

“It wasn’t that bad!”  Teresa shouted, glaring from one man to the next.  They all looked so… so… amused!

“Did you eat it?”  Johnny asked her.

“Well, I… That is… Now, Johnny, you know I don’t eat much meat….”

Scott joined in when his father and brother broke out in roars of laughter, but he wasn’t comfortable. If it had been just him, would she have allowed that teasing?  He wasn’t sure.  Was it because Murdoch had started it that she didn’t storm out of the room, furious, and refuse to talk to any of them because they had hurt her pride?  Or had Johnny’s teasing been why she tolerated it, embarrassed but not furious?

Or was he overreacting, seeing things that weren’t even there?

“It was pretty awful,”  Teresa admitted, and when that didn’t immediately quell the tail-ends of mirth, she added, “Tell them what else you uncovered in town, Murdoch.”

Murdoch wiped his eyes, laughter instantly replaced by something a lot more serious.

“What else did you uncover in town, Murdoch?”  Johnny asked.

“This was waiting in the box with our mail,”  Murdoch said, and he tossed small, plain, grubby envelope onto the table.  Opposite each other, Scott and Johnny both glanced at it, and glanced at each other.

“You eat,”  Johnny said finally, and he picked up the envelope and opened it.  Inside was a single sheet of paper, folded twice to make it fit.  Unfolded, it had letters pasted on it, letters cut out from various newspapers, spelling out the date  May 28, 1870.  Johnny sucked in his breath.

“What?”  Scott asked.  Johnny examined the missive front and back, but there was no more information.  He passed it to Scott.

“That mean anything to you?”  Scott asked Johnny.

Obviously it did, from his reaction.  But he seemed calm enough when he shrugged and said in an off-hand manner,  “May 28?  My guess is about that time I was either running out of New Mexico Territory with a pack of federales chasing me, or I was already back in Mexico.”

“The Mexican military chased you to Mexico?”  Murdoch asked doubtfully.

“Odd as it may sound, yes.  They managed to get permission to hunt me in the territories, so the only way I could escape was to look for people who were mad at the Mexican government.  There was this group of farmers over in Sonora who had a sort of revolution going… Never mind.  Does the date mean anything to you, Scott?”

“May 28th?”  Scott mused.  “I think it was about the fifth of June when those Pinkerton’s Murdoch sent to look for us met up with me in Boston.  On May 28th…”  Scott shrugged.  “I was working in my grandfather’s law firm, and being partied to death by the local matrons who all thought it was high time the heir to the Sebastien empire married — preferably one of their daughters.”

“May 28, 1870,”  Teresa said, “Is the day Murdoch and my father were both shot in the back.”

“My God, I had forgotten,”  Scott said.  “I’m sorry, sweetheart.  I really didn’t think!”  He reached across the table to hold her hand reassuringly.  Of course, he hadn’t been in the area on that date, but he should have recognized it.  It was carved in stone.  Literally.  Her father’s tombstone out behind the house in the family cemetery.  How could he have forgotten a date that important to her!

“Someone,”  Murdoch said soberly, “Wanted to connect in our minds very clearly the attack last night, and the shooting twenty years ago.”

“Tex?”  Johnny said.

“How does this anonymous note connect that kid with the shooting?”  Scott demanded.

“Because of what he said last night when we got him drunk enough that he was having trouble remembering his lies,”  Johnny said.  “He said, ‘If you don’t know him, why is he shooting at you?'”

“And?”  Scott asked.

“And, I’m assuming he was talking about that guy Palmer.  He keeps talking about this unknown bank robber and the year 1870 like it’s all supposed to mean something to us, but the only connection between the two is the kid himself.”

“We definitely need to find out what he knows,”  Murdoch said thoughtfully.

“Why don’t you just ask him?”  Teresa said.


Tex declined the offer of dinner, but he sat at the table with the rest of them, his elbows on the table and his head resting in his hands.

“I feel like my brain exploded!”  he moaned.  “I don’t suppose you have any willow bark tea?”

“No. But, we could get you a little hair of the dog,”  Murdoch offered wickedly.

“No,”  Tex said flatly.  “Contrary to popular belief, liquor does not cure all ills.  In fact, it makes some of them worse.”

Nevertheless, Scott set a glass down in front of the boy before taking his own seat again.

“I really don’t want…”

“It’s soda water, with a twist of lemon for flavor.  It’ll settle your stomach,”  Scott said.

Tentatively, the ranger took a sip.  “Greet all strangers to your house that way?”  he asked.

“We would have been a bit more trusting if you hadn’t lied to us,”  Scott said.

“That was stupid,”  Tex agreed.

“You’re admitting you lied to us?”  Murdoch demanded.       

Tex had dropped his head back down into his hands.  He moved it in an affirmative gesture without looking up.

“Why?”  Johnny demanded.

Tex lifted his head to look Johnny straight in the eye and said,  “Because I’m a bastard, and it’s embarrassing.”  He glanced at the other two men and said somewhat ruefully, “I spent a lot of my growing up years in little Spanish towns where people have known each other for hundreds of years.  They’re always asking, ‘who’s your daddy’. ‘Quien es tu papa.'”

When both Murdoch and Scott looked at him blankly, he said,  “It’s like in The Bible, you know, where Saul asks someone to find out who David’s father is.  I mean, he knows David, David’s his private musician.  But finding out who his father is is finding out what his connections are, his tribe, his loyalties, his personality, his whole family history back for generations.  Do you know what it’s like to grow up in a situation like that, and have to answer that question with ‘I don’t know’?”

“Yes,”  Johnny said flatly.

“You grew up not knowing who your father was?”  Tex asked skeptically.

“Oh, I knew Murdoch was my father,”  Johnny said.  “But I grew up believing he had thrown my mother and me out of the house after he got his hands on my grandfather’s property.  You think I wanted to admit my father was a man who would do that?  Sometimes I’d tell people ‘I don’t know’ just so I wouldn’t have to answer that question.”

“Sometimes,”  Tex noticed.

Johnny shrugged.  “Sometimes I told them Madrid was my real father.  I hated him.  But I hated Murdoch more.”

“Huh,”  Tex said.

For a moment, there was silence at the table.  It wasn’t a shocked silence though.  Scott, Teresa and Murdoch all knew this part of Johnny’s life, had known it for twenty years.  But Scott surprised them, and even himself, when he said, “Maybe it’s easier if you believe you’re an orphan.  My identity when I was a boy came from my mother’s family:  Grandfather Sebastien, all the uncles and great-uncles.  But when I was cornered, I… I never admitted my real father was a self-made Scottish immigrant.  I told everyone he was the younger son of an earl.  He came to America to make his fortune because his older brother inherited the title and the lands.  And,”  Scott added with a wry smile, “he died heroically saving my pregnant mother from an Indian attack.”

“I was an orphan,”  Murdoch said. “Worked like a slave from the time I could walk to help feed my mother and me.  When she died, I ran off to sea, jumped ship the first time we made port in America.  And I used to tell everyone who asked that my father was the captain, who couldn’t acknowledge me because of his marriage and position, but who arranged for me to come to America so I could live a better life.”

“Murdoch, you never said…”  Teresa started.

“I grew up enough to realize how foolish I was being long before I met you and your father,”  Murdoch said.  He turned to Tex and said, “But, I know how important it is for a boy to be able to have pride in his father.  We all need it.  So, it’s not so surprising that you would make up a romantic past to make up for the lack of one.”

“Actually, most of it was true,”  Tex said.  “Except for my mama being married to that deputy.”  He took another sip of the water, winced, and rubbed his eyes.  “If you must know, Butler found my mama living down by the railroad yards.  A runaway, no money, no food and no family. He took her to the boarding house where he was staying, got her room and board there in exchange for helping with the cooking and cleaning.  He was a good man. He had no obligations to us, but he helped us out, took care of Ma, baptized me.  And, I was born the night of that gunfight.  He came back to the boarding house expecting tea and comfort and walked right into the middle of a bunch of women running around with towels and hot water.  Like to scared him to death.  And he did leave me a letter.  Among other things, it says, ‘You came into the world at the same moment that I took an innocent man out of it.  I feel that your birth is a kind of atonement for my sin…’ When I understood what he meant, I stole a dead man’s name just so I wouldn’t have to keep saying, ‘I don’t know’ to people.  And I lied to you.  Which was stupid, I admit it.  And now that that’s all out of the way, maybe you can tell me what you know about Terrence T. Palmer.”

“Never heard of him,”  Murdoch said flatly.

“He obviously knows you,”  Tex said.  “Enough to want to shoot at you, anyway.”

“That’s what you said last night,”  Scott said.  “We want to know why it is you think that was Palmer up on that hill, shooting at the house.”

“Bootprints,”  Tex said shortly.

Scott looked at Johnny, who shook his head slowly.

“The only prints we found up there were yours,”  Scott said.  “And they weren’t with  boots on.”

“Wait a second,”  Tex said, and he took a slow sip of his drink while he thought.  “Last thing I remember is kneeling in the dirt to look at the boot print.  Then… pain and whiskey.”

“Some of our men caught you up there,”  Murdoch said.  “They thought you had done the shooting, and they knocked you out, tied you up, and brought you back here.”

“Then I probably fell face first on that print.  There was only the one good one.”

“And only your word that it ever existed,”  Johnny said.

“Even if it did, can you be that sure of who it belonged to?”  Scott asked.

“That one, yeah.”  Tex said.

“How?”  Murdoch demanded.

“Did you ever hear of Jack the Ripper?”  Tex asked.

“Are you telling me Palmer is Jack the Ripper?”  Murdoch demanded.

“No, of course not!  But he got away, didn’t he?”

“Which one?”  Scott asked.

Tex lifted his head enough to give Scott a long bloodshot stare.  “Jack the Ripper.  You know why he got away?”

“We give up,”  Murdoch said.

“Because a cop’s job has always been to stop crime in progress, that’s why.  Guys like me, we’re supposed to track people we know have committed crimes.  But if you don’t know who did the crime, how are you supposed to find out?  Detection is a new art.  Jack the Ripper got away mostly because we’re not that good at it yet.  Since that fiasco in London, a couple of law enforcement agencies, including the one I am associated with, have been trying to learn more about that.  We have what we call a crime scene investigation team, which I happen to be part of.  But, most of what we are doing right now is looking at crime scenes where we already know who did it.”

“Why?”  Murdoch wanted to know.

“It’s like learning tracking,”  Tex said.  “When you want to learn about tracking, you don’t go out into the woods and try to guess how old the turkey tracks are.  You go out in the back yard, plunk down a turkey and look at his footprints.  Then you look at it later today, and tomorrow, and the next day.  And you compare.  What does a track look like when it’s fresh, when it’s a day old, when it’s a week old?  What direction was the animal going when it made this track, how big was it?  You look at what you know, first, see?”

Murdoch, Johnny, Scott and Teresa all exchanged looks.  It did, they had to admit, make sense.  “So?”  Murdoch said finally.

“So, Palmer,”  Tex said.  “You’ve all seen his picture.  I think you can agree anyone that described that face could only be talking about one man?”

“Yes,”  Murdoch agreed.  Teresa shuddered at the memory of that broken, twisted face.

“Right,”  Tex said, noticing.  “So when he walked into the First National Bank, blew away the guard, two tellers, three innocent bystanders, and one of the men who came running to the rescue, scooped a few thousand out of the vault and vanished again, we knew who did it.  But the crime scene team went in and investigated anyway.  We looked at things like bullet holes in the walls.  So now we all know what a bullet hole looks like when made by that size of gun fired at that angle — and having passed through a body.  Get it?”

“Yes, but…”

“Well, he also walked through the blood of one of his victims on the way out.”

“And you recognized his footprints, a month later and two thousand miles away?”  Johnny asked skeptically.

“That boot print is kind of branded into my mind,”  Tex said.  “Seeing as to how it was painted on the floor in the blood of an eight-year-old girl.  Even discounting the fact that he wears custom-made, Eye-talian leather, square-toed dress boots, I think I would have spotted it again. Yes. But he made it easy to identify him.  His footwear anyway. And if that man wasn’t sitting outside your house last night, then somebody who stole his shoes was!”

“You could have just said you knew what his tracks looked like,”  Johnny commented.

“And you just proved to me how easy it would be to convince you of that,”  Tex said back.  “I lied, and it was stupid, but I recognized that boot print.”

“The problem is,”  Murdoch sighed.  “We have no idea who this man is, or why he would want to shoot out our back windows.”

“Why don’t you let me give you some history,”  Tex suggested.  “Maybe something I know about the man will jog your memories.”

“Sounds reasonable,” Scott said.

They paused to pour out more coffee all around.  Tex accepted a cup himself, and, after thinking about it a moment, one of the pieces of fried bread.  When they were all comfortable, he began his story.

“Palmer first showed up in Texas about five years ago.  First thing anyone noticed about him was that he was living in an elegant hotel in Houston, going to plays and shows.  He seemed to be a man of substance, but with no visible means of support.  He played cards now and then, but lost as often as he won — he wasn’t a professional gambler.  He claimed to have had a big plantation in South Carolina before The War, though later investigations showed no record of it.”

“Fortunately for all of us, lying about your past isn’t illegal,”  Scott commented.

“Exactly,”  the kid shrugged.  “So, shortly after he arrived in town, he began to be seen in the company of a widow named Amelia Perkins.  Her husband had been in shipping.  There was, apparently, a great deal of money.”

“A young, attractive widow?”  Murdoch guessed.

“No.  Mrs. Perkins was about sixty-five years old.  She lived all alone in a big house — her kids had their own homes, although some of them weren’t far away.  She didn’t get out much.  All of a sudden she was going to the theater, to fancy restaurants, all over.  Escorted by…”

“By that monster,”  Scott murmured.

“He was described to me as a very charming and elegant man, with a gentle voice and very polished manners.  Since the War, there’s a lot of men in Texas — in the whole country — with violent disfigurements. We learn not to judge men by their outside appearances. And apparently, Palmer made that easy for many people.”

“Mrs. Perkins told you this?”

“No, I never spoke to her personally.  It was Mrs. Kahne that told me that.  Anyway, one day, some men came to Mrs. Perkins and told her she had to leave her house.”

“Why?”  Teresa asked.

“It seems that in order for this Palmer to help her manage her money and control her investments, she had deeded the house over to him, and put him down as joint depositer on all of her bank accounts.  One day, he sold the house, cleaned out all the accounts, and left.  Simple as that.”

“And the banks just let him do it?”  Teresa demanded.

“His name was on the accounts, his name was on the deed.  There’s no law against a man selling his own property or taking his own money out of the bank.”

“Whatever happened to Mrs. Perkins?”  Teresa asked.

“Oh, she came out of it all right.  She still owned all her husband’s shipping interests — she hadn’t signed that over to Palmer.  Her family was furious.  Seems they had been counting their inheritance, and suddenly it was much smaller.  They complained to the local police, and the police checked into it, but like I said, it was all legal. Not very nice, but perfectly legal.”

“If he had all that money, why would he rob a bank?”  Teresa wanted to know.

“He didn’t, right away.  He went through everything he got from Mrs. Perkins, and when the funds started getting low, he started in on the next old lady.  Then the next.  It was number three that I interviewed.  Elaine Kahne.  She had five children, all of them married and with children of their own, but she was very lonely.  The kids were all busy with their own lives.  They hardly even bothered to write her letters at Christmas or her birthday. She didn’t have many friends, or, since her husband died, much of a reason to go out and enjoy herself.  When this dashing, polished, handsome-except-for-the-scar younger man started showing an interest in her, she was flattered.  She knew he wasn’t in love with her, but he was well-mannered, and concerned.  He knew all the best plays, all the best things to order at restaurants.  He escorted her to events she had had to miss in the past for not having anyone to go with….”

“And she gave him care of all her money,”  Teresa guessed.  “How gullible can a woman be?”

“Pretty gullible when they’re lonely, apparently.  Captain Janiver said it was mostly the fault of the families, not of the women themselves.  All these women were old and lonely, and people expected them to just sit at home mind their own business until they croaked and the family could grab their money.  Mrs. Kahne hadn’t seen any of her children in years — and some of them lived less than ten miles away! — ‘til they found out she was broke.  Then they came and raised Caine with the local police, trying to get the money back, but…”

“It was all legal,”  Scott observed.

“Exactly.  No law against a woman giving her money to someone other than her own children, alive or dead.  Mrs. Kahne wasn’t as fortunate as Mrs. Perkins. There was no stocks, just what she had had in her house and in the bank, and it was all gone.”

“But, at least she had her children,”  Murdoch said.

“Actually, they pretty much turned their backs on her.  Said it was her own fault she was suddenly poor.  Two of the boys got together and bought her a house, but it was a tiny, clapboard ruin on the edge of town.  And she had no income, no way to make any money.  I wouldn’t have been surprised if she died of hunger or cold during the winter months, that’s how much attention those kids paid to her.”

“That’s awful!”  Teresa said.

“Why didn’t she die?”  Scott asked.

“Strangest thing,”  Tex said.  “She had this old, empty chicken coop in her back yard.  One day, it was suddenly all full of chickens, good laying hens.  I reckon they got loose from someone else’s pens and just sort of drifted in there to keep warm.”

“Did they now?”  Murdoch asked, raising an eyebrow.  “And they brought their feed along with them?”

“Turns out, there was a bag in there.  Reckon she never noticed it before.  Or the pile of split cordwood under the tree in the back yard.  She started out selling eggs to her neighbors, and ended up with quite an operation.  Two coops and over forty chickens, I understand.”

“She must have had a guardian angel looking after her,”  Murdoch commented.

“A guardian angel that was about six-foot-four, with blonde hair and brown eyes?”  Teresa guessed.

“Uh, well…”  Tex said, and cleared his throat loudly.

“I still don’t see where the bank fits into this,”  Johnny said.

“Well, he was working on Number Four, see,”  Tex said.  “Problem is, Waco ain’t Houston.  Pickings were a little more slim.  He latched on to this one old lady, but she was mean and sharp.  Demanded more of him than the other women ever had.”

“Like?”  Murdoch asked.

“Like… fidelity, apparently.  While he was trying to romance Mrs. Weaver, he was low enough on funds he had another woman who was actually supporting him.  He was living with her, in fact.  And that’s where the connection comes in.  Mrs. Weaver turned him out entirely.  He hadn’t gotten a cent out of her.  And he went back to the other woman, and poured out his troubles to her.  She was the one who mentioned your name, Mr. Lancer.  When I spoke to her, she recalled talking about the old days to him, about her own troubles, and the next morning, he got up and robbed the bank and left.”

“I don’t see…”

“Her name is Rose Bolivar.  She was actually a who…”  he paused, glanced at Teresa and said, “A working woman.  I know it sounds odd, because this woman herself had to be at least sixty years old. But that is how she made a living.  Entertaining men.”

“Did she run a bawdy house?”  Murdoch asked.

“No, she just had a little place back of one of the saloons.  Two rooms, private entrance.  That’s it.  She has a fondness for certain things — not just alcohol, but hemp and opium as well.  Maybe that’s what attracted some of the men.  Maybe she was selling those products as well as using them herself.  I’m not sure about that.  I’m just sure that the night before the robbery, Palmer went home to her place — where he was staying — and they drank and talked, and your name was mentioned.  And….”

“And in the morning he robbed a bank,”  Murdoch said.  “And now he’s here, sending cryptic letters and shooting out windows.  I’m sorry, son, but that story doesn’t hold water.  I’ve never heard of either of those people…”

“Well, they’ve heard of you,”  Tex said.  He stood up suddenly.  “That smoke smell’s getting to me,” he said and he turned to open one of the windows behind him on the north wall of the room.

“It does seem to get worse, the longer you sit in it,”  Scott agreed, with a cough.

“It is worse,”  Johnny said, looking up sharply.  With the window open, a warm breeze lifted the curtains and ruffled their hair, but the breeze was thick with the smell of smoke.  “That’s not from the kitchen.  That’s from outside.”

“Brush fire,”  Scott said, knocking the chair over as he leaped to his feet.  They had been worried about fire, had been expecting it with the grass and brush as dry as it was.  But when he ran out the back door, intending to alert the men in the bunkhouse and get a crew after the fire, he found that it wasn’t brush that was burning.  It was the barn. 


“You don’t have to do everything for me,”  Johnny snapped irritably.  “I’m not totally helpless.”

“I was just trying to help,”  she said.

“Well, stop it!”  he said.  She stepped back away from him and he took another step.  But he put too much weight on the damaged leg, didn’t get the crutch in place on time, and the shock of pain that shot through him made him loose his balance.  He fell heavily to the ground, the impact jarring all his wounds, but when she ran to help him he gasped through gritted teeth, “Leave me alone!”                 

So, she did.

He tried to sit up, but the healing wound in his side felt like it was tearing open, and he’d pulled a muscle in his back in the fall.  Finally he managed to roll and get to his hands and knees, and though that caused terrific pain in both his arm and his leg, he managed to crawl back to the open end of the ruined house.  What was wrong with that girl anyway?  Couldn’t she see that now he did need her, now he couldn’t do it alone?  Apparently not, since she just stood there, watching him struggle.  It took him more than a full minute just to get himself up onto the rickety bench by the door.  His back spasmed several times, his leg gave out on him.  He gasped in pain more than once, but she just stood there.

“If you’re going to be that useless, you should just leave,”  he said, when he could.

“You said not to help you,”  she said.

“Don’t you ever think for yourself?”  he yelled.  “Daddy says do this, so you do it!  Johnny says do that, so you do it!  I may not have a third of the education you do, but I know how to use my head!”

She took a step forward and he said, “What are you going to do now?  I made it, I don’t need your help now!”

“I’m sorry, I…”

“Need someone to tell you what to do?  Why don’t you go inside and light the fire.  Make me something to eat.”

“I thought you didn’t need me to do everything for you any more.”

“But you like doing it, don’t you?  What you have here is your very own life-size talking doll, and you’ve been playing at nurse, playing at mommy.  Why don’t you try playing at woman some time.  That’s more what I could use.”

“You’re disgusting.”

“No, I’m real, Hilary!  I’m not a toy for you to play with, I’m…”  When he leaned forward, a bolt of pain cut off his words.  He leaned back again, resting his weight on the side of the house, and he could breathe, but the pain was still there.  He couldn’t even remember any longer what it was like to be normal and healthy, to be able to do a simple thing like walk outside and sit in the sun without gasping and grunting, moving like a helpless old man.  Or a cripple.

“Playtime’s over,”  he said.  “Go home.”

“Johnny,”  she said, worry clear in her voice.  And he couldn’t stand that, he really couldn’t.

“Leave me alone!”  he said.

“But, I…”

“Just go!  Leave!  Get out of here.  I don’t need you hanging around here all the time.  I’m not a side show freak for your entertainment!  Get out!  Don’t come back!”

And she gathered her basket and left, ran down the path with light, easy steps that he envied.  Oh, how he envied her freedom, her strength.

“Good riddance,”  he muttered when she was gone.

But she was gone.  And he was alone. He sat in the sun for an hour, telling himself he needed this peace and quiet more than he needed some silly girl prattling at him all day long.  Silence settled over the ruined cabin, the kind of silence he had lived with much of his life.  Open spaces, bird calls, the buzzing of a few early-season insects, and the kind of quiet that never exists where people are grouped together.

Silence was good.  But it had never felt so empty before.  He missed her voice.  Missed the sound of her singing, missed even the feeling of anticipation, knowing she would be back tomorrow, or later today, because she wouldn’t be.  Not this time.

Sitting hurt.  So after awhile, he levered himself to his feet and walked.  Across the clearing, and back.  But he wrenched his back again, trying to keep from falling.  A silly thing that, if she were here, she could have prevented just by grabbing his elbow.  But she wasn’t here, and she wasn’t going to come back, and he marched across the clearing again.  And back.

He walked and rested, and walked and rested, and never felt more alone in his life.

When the shadows grew long, he walked into the shelter, and built a fire with the kindling and dried mistletoe she had left behind, and her little pile of matches.  He managed.  All by himself.  And tomorrow, he’d go collect more mistletoe and more dry firewood.  The forest around was lousy with it. He didn’t need her.

He opened a can of peaches she had left on her makeshift shelf, gouging himself only twice with his knife before he pried the lid off.  He ate all of them, drank down the juice, then ate the biscuits she had left him.  Tomorrow her little cache of food would be gone, but he could go down to the creek and catch a fish, or shoot a rabbit or something.

He didn’t need her.

When she walked in in the morning, and set down a basket full of pancakes, molasses, sausage and more biscuits, he didn’t smile, didn’t say, “I’m sorry,”  just glared at her and said, “Why’d you come back?”

“I decided I had invested too much time in you to give up and let you starve to death at this point.”

“I won’t starve!”

“Were you planning to go hunting?  Did it occur to you that shooting in these mountains will bring the posse, the federales and the Apaches straight for you?”

“I’m not stupid,”  he said.

“Neither am I,”  she said.

“I don’t need you here.”

“And I don’t need to be here.  Now, shall I change the dressings, or will you do it yourself — one handed?”

She hurt him changing the bandages.  She had never done that before.  She hurt him, and he swore at her, and when it was time to leave, she said, “Tomorrow’s Sunday.  I won’t be back tomorrow.”

“Good,”  he said.

And Sunday was the longest, loneliest day he had ever spent in his life.


Murdoch rang the big bell, which had once called people for dinner, but was now used only for emergencies.  Johnny headed for the stable, to release the horses in case the fire spread to there.  When he realized what Johnny was doing, Tex ran to help him.  Scott’s first move was to open both spigots in the kitchen, but all that happened was a gurgle, a burp and a trickle of water that trailed away to nothing in seconds.

“I don’t think that’s an accident,” he said grimly.  “Okay, we do this the old-fashioned way!” With Teresa helping, he dragged the big washtub out of the kitchen and began hauling water from the outside well, one bucket at a time, and dumped it into the tub.  Alerted by the bell, Larissa and the boys ran outside.

“Get rag rugs and towels,”  Scott told Larissa.  “Search the house.  Dump them in this tub.  You, boys.  Get buckets, pans, anything that’ll hold water!”

Larissa gathered the boys and ran back inside.  The hands boiled out of the bunkhouse and came on the run, still tugging on boots and shirts, as horses came pouring out of the stables and the corrals, neighing and rearing and adding to the general noise and confusion.

The barn was built of thick timber, oiled to preserve it from rotting, and seasoned in the sun for over thirty years.  Livestock was no longer kept inside, fortunately, because although they spotted the fire relatively early, there was no stopping it.  All they could do was use the water-soaked rag rugs to beat out spot-fires on the roofs of the other buildings, and in the dry, seasoned grass beyond the dirt dooryard.  Sparks caught on the chicken house and were beat back.  Grass fires were chased down and put out.  A section of corral fence smoldered and burst into flame and had to be knocked out with axes and rolled in the dirt until the flames were out.  A nearby tree suddenly burst into flame, fire exploding in its upper branches, spreading more sparks and debris that had to be chased and put out.  That fire spread to the roof of the main house, a steep slope of seasoned cedar shakes in that section, and Tex shimmied up there, hanging precariously by one hand from the roof’s edge and slapping wet rugs on the flames with the other.

By dawn, all that was left of the barn was a smoldering pile of ash and scorched timbers, with a few large bits of metal sticking out here and there:  the barn was where all the heavy equipment for the ranch had been stored, hay balers and road equipment and countless other items, tens of thousands of dollars of twisted metal and ruined wood. Various people, from Murdoch down to Jack, still wandered around with dripping, scorched rugs in their hands, slapping anything that smoked outside the heap of the barn.  Cook moved like a ghost through the crowd, distributing hot coffee, doughnuts, and sandwiches made of bacon, scrambled eggs and red chile wrapped inside of fresh, hot tortillas.  Murdoch took one, then hollered at the figures still walking on the stable roof, “Is it clear up there?”

“Looks clear,”  one of the men shouted back.

“Let’s send some buckets up there and wet it down good anyway,”  Murdoch said.  Scott stuffed the last half of his sandwich into his mouth and returned to the well.  His back and arms ached from hauling water up and up all night long, but he hauled more, passed it to whatever hands reached for it, and dropped the bucket again and again.  Teresa, Larissa, the boys, the hands, all helped haul buckets until the roofs of both stables had been thoroughly soaked.  The men climbed down then, dangling from their hands one at a time from a corner of the roof onto the top rail of a still-standing section of the corral.  When the first man made it to the ground, Cook passed him a sandwich and a cup of coffee.  When the second man reached the ground, Johnny slugged him in the face, knocking him off his feet.  It was the ranger, Tex.

“Uncle Johnny!”  Larissa protested.

Murdoch, Scott and Teresa all ran up.

“It’s not his fault,”  Murdoch said, offering a hand to the kid to get back to his feet.  He didn’t seem to notice the hand, just stood slowly on his own, wiping at the blood that trickled from his split lip.

“Isn’t it?”  Johnny said.  “All night long I kept thinking how convenient it is that we no longer have a dog to warn us when someone’s shooting up our windows, or setting fire to our barn.”

“It might have been an accident,”  Scott said.  “The weather lately…”

“Weather my missing foot!”  Johnny yelled, and he bent down and picked up something that none of them had noticed, though it had been sitting there all night long.  Murdoch took it from him, as if they couldn’t all see clearly what it was:  an empty two-gallon can clearly marked “KEROSENE”.  He sniffed the open hole.  It had held kerosene, all right.  Recently.

“Not only was it not an accident, someone wanted to make sure we knew it wasn’t an accident,”  Johnny said.  “Someone who, conveniently, has free run of our property any time of the day or night.  Isn’t that right, Mr.  Dog-killer Sargent Pierce?”

“I do feel responsible for what happened,”  Tex said, looking into the eyes of each member of the family in turn.  “Johnny’s right.  He couldn’t have gotten this close if you’d had a dog.  But it wasn’t planned that way.  I came here to find this man, not to help him.  Believe me.  I want him stopped as much as you do.”

“Still think it’s this guy Palmer?”  Murdoch asked.

“Unless you got a whole lot of other enemies around I don’t know about,”  Tex said.

“I didn’t think I had any until you showed up,”  Murdoch said.  He sighed and looked around.  “Now what?”

“Now, we go scouting for grass fires,”  Scott said.

“We got everything…”  Teresa started, dragging a hand across the sweat and soot on her face.

“We got everything here,”  Scott said, in a gentler voice.  “But those flames were shooting over two hundred feet in the air at one point, throwing sparks and burning debris twice that high.  There wasn’t much of a wind, fortunately, but there could be fires for a radius of… maybe two miles or more.”

Teresa sighed wearily.  Johnny was already shouting at the hands to load the wash tub into his wagon, which fortunately was housed in the stables.  The buckboard was now gone, having been in the barn, along with the surrey and the heavy equipment.          

“You and the kids stay here,”  Scott said to his wife.  “Get some sleep, if you can.  We’ll be back late.”

“Be careful,”  she said, and she turned and lead the boys into the house, pausing on the way for the breakfast that was still being handed out.  The cook served only the bunkhouse normally, not the main house, but he knew his priorities in an emergency:  he’d spent his time in his kitchen, not out here helping fight the fire, and there was food enough for the rest of the day for everyone.

The tub was loaded into Johnny’s wagon, and refilled once it was up there.  The chuck wagon, which was stored by the bunkhouse, was stripped down and the bunkhouse washtub was put in it and filled with water.  The scraps of rugs and towels they had been using were loaded into the water in both wagons.  Two of the hands swung themselves up bareback onto two horses that had wandered close to the action, and they went in search of the other horses.  It didn’t take long to round up the group and herd them back into the corral, with wire and rope stretched across the burned part to convince them to stay inside while the men roped and saddled their personal horses, and a team was hitched to the chuck wagon.

“We don’t need you,”  Johnny said, as Tex lead his horse out of the corral.

“Pardon me, sir, but you need all the help you can get right now,”  Tex said.

“Let him come,”  Scott said.  “He’s right.  We need everyone on this one.”  But then he turned, seeing Murdoch dragging his saddle out of the stable, and said, “You should stay here, though.”

“With the women and children?”  Murdoch grunted as he heaved the saddle up onto the back of his horse.  “Thanks.  But I’m not going with you anyway.  I’m heading for town.”

“Three times in three days?”  Scott asked.  “Materials for a new barn can wait.”

“If we decide to rebuild it,”  Murdoch said, jerking up the cinch strap.  “I’ll have to give that some thought.  That barn has been a fire waiting to happen for years.”

“Then what…?”

“I want to see if there’s another anonymous letter waiting for us in town.”

“Anonymous letter?”  Tex asked.

Scott glanced at Johnny, then at Murdoch, then at the ranger.  Johnny was right:  it was too convenient that this kid killed Bingo the day these disasters began.  But it was also convenient enough that Scott thought it had to be a coincidence.  If he was with Palmer, wouldn’t they have gotten rid of the dog in a quieter way?  Not a public (and chancy) shoot-out in front of the entire family?

“Let’s go,”  Scott said instead of answering Tex’s question.  He turned around and picked out six of the men.  “You get to bed.  You’ll get duty tonight, so make sure you get rest today.  You three, go with the chuck wagon.  Circle south and west and put out any smokes or spot fires you can find.  Johnny, you and I’ll take east and north.  You’re with us, Pierce.”

A third rider followed close to Johnny’s wagon as it lurched out of the dooryard and headed east.  If Scott noticed that his daughter was being directly disobedient, he didn’t mention it.  And it was possible that he didn’t even notice.  They were all exhausted and preoccupied, and once they started out, Scott was busy explaining the anonymous letter to Tex.  Larissa stayed close enough to listen as well.  This was all news to her.

“It might be a connection,”  Tex said.  “Who shot them?”

“You think we didn’t already think of that?”  Johnny snapped.  “It wasn’t Palmer!”

“They were shot by a man named Tom Pardieu,”  Scott said.

“Hired killer?”  Tex guessed.

“He was a professional gunfighter,”  Johnny said.  “A cold-blooded killer who preferred ambush to a stand-up fight and would kill anybody anytime for a price.  Although in this case, he was working for himself.  There was some land-grabbing going on in this area, and he was here, like a vulture, to pick through the scraps.  But he’d had the idea for some time that he deserved more than the hundred dollars-a-head pay he usually got for killing people.  He wanted it all, and he figured there would be no one to claim the Lancer ranch if the two men who owned it were dead.  So he shot them.  From ambush.”

“You seem to know a lot about him,”  Tex said.

“He was my friend,”  Johnny said flatly.  Scott chose not to comment or explain, but let the seconds slip by in silence until Johnny continued himself.  “I worked with him.  For four years, more or less.  He… he got me my first job as a hired gun, though I can’t blame my life on him.  I was old enough to know what I was doing.  We were partners.  My life depended on him many times, and I saved his more than once.  And I know what he was thinking during the summer of 1870 because he told me himself.  He bragged about it when he offered me a cut.  Said if he’d had me with him in that church tower, we’d already own Lancer.  But he missed.  Left one of the owners alive — barely, but alive.  He’d give me half if I shot Murdoch Lancer for him.”

“Obviously, you told him you wouldn’t,”  Tex said.

Johnny snorted.  “Not obvious at all, if you knew Tom.  He was not a man you crossed.  Ever.  If you went against him or turned your back on him, he’d get you.  It might take him years, but he’d get you.  So, I didn’t tell him Murdoch was my father.  I told him I’d think about it.”

“He bought that?”

“He knew me.  He trusted me.  And if I told him different, I’d have been dead on the spot.  So, I didn’t commit, but I rode with him when he went to take Lancer by brute force.  And when he had the house surrounded and his men in place, I told him who I was, and I shot him.  Point blank.”  Johnny looked up at the ranger, riding next to him on his big horse.  “He wasn’t as far away from me as you are now.  I shot him right in the head, watched him drop, and ran for my life before his men realized what had happened.”

“And took a bullet in the back for your troubles,”  Scott said.

“It wasn’t serious.  Anyway, Mr. Special Investigator, Pardieu is dead, buried with five of his men in the back end of the Spanish Wells Cemetery.”

“Maybe it’s one of the men that was with him,”  Tex suggested after considering it a moment.

“Smoke!”  Scott said suddenly.  He grabbed one of the sodden rugs out of the tub in the back of the wagon and spurred foreward.  Tex and Larissa followed his lead.  They all slid to the ground together and started beating out the flames, before Johnny could catch up in the wagon.  The fire was spreading fast in the dry grass, and even as they beat the last of the flames down, they spotted more smoke.  The rest of the day continued like that.  Scott had been fairly accurate in his estimate, though they fought one fire nearly three miles from the barn.  There was no time for speculation and discussion for the rest of the day.  They ran from spot-fire to spot-fire, trying to save the grass as they had been unable to save the barn.  Larissa’s back and arms ached.  She was so tired she could scarcely stay on her horse between attacks.  Once her uncle Johnny slapped her legs with a wet rug, knocking her to the ground, and she had no idea why he would do that until she realized he was beating out a fire on her skirt.  He picked her up and hugged her, holding her for a moment like something he feared he had nearly lost, then told her to wait in the wagon.  She didn’t.  She went back to work with the rest of them, knowing they were all as exhausted as she was, and turning the incident over in her mind.  He cared for her, he really did.  Her Uncle Johnny, who had just admitted to having once been a gunfighter.  A hired killer.  She had always known there was something in his past that the grown-ups never talked about in front of her, but she would never have imagined that!  A murderer.  A professional.  He had even named what she assumed was the going price for a man’s life twenty years ago.  And the most astonishing thing about it all was that Tex already knew.  He hadn’t been surprised by the statement.  In fact, that’s what that little exchange over Bingo’s dead body had meant two days ago:

“Johnny Madrid?”

“You had it right the first time.  It’s Lancer.  You got that?”

Her head spun, and from more than just the smoke she was inhaling.  Uncle Johnny.  Dear Uncle Johnny.  Gentle Uncle Johnny.  Killed people.  For a living.  And Pa, and Mother and Grandpa obviously already knew all about it!


“I was worried sick all day!”  Teresa said.  “I had no idea where you were!”

“I’m sorry, Teresa, I thought you knew she was with us,”  Scott said.

“How was I supposed to know?  You sent me and the children inside!  By the time I realized Larissa wasn’t with us, you were long gone.  And…”

“And, you’re absolutely right,”  Scott said.  “It is my fault.  Until we know who’s responsible for trying to terrorize the ranch, we can’t go making assumptions of that sort.  It’s too dangerous.  We have to know where everyone is, all the time.”  He paused and looked at each of the children in turn, Jack, Eugene and Larissa. “You three have to help us to make sure that all of us — not just your mother and I, but your Uncle Johnny and your grandfather as well — know where you are at all times.”

“Now you’re being sarcastic,” Teresa said.

“No.  I’m serious.  You were right, it isn’t enough that one of us knows where one of the children is, we all have to know, all the time.  And to make that a little easier on us, until further notice, all of you — you included, Teresa — are to stay in the house.”

That brought loud protests from Teresa and all the children.

“He’s right,”  Murdoch said.  “The four of you are our weak spot — not,” he added quickly when Teresa opened her mouth to protest, “because you are weak  in yourselves, but because we’d do anything to keep you from harm.  That makes you natural targets.”

“The things that have been happening are cruel, Grandpa, but no one’s been hurt,”  Larissa pointed out.

“Not seriously,”  he said, gently touching the cuts on her face.  “And not yet.  But, we can’t take that chance.  We’ll be able to do what has to be done easier if we know where you are and that you’re all safe at all times.”

“Being inside won’t make us safe,”  Teresa said.

“It’ll help,”  Scott said.  “Besides staying inside, I want you and Larissa to go armed at all times.”

“And not with a little pea-shooter,”  Johnny broke in.  “You’ll wear a cartridge belt — over your shoulder if you have to — with a good, full-sized pistol in the holster.”

“Also,”  Scott continued,  “I sent three men out to check for more fires, but the other three I have stationed around the house as guards.  Inside the house, Johnny, Murdoch and I will take turns keeping watch.”

“I’ll take first watch,”  Murdoch announced.  “I at least got a nap today.  Scott, you should take second.  Johnny, you’ll probably be up before dawn anyway, so you take third.  Sound good?”

“Sounds good,” Johnny agreed.

“May I make a suggestion?”  Tex offered.  When they all turned and waited he said, “You could divide the night into four watches instead of three.  I can take one.”

“Thank you,”  Scott said.  “But no.  The fact that you are not tied up and stuffed in a corner somewhere indicates I am not convinced you are an accomplice to whoever is responsible for the shooting and the fire.  On the other hand, I don’t know you and I have no intention of putting my family’s lives in your hands.”

“Fair enough,”  Tex said with a shrug.

“One other precaution,”  Murdoch said.  “When I was in town today, I borrowed a dog from Harlow.  We can have one of the men guarding outside the house keep her with him on a leash.  She might just hear and smell things the men don’t.”

“Her?”  Johnny said.  “You borrowed his border collie bitch?”

“She’s a good dog,”  Murdoch said defensively.

“She’s also due to drop a litter of puppies!”  Johnny said.

“Harlow said it would be at least two weeks,”  Murdoch said, and with a glance at the boys, he  added,  “And when they are born, Harlow offered us pick of the litter.  We will be needing another dog around here.”

“Do you think that’s a good idea, so soon?”  Teresa asked.

“Need,”  Murdoch repeated.  “This is a working ranch.”  And Teresa dropped her eyes in agreement.  “Now.  You four need dinner.  You sit here, and I’ll serve it.  Teresa, why don’t you put those boys to bed.  They can go back to their own rooms now.  I boarded up the windows in all the occupied bedrooms this afternoon.  Whether the glass was shot out or not.”

“Why doesn’t Lissa have to go to bed?”  Gene demanded.

“Because Lissa was out working with us all afternoon, and she hasn’t had dinner yet,”  Johnny said.

“Remember what we were talking about just a moment ago?”  Scott said.

“That we have to stay indoors all the time?”

“Yes.  It goes beyond that. I need you to do what you’re told without backtalk or arguing right now, too.  We are in a state of war, son.  And in a war, a soldier doesn’t get to do what he wants to do, or what he thinks is ‘fair’.  He has to do whatever it takes to keep himself and the rest of his troop safe.”

“Like following orders,”  Gene pouted.

“Like Uncle Johnny said,”  Jack said.

And Gene’s pout dissolved into a look of guilt.  “Sorry,”  he muttered.

“Accepted,”  Scott said.  He caught himself yawning and said, “You boys were up all night last night too.  Best get to sleep.”

Jack and Gene both solemnly hugged their father, then let their mother lead them away.

“They’re good kids,”  Tex commented when they were gone.

“We know,”  Johnny said.  He also yawned.  And the yawn seemed to go around the room.  Murdoch roused himself before he could catch it and went into the kitchen.  He came back a moment later with a big pot of stew and set it in the middle of the table, then went back out.  Scott stood and followed him

“I can set a table,”  Murdoch said.

“It’ll be faster with help,”  Scott said.  He started gathering bowls, and when Tex followed them, he showed the kid where to locate spoons and cups.  Murdoch gathered up a bowl of fresh-baked bread and a pitcher of lemonade.  Scott grabbed the coffee pot in his free hand and they all trooped back out and began passing things around.  As soon as the bowls were filled and the blessing said, Murdoch tossed a piece of paper on the table.

“This was in the box,”  he said.  “Dropped into the mail slot in the post office overnight.  You can keep eating.  It’s just the same as the last one, same format anyway, different date.  June 12, 1870.”

When Scott and Johnny both ignored the note, Tex picked it up to study it.          

“Is it a significant date?”  Scott asked.

“I had to look it up myself,”  Murdoch said.  “Recall, I was laid up for quite awhile after that ambush.  And, I remember that date mainly because Teresa’s father was killed.  Other dates wouldn’t stand out in my mind like that.  If I didn’t keep a ranch diary, I’d be as in the dark as you are.”

“But you did keep a diary,”  Scott said.

“Still do.  I found the book that would have had that summer and flipped through it.  My own writings stop on May 27, and don’t pick up again until well into July, but Teresa kept the record going when I was unable to.”  He opened the book he had sitting on the table in front of him, a leather-bound book of faded, yellowing pages, mostly covered in his own distinctive, bold, black hand.  The page he opened to held a finer script.

“‘June 13’,”  he read.  “‘Last night someone set fire to the Benevidez home in Cañon del Rincon.  Fire arrows were shot into the roof.  It was NOT Indians’. She has that part underlined twice,” Murdoch commented, looking up.  “‘The house and everything in it was completely destroyed, and part of the barn burned.  The entire family survived.'”

“Well, that’s good,”  Johnny commented.

“It’s not all,”  Murdoch said.  He turned the page.  “‘June 15.  Henry Benevidez died today.  The doctor said his lungs were scorched by the hot smoke when he rescued his family from the burning house.  All other members of the family still seem fine, excepting baby Grace, who died yesterday, unable to breathe.'” 

There was silence around the table.

“That’s awful,”  Larissa said finally.

“How did we end up owning the Benevidez place?”  Johnny asked.

Murdoch closed the book.  “As soon as Henry died, some of the land grabbers moved right in and made themselves at home in the barn.  Pardieu’s men.  I sent word to Mrs. Benevidez that I would buy the land from her, at fair market value, on the provision that once we chased these scum out of the country, she could buy it right back from me.  I figured they’d be less likely to try to take advantage of a rancher with plenty of hired help than they would be of a lone woman with three kids to support.  The lawyer drew up the papers and she signed them the same day, and I sent men out there to roust Pardieu’s henchmen and show them the place was not abandoned.  Two months later, after everything was settled, Mrs. Benevidez came to tell me she was moving to San Diego to live with her brother.  She asked if it would be all right if she kept the money I had given her, since the purchase was really only a ploy to thwart Pardieu.  I told her that was why I paid her fair market value to begin with.”

“Good,”  Johnny said.  “Are there any other dates in that book we should know about?”

“Oh, yeah.  Once I looked that up, I figured I had better keep looking.  Next big thing would probably be June 21st.  A small local rancher by the name of Schwartz was shot when he tried to chase Pardieu’s men off his land.  They argued — rightfully, I’m afraid — that it wasn’t his land.  It was a graze permit, which means it was public land, and he didn’t have any right to order them off, unless they were grazing stock on it, and they weren’t.  They claimed he was pointing a shotgun at them and they shot him in self defense. Since Schwartz was a known hot-head who did things like order people off what was actually public land, there wasn’t much the sheriff could do about it.  Schwartz had no family or heirs, and Pardieu’s men made themselves at home in his place.  A week later, a neighbor of ours, Rafael Garza, got a bank loan and purchased the property from the probate court, and chased the squatters out.  They were mad.  They didn’t mess around with the next attack.  That was July 4th.”

“Independence Day,”  Scott murmured.

“Yes.  And with all the boys in town setting off firecrackers, no one realized there was shooting going on until the bodies were found the next day.  An entire family this time.  A few arrows were stuck around, and the bodies were scalped, as if we would think that Indians had done it even with boot tracks and shod-horse prints all over everything.”

“That sounds typical of Tom,”  Johnny commented.  “Arrogant.”

“Arrogant enough to think people would fall for that trick?”  Scott asked.

“Arrogant enough not to care if they did or not,”  Johnny said.

Teresa slipped quietly back into her place at the table, and helped herself to a piece of bread. She had left without complaining because this part of the story she already knew.  She had helped Murdoch look it up earlier.  Now she listened with everyone else while Murdoch continued his saga.

“The thing is, people learned from me. As fast as they were wiping out people, or scaring them out, neighbors were borrowing money to buy out the land, or trading on a penny.”

“Excuse me?”  Scott said, raiding an eyebrow.

“They’d give a penny earnest money against the purchase, tie it up legally, but not actually put out the cash for the sale.  The banks and the lawyers in town were mostly siding with the honest citizens, helping keep titles tied up so they couldn’t be grabbed.”  Murdoch opened the book again, and peered at it through his reading glasses.  “Attack on the Coulter homestead on July 10th, fought off.  No one killed.   July 16th, John Munroe was found face down in the creek near his place. Drowned, though it was considered unlikely that he drowned by accident — the water was about a foot wide and two inches deep.  His patent wasn’t proved yet, though, so his hundred and sixty went back to public domain, there was nothing anyone could do about that.”

“What does that mean, Grandpa?”  Larissa asked.

Scott was the one who answered her.  “The government grants homesteads of one hundred and sixty acres — one per person only.  But in order to keep the land, you have to build a house on it, work it and live on it for at least five years.  That’s called ‘proving’ the claim.  Once you’ve completed all the requirements, you apply for a patent on the property, and it becomes yours.”

“Right,”  Murdoch said.  “You boys arrived on July 18th, so you were here for the next one.  July 20th, when they hung the entire Johnson family.”

“That’s a date you didn’t have to remind me of,”  Scott said, looking down at his bowl.  He had ridden to the homestead with several of the hands when they saw the smoke of the burning buildings.  The sight of a woman and two children hung was one he would never forget.    

“Yes,”  Murdoch said.  “Anyway, that’s it, except for the attack on Lancer itself. And I’m hoping to put a stop to this before whoever it is can match up one act against this ranch for every act of violence that happened twenty years ago.  Especially since this time  it seems to be escalating rather more quickly.”

“So, you don’t believe it’s this Terrence Palmer?”  Scott asked Murdoch, glancing as he did towards Tex.  But Tex looked interested, not disappointed.  He twirled the paper he’d been studying between his finger and thumb while he listened to Murdoch’s answer.

“I’m sure it’s not,”  Murdoch said.  “And I’ll tell you why.  I took that wanted poster of yours into town with me today, Pierce.  I showed it to every employee of every hotel, saloon, dry-good store and bawdy house in the entire town.  No one has seen him.  No one.  He hasn’t been buying bullets in town, .22 or otherwise.  He hasn’t bought food, or a drink or a night’s rest.  He hasn’t wandered through asking directions.  No one has seen him.  And as we’ve all agreed he has a very distinctive face, I’d say that proves that he isn’t around.”  Murdoch smiled, proud of his own investigative efforts.

“Or it proves that he isn’t working alone,”  Tex said.

“You’re determined on this, aren’t you?”  Johnny said.

“I followed his trail here thinking he was looking for revenge on you.  When I get here, someone starts getting revenge on you.  Seems to me like it fits.  And whoever sent this note was in Spanish Wells recently.”

“It could have been mailed from anywhere,”  Murdoch said.

The kid shook his head, and tossed the note into the middle of the table, much as Murdoch had done a moment ago.  “I could be wrong,”  he said.  “I’m no expert, and there are thousands of small newspapers in the west: every town that starts up, it seems, gets one almost instantly — people like to know what’s going on.  But I find a note like this cut out of typeface, I’m going to look at the nearest newspaper.  And the lettering in this note matches the masthead of the Spanish Wells Weekly Gazette.”

Murdoch stood suddenly and left the table.  The action was so unexpected that no one moved or spoke for several seconds.  By the time Scott had cleared his throat to speak again, Murdoch was back, with this week’s copy of the Gazette in his hands.  He put on his reading glasses and picked up the note again, comparing the two.

“He’s right,”  he said after several moments.  “The ‘J’ and ‘U’ are off the date on the front of the paper.  But this paper is dated in July, not June, so the ‘N’ came from the word ‘Spanish’ and the ‘E’ from any other word in the title.  The date, the one and two, came from this add on the back page for men’s pre-made shirts, a dollar twenty-five each. The year, 1870, looks just like the date under the masthead, except it’s a ‘7’, not a ‘9’.”

“If you look,”  Tex said. “You’ll see it is from the date below the masthead, but that each number was cut out separately.  That’s so he could cut up the ‘9’ to make it look like a ‘7’.”

“This one’s different, though,”  Murdoch said, tossing the first note to Tex.

Tex studied it slowly for some time, then said, “Well, I am embarrassed.”

“Why?”  Scott asked.

“Cause I was probably very close Palmer and didn’t catch him.  I admit, I didn’t cover all of Sacramento with that poster.  It’s a much bigger town than Spanish Wells.  But when I was there a week ago — getting permission to hunt Palmer in this state — I showed it around everywhere I went, mostly out of habit, and no one there saw him either.  But, he was there.  Or someone who’s helping him was.”

“You recognize the note?”  Johnny demanded.

“The lettering,”  Tex said.  “Of course, like I said, there could be other papers around that use this typeface in their masthead, but this just happens to match one I was looking at last week.  Look, he did the same thing, only he used the Sacramento Daily Sun.  The ‘M’ and the ‘A’  are from the word “Sacramento.”  The ‘Y’ came out of the word ‘Daily.’ See: it’s a capital and the others aren’t.  That’s the way the paper is printed: ‘Daily’ and ‘Sun’ are all in capitals.  The date looks like parts of an advertisement of some kind, again, but the year is taken from the masthead also.  Same as this second note.  One, eight and zero.  But the seven is an altered nine.”

Scott pulled off his glasses, which helped for distance more than for near vision, and studied it closer.  “He’s right,”  he said, putting on his glasses again.

“No expert!”  Johnny snorted.

“I try to be observant,”  Tex shrugged.

“This still doesn’t prove it’s Palmer who’s harassing us,”  Scott said.  “Only that whoever it is was in Sacramento and in Spanish Wells.”

“True,”  Tex agreed.  “But like I said.  It fits too well to be anybody else.”

“What fits?”  Murdoch demanded. “You said before that some old woman mentioned my name and suddenly Palmer took off. But you didn’t explain the context in which my name came up. If you know it.”

“I do,”  Tex said.  “I reckon I didn’t mention it cause I figured if someone was that mad at you, you’d know the reason why.  I mean, maybe this is just a coincidence, but that seems pretty unlikely…”

“What was her story?”  Scott interrupted.

“You want to keep in mind that this was the unreliable witness,”  Tex said.

“And?”  Murdoch said.

“Well.  Uh… According to her, Murdoch Lancer stole her ranch, through some nefarious legal schemes.  Then married her under-aged, thirteen-year-old daughter to make his claim to the title stronger.”

Murdoch’s face went red as soon as Tex started speaking, but the red went almost purple at the last sentence.  He was sputtering his protests so vehemently that he couldn’t seem to get a word out.  Scott, Johnny and Teresa, who had perked up when they heard the stolen land accusation, all looked amused by the time Tex had finished.  Even Larissa was smiling.

“Murdoch!  You sure lived an interesting life before we came out here to keep an eye on you!”  Johnny said.

“That is the most outrageous…!”  Murdoch managed, and his words sputtered out again when everyone laughed, even Tex.

“Now, I told you, I didn’t take her claims too seriously,”  Tex said, raising a hand to indicate Murdoch should calm down.  “Of course, I am an investigator, and I did look up marriage records for the state and county and I found one marriage on record in California for you Mr. Lancer, in 1850.  Now, mathematically it is remotely possible…”

“That was Johnny’s mother,”  Murdoch said.  “Maria Esperanza Ordoñez.  She was sixteen, not thirteen, and her mother died in childbirth when she was born.”

“Of course, you did come into some land with that marriage,”  Teresa said, though it was clear from the gleam in her eyes that she was teasing him.  “This house and — a thousand acres, wasn’t it?”

  “You don’t get property that way!”   Murdoch protested.    “Anyway, this house was an uninhabitable ruin! Espe and her father lived in what is now the kitchen off the bunkhouse!”  He looked around the table at his own family, each of them still looking amused, and sighed.  He turned to Tex and said, “I had already bought a parcel of land from Esperanza’s father — half of those ‘thousand acres’, Teresa!  But, that’s how I knew the family, how we became neighbors.  He was an old man.  He married late in life.  He only had the two children, Maria and her brother Juan Francisco.  What?”  he demanded when Johnny started.

“Nothing,”  Johnny said.  “You were saying?”

“I was saying Juan was a good man.  I admired him a great deal.  Unfortunately, he had a disease of the blood.  Had had it all his life.  He bled too much.  If he nicked himself shaving, he was in danger of death.  He was helping me fix a wagon one day and got a small cut on his finger.  It was nothing.  You or I wouldn’t even look at it twice, but I had to heat up an iron and cauterize the wound or he would have bled to death.”

“You always said he died in a knife fight,”  Johnny said.

“He did.  He won the fight, even.  But in the process, he got a small cut on one arm.  Barely a nick: nothing.  It should have stopped bleeding easily, and scabbed over on its own.  Instead…”  Murdoch shrugged.  “It seems ridiculous that a strong, young man like that would die over so small a wound.  But that’s what happened.”

“Lucky you didn’t have that disease,”  Scott commented to Johnny.  “You’d have never survived this long!”

“He probably wouldn’t have survived infancy,”  Murdoch said.  “It is an inherited disease.  Which is one of the reasons Geraldo Ordoñez was anxious for his daughter to marry an outsider — apparently that decreases the likelihood of passing it on.  For my part, I was crazy about her.  I was friends with her brother, her father and I had a mutual respect.  But I loved Esperanza.  Her father was the one who came up with the plan — after Juan died — that he would deed over his last holding to me outright, and I would marry his daughter.  He knew he was dying, and he knew his daughter would be underage and susceptible to swindles.  He wanted her safe and her property safe, and that property to go on to her children.  I got what I wanted out of the deal — which was Esperanza.  He got what he wanted — which was her security.  I suppose…”  this admission was painful to Murdoch, and he did not meet any of their eyes when he said, “I suppose Espe was the only one who didn’t get what she wanted.”

“She never knew what she wanted,”  Johnny said softly.  “I know she regretted her actions later.  Remember that locket we talked about the other night?”

Murdoch nodded without looking up.

“She let everything else go.  Everything but that, and it was valuable enough she could have lived off it for a year.  But she held on to it.  So it must have meant something to her.  You must have meant something to her.”

Murdoch looked up then, meeting — without pain now after all these years — his son’s eyes in that copy of Esperanza’s face.  And he smiled.  “Thank you.”  he said simply.

            “So, there’s more truth to that insanity than I thought,”  Tex said thoughtfully.

“There’s no truth to it at all!”  Murdoch said, once again sounding outraged.  “I have never swindled anybody out of any land, particularly not widows and orphans!  What did you say this woman’s name was anyway?”

“Rose Bolivar,”  the kid said.  “Of course, the date that she gave was well after 1850, but like I said, she wasn’t the most reliable of witnesses…”

“How far after?”  Scott asked.

“According to her, all this happened about 1880, but she was trying to take a good ten years at least off her own age when she told the story.”

“Which brings us back to 1870,”  Johnny noticed.

Tex opened his mouth to speak, but stopped when Teresa said, “I was just out of the local school in the spring of 1870.  If there had been any children named Bolivar in town, I would have known them.  Did she tell you the name of her daughter?”

“Sarah, I suppose,”  Tex said.  “She called her ‘Sarita’, that would be Spanish for ‘Sally’, right?”

“Right,”  Johnny said.

“There was a Sally Hotchkiss in school,”  Teresa recalled.  “She was about two years younger than me — which would have made her thirteen in 1870.  But she married a man by the name of Burke, and the two of them took over her parents’ homestead when her parents moved to Oregon… Oh, at least fifteen years ago.”

“Simon and Sally Burke,”  Scott said.  “They still own that place, about six miles on the other side of Spanish Wells.”

“That’s the one,”  Teresa agreed.

“No one here,”  Murdoch said, “has ever heard of Palmer or this Bolivar woman.”

“Yet, just when I thought he might have come out here to get revenge on you, someone started harassing you,”  Tex observed again.

“Yes,”  Murdoch said, looking thoughtfully at the younger man.  “Peculiar coincidence, isn’t it?”


“You scared the Hell out of me!”  Murdoch said.

“It’s good for you,” Johnny said.  “You shouldn’t have any Hell in you.  Especially at your age.”

Murdoch snorted.   “What are you doing prowling around anyway?  You should be resting.”

“We’re taking turns with the bath first,”  Johnny said.  “Larissa, then Scott.  Then me.”  He sighed.  “We’re back to hauling water upstairs for that, but we got stoves going in the kitchen and bathing room, heating it up fast.  Whoever decided to cut off our water supply inconvenienced us, but that’s all it is, an inconvenience.  I reckon they didn’t know we never disconnected the old pump in the kitchen.”

“You’re sure it’s not an accident?”  Murdoch asked.

“We checked that first thing.  Somebody opened that water tank like it was a tin can.  That’s going to have to be replaced – not repaired!”

“Huh,” Murdoch said unhappily.  Then he asked, “And that ranger?  Is he in line for a bath too?”

“Took a bar of soap outside and washed up at the horse trough.”

“Where is he now?”  .

“In his room,”  Johnny said.  “And I’m inclined to bolt him in there.”

“If the doors had bolts,”  Murdoch said.  “You think he’s responsible, don’t you?”

“So do you,”  Johnny said.

Murdoch sighed.   “I think he’s involved.  I mean, he almost has to be, doesn’t he?  He did shoot the dog, giving someone easy access to the house.  And here he is, listening to our secrets and our past, all on the pretext of finding out about someone we know nothing about.  I mean, if he was chasing someone we knew, someone who may or may not have a reason to be angry with us, the story might be believable.  But the names he has, the stories he has…”

“Are ridiculous,”  Johnny said.


“And he seems like an intelligent enough person not to throw make-believe in our faces and expect us to believe it.”

“Arrogance,”  Murdoch said.


“Like you said about that Pardieu this evening.  That he was arrogant enough not to care if people saw through his fairy tales or not.”

“Possibly,”  Johnny said thoughtfully.


“But.  That kid is no Pardieu.  Believe me, I would recognize the type.  The problem with him is he seems so open, so honest, so believable…”

“And then he lies,”  Murdoch said.


“Con man?”  Murdoch suggested.

“Con men want something, like that character he described last night that suckers old ladies out of their money.  This kid doesn’t seem to want anything.”

“Maybe that’s the key.  He doesn’t seem to want anything.  Maybe he’s the one who wants revenge, and he’s playing games with us to get it.”

“Revenge for what?  He’s just a kid, barely older than Larissa.  He hasn’t lived long enough to need to get revenge on anybody!”

“Kids,”  Murdoch said, “are worse than grown men when it comes to concepts like revenge.”

“Huh.  Maybe you should read through that ranch diary of yours again,”  Johnny said.  “Later than that time period, sometime, say after this kid was born, and see if maybe one of us was involved in the death of a man with a son.”

“I guess anything’s worth a shot,”  Murdoch said.  “But why come up with those other dates, if what he wants revenge for came later?  And where would he have gotten them?”

“Public records.  He was in Sacramento, had your marriage information.  There’s a good possibility that he came primed with information about every violent happening in this area in the past twenty years, whether it involved Lancer or not.  As to why, maybe he’s trying to build a case against us, show how violent we are before dropping his real bomb in our laps.”

“Except,”  Murdoch said, “the dates we’ve been reminded of so far are acts of violence perpetrated against us — or our neighbors — not by us.  The problem is, none of this makes sense, with or without that kid added into the formula.  Do you suppose he really is everything he claims to be?”

“Not a chance,”  Johnny said.


Normally, he slept in the afternoons, but he couldn’t today.  He hadn’t been able to sleep much for the past couple days.  Someone else might have said his conscience was bothering him, but Johnny was pretty sure he didn’t have a conscience.  He was just getting better, that’s all.  Better enough not to need to rest all the time, and still too inactive to need much sleep.   And  he couldn’t help but wonder if she was ever coming back.  True, he had told her not to, but…

But.  He kicked himself mentally – again.  But nothing.  He had meant what he said.  He didn’t need her hanging around, chattering about nonsense, interrupting his rest and recuperation.  He could take care of himself.  Of course, to do that, he’d have to start hunting soon.  Or fishing.  Now, there was a good idea.  Fishing didn’t make a noise that would have possees and the Mexican military and everyone else in the county up here looking to see who was firing shots.  He would catch some fish, and cook them up with some of those dried herbs she had left on her makeshift wooden shelf, and his stomach would feel better, anyway.  He had seen some thread and needles in a little case when he explored the ruined cabin.  He helped himself to the whole packet now, tucked it into his pants pocket and headed in the direction that he knew from watching her come back with buckets of fresh water lead to the creek.  In fact, thinking of that, he grabbed the bucket before he left.  It was empty, and water was something else he needed if he was going to start taking care of himself.

He could hear it long before he reached it.  This was not the same trickle of water that had made his horse pause way back when.  At least, if it was the same creek, it had a whole different personality here.  When he reached the edge (the slight climb was incredibly difficult for him, and left him sweating, aching and breathing hard), he saw that it was a pretty good flow of water, moving fast over the rocks at the bottom of a deep, narrow chasm.  How on earth did that little girl get water from here?   He went along the bank for several feet, but it was sheer and a long way down.  He backtracked, went in the other direction, and that’s where he spotted the trail: a narrow, trampled area that cut into the bank, leading at an angle along the bank face to a narrow, flat, second bank below.  From the look of it, it was possible this path had been cut out by whoever built that cabin back there, and from the tracks, many of the local animals found it an easy path to water, also.  Johnny started down, but the trail was wet from the spray kicked up by the rapid water, steep and narrow.  He would have had trouble navigating it even whole and sound.  In his present condition, the possibility of falling was just too great, and the thought of slamming into the ground made him wince.  He sat down, right on the path, and considered his options while moisture soaked through his trousers.  He needed water. And food.  If not now, by tomorrow at the latest, he would have to attempt this path.  Tomorrow, maybe.  He’d exercise more this afternoon, maybe cut himself a walking stick to help him get purchase on the ground…

Or, he’d move camp. That was probably the best bet anyway.  If anyone came up here, they’d spot this trail, they’d know someone was using it regularly.  Besides which, that silly girl had left a basket and other things tossed around.  Just like a girl, never thinking, leaving debris like that so people could track him down…

The debris moved.  Over the roar of the water, he couldn’t hear, but he could see what he had thought was a blanket or rag shift, and he realized that it wasn’t a rag at all, but a skirt.  Her skirt!  And she was still in it!

He stood up, leaning a bit for a better view.  He couldn’t see all of her, just her feet, which were hanging in the water, almost parallel to the bank as the current tried to sweep her away.  One small brown boot tried to get purchase on an large underwater rock near the bank, but it slipped off as he watched, and more of her came into view as she slipped farther into water.

She had fallen off the path, he realized.  That debris was the scattered bits of the food she had been bringing to him, and there was a gouge in the mud of the path where her foot had gone out from under her, a muddy trail of flattened grass where she had gone over the edge.  He couldn’t see what she was holding onto to keep herself out of the water, but whatever it was, he knew she couldn’t hold on long.  And maybe she was hurt.  She may have been down there, screaming for help, for hours, maybe screaming at this very moment, but with the roar of the water, even this close he couldn’t hear her.  And if she slipped any more, the water would take her.  It wasn’t that deep, but it was fast enough to easily knock a full-grown man right off his feet, and it would sweep away that tiny girl like a dried autumn leaf.  She’d be battered and beaten by those stones, dead even if she didn’t drown.  And he was the only one who could help.

Johnny straightened and turned to try another step down the path.  But his boot slipped and, as he had feared, he fell heavily, clutching handfulls of grass to keep from tumbling down the slope himself.  He caught himself, barely, and tried to ignore the pain that the fall pounded into his wounded body.

He couldn’t do this.

He had to do it.

He started to stand up again, then realized that it was hopeless.  He’d never make it down there standing.  He stayed on the ground, sitting down, leaning back, and pushed himself straight towards the girl, not along the path, but straight down the nearly-sheer slope.  Sliding on his seat, using his feet for brakes and leaning almost flat back for balance, he slid down, almost sliding right off that second narrow bank into the water.  He managed to catch himself, griping at the tough grass and digging his boot heels into the soft dirt.  He could see her face now, filthy, frightened.  She was gripping a rock with both hands, trying to get enough of a hold on it to haul her lower body out of the water that was trying to suck her away.  But it was easy to see she would never make it.  The fast water, her own sodden, heavy skirts, would win in the end.

She hadn’t heard him come down.  He tried shouting, but the noise of the water carried his voice away.  He leaned, bracing himself on his damaged arm and bent forward to grab her hand with his other arm. She was concentrating so hard on pulling herself up that when he touched her, it startled her so badly that she lost her grip on the stone.  In the crashing of the water, her scream was just a thin, high-pitched tone, all but inaudible.  But he wasn’t listening anyway.  He had her by the wrist, barely, but all that kept her from being swept away was that grip, a grip contaminated by water and mud and slipping away from him already.  And even as he caught her, the current did also, and he could feel the power of that pull, feel it all through his body.  The weight of her, the drag of the water, nearly pulled him into the torrent as well.  His heels were slipping out from under him, gouging deep channels in the mud.  He got his good leg braced against the same stone she had been hanging on to and leaned more, to grab her with his other hand.  Pain shot through his arm and his side under the strain, pain almost as bad as being shot again, but he kept his grip, and shoved his other foot against the stone as well, ignoring the bolt of pain through that foot and leg.  He had a better grip now, two-handed, but the water still might win this tug-o-war.  Then her other hand came up out of the flood and grabbed his wrist, and he shifted one hand so that he held both her hands, forearm to forearm, secure as he could grip her, and he leaned back, just leaned back, letting his own weight, held back by the stone, haul her out of the water.  She fell on top of him just as the stone broke free from the bank and splashed into the water.


“Come in,”  Larissa called when she heard the gentle tap on her door.

The door opened and Uncle Johnny came into the room, moving amazingly quietly for a man balanced on crutches.  He looked around and said, “You know, even though we have wood over these windows, you shouldn’t have lights in here.  It’ll show through the cracks.  Best not to let the shooter know which rooms are actually occupied.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t think of that.  I always read before bed,”  Larissa said, and she leaned over to blow out the candle.

But, “No, wait.  Leave it for a minute,”  Johnny said.  He eased the door shut behind him and stepped closer to the bed.  “There’s something I wanted to talk to you about.”

“I hope you’re not going to yell at me, like mother did, for going to help you today.  You all did need the help.”

“Yes, we did.  And you’re a good hand.  And no, I didn’t come to yell at you.”

“Then, why don’t you sit down and tell me why you did come,”  Larissa said, moving her feet to the side so he could sit on the edge of the bed.  He did.  The flickering candlelight threw shadows over his face that made him look younger than he actually was, like the uncle she rememberd from her childhood.  She could see him as he used to be, whole again, smiling gently, laughing easily.  That’s how she would always remember him, much less serious than her father, much more relaxed than her mother.  And, according to what she had heard this afternoon, a professional murderer.  It still didn’t make sense.

“Yeah, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about,”  Johnny said, but the smile he had for her now looked a little sad.

“What?  I didn’t say anything.”

“You didn’t have to.  I can see it in your eyes.”

“Uncle Johnny, I…”

“That’s okay.  I don’t blame you.  But, I wanted you to know the whole story.”  He sighed thoughtfully.  “Maybe it’ll make things better, maybe it’ll just make it worse, but at least you’ll know the facts and won’t be making up stuff to fill in the gaps.”

“Have you told this story to Mother and Pa?”  she asked.

“Oh, they know the major parts,” Johnny said.  “Have for years.  I’d never have let them accept me into the family as they did just on face value.  Especially not coming to them with a reward on my head.”


“Which, technically, is still valid,” he added.  “There is no statute of limitations on murder.”

In the candlelight, her blue eyes were large and round, and Johnny felt a pang in his heart as if someone had just stabbed it.  Bad enough he had done these things, did he really have to burden a young heart like hers with this story?  Was it fair to lay the burden of this knowledge on her, just so he wouldn’t have to see her looking at him in that odd, speculative way?  He almost backed out.  Almost apologized for disturbing her and left again.  Especially when she smiled that precious, innocent smile and said, “It’s okay, Uncle Johnny.  I’m not a child.”

“Oh, yes you are,” he said emphatically.   “But, you’re also  family.  Closest thing to a child of my own I’ll ever have.”  He hesitated again.  Then decided he had come too far to leave her hanging without answers at this point.  “All right.  Well.  Um.  I reckon you already know the part about how my mama married young, then ran out on Murdoch when I was just a baby.”  

“I’ve heard bits and pieces of that story,”  she said.  “Mother told me once that you grew up believing Murdoch had thrown you and your mother out of the house.”

            As soon as she said it, she realized her mistake.  She had just admitted to talking about him behind his back!  What would he think of her now?  But, he didn’t seem to notice the slip at all.  He just shrugged and said, “That’s what my mama told me.  I reckon now it was just easier for her to blame someone else when we were ragged and hungry than to admit it was all her fault.”

“Uncle Johnny, I…”

“No, it’s okay.  The fact that you do know at least some pieces makes this easier.  Makes it all the more important that you know the missing bits…”


Johnny was leaning against the hallway wall, towel tossed over one shoulder, when Scott came out of the bathing room.

“Leave any hot water?”  Johnny asked, grinning.

“Not much,”  Scott admitted.

“Luke warm is still better than ice cold,”  Johnny said, gathering up his crutches and putting his weight on them.

“Johnny,”  Scott said.


But then Scott hesitated.  “Nothing,”  he said finally.

“Must be getting tired if you can’t even remember what you were going to say,”  Johnny said.

“Don’t you ever get tired?”  Scott asked.

“All the time,”  Johnny said.  “But you have to learn to live with it when you hate falling asleep.”

Scott just grunted in reply, and as Johnny entered the bathroom, he closed the door for him and turned to go down the hall.  No lights shone under the closed doors of the rooms, and all the doors were closed, even the ones that led to empty rooms.  He paused by the first door, Tex’s room, and listened, but he heard nothing from inside.  Two down, he thought he heard soft sounds of movement from Larissa’s room, but that might have just been her snuggling down into the bed, settling in for the night.  Two more empty rooms, then Murdoch’s, dead silent since Murdoch was prowling about somewhere, standing guard inside the house.  In fact, Scott ran into him at the foot of the stairs.

“Should I wake Johnny now?”  Murdoch said when he saw Scott.

“Wake him for what?  I thought his watch didn’t start until early morning.”

“For his bath,”  Murdoch said.  “I guess it can wait.”

“He’s up there now taking one,”  Scott said.

“He is?”  Murdoch demanded.  Then he shook his head.  “Some watchman I am when a man on crutches can sneak up on me in the kitchen, and then I don’t even hear him prowling around upstairs!  I thought he went to bed nearly an hour ago.”

“Apparently not,”  Scott said.  “Anyway, I wouldn’t worry about it.  You’re used to hearing Johnny wander the house at night.  You probably did hear him, and didn’t notice it because it sounded ordinary.”

“I hope you’re right,”  Murdoch said.  “Because if you’re not, I’m deaf — or senile.  You best get some rest now.  Your watch will come pretty quick.”

“You just remember to call me on time,”  Scott said.  “Don’t try to be noble and take an extra long time on yourself.”

“Don’t trust me, huh?”

“I trust you to keep watch.  But fair is fair.  You had a rough day, too.”

“I’ll call you.  In an hour and a half,”  Murdoch said.

Scott nodded, and went to look in on the boys before going to his own room.  On the bottom floor, with the walls of the enclosed courtyards mostly hiding the windows, there were no boards covering the openings.  It was a warm night, but Scott was surprised to find the boys’ bedroom window standing wide open.  All of them usually slept with the windows open, except on the coldest nights of the year.  But, habits like that were not good to keep at a time like this.  Teresa should have thought of that.  Or Gene should have.  He wasn’t a baby, after all.  Scott slipped quietly into the room to close and lock the window, double checking the latch.   Glass, of course, wouldn’t keep out a determined intruder.  But to get in now, a person would have to break the glass, and they’d at least have the warning of noise.  He checked the room, to make sure no one had already snuck inside, but there was no one hiding under the bed or in the wardrobe or trunks. Leaving, Scott left the door ajar so that if there were trouble inside, one of them would hear it that much faster.  He might not have worried about such things if they still had a dog.  Bingo would not have let anybody near the house.  Which made him think again, briefly, of that ranger and his odd stories.  It didn’t make sense, any of it, but Scott didn’t want to puzzle out the kid’s story right now.  He had something else on his mind as he went down the hall to his own bedroom.

The sitting room of his suite was dark and empty, but soft light glowed from the open bedroom door.  Standing in the doorway, he saw Teresa sitting at her dressing table, brushing her long, dark hair by the light of a low lamp.                          

            “You’re still up?”  he asked.

“I was reading,”  she said.

Scott crossed the room and sat down on the edge of the bed, watching her and her reflection in the mirror in the faint light.  Teresa had retired to their bedroom nearly an hour ago.  She had also had a long, hard day and night.  She should have been sound asleep already.  He found himself thinking about Murdoch’s comment of a few moments ago, about how Johnny could sneak up on a person, even on crutches.  “I thought he’d gone to bed nearly an hour ago,”  Murdoch had said.  They all liked their privacy in this family, all found ways to have it in the old, rambling house, despite all of them living under one roof.

“I don’t suppose you saw Johnny this evening?”

“Why?  Is he missing?”


“Then why do you even ask?  What an odd question!”

“Not as odd as the fact that you won’t answer it.  You keep asking me questions instead.”

Teresa set down the brush and turned around on the stool to look at him directly, instead of meeting his eyes in the mirror.  “I told you, I was reading.  I’ve been in here since we cleaned up the dinner dishes.  Satisfied?”

“In here alone?”  Scott asked.

 “Yes.  Why?  What exactly are you hinting at?”

“I’m just trying to figure out,”  Scott said, “why a perfect stranger rode up to the ranch a few days ago, looked us all over, and decided on his own that you must be married to Johnny — and that the boys are your and his sons.”

“You mean Tex?  How odd! Where would he get an idea like that?”

“As I said, that’s what I’m trying to figure out.  It might have something to do with the fact that the first time he saw us together, you felt it necessary to protect my own son from me.  Or maybe that you sit next to Johnny at meal times and cut up his food for him as if having only one leg makes him a cripple even sitting down.  Or maybe that when Johnny has nightmares in the middle of the night, you run up to his private bedroom to stay with him.  He does have nightmares, doesn’t he?”

“Of course he has nightmares!  You’ve heard him!  We’ve all heard him!”

“Yes.  We all have.  But that would make a fool-proof signal, wouldn’t it?”


“For you to come to him.  With everyone in the house fully aware that you’re together, even your own husband, and no one even the least bit suspicious…”

“Are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting?”  Teresa demanded.

Weariness hit Scott suddenly, like a blow, and he knew that some of his suspicions had come from that alone.  But Tex had been right in his observations: an outsider would have thought (did think!) that Johnny and Teresa belonged together.

“You do spend a lot of time with him,” Scott said.

“We live in the same house!”  Teresa said back.  “I can’t help but spend time with him!”

“When you came out to the stable the other day, you were more worried about where he was than about me.”

“You were right there in front of me!  And obviously whole and healthy!    Why would I worry about you?”

“You two have always had a special rapport,” Scott observed.  “You both grew up out here, you have more in common.”

“You and I have three children in common, Scott.  Isn’t that enough?”

“Do we have three children in common?”  Scott asked softly.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“I know Larissa is mine, she looks too much like my mother to belong to anyone else.  But Gene looks a lot like Murdoch, and Johnny and I do share a father.  And Jack… Jack does look a bit like Johnny…”

“He does not!  He looks like me!  All of our children have two parents, you know!  They don’t all have to look exactly like you!  Just because Jack is dark haired doesn’t mean anything, except that I am his mother.  In case you haven’t noticed, I have dark hair too!  How dare you even make such a suggestion to me!”

“Do you love him?”  Scott asked.

“Would it make any difference at all if I did?”  Teresa snapped.  “He obviously doesn’t love me!  I know one of you had to marry me to get that piece of property back into the family, but the fact that you got stuck with the job because Johnny refused it should tell you something!  He didn’t want me back then, Scott, any more than you did.  And I assure you, he feels the same way now!”

“How can you say that I didn’t want you?  I didn’t ask you to marry me for any property… What property are you talking about anyway?”

She rolled her eyes, set her hands on her hips in a fierce attitude he was all too familiar with.  “The five hundred acres of sympathy property Murdoch deeded over to me after my father died.  Prime grazing, right in the middle of one of Lancer’s best valleys.  I don’t know if he did that just as a gesture, hoping one of you two planned to bring me into the family anyway, or if he regretted it before the ink was dry.  But he pushed, for three years he pushed, and finally, one of you had to propose to keep me from running off and marrying someone else, letting someone else have at that land…”

“Johnny and I were the ones who insisted that Murdoch give something to you and not just split the ownership of the ranch into three pieces.  He was from Europe, you know, where property tends to go to the males in the family. Things are different in California.  We all felt — him too once he gave it some thought — that since he took you in for all those years, he was responsible for you… We were responsible for you!  We weren’t about to turn you loose on the world with nothing, when we had all this…”

“Too bad for you that after being so generous you were the one who got stuck with marrying me to get it back,” Teresa said coldly.

“How long have you been helping run this ranch?”  Scott demanded suddenly.  “Even if these years haven’t told you anything, tonight’s dinner discussion should have given you a hint.  This is a community property state.  I couldn’t get control of your property just by marrying you, even if that was why I did it.”

“But you had me sign those papers, before we even left on our honeymoon.  A new deed…”

“A deed with your married name on it, so it would be legal!  It’s your property, Teresa, it always has been.  I never wanted to get it away from you!  I married you because I wanted you!  I still want you!  I don’t care about the land!  The deed’s down in the safe with all the other papers.  Take it.  Sell it.  Do whatever you want!  I don’t care about that…”

“Yes you do!  The ranch is all you’ve ever cared about.”

“I like running the ranch,” Scott said.  “But I care about you!  I love you!  I always have.”

“And I’m supposed to believe that?”  Teresa asked.

“Why wouldn’t you?”

She didn’t answer right away.  Just stared at him as if he had grown another ear suddenly.  “Why wouldn’t I?  Why would I, that’s the real question!”


“When,” she interrupted, speaking loudly to drown him out.  “When in all the seventeen and a half years that we’ve been married did you ever once say you loved me?  You didn’t say it when you proposed to me.  You didn’t say it the day we were married.  You never said it or wrote it in a card on a birthday or an anniversary or even when our children were born!  You never once said it, Scott.  I waited and waited, hoping that someday you would feel something for me, knowing that you wanted me for what I could give you, not for myself, but hoping anyway, like the fool I am that someday you would say the words ‘I love you.’ And this is what I finally get.”  Tears were flowing down her face, but she didn’t wipe them away.  She reached for her wrapper instead, belted it on, flipping her long, dark hair out of the collar in the gesture that touched his heart every time he saw her do it – hundreds of times over the years.  “This is what I finally get,” she said softer.  “The words spoken in your own defense during an accusation of infidelity.  I’ve always known you didn’t care for me, Scott.  But I thought you at least knew your own brother better than this!”

And she left.  Turned on her heel and walked out of the room.  Scott lowered his face into his hands.  For a long while, he didn’t move.  When he did stand up, he didn’t chase her to see where she had gone.  He went instead to her dressing table and picked up the brush she had been using on her hair and held it against his face.  He could smell the rich scent of her hair, the smell he had gone to sleep with and woken up to almost every night for the last seventeen years.  A scent which, along with the woman to whom it belonged, he may have just lost forever.  Scott was not a man given to strong displays of emotion.  Tears were frowned upon for boys in his very proper Boston upbringing.  Tears had been dried out of his soul watching tens of thousands of men die in a single afternoon at Gettysburg, listening to their screams, waiting for death himself in the hell-hole of Andersonville prison.  But tears came to him now.  For the first time in many, many years.        


“Hold it right there, Mister!”  Tex said sharply, then he dropped the barrel of his gun when Teresa turned around.

“Ma’am!”  he sighed, holstering the weapon.  “You gave me quite a scare.  You people always up all night like this?”

“I should be asking you that same question,” Teresa said.  She had hurriedly wiped her face before turning around, and, confident that the ravages of the tears didn’t show well in the dim moonlight, she struggled to make her voice sound as natural as possible.  “Don’t you ever sleep, Mr. Pierce?”

“I keep hearing activity down here,” he said.  “I was just double checking on things.”

“Which one of us don’t you trust?”

“Tired as we all are, we all need back up,” he said.

“Yes,” she said, and she sat down heavily in the padded leather chair behind the business desk.  She did not want to have to confront this boy right now.  She could hardly think.  She jumped as if a pistol had gone off when she heard the soft clink of glass against glass, then settled again, thinking Tex had poured himself a drink.  She was surprised when the glass thudded softly onto the desk blotter in front of her.

“Might help you sleep,” he said, sounding almost apologetic.  She looked and saw a delicate sherry glass with a few ounces of amber liquid in it.

“Ma hates this stuff,” he added.  “I reckon I get that mostly from her.  But she does admit it has certain benefits.  Helps you relax.  I can testify to that after the other night.  I was so relaxed I couldn’t even stand up!”

Teresa found herself smiling at his tone and she picked up the glass and took a sip.  She hadn’t realized that her hands were shaking until she set the glass down again.  She brushed at her face, hoping that he would think it was a gesture of sleepiness and not to wipe away the fresh tears that were threatening again.  If he noticed she was crying, he was too tactful to say.  He must have had a good mother, she thought, to have such good manners.  Which said what about Eugene, who was about as tactful as a mule kick?  Tears threatened again.  Bad wife and bad mother, what else was she a failure at?

“Ma’m?”  Tex said softly.  “Um… the safe here seems to be open.  You want me to close that?”

“Yes,” Teresa said.  Then, “No!”  quickly, as he started to do so.  She stood up and retrieved the file she had come looking for and sat down again, opening it on the desk.  There were several deeds in it, showing the properties added on over the years to the ranch.  And properties split off.  The deed she had signed as soon as she signed her marriage certificate was right here, and it was, as Scott said, in her name.  Teresa O’Brien Lancer, a married woman… but not his name.  Nowhere on it was Scott’s name.

            “Mr.  Pierce, you’re a lawman,” Teresa said.

“Yes, ma’am, I am.”

“Do you know anything about property law?”

“Well, I ain’t a lawyer,” he said.  “But I have had to pick up a bit here and there.  Lawmen deal with property disputes all the time.  Why?”

“Doesn’t ‘community property’ mean that anything the wife owns the husband automatically owns too?”

“Well, now, that’s a trickier question that you might think,”  Tex said, dragging a chair close to the desk and settling into it. “Community property is a pretty southwestern concept, so I understand.  Laws coming out from the east come mainly from British Common Law, and under that set of rules, the man owns his wife and his children and therefore anything that’s hers when they get married is automatically his.  But it doesn’t reciprocate unless he specifically leaves it to her in his will when he dies.  I’ve seen a lot of women cut off completely, at the mercy of children or relatives when they become widows because women just kinda don’t count much in that sort of a legal system.  And divorce we won’t even discuss.  Man leaves his wife, she is pretty much out of luck.”


“Yeah, well, nasty as it is, it does happen.  Now, I’m not a California lawman, but I have lived most of my life in the southwest, and we have traditions here a little different from back east.  These areas were settled first by the Spanish.  Now, the Spanish are Europeans, same as the English, but they were more likely to come out here without bringing women with them, so there was more intermingling with the local women – the Indians.  And Indian societies are more matriarchal in structure: the women have a lot more power.”

“I thought Indians treated their squaws like slaves.”   

“You been reading too many dime novels – most of which were written back east by people who never came out here.  Their customs are different from ours, but their societies do tend to be based on mutual respect.  And a lot of those customs came down through the Spanish landholders into our modern legal systems.  So.  You see, community property actually was designed to protect women’s rights.  What it means is that any property that the couple acquired during the course of the marriage automatically and legally belongs to both parties.  So, if, God forbid!, your husband were to die, you wouldn’t have to wait to inherit his property because it already belongs to you.”  

“And mine to him,” Teresa said.

“Right.  But only if the two of you acquired it during your marriage.  Anything that you brought into the marriage is yours, anything he brought into the marriage is his.  Like Murdoch was saying at dinner tonight: the property he got from his second wife’s father was deeded to him by the father before the marriage, not acquired through marrying the girl.”

“So what kind of legal claim would my husband have over this?”  she asked, passing him the deed.  He leaned back in his chair to catch the moonlight.

“Looks like none.  Yeah… comes to you from your father – guardian anyway.  Da-da-da… replacement for the deed made out to Teresa O’Brien… Yeah.  Uh, you could make out a new deed with both your names on it and both of you sign it, then it would go into the community property.  As long as it’s in this form, it’s yours.  And if you died, you could will it to him or to your children – or anyone else – directly, and it would be subject to inheritance tax and all that legal mess.  Only community property goes to the surviving spouse without probate.”

While Tex had been studying the deed, Teresa had been looking at the next legal documents in the pile.  A grazing lease, permitting Lancer to use her property, agreeing to do all fencing and repairs, pay the property taxes, and deposit a hundred dollars a year in rental in her name in a bank in Sacramento for that privilege.  And below that, the deed that gave Scott his legal one-third share in the entire Lancer ranch.  She had come down here looking because Scott’s explanation of putting the deed into her married name had been too simple: she had signed more than one paper that day.  She hadn’t even cared at the time if he was asking her to sign away her legal rights to Lancer, because she was going to live there anyway.  With him.  Forever.  And that was all she had cared about.  But now she realized that he had been thinking, not of himself, but of her, that day.  This grazing lease that she had signed had been putting money away for her for seventeen years she hadn’t even realized existed.  And the third paper had been this deed, the one he had had redrawn to make his one-third share of Lancer into their one-third share in Lancer.  Scott Alan and Teresa Ann O’Brien Lancer, a married couple…

Even as tears welled in her eyes again, they heard sudden, loud barking from outside.  Doors banged and there was the sound of running feet in the corridors.  Tex scooped up all the deeds and the file, shoved them back into the safe and slammed the door and they both left the office at a run.


Johnny didn’t remember later how they both made it back to the ruined cabin.  She had walked, of that he was certain: he could never have carried her.  The exertion was too much for his not-yet-healed wounds, and she was shaking with cold, with effort and probably with fear.  Leaning on each other, staggering, they made it somehow, and collapsed on the friendly, familiar floor, their breath making sobbing sounds in their chests.  They were both wet, though she was soaking; they were both slathered with mud.  They were both exhausted.

Johnny moved first.  He rolled over and pushed himself to his feet, and staggered to the dying fire to toss more wood onto it.  There was maybe a cup of tea in the tin pan leftover from his dinner last night and he set that on the rock near the fire where they did their cooking.

“You need to get out of those wet clothes,” he said, roughly, and he tossed her one of his blankets.  No, actually, it was one of her blankets, that she had been letting him use up here in this hideaway.

She was shaking too much to talk, or even nod in agreement, but she managed to push herself to a sitting position and her hands went to the buttons on her shirtwaist.  Johnny picked up the blanket he had just tossed and he put it over her shoulders, turning his face quickly away from the glimpse of white under the opening blue calico.  It was, he realized, an undergarment, not her skin, but soaked as it was, it was nearly as sheer as glass.

“Th-thank y-y-ou,” she stammered, teeth and lips chattering.

“What were you doing out there anyway?”  he demanded furiously.  “Are you out of your mind?  You should have come here first, left off the basket.  You shouldn’t have been climbing around on that path carrying that.  And why go down there anyway?  You didn’t even have the bucket!”  Neither did he, now that he thought about it.  It had rolled down the hill and been washed away in the flood, which thought just made him all the more angry at her, even if it had, technically, been his fault.

“I w-wasn’t g-going for water,” she said, struggling now with the soaked leather of her boots.  “Th-th-that’s the path.”

“That’s what path?”   He was cold himself, but he wasn’t about to disrobe.   She had had him at too much of a disadvantage for too long. He was going to be the one in charge this time.  Even if he was freezing.

“H-h-here.  Town’s th-th-that way.”

He looked and saw that she was pointing directly towards the creek.

“You come across that creek every time you come up here?”

She nodded, concentrating on peeling off a stocking.  She wrung it out and pulled down the other one, still shaking too hard to speak easily.  Johnny threw more wood into the fire, and broke down enough to remove his own boots and socks and shirt. He left his trousers on though, sodden and muddy as they were, and wrapped himself in another blanket, still considering her words.

“There’s no way across that thing,” he said finally.

“Th-there’s a log, f-f-farther down,” she said.

Now he stared at her in disbelief.  “You walk over that flood on a log every time you come here?”

“Uh-huh.  I’ve been doing it for years…”

“Well, stop doing it!  That’s crazy!  What are you trying to do, kill yourself?  I can’t come up there and rescue you every day, you know!  That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of!  Where were you the past few days?”  That last slipped out unexpectedly.  He had meant to remind her not to come any more, not to ask her why she hadn’t!

“Papa wasn’t feeling good, so he didn’t go to the church,” she said, struggling under the blanket.  The skirt came out, and he snatched it from her before she could wring that out on the floor, making a big mess where he had to sleep.  He took it to the open end of the ruin and started twisting.  Even with his hurt arm and lack of strength he got plenty of water out of it.  It was amazing that he had been able to drag this much water, and the girl, against the current to get her out.

“What’s church got to do with it?”  he asked as he squeezed out the water.  “This isn’t Sunday.  Sunday you weren’t coming, but that was what?  Three days ago?”

“Yes, I know.  I’m sorry.  But like I said, Papa stayed home, so I had to stay home too.  When he’s gone all day it doesn’t matter where I go.  But when he’s home…  Well, he expects to be pampered a little when he’s sick, and what could I have told him?  That I wanted to leave him there alone so I could go play in the woods by myself?  He’d never have believed that…”

“Yeah.  But why would he spend all day at a church if he wasn’t feeling sick?”

“That’s where he works.  He’s the minister.”

“On Sunday,” Johnny agreed.

“Yes.  Oh!  You wouldn’t know, would you?  He has a sort of an office there at the church and he spends most of his days there, writing sermons and looking things up in his books, and just being around where people can come and talk to him if they want to.  We live past the edge of town.  Number 4 Mulberry Lane.  Although I don’t know why we’re Number 4, we’re the only house on that road.  And I don’t know why they call it Mulberry Lane, either.  There’s no mulberries on it.  I don’t even know what a mulberry is, or if there really is such a thing…”

“They’re like blackberries,” Johnny said, hanging up her skirt outside in the sun.  “Only they grow on trees.”

“Oh, really?  I didn’t know that.  I thought maybe it was someone’s name or something.  Anyway, we’re way out on this side of town, and the Baptist church – Papa’s the Baptist preacher, but then I told you that, didn’t I?  Because he was the chaplain at the fort.  Anyway, the Baptist church is clear on the far eastern end of town, so he mostly just spends his days there, to be closer to his job and his people and all.  Would you hang this also, please?”

She reached out of the blanket to hand him her shirtwaist, and again, he got a quick glimpse of thin, white cotton.

“You need to take it all off,” he said.

“I feel much warmer…”

“You’re still shaking.  Get it off,” he said, and he wrung out and hung her top.  “Anyway, it doesn’t much matter why you weren’t here, does it?  I thought I told you not to come back.”

“You didn’t really mean it, though,” she said.

“I don’t know where you come off thinking you know everything about me!”  Johnny said.  “You don’t know anything about me!  I’m wanted in one state and two Territories in America and in Mexico!  I’m not one of your tame little soldier boys!  I’m not a toy…”

“Yes.  We established that last week,” she said.

But he wasn’t amused.  He dropped down to the floor in front of her and grabbed her by her blanketed shoulders, shaking her so that her hair, already untied, shook clear of its braids and plastered itself to her face.  “Listen to me!  I’m not what you think!  I’ve killed nearly a dozen men for money!  I murdered my own step-father when I was twelve years old!”

“You didn’t,” she said.

“I did!”

Hopeless, really, trying to convince her he wasn’t some tragic romantic hero, but an outlaw, a real outlaw, so she would go away, leave him alone.  And keep herself safe.  He stood up again and went to where he had hung his belongings, came back with something in his hand.  When he sat down again, he grabbed her hand, yanking it away from the blanket she was clutching so that it fell open, and he dropped the object into her hand.  She grabbed at the blanket again, got herself covered up, then looked at what he had handed her.  She had seen it, of course, when she undressed him to tend to his wounds.  It was a ladies’ locket, which he had been wearing around his neck, under his shirt, large and heavy, of engraved gold with an ornate chain.  She had assumed some woman had given it to him, her token.  She hadn’t chosen to look inside.

“Open it,” he demanded now, and she did.  Inside was a miniature  daguerreotype: a small, dark-haired girl about her own age, standing next to a man who was seated.  Father and daughter?  But on the opposite side was the inscription, “To Esperanza, my life and my hope.  Murdoch Lancer. October 9, 1852.”

“My parents,” he said.  “My mother, and the man who married her to get his hands on her father’s property, then threw both of us out of the house once he got it.”

“He doesn’t look like that sort of man,” she said, studying the picture.

“Yeah, well.  Looks can be deceiving, can’t they?  Mama and I lived on what bits of jewelry she’d inherited from her mother, selling them off one by one to buy food.  Sometimes there were men, sometimes just us.  Agapito Madrid was the last of them.  He took everything she had left to pay for his gambling debts.  Everything but this.  She gave this to me to hide from him – the only bit of security she had left in the world.  And he beat her to find out where it was.  I’d have given it to him to stop him hitting her, except I heard her neck snap that first backhand blow that knocked her to the bed.”

Tears were making tracks through the mud on her face, and he felt a savage joy in knowing that his story was hurting her.  He wanted to hurt her, to chase her away.

“When he finally realized she was already dead, he turned on me.  I didn’t want to die.  I saw him coming after me, and I grabbed up something to defend myself with.  It was Mama’s butcher knife.  I rammed it into his belly, and hot blood and his guts poured over me, but I held it there until he finally stopped moving.”

“That was self-defense,” she murmured.

“Not when you’re as glad as I was that someone else is dead!  I took what little cash he had on him and I left, and when I tried to find work to support myself I discovered that I only had one real skill: I could kill people.  I wasn’t about to confess the sin of murder because I didn’t regret it, not for an instant, and I figured I could only burn in Hell for an eternity once.  So, if someone wanted a man dead, and were willing to pay for it, I took their money.  And I took men’s lives.  That’s why the federales are chasing me, that’s why the sheriff on this side of the border wants to hang me.  That’s the kind of person you’ve risked your life day after day to help!”   

She was sobbing now, and he was glad, glad that it was finally over.  She’d go away now, leave him alone.  Stop pestering him with her friendly chatter, with her gifts, with her niceness!  But, unexpectedly, she reached out to him, took him by the hand, held that hand pressed against her cheek, the same cheek that was scraped raw and bloody from her ordeal in the creek.  She held him as she cried, and he realized slowly that the tears weren’t for her own lost ideal of childish romantic love.  The tears were for him.  For his hurts.  He had wanted to make her cry, to disillusion her.  To drive her off.  He had not expected her tears to hurt him so deeply.


Scott was already coming out of the boys’ bedroom, hauling them out into the safety of the downstairs hall.

“Larissa!”  he yelled.

“Coming!”  she called, as she clattered down the stairs.  Murdoch and Johnny were right behind her, as Teresa and Tex came in from the front room.  Teresa, Larissa and the boys were in night clothes, but all four of the men were fully dressed and armed.

“Teresa, stay with the children,” Scott said.  “You two, out the back.  You, come with me.”

Following that order, Johnny and Murdoch spun around and headed towards the kitchen and the back door.  In the doorway they paused, checking guns and ammunition.  Johnny got a grip on his pistol and his crutches at the same time, then nodded to Murdoch, who flung open the door.  When no one shot at them, they split up, Murdoch heading right and Johnny heading left, around the house.  Half way around, Johnny met Scott.

“This side’s clear,” Scott announced.

“Murdoch’s on that other side,” Johnny said.  “What about that kid?”

“We split up, too.  There’s only the four of us…”  He stopped, and swore angrily.  Since when had the kid become one of them instead of a suspect?  “This way!”  he shouted, and he took off at a dead run after Murdoch, who was alone on the far side of the house with a kid who was not only a stranger, but still an unknown quantity.  Johnny was good with his crutches, but there was no way he could keep up.  By the time he made it around to the far side of the house, only Murdoch was there, leaning hunched over as if he were in pain.

“Murdoch!”  he shouted.

“I’m fine!”  Murdoch said, waving him back.  “Just… just a little old for all this running around in the middle of the night.”  He straightened, drawing in a good breath.

“Where’s Scott and that kid?”  Johnny asked.

“Johnson was patrolling with the bitch.  He said she started barking at something, then snapped the leash he had on her trying to get at it.  He took off after her, Tex is chasing him, and Scott is following both of them!”

“Leaving the house open to attack,” Johnny said grimly.

This time it was Murdoch who used words out of character for him.  “Front and back,” he said, and they split up again to enter the house by different doors. Murdoch locked the front door behind him, hoping this wasn’t a case of barn doors and stolen horses, and crept through the darkened livingroom silently as possible.  He peered in the office, in the diningroom, peeking under the desk, the table, behind chairs. Satisfied that everything was clear, he stepped into the lighted hallway where Teresa and the children were holed up again, and very nearly got his head shot off.

“Murdoch!”  Johnny bellowed from upstairs.

“It’s okay!”  Murdoch called back.  “My fault!  I scared the women.”

“And you’re still talking?”  Johnny was muttering, but they heard him clearly.  “Someone needs to spend some time on the practice range!”

Murdoch grinned.  Teresa did not.  Lowering the  pistol she had nearly killed him with she demanded, “What are you doing, sneaking around like that?”

“Making sure no one snuck inside while we were out there!”  Murdoch said.  He had heard the whine of the bullet go past his head, felt the wind of it whipping by.  He felt of his cheek and ear, but there didn’t seem to be any blood.

Seeing the gesture, Teresa dropped the pistol on the settee and threw herself into Murdoch’s arms.  “Oh!  I’m so sorry!” she sobbed.

“My fault,” Murdoch said, holding her firmly, patting her back.  “It’s okay, honey, it’s my fault.  I knew better than to walk in here unannounced.  You were just doing what you were supposed to do.”

If she was overly distraught by the incident, Murdoch didn’t notice.  They were all low on sleep and jumpy as cats in a roomful of rocking chairs with everything that was going on.  He kind of felt like breaking down and sobbing on someone older and wiser himself – if any such option had been available to him.  

“If someone other than the two of you had come in, we’d have heard them,” Larissa said calmly.  She had been poised at the foot of the stairs with her own pistol pointing up and ready until she heard Johnny’s voice, realized it was him that was prowling around up there.

“We should have had you on watch instead of that damned dog,”  Murdoch agreed.

“It’s me!”  Johnny called before he came down the stairs. “Clear up there,” he said, when he made it to the bottom.

“Clear down here,” Murdoch said.

“Check the bedrooms?”  Johnny asked.

“No one could have gotten past us…”  Teresa started.

“Someone could have come in one of the windows,” Johnny said.

Murdoch nodded, sighing, and he followed Johnny down the hallway to search all the bedrooms, occupied or not.  That back wing was a weak spot.  He wished he had torn that down years ago, but somehow he never got around to it.  Planned on filling it up with grandkids, maybe, and how many grandkids did he think one married couple could present him with, anyway?  Foolishness, for which he now had to pay as he guarded the rear while Johnny opened every one of the rooms.  All of them had a single, glassless window, shuttered, but not really secure.  Fortunately, most of them were easy to search, being just empty rooms.  Two of them were piled high with old junk, and those had to be poked around in to be sure no one was hiding in the piles of old chairs and trunks and boxes.

“All clear,” Murdoch announced as they came back to the hallway.

“It’s like living under siege,” Larissa said.

“We can boil some oil,” Gene offered helpfully.  Johnny knew what he meant, but Murdoch looked confused by the reference.

“We’ll board up those rooms completely tomorrow,” he said to Johnny.

“They could tear the boards out with crowbars, we’d never hear through those stone walls.”

“Then we board off the whole wing.  We’d hear them coming through that.”

“We need those rooms!”  Teresa said.  “We have guests coming  for Larissa’s party in September.”

“If this is still going on then,” Murdoch said, “we’re canceling!”

“We’ll catch him,” Johnny said.  Suddenly he looked at Teresa and said, “What were you and that ranger doing in the office?”

He, Murdoch and Larissa were all very surprised when she drew herself up and said stiffly, “What concern is it of yours?”

“I just meant…”

“To accuse me of something?”

“No!  Of course not!  I…”

He was saved from having to try to explain what he had considered a perfectly innocent question, when there was a banging on the front door.

“It’s us!”  Scott hollered.  “Open up!”

Larissa jumped up.  Johnny stopped her with a look and went himself to open the door.

“What did you find out?”  Murdoch demanded as Tex and Scott came into the hallway.

“That that bitch may be ready to drop a litter, but she’s still got some speed!”  Tex said.

“Something was out there,” Scott said.  “Or someone.  I’m betting she chased it off.  We couldn’t find her though.  Either she’s still after it, or she just went on home.”

“Johnson?”  Murdoch asked.

“He’s back to patrolling outside,” Scott said, but he shook his head.  “But he never saw or heard a thing.  Without the dog, we’re blind and deaf, figuratively.

“Now what?”  Teresa asked.

“We all stay here until morning,” Scott said.

Jack and Gene groaned aloud.  Larissa sighed.  Tex followed Murdoch into the nearest bedroom to haul out mattresses for them to sleep on.


They all overslept, children and adults alike.  It was time to start fixing lunch when Johnny stumbled into the kitchen to put on the morning coffee.  Teresa yawned and swatted the boys into motion, shooing them into their room to dress.  Murdoch splashed water on his face by way of morning ablutions and went outside to collect some eggs for breakfast.  Scott helped Johnny stoke the stove, yawning deeply.  They were sipping their first coffee and heating up the frying pan for eggs when Johnny said, “Where’s that kid?”

“He was with us all night,”  Scott said, looking around.

“Are you sure?”  Johnny asked.


“Yeah!”  Murdoch said.  “He was helping pick up the mattresses when I went outside earlier.”

“But, where is he now?”

“Where is who now?” Tex asked, kicking the door shut behind him.

“Where were you?”  Johnny scowled.

“Checking the stables,” Tex said.  “Horses are all okay.  And if that bitch was a little black-and-white thing with shaggy hair, I found her, too.”

“Where?”  three of them demanded at once.

“In one of the stalls, nursing a four brand-new of pups.  My guess is that’s maybe half the litter.  She’ll be in there working on it all morning.”

“Harlow never could count,” Johnny muttered.

“He counts fine,” Murdoch said.  “He was a storekeeper for thirty-five years.  He’s just a little weak on gestation periods.”

“This could be an advantage,” Scott said.  “We know now she’s here, and she’s going to be staying here.  And, she’s going to be protective.  She may not be patrolling outside the house, but she’ll be keeping strangers away from it.”

“She didn’t chase me out of the stable,” Tex said.

“Another good theory down the drain,” Johnny murmured.  “Eat up, we have some riding to do today.”  He looked at the ranger and said, “You may as well come too.”

“Fine,” Tex said, helping himself to the coffee.  “Where are we going?”

“Scouting,” Johnny said.  “In the direction the bitch first ran last night.  Soon as we all eat.”

They left the dishes for Teresa and Larissa to clean up.  Scott went out to give orders to the hands, splitting the men again between resting and working, scouting and taking care of the ranch.  Murdoch helped Johnny hitch up his wagon and Tex saddled horses for himself, Murdoch and Scott.

The sun was hot.  However the others felt about that fact, Murdoch was glad of it.  He was too old for the amount of riding he had been doing the past few days, and the hot, dry sun baked into his sore muscles in very welcome way.

They were a pretty grim group, he thought, looking them all over.  Over-tired, worried.  Johnny half-sat, half-stood in his short wagon, eyes focused dead ahead, jaw clenched in a way that he did sometimes when something serious was on his mind.  Like being attacked multiple times by an unknown person, and being unable to locate and track down the danger.  Johnny didn’t like feeling ineffectual and helpless.  And neither do I, Murdoch thought.

Scott was looking pretty grim also, and Murdoch nearly smiled at that.  He knew full well what was bothering Scott.  It would have been bothering him, too, but he had the luxury of being a generation removed.  He remembered it well, though!  Teresa’s father had moved in with him the same time Teresa had, but Eugene O’Brien had never been a great parent, and he had quickly relinquished all responsibility for raising Teresa to Murdoch.  “Ask Mr. Lancer” had been his favorite phrase, effectively passing his responsibility on to his new business partner.   And Murdoch, starved for a family as he had been, accepted readily.  He was the one, not Teresa’s own father, who had agonized over what it meant and how to handle it when the pretty young tom-boy began blossoming into a beautiful young woman, one who so easily attracted the notice of every young man in the area.  Fiercely as he’d loved his own sons from the moment he first saw them, he had found himself looking at each of them, at one time or other, with that same hard, unyielding look Scott wore now: Johnny, the gunslinger, wasn’t at all the sort he thought should be hanging around his little girl, and Scott, he had considered far too old…  Then.  Now he saw how well they fit together, how Scott’s added years had been the perfect foil for Teresa’s impetuous behavior.  Live and learn.  Meantime, he could sympathize with Scott now.  It was one thing dealing with the problem of a boy’s interest in your daughter when the boy was distant, abstract idea, or a gangly, pimply youth like Ed Casson.  But this ranger here was definitely a problem.  He was living in the same house, doing heroic things like helping put out fires.  He was tall and mature for his years, had a slow, droll sense of humor and the kind of good looks no female could ignore (even Teresa, he had noticed, was kinder to the kid that she normally was to strangers, unconsciously responding to those looks, no doubt).  And much as they all tried to make the kid into the bad guy, he was just so likeable!  Like now, staying slightly to the side of the rest of them as if to give them some privacy among themselves, even while he stayed perfectly even with them, reining in the long strides of that big yellow horse to match the speed Johnny could make with his wagon.  The kid was a good horseman, too, Murdoch noted.  Sat easy in the saddle, hips and waist rocking with the motion of the horse, left hand on the reins, right hand resting lightly on his thigh, relaxed and casual, but in easy grabbing distance of his pistol, or his rifle, or the knife in his boot, just like…

Murdoch shook his head as the name slipped out of his mind like a ghost.  Too tired, he knew that, but whenever something like that happened, he felt old.  He had seen others, even Jack, start a sentence and forget what they were going to say before the words made it all the way out, but he still worried about being labeled senile.  No use puzzling over it, it would just make him irritable and grouchy.  The kid reminded him of someone, and from the way he reminded him of someone, Murdoch would guess it was someone he now or had once admired.  So, leave it at that.  The kid was, damn him!, admirable.  Admirable, likeable, had the ability to laugh at himself… like any good con man.  But it was getting harder and harder to figure what kind of con he could possibly be perpetrating.

They all reined in as the kid stopped, swung down from his horse and knelt to look at the ground.

“Square-toed, Eye-talian leather boot track?”  Johnny guessed.

“Just a hoofprint,” the kid said, with his always-ready grin.   

“In the droppings?”  Murdoch asked.  The kid nodded, and that was all the explanation any of them needed.  A riderless horse will most likely pause to do its business.  A horse being ridden is more likely leave its droppings spread out like that, and a hoofprint in the droppings meant that there were at least two horses, one following the other.

“Any other sign?”  Johnny asked.

The ranger shook his head.  “Just the general line we been following.  Grass don’t take a print well.  There may be more than two horses, definitely not less.  And they came through before the dewfall this morning.”

Again, nothing they didn’t already know.  Johnny could track as well from the wagon as most men could from the ground, and Murdoch was certain he was checking on the kid, not actually asking for information.

The kid turned to climb back into the saddle, but the horse neatly sidestepped away from him, always moving just enough to prevent the kid from mounting.  The kid backed the horse against the side of Johnny’s wagon and raised one foot to his stirrup, but before he climbed into the saddle, Johnny said, “What do you do when there isn’t a wagon around handy?  Walk?”

The kid dropped his foot and grinned at the challenge.  With one hand, he grabbed the saddle horn.  With the other, he slapped the horse hard on the rear, shouting in its ear at the same time, and the horse bolted, took off at a dead run, half dragging the kid by one hand. But in only a few steps, he used the momentum to swing himself up onto the horse, shoved his boots into the stirrups, got control of the reins, and pulled the horse to a stop again, waiting for the others to catch up.  A perfect running Pony Express mount.

“Showoff,” Johnny muttered.  But they were all hiding grins.

“If it was my horse, I’d shoot it,” Murdoch commented when they had caught the kid, and were moving along the trail again.

“Funny you should say that,” the kid said, moving in to ride a bit closer than he had before.  “Showboy used to belong to Mr. Buffalo Bill Cody, and Mr. Cody darn near did shoot him when he pulled that same stunt right in the middle of a show.  He made the crowd think the he was making the horse ‘dance’ on purpose, then soon as he got backstage, he whipped out his pistol and Pow!  Right between the eyes!  Fortunately, he was loaded with blanks.”

            “I suppose Cody’s a close personal friend of yours too,” Scott said, and if Murdoch had not just been thinking the thoughts he had been thinking, the bitter sarcasm in Scott’s tone would have surprised him.

“No, I only met him that one time,” the kid said amiably, though he did give Scott a sideways glance for his tone.  “The only reason I happened to be backstage was that I was there with….”

“Pat Garret,” Johnny said suddenly.

“Where on earth did you come up with that name?”  Murdoch demanded.  Even the kid lost his usual grin and looked with surprise at Johnny.  Surprise and, Murdoch realized, respect.

“Accurate?”  Johnny demanded.

“Dead on,” Tex admitted.  “But, how did you know that?”

“Appaloosa and mustang,” Johnny said, pleased at the puzzled looks they were all giving him.  “I knew it meant something the other night, but I couldn’t think what because… well, because I was drunk,” he admitted with a shrug.  “Pat Garret retired from the lawman business to raise horses.  I understand his dream was to cross-breed mustangs and appaloosas.”

“Yeah,” Tex nodded. “Showboy was the inspiration for his business, right enough.  He saved the horse by buying it from Cody on the spot.  Course, a gelding’s no use to a horse breeder, so he gave Showboy to me.  Told me to consider it a late christening gift.”

“He was there when you were baptized?”  Murdoch asked, trying to do the figures in his head.  Garret would have been what?  Ten years old when the kid was born?

“Course he was there.  He’s my godfather,” the kid said.

“He baptized you?” Murdoch asked.

“Yeah,” the kid said with a shrug, and he seemed totally oblivious to the looks that passed between Johnny, Scott and Murdoch. They had him!  Likeable, admirable, plausible.  Whatever the kid was, he was also a liar, and now they had absolute proof of that!

“What about Wild Bill Hickock?”  Murdoch asked innocently.

“What about him?”

“Didn’t you say he baptized you, after taking you and your mother under his wing?” Johnny  reminded him

But, “Yeah,” was all Tex said.

“Now you claim Pat Garret as your godfather,” Scott said.

“Yeah,” Tex said again.

“So, which is it, boy?”  Murdoch said.  “You can’t claim the whole west as your godfather.  If you’re going to tell wild stories, get your story straight.”

Tex stared at him, looking confused.  Then suddenly, he laughed. “Oh!”  he said.  “I get it!”

“Maybe you get it, but we don’t,” Murdoch muttered.

“Personally, I don’t think I’d laugh if I got caught out making up stories like that,” Johnny said.

“I wouldn’t know,” the kid said.  “Not being in the habit of making up stories.”

Johnny’s face flared red.  “I meant…”

“Yeah.  I know.  Look, I’m sorry I confused you. I forget, sometimes.  People think you can only have one, like you only have one real father.  But, I have seventeen.”

“Seventeen what?”  Johnny asked.

“Godfathers,” the kid said.  “And two godmothers, actually.”

“You were baptized seventeen times?”  Murdoch asked.

“Twice,” the kid said.  “Actually, Ma wasn’t real big on church about the time I was born, so she refused to have it done, but Butler snuck out and did it without her permission.  Which is why that baptism wasn’t accepted by the Church later on when Ma converted and decided we should both be Catholic.  It was when I was about ten, cause it was right after that dog incident.  Juan Diego de Silva and his wife, Josephina, were lined up to be my godparents, but Virge and his brothers were worried about me after that, not having a pa around and all, so they decided they all wanted to stand up for me too.  Sort of extra insurance, I guess, in case I lost another ‘father’.”

“And Virgil Earp has fourteen brothers?”   Scott asked acidly.          

“Not quite that many,” the kid grinned back.  “But, word kind of got out and a few other guys volunteered…”

Johnny turned and stared at Tex.  “You’re the Tombstone Kid!”  he said in surprise.      

“The Tombstone Kid?”  Murdoch repeated.  It was his own attempt to understand the dark side of his youngest son’s personality that had caused Murdoch Lancer to collect gunfighter stories.  Even though dime novels, newspaper clippings, and hand-written anecdotal records comprised his personal library of gunman of the west, this was a name he had never heard before.   But even as he was puzzling it out, the kid grinned and said, “Never been called that before.”

“But, it’s you, isn’t it?”  Johnny insisted.  “The kid from the newspaper articles.”

“What are you talking about?”  Scott demanded.

“Don’t you remember?”  Johnny said.  “Nine years ago, just like he said.  I’ll never forget it partly because that was right when Jack was born.”  When Scott just shook his head and stared blankly, Johnny said, “The newspaper article!  About the kid… Oh, wait.  Maybe you never read it.  I was in San Francisco.  I’d just delivered a herd there – you didn’t come along, Scott, because Teresa was due and you didn’t want to be away.”  He thought a moment, then nodded.  “That’s right.  I read it in the hotel, looking through the paper while I waited for breakfast.  ‘Orphan of the West,’ the article was titled,  about a boy the author called ‘a touching symbol of transience of life in the violent American West’.”

Murdoch snorted.  “Who wrote that drivel?”

“I don’t know.  Some guy named Clemens, I think.  Anyway, the story said that there was this boy who’s father had died by the gun, and his godfather had died by the gun.  He was being re-baptized because his mother had converted, and half a dozen men had decided they would all stand godfather to him, since all of them were lawmen or outlaws who all lived by the gun and could also die young.”

“It wasn’t in the local paper,” Murdoch said firmly.  “I would remember that one.  Did it mention anyone by name?”

  “Only the town,” Johnny said.  “Tombstone.  And the date, which was maybe a week in the future because they had to wait for the bishop or something.  Story itself apparently went out by telegraph wire.”

“Brought in a lot of people,” the kid agreed wryly.  “At least another half-dozen men showed up and wanted to participate, and a whole bunch more sent gifts – mostly guns, ironically,” he added.

“Silly,” Scott murmured.

“I was about to go myself,” Johnny said.

Murdoch and Scott both stared at him, but it was Tex who said, “You?  Why?”

Johnny looked, Murdoch thought, just a bit embarrassed.  “The story was well-written.  A real tear-jerker.  Apparently I‘m not the only man who felt it touched something deep inside him.  You know who I am,” he said flatly to the kid.  The kid hesitated a moment, before nodding slowly.

“I killed a lot of men,” he said.  “And I never did any kind of background check first to see if they were leaving behind orphans or widows when they were gone.  I felt… responsible, I guess.”

“You didn’t kill Hickock,” Tex said.

“I killed other men.  Nameless men. Men I couldn’t help any more.  But here was a chance to make up for all that, so I walked straight out of the hotel to the train station to see about a ticket to Arizona Territory.”

“You were coming to my baptism?”  Tex asked.

“I was hoping to participate,” Johnny said.   “At least I’m actually Catholic, which a lot of those honorary godfathers apparently were not!”

“But you changed your mind?”  Tex asked, the tension in his voice making it just slightly higher than normal.

“I was standing there, pulling my wallet out of my vest to pay for the ticket when the Western Union kid found me with the telegram from Scott saying Teresa had had a boy.  They named him after me, and they were waiting for me to come home and baptize him.  A symbol is one thing,” Johnny said.  “A real-life nephew is something else.  I opted for family.  But, it did prey on my mind so… I sent the money.”

“What money?”  Murdoch asked.

“You know.  The envelope you gave each of us just to come and hear you out twenty years ago.  I’m sure Scott invested his wisely,”  he glanced as his older brother, who looked as innocent as he could without commenting, then he looked back at Murdoch.  “I always felt funny about it though.”

“I rather thought you had plans for that money,” Murdoch said.

“Would have come in real handy if I had decided not to stay on,” Johnny said honestly.  “Could have bought me a new life with it, but  staying here, I didn’t need a new life.  Ranch supplied all my personal needs, I didn’t ever want anything else.  I never knew quite what to do with that money.  Frankly, Murdoch, it was embarrassing.  So I just left it in a drawer in my night stand…”

“For ten years?”  Murdoch demanded.

“Nearer eleven, actually.  I was considering maybe giving it to Scott’s kids down the line.  Until I read that article.  Then I wired it anonymously to the editor of the Tombstone Epitaph to give to the boy who was described in that article.”

“You might as well have just thrown it away,” Scott commented.

“He’s right,” Murdoch agreed.  “I mean, it was your money to do whatever you wanted with… But, an anonymous donation to an unnamed kid!  I’m sure the editor – or someone at Western Union! — kept it for himself!”

“Actually,” Tex said.  “I did get it. A thousand dollars.”  That in itself was proof to all of them that he had received the money: Johnny had not mentioned the amount. “You sent that?”

Johnny glanced away and nodded, embarrassed.

“You sent that much money to some kid you never met just because of an article you read?”  Tex demanded.

“Yeah,” was all Johnny said.

“No other reason?”  Tex asked.

“What more do you need?”  Johnny snapped back.

“None,” Tex said with a shrug, and he moved his horse closer to the wagon.  “Mr.  Lancer.  I’d like to shake your hand if I may.  I know it’s pretty pitiful thanks for what you did for me and Ma, but… well, it’s the best I can think of at the moment.”

Johnny accepted the outstretched hand, trying to hide his amusement at the kid’s sudden seriousness.  “It’s just money,  Kid.”

“Yeah.  Just money.  But, Mr.  Lancer, that money changed everything for Ma and me!  That money gave us a chance at a new life, at living what before had just been a dream.  Part of the reason we left Tombstone when we did was that money.  We sold most of the guns men had given me as gifts and used that for traveling cash.  But that thousand dollars… Mr.  Lancer, Ma and me lived in St. Louis for three years on that thousand dollars while she studied with the Sisters of Mercy to become not just a nurse, but a surgical-assistant nurse.  And we had enough left over to put a small down payment on the house we live in down in El Paso.  I told you about the hospital there.  And Ma, with her education and training, is in charge of the whole surgical-nursing staff: she picks, hires and trains the new women who come into the hospital.”

“She makes a good living now?”  Scott asked.

“Money-wise, nursing actually don’t beat selling meals to the jail by a whole lot,” Tex said.  “But she’s doing something she really likes.  She’s happy.  I’m happy.  That’s what that thousand dollars meant to us both.  Not just a bit more physical comfort, but peace.  You gave us a life we both love, and that’s a gift that is priceless.”

“Well,” Johnny said, feeling embarrassed again.  “I’m just glad I could help.”

“Boy howdy, ‘help’ is an understatement!”  the kid said.  “But, if you don’t mind, Mr. Lancer, you could do me one more small favor.”

“What?”  Murdoch, Scott and Johnny all spat out at once.

The commonality of the response amused Tex as much as the response itself. He grinned as he said, “Mr.  Lancer, please, please tell me we are not riding straight into that box canyon up ahead!”

“They did make their trap just a tad obvious, didn’t they?”  Murdoch said.  “I think this would be a good place, Mr. Pierce, for you to get down and look for sign again.  Only this time, instead of pointing straight ahead, if you could point about forty degrees north…”

Tex slid down and made a pretense of studying the ground carefully.  “That way?”  he asked, pointing with his eyebrows only so as not to make any move that watchers could interpret.

“More towards those trees,” Murdoch said.

“That way?”  Tex asked, standing and making a broad gesture, pointing with his arm outstretched.  Scott, Johnny and Murdoch all nodded.  They all shifted position to point their horses that way while Tex mounted up – easily this time, the horse obviously not in the mood for more games just yet.

“And this way will take us…?”  he asked.

“Into a parallel valley,” Murdoch said.

“We can come up over the ridge and catch them from behind,”  Johnny said.

“Did we have you worried?”  Murdoch grinned.

“A little,” was all Tex admitted to.  “I was beginning to think we were walking into awful danger just for a bunch of roses.”

“Roses?”  Murdoch repeated.

“What roses?”  Johnny asked.

“You know, the roses,” the kid said.  Johnny and Murdoch stared at the kid, and exchanged a look.  They both shrugged.

“Surely you noticed,” Tex said.  “Last night there were dozens of roses all around the ranch house.  This morning, there wasn’t a single blossom left.”

Murdoch digested that information slowly.  There had been a disturbance at the house last night.  Something scared up the dog, and whoever had come close had made sure to leave a visible trail into a canyon that was a trap so that they would follow.  Funny though that he hadn’t noticed the roses.  He had taken such pride in his roses.  They had struggled for years, never even putting out a blossom, and it seemed as though it was only a few years ago that they had finally started to spread out and produce, like Tex said, dozens of huge, fragrant blooms every year.

“I reckon I noticed particularly,” Tex said, “Because I was going to ask you about those roses.  Ma’s been trying to grow some for years, and they’re still pretty puny.  Yours were right purty.  I’m sorry you lost em all at once.”

“That doesn’t bother me near as much as the thought that with all of us standing guard, and a dog and an armed guard outside, someone got close enough to the house long enough to cut all those blooms.”  Murdoch considered it more and shook his head.  “If they can do that, we’ve got no defense at all!  They can do anything they want, and there’s nothing we can do to stop them!”

“I cut the roses,” Scott said, surprising them all after his long silence.

“You did?”  Murdoch demanded.  “Why?”

Scott didn’t answer immediately, just continued riding, hand on thigh, hat pulled low over his face.  Finally he said, “Well, uh.  I read somewhere that… uh… if you cut all the blooms off a rose brush, they grow back in, better than ever.  And,  I thought, you know, if I trimmed them now we’d have nice flowers for Lissa’s party.”

“When you cut the flowers, they grow back bigger next year,” Murdoch said.

“Oh,” Scott said.

“Well, at least we know strangers weren’t that close to the house for that long,” Johnny said.

“Huh,” Murdoch said.


Teresa was exhausted.  Her back hurt.  Her knees hurt.  She hated housework, the day to day maintenance that it took just to keep a house in decent order.  Day after day she dusted and mopped and swept, made beds, did laundry.  Day after day it had to be done again.  And again.  Men could never understand, she thought, the drudgery involved in it all.  It was late afternoon, and she had been working since she got up.  She knew the men would not be home for dinner, so she had made up a light meal for the children of cold chicken, rice and tortillas and left it laying in the kitchen while she returned to her bedroom.  Just a few moments, she thought, to lie on her bed, stretch out, ease her back.  Maybe wash her face and neck and re-comb her hair….

But when she stepped into her bedroom, she stopped cold.  Lie on her bed?  She couldn’t even see it!  The entire double-sized bed was completely buried in rapidly-wilting roses.  Pink, yellow, red, white: all the varieties that she and Murdoch had worked so long and hard to cultivate and coax and had, just yesterday, graced the entire house with their presence on every side.  Now, they graced her bed.  The fragrance filled the room until it seemed as if a bottle of perfume had been spilled, and leaves were everywhere.  And in the midst of the heap she found a piece of paper.  She picked it up and read it.

“Teresa”, it was titled.  And the page was covered in Scott’s handwriting, bold and black and elegant — the fine penmanship he had learned as a boy in Boston.  She read the first line, realized it was a poem, and just glanced quickly through the rest of it.  Stuff about petal-like skin and fragrant hair.  Comparing a girl to a rose.  Drivel.  She ripped the sheet in half in fury, and ripped it two more times for good measure.

How dare he!  How dare he think that a silly love poem and a bunch of flowers was going to make up for all those years of neglect!  Sure, now he said he loved her, now he said how wonderful she was.  Where were all those beautiful words all those years she had worked and worked keeping this house decent, his children clean and fed, himself and his father and brother fed and warm and happy.  Where were those words when he proposed?  Or on those seventeen barely-noticed wedding anniversaries.  Oh!  He was not going to get away with this.  She’d… she’d…


Prove him a fake, first off.  He must have copied that poem from one of those books in his study and just tacked her name onto the top of it.  She’d find the book, find the poem, and shove it in his face when he came back.  Show him she wasn’t stupid, she wasn’t a gullible little girl, like when she’d married him, dreaming in her heart that she could make him come out of that cool, civilized shell and say…

…Say exactly the things he had written in that poem. 

But they weren’t his words.  She was sure of that.  Scott never had thoughts like that!  She would have known it!

His study was gloomy, as the afternoon sun never touched it.  She crossed to the window that opened onto the courtyard and flung it open and more light came in, though none of it direct.  But the angled, dim light showed her what brighter light would not have:  that a thin layer of dust covered his bookshelves.  Dust that was completely undisturbed.  No books had been pulled off that shelf this morning. Or in the past week.

Well.  That didn’t prove a thing.  Probably it was something he had memorized years ago and just copied out, assuming someone with her limited education would think he had actually written it himself.  But, how to prove it?

She sat down at his desk, considering the problem.  The words might have been pressed into the blotter paper under the paper they’d been written on… But that wasn’t proof of anything.  Whether he wrote it himself or copied it from a book, that would still be true.  Idly, she opened a few of the desk’s drawers.  Paperclips, sealing wax, pen nibs, bottles of ink. Nothing terribly interesting.  The bottom drawer on the left side of the chair was a deep, heavy drawer for filing papers in, and she slid it out to find it stuffed with file folders.

Funny, in all the years they had been married, Scott had had a desk and that desk had had a file drawer, and she had never even thought to look in it.  She supposed she had always assumed he brought ranch business into the bedroom and worked on that at the desk.  He read often — all of the family did, actually, especially in the long, winter evenings, when they all gathered in the office around the fire, usually with Teresa sewing or knitting and Johnny working on some bit of leather or wood carving while Murdoch or Larissa read aloud to the entire family.  As a group, they were all addicted to anything romantic, fantastic or adventurous.  Loves had been won and lost, battles raged, living men built of pieces of dead bodies — all in that office.  One winter Scott, Johnny and Murdoch had read various characters, not quite acting out a whole series of Shakespeare’s historical and comedic plays.  And when they weren’t reading something aloud for the entertainment of all, all of them tended to curl up privately with a book, although Scott was perhaps more likely than anyone.  Besides the adventurous stories he shared with the family, he read his law books regularly and legal tracts that he sent away for to keep abreast of new laws and what they meant. He read about new ranching techniques, and farming ideas, like crop rotation.  And he read poetry.  And when he wasn’t reading (and sometimes even when he was) he spent his free time right here at this desk.

And she had never wondered before what he did here.  Until she saw all those file folders stuffed into the drawer.  The stiff folders were grubby from much handling and had faded titles scribbled in pencil on their tabs.  “Ranch”  “Boston” “Children” and “Family” were some of the titles.  There were nearly half a dozen folders labeled “War,” two with the subtitle “Andersonville”.  It was one of these folders that Teresa slid first from its place, and she set it on the desk top and opened it.  Dozens of sheets of paper were inside.  The top held a short poem, four four-line stanzas, describing in horrific detail the death of a man from gangrene following the amputation of a limb by his bunkmates.  Shocked and curious at once, Teresa turned that page and found under it another poem, this one much longer and describing a man who thought himself a leader of men, and whose insistence on a certain course of action cost dozens of lives.  Mesmerized, she turned the page and read, more and more until she was nearly sick with the horrors described in those pages.  Of course she knew Scott had been an officer in the War Between the States, and she knew that he had been wounded and captured and spent several months in the infamous Confederate prisoner camp at Andersonville.  But he never spoke of it, not even in passing, so one tended to forget that it was even part of his past.  But what he had not shared with his family he had poured out here.  She did not suspect these poems had been copied from books.  She knew they were memories of actual happenings, so vividly recorded that she felt ill from the stench and the noise, the heat, the bitter cold… It was all too clear.

Shaken, she closed the folder, and opened one just marked “War”.  Again she found page after page of heavy paper, covered in Scott’s handwriting.  Some poems were short; some were several pages long.  Death, pain, wounds, fear, sweat, gunpowder, blood, disease, hatred, hunger, bitter cold, blistering heat, dirt and dust and filth had been poured onto the pages in ink.  But so had courage, admiration, honor, valor, freindship, determination.  A few even had comic themes, like a short poem that described a “Lousy Race” — wherein the participants searched their bodies for lice and dropped the critters onto heated tin plates and bet who’s louse could cross the plate to safety the fastest.

Thoughtfully, Teresa closed the folder and slid it back into place.  After a moment’s hesitation, she slid out a folder labeled “Family”.  Murdoch collected photographic portraits of the family in his bedroom.  Scott had made up word portraits of all of them.  There were numerous poems about Murdoch and Johnny, brief descriptions of the men or of actions he witnessed or — or had heard about, she realized as she read a particularly poignant vignette describing the agony of a man who has lost his wife, mingling with pride and joy in his newborn son.  One poem just described hands, and she knew at once whose hands they were: Murdoch’s.  Strong, square, work-hardened, scarred, firm.  Gentle.  And Johnny.  Poems of a boy, lost and alone and making his own way in the world, of a boy — earlier — full of fear and anger and love, caught in a world that was filled with pain and violence, but was the only home he had ever known.  There were several savage portraits of a man gunning men down which Teresa read avidly.  All of them tried to understand that part of Johnny.  Now that she had read some of her own husbands words, she knew that Scott understood better than any of them.  He had been paid to kill men too.  In the  War.  Yes, he’d worn a uniform and had the sanction of the American Government: he was not a criminal for the lives he took.  But in reading these poems, Teresa realized that Scott felt a kinship with Johnny on this matter than he had never spoken about.  They had both been, in their way, hired killers.

Another “Family” file held poems about Larissa, Eugene and Jack.  Teresa often felt frustrated with the children.  They had to be told things over and over, they never seemed to remember simple instructions, they made messes in the house, were loud when she was tired, they outgrew clothes faster than she could make them, seemed constantly to require discipline…  She loved them, of course, but they tried her patience.  And never, never had she seen them like this.  The incredible descriptions of Larissa’s gentle smile, Eugene’s boisterous inventiveness, Jack’s sensitive intensity made her see all of them in a light she had never even imagined before.  Was Jack really that tender-hearted?  If he was, did it hurt him unbearably when she scolded him?  Did Eugene’s propensity for accidents really stem from an intelligent, inquisitive mind that could get into tight places easier than it could get out?  She had always just thought him clumsy.  And did Larissa really know that much about animal husbandry?  She did spend a lot of time in the stables, but Teresa had always imagined that that was just to get out of helping with the housework. 

It took her several seconds to work up the courage to open a file labeled with her name.  There were several of them, she noted.  More than any other category, except perhaps “War.”  She wasn’t sure she wanted to see, to see with this much clarity, exactly what her husband thought of her.

I’m a shrew, she thought.  Sharp-tongued, angry.  Impatient.  Not the least bit attractive.  Demanding.  Did she want to read about that?  Hold a magic mirror up to herself and see herself through someone else’s eyes?  This would not be like the photographic portrait in Murdoch’s room, carefully posed in her best clothes after hours of fixing her hair and face.  No, this would be the real thing.  She took a breath, steeled herself.  Opened the cover.

There was no title on the first page in the folder, just a date: July 18, 1870.  All of the poems she had looked at had had dates written on them, and since some of the dates were fairly recent and described events long past, she knew the dates represented when they were written, not the time they depicted.  July 18, 1870.  He must have written this upstairs, in the small room he had occupied his very first night in this house, only hours after he had first met her.

Shame and embarrassment flooded her heart.  Of course, she realized she had been just a child back then, a little girl no older than Larissa — and just like Larissa full of herself and her importance.  She had been so pleased with her accomplishment, bringing Murdoch’s sons home to him.  Of course, she could see now that it had been a good idea, but at the time, Murdoch had not been pleased, he had been horrified, just too polite to tell her.  And… Oh!  It was all so humiliating.  She had acted so foolishly!  She had been determined to look grown up, charged with meeting the “boys” in town, and she had spent several long evenings locked in her room, tearing some old, faded tatting off a gown her mother had left behind and replacing it with velvet ribbon so she could look smart and mature and grown up.  The dress had been too large for her, even after the alterations she had fumblingly made on it.  It was too hot and heavy for the weather, and was about ten years out of date — forget about the ridiculous, ancient bonnet she wore with it!  And like a child — or a simpleton! — she had opened her mouth and said things, oh!  foolish things!  It had been purest chance — one none of them could have anticipated — that both boys arrived on the same stage — and both of them arrived thinking they were an only child!  She’d opened her big mouth and announced them brothers before she had even introduced herself!  Oh, how they must have laughed at her — later, when the shock of it all wore off.  Looking back she saw herself as she had been then: a foolish, silly girl dressed up in her mother’s ancient, abandoned gown.  Back then she had thought she looked smart and mature and elegant.  How time did open one’s eyes!  And how had that silly girl looked to Scott, a mature man of twenty-five, a lawyer, a soldier — a poet?  She really did not want to know.  And yet, knowing now as she did that the poem existed, she couldn’t not look at it.  So she steeled herself and read the opening stanza, and tears stung her eyes at once:

A thousand candles glitter

In the crystal chandeliers,

Striking fire from sparkling gems

Gracing soft white throats and ears…     

He was comparing her to the elegant life he had left behind in Boston?  Oh, surely, he could not be that cruel!  How ever could a half-educated, rough-handed country girl in an ill-fitting hand-me-down dress, compare with those elegant ladies he had known before?  He must have laughed so…

The word “prostitute,” wavered through the tears in her eyes and she wiped them away hastily.  Surely she had misread.  Or was he calling her… that word?  Fury made her tears dry up and allowed her to read the rest of the poem.

Taffeta, silk, and satin

Perfumed, glossy hair

Rouge enhancing lips and cheeks,

Smooth ankles displayed on the stair.

O How elegant, these ladies,

Naught but a fool would dispute

Yet for all their cultured charms

Each one a prostitute.

The word would so offend them

Yet they and she the same

Honest women sell their charms for money

These barter for your name.

Flight from their clutches takes me

Long, weary travel afar

Across an entire continent

By boat and coach and car.

Disillusionment strikes deep

As I travel with more of their kind

Pretty faces, all false and wanting

Each place I go and find.  

Now the journey’s end has found me

I’ve traveled home at last

Back to my own beginning

Back into my own past.

Lost in my own reflections

I hear her call my name

And there she stands on the boardwalk:

No, not more of the same.

Her beauty is wholesome and honest;

There is truth in the lass’s smile

Fresh innocence beams from her face

Her eyes sweet and without guile.


Maybe I’ll stay awhile.


Teresa hastily wiped her eyes and shoved the folder into the drawer.

“I’m in here.  Just a second,” she said.  She wiped at her face, fluffed at her hair as she walked back into the bedroom to find her daughter staring at the heap of flowers on the bed.

“Mother, what on earth…?”

“Oh.  Uh.  The drought was killing them.  We really can’t waste water on them.  So, I thought, why not bring them all in?  Let’s decorate the whole house with them and enjoy them while we can.”

“This must be every single rose…When did you cut them?”

“Earlier,” Teresa said vaguely.  “And I haven’t had a chance to put them in water.  Perhaps you’d like to do that.  Put some in every bedroom.  And on the table, of course, and… wherever you like.”

“I will,” Larissa promised, gathering up a few of the blooms immediately.  “Can I put some in Mr. Pierce’s room as well?”

“Wherever you like,” Teresa repeated.  Later she might consider that question.  Now she was having trouble just focusing on the conversation.  Had Scott really used the word “beauty” in describing her on that first awful day all those years ago?  He couldn’t have just dashed that poem off and stuck it in there for her to find — how could he possibly know she would rummage through the drawers today, or pick that one folder out of all the others to look at…?

“Mother?”  Larissa said.

“I’m sorry, dear.  I’m tired.  What did you ask?”

“I asked if you’d like me to make some bread for dinner.  And… maybe something else.  What you laid out isn’t nearly enough for all of us.”

“The men likely won’t be back until sometime tomorrow,” Teresa said.

“How do you know?  Did they say so?”

“Phantoms are hard to chase,” Teresa said, catching her own reflection in the dusty mirror on her table.  The dust blurred the lines, hid the creeping wrinkles, obscured the gray that threatened.  But… her chin was too sharp, her nose too long, her eyes… Sweet?  Was there beauty in her face?  Had there been then, or…


She brought herself quickly back to the question at hand.  “I mean they are planning to be out late, probably all night,”  she said.

“Did they tell you that?”  Larissa asked suspiciously.  Odd she would be suspicious at that, Teresa thought, when she so readily accepted that lame explanation of the roses.

“They packed bedrolls and food, more than they needed for lunch.  And your father set extra guards around the house for tonight, which he wouldn’t do if he thought he’d be here himself.”

“Mother,” Larissa said hesitantly.  “Is all this… I mean, these strange things that are happening, are they… Do they have something to do with Uncle Johnny?”

“Your young Mr. Pierce seems to think it has to do with your grandfather,” Teresa said.  The danger that had surrounded them for days finally broke the spell of the poetry she had been reading, and Teresa sighed, ran her hands through her already untidy hair, and looked seriously at her daughter.

“Where were you this afternoon?”

“Keeping the boys occupied, like father asked.  Which is not an easy job.  They’re bored and restless. They’re building a fort in the hallway right now,” she added quickly as Teresa opened her mouth to ask.  “I assumed we’re sleeping there again tonight?”

“You assumed correctly,” Teresa said.  “I trust all our men to have this troublemaker on the run.  But… just in case…”

“Mama,” Larissa said, inhaling deeply of a particularly large red rose, “You didn’t really pick all these flowers yourself, did you?”

Teresa could see in her daughter’s clear eyes a desire for a romantic tale, the same desire she had had at that age.  She wished, suddenly and fiercely for a man less reticent for her daughter.  And just as fiercely she realized how much she loved Larissa’s father.  Not that she was going to let him get away with this.  To have had thoughts like that for twenty years without ever saying one word…!  Oh, he was going to pay for that all right!

“Maybe,” was all she answered Larissa, and with a turmoil of emotions raging inside her, she very coolly walked out of the room.  And, just as coolly turned around when she found herself in her own dressing room, and exited the bedroom into the hall.  And if Larissa was foolish enough to laugh, she was smart enough to do it silently.


Hilary slept.

Johnny watched with a feeling of wonder the gentle rise and fall of her chest, the way her eyelashes lay so softly on her cheeks, the breeze stirring in her hair.

It was a week since the day they both nearly drown in the creek, and despite the awful things he had said to her that day, she had come, every day — except, as always, Sunday.  He told her more, in the first few days in particular, describing in the most horrific detail he could the evil deeds he had committed in his life.  And still she came.  He told her he didn’t regret the murder of his step-father, would never regret that, was glad of it.  And the fierce intensity of his words brought tears to her eyes, but she also brought him an apple pie to eat.

He had thought at first that maybe there was something wrong with her head.  He’d met a man once who had been hit with a rock when he was a kid and seemed never to grow up after that, mentally anyway.  “Simple,” people called him.  Maybe Hilary was “simple”.  There was something child-like in her innocence, something that even his awful words and confessions had not removed.

But she wasn’t simple.  He understood that now.  The reason she could cry for him and still come to help him, could take the worst he had to offer and keep coming back, was that she loved him.

He had shied off from that explanation for as long as he could.  “Love” didn’t mean the same thing to Johnny Madrid that it meant to other men.  “Love” was a euphemism to describe the gruntings and moanings that came through the thin wood or canvas walls of a whore’s bedroom when the men came into town from mining camps, cattle drives or the open range.  “Love” was what his mother said to him when she was pleased with his behavior: “Put more wood on the fire hijito.  I love you.”  The opposite of: “That was the only glass we had in the house!  How could you break it?  I hate you!”  “Love” was a bribe, to get you to do something you didn’t want to do.  “Love” meant you were in a good place, were comfortable, for the time being: “Don’t you just love it here?”

If Hilary had said she loved him, he would have been angry.  He would have known she was here because she wanted something, he would have known she was a little girl with silly ideas.  But she didn’t say anything.  She held his hand and wept when he spoke of his life with his mother.  She tried to hide tears when he talked about the father that had thrown them out.  She jumped up and ran to tend a stew pot that wasn’t even boiling yet — turning her back so he couldn’t see her tears, when he talked of killing men.  And she brought him new socks she had knitted herself, a shirt that her father had discarded that she rebuilt to his size.  She smuggled food and fresh water and news of his horse, and she crossed that life-endangering log bridge morning and evening, every day.  To come to him.

Johnny rolled over on his back and stared up at the branches of the aspen tree overhead, just beginning to bud out with new leaves.  They had been talking, just a little while ago, not about him but about her because it was a less painful topic.  And they had lain on their backs and looked at the clouds, and she had dozed off.  She must be exhausted, spending at least every afternoon with him, and still working enough at home that her father never even noticed she wasn’t there most of every day.  She needed the rest, and he graciously let her have it, because it gave him a chance to think.

So this was what people meant when they talked about love?  Sacrifice, hard work, giving of your time and of yourself.  Certainly not what he had learned from his mother — or his real father!  He had never personally frequented the tents and back rooms where what passed for “love” was for sale.  He had always known that was a hollow, empty promise.  But how different from this!  The thing he hadn’t quite figured out yet was all the tears.  She cried because she felt sorry for him, he had thought at first.  But that didn’t seem to be true.  She cried because his words hurt her, and with that he knew he was getting warmer.  He leaned up on his elbow again, looking down at her face.  In sleep she actually looked older, because she wasn’t so busy chatting and smiling and giggling.  And she was lying on those silly, childish braids, so there weren’t big bows in the way of her looking grown-up.  Which she was, he realized suddenly.  More so than he was.  Oh, not in years, or even experience, but in understanding.  She had known already what he was just now starting to figure out, what he knew he was close to understanding.  She cried because his words hurt her… because… What?  Not because he was mean to her — though he had been.  There was nothing selfish or childish in her tears. They were, he knew, a real woman’s tears, however old she was.  They were for his hurt…

Yes, that was it!  It hurt her to hear those things, not because of any pain in her own heart, but because she felt the pain in his heart.

Funny, he had never realized that before.  He should have.  As a child he had cried often, seeing his mother hurt or abused by the men she lived with.  Some of those tears, he knew, were selfish tears, fear that he too would be hurt, or crying because he had been hurt also, or in fear that in her pain she would not be able to care for him.  But, some of it had been for her hurt, for the pain he felt when he saw her pain, physical or emotional.  He had suspected many times that she never really loved him, but he thought now it was more likely that she never understood herself what “love” meant.  He was a bother to her sometimes.  Maybe she felt that that meant she didn’t love him.  He would never really know.  But he did know — now — that he had loved her.  That’s why he had once cried for her hurt, and how he was able to recognize it now when Hilary cried for him.

She had cried when he told her of the murder of his step-father, not because it was scary, but because she understood, in a way that he was just now beginning to realize, what it had cost him.  Yes, it made him an outlaw.  Madrid had been liked in town: there would undoubtedly have been a search for his murderer, which is why Johnny had fled so quickly and never gone back.  But it had hurt him in ways he had never before considered, leaving a deep, painful scar on his very soul.  Not even a scar: a raw, open, oozing wound, spreading, growing worse, slowly infecting his entire being.  He had watched his mother die and he had murdered her killer, and he had never until this moment, realized how much that had cost him, had  hurt him.  But Hilary had.  The moment he first told her.

Being alone on the road, hiring out his skills to murder men for a living, these things had seemed tough to him, but life was tough.  You had to be tough to survive it.  He had never realized that those things, too, had hurt him, or how badly.  But Hilary had.  Instantly.   Being abandoned by his father had always made him angry, so he thought.  He just now realized it had also hurt.  It cut him deeply to think that his real father had rejected him, turned his back, thrown him out of the house.  Allowed him and his mother to live with men like Madrid.  Another hurt Hilary had seen and cried for — cried because his pain hurt her so deeply.

He remembered suddenly being about eight or nine years old and being taken for his First Confession to some small mission church  — he wasn’t even sure if it was in California or Mexico.  What he did remember was what the priest told him: “You must try to be as good as you can all your life, because your sins hurt God.”

“Why do they hurt him?”  Johnny had asked.

“Because he loves you,” the priest said.  And Johnny had at the time understood that to mean that sins made God angry, like his mother got angry when he misbehaved.  Of course, his mother got angry at him even when he didn’t misbehave. Love and hate from her came with his actions, but also with her moods, with the rise and fall of her relationships with men.  He couldn’t have understood those words then.  He understood them now, as he saw them acted out.

Hilary loved him.  And things that hurt him, hurt her, because of that love.  And he never wanted to see that horrible pain in her soft eyes again.

“You shouldn’t have let me fall asleep!”  Hilary said, sitting up in alarm.

“You weren’t asleep that long,” Johnny said.  “Anyway, you needed the rest.”

“Spring cleaning,” she said with a rueful smile.  “I have been skipping a bit here and there.”

“Well, stop it,” Johnny said.


“I don’t want you to come here every day any more.”

He said it plainly this time, not in anger, and he could see the pain in her eyes as she realized that he meant it.  The pain he had just sworn he would not cause again! And he did something he never imagined himself doing in his wildest dreams.  He hugged her.  He took her in his arms and held her close to him, feeling the warmth of her on his skin, feeling her heartbeat against his chest.  And he found he was close to tears himself.

“It’s not because I don’t want to see you!”  he assured her.  “It’s because I don’t want anything to happen to you.  I don’t want you getting hurt coming up here, or getting in trouble for helping me.  You can’t keep taking risks like that!” 

“But… you will let me come back some times?”

“Yes!  Oh, yes!”  Her cheek, rough still from the scratches from her ordeal on the creek, was pressed against his.  And he’d never felt anything better in his life.  Except, maybe, the feel of her arms going around him, holding him close to her as he was holding her to himself.

“You’ve come up here too often already.  People are bound to get suspicious.  And..”

“I won’t let them find you, Johnny, I won’t!”

“I was thinking more that I didn’t want you to get into any trouble.  You can be put in jail for helping me.”

“I don’t care!”

“I do!”  he said, his voice harsher than he meant it to be.  Just imagining her in trouble, in trouble over him, made his throat ache and his eyes burn.  He closed his eyes, feeling her heart, feeling her heat, searching for the words.



“Hilary, if I went away somewhere… somewhere where I’m not wanted… well, they could still come after me.  I mean, murder’s murder, I’ll always have that hanging over my head. But, there’s no pictures of me anywhere, and I could use my real father’s name, and…Hilary, if I went away, became a cowboy or something honest… would you come with me?”

He had felt a tension in her body, a tension that relaxed unexpectedly when he blurted out the question so that he knew her answer even before she said, “Yes!  Oh, yes I will!  Anywhere you want to go!”

He buried his face in her hair, breathing in the soft smell of her, afraid to move or speak, afraid it would all turn out to be a dream if he did.  Afraid, too, that she would see the tears in his own eyes.  He squeezed his eyes shut, and nearly laughed on the tears when she started talking at once.

“We’d have to ride double on your horse, so I couldn’t pack much.  I would like to bring my mother’s necklace though, if you don’t mind.  And some food.  I’ll take care of that.  We won’t be leaving right away, though, will we?”

“Do you have plans for the weekend?” he asked, smothering his laughter in her hair.  Laughter because she was who she was and he loved her!  He loved her like he had never loved in his life, like he never knew it was possible to love.  Loved everything about her, including her silly plan-making!  And it was a feeling that filled his entire being!

“No!  I was thinking that you aren’t very fit yet, and we’d have to travel pretty hard, at least at first.  Between the sheriff and the federales and my father, we’d have to go a ways before we could even relax!”

“Soon,” he said.  “But not tonight.  There is something I have to do first.”


“Something,” he repeated, still holding her so that his face was in her hair and he didn’t have to look into those knowing eyes.  “Something important.  Don’t worry.  I’ll be right here next time you come.  I won’t ever leave here without you.”


Tex slid the last few yards to the floor of the canyon.  “They’re in there, all right!”  he said keeping his voice low because sound travels uphill.

“Was your Palmer in the group?”  Johnny asked, just as softly.

“That, I couldn’t tell,” Tex said honestly.  “But they’ve got that canyon sewed up like a quilt.”  He got down on one knee and drew in the dirt, showing the various points where snipers waited in that canyon.

“The only way to fight a defense like that is to get above them,” Scott said.  “Johnny, you have the hardest time traveling, we’ll put you here.  Murdoch, you’ll be next, above here.  I’ll come around the back of the canyon, here.  Tex, that puts you clear on the other side.  Can you get that far without being spotted?”

“Yeah, if I can stay low enough on the far side until I’m in position.  I just wish I knew the territory better.”

“To get there,” Murdoch said, “you’ll follow this ridge until you see a big stand of scrub on the crown.  You’ll have to cross there, which puts you, here…”  He pointed to the very back of the horseshoe in Tex’s diagram.  “From there you can drop again, down the back of the other ridge, and circle the back of that ridge.  You’ll want to come up right at a big, lightning-struck ponderosa.”

“I saw it,” Tex nodded.

“Okay.  You and Scott start out together.  Johnny and I are a lot slower, but we’ll be in position by the time you get there.”

Tex looked at Johnny uncertainly.  But Johnny looked as if he had done this before.  He slung his rifle over his shoulder on a broad leather strap and got a firm grip on both crutches.  Tex thought he was out of his mind.  On flat ground, sure, a one-legged man could get around — with some difficulty.  But up this slope?  But neither Scott nor Murdoch seemed concerned.  He could only assume they all knew what they were doing.

“Don’t skyline yourself, and keep quiet,” Scott reminded everybody needlessly.  “You step on a stick, we could all get killed.”

Tex checked his pockets for extra ammunition, spun and re-holstered his revolvers, and finally slung the Henry over his shoulder.  Scott picked up his own rifle, a heavy, long-barreled Winchester, and he gave a short nod indicating Tex should follow him for the first part of the trip.  They moved off angling along the slope of the mountain.  It was not only steep, the altitude here was much higher than what Tex was used to, and he found himself breathing at least as hard as Scott.  And if he was having this much trouble…  He glanced back over his shoulder and saw Johnny struggling straight up the slope while Murdoch was taking an angle, like Tex and Scott.  Both men paused every few steps to catch their breath, but both kept plugging away.

“They’re all right,” Scott said, without pausing or looking back.  “Come on.”

“I was just thinking,”  Tex said,.  “I mean, you got at least fourteen men back at the ranch…”

“Guarding the house,” Scott said.

“Yes, but…”

“You want to tell Murdoch he’s too old and should sit home and let someone else defend his family?”  Scott asked.

Tex considered.  “No, I don’t think so,” he decided finally.

“I don’t either.  And, there’s no one on earth I’d rather have with me in a fight than those two.”

Tex accepted that without comment, and followed Scott for some distance just below the crest of the ridge of this tiny canyon, angling higher and higher until nothing but the scrub oak was between them and full view of the next canyon over.  Here, they didn’t speak at all, but Scott used hand signals to show Tex that he should veer to the left, drop below the ridge line as soon as he had crossed into the next watershed, continue around until he saw his mark, then go straight up.  Tex nodded, and Scott watched him move off, slowly, cautiously, silently.  Good man in the woods, Scott thought.  He waited until the kid had made it around the clump of oak and was hidden from view before he started forward himself.  Just like hunting, he took a step, then looked and waited and listened, took another step.  Alert, Careful.  But with enough of his mind left over to be able to think about the kid he had just sent around to complete their ambush.  That kid was so perfect it was almost annoying.  Crack pistol shot, fast draw, excellent horseman, smart, observant.  Good man to have on their side, though.

Scott was moving so cautiously that he was able to get within fifteen feet of one of the snipers posted in the timber on the other side of the ridge.  The man was not alert.  He’d obviously been there for hours, waiting, and was plenty bored with the whole thing.  He was eating beef jerky, sitting with his hands over his knees and his rifle several feet away.  And he was totally oblivious to Scott’s proximity.

Scott carefully looked around, moving mostly just his eyes so as not to make a move that would alert the man to his presence.  He could see Johnny, much lower and far to the right, lying prone on a rock outcropping, mostly covered with brush.  Murdoch was about halfway between Scott and Johnny, completely obscured by brush, but Scott could see the barrel of a rifle poking out just at the spot where Murdoch should have been and he was sure that’s who it was.  Below, he could see at least three men hidden and waiting, four mounted men near the rear of the canyon, and another two men right below Johnny at the point where the canyon narrowed suddenly due to a rock outcropping.  They would be the bait, hanging near the mouth of the box where they could be spotted, at which point they would wheel around and run inside, luring their pursuers under the guns of the men waiting above.  Not a bad plan, but it rather assumed that the  Lancers, who had lived on this land for decades, were ignorant of the way the canyons ran on their own graze permit.

“Anything yet?”  he heard one man say to another.  They were riders, clear down at the bottom of the canyon.  But sound travels readily uphill.

“I think those idiots lost our trail,” another man said.

“Maybe they circled around us.”

“You know they can’t!  We checked this out carefully, no horse is coming over the ridge behind us — and for certain no wagon is going to make it!”

I love fighting Cavalry, Scott thought grimly, easing his rifle into firing position, a fraction of an inch at a time.  Never occurs to them that there are things a man can do when he’s not on horseback.

Scott looked left again, saw the Ranger dart from one bush to another, running bent over low.  He vanished from sight, and reappeared again several feet lower. He was almost in position.  Scott hoped he was as good with a rifle as he was with a pistol, again thinking he was a good man to have on their side.

If he was on their side.  The kid’s foot slipped out from under him and he skidded several feet down the mountain, making a shower of loose rock clatter below him.

“Hey!  What’s that?” someone from down below shouted, and “Shoot him!”

The kid had dropped his rifle, and he scrambled on the loose soil of the slope to get it while bullets peppered the rock around him.  The man just below Scott lunged towards his gun, but froze for a fraction of a second when he heard Scott say, “You don’t touch the gun, I won’t blow our brains out.”  But he decided to take the chance, and died too quickly to even be surprised at how true Scott was to his word.

From his position, Johnny had been able to see everything in the canyon below and two of the snipers up above.  He knew that once they were all in position and the shooting started he would only have one clear shot before the men realized what was happening and moved to more defensive positions, and his first choice was a tall man to the rear of the canyon, a choice he rejected when he realized that a sniper across the narrow canyon had spotted Scott.  The man was closer to Scott than Johnny was to the man, and Johnny knew it would be a tough shot.  He covered the man with his sights, then raised the rifle barrel several inches to allow for distance, dropped it again slightly to allow for slope, and was just squeezing the trigger when the kid fell down the mountain.  The sniper looked around, seeing the danger above him,  then deciding Scott was a more important target.  He was raising his own rifle when Johnny fired.  With the shooting and confusion below, none of the ambushers immediately realized they were being shot at. Johnny flipped the cocking lever on his rifle, took another careful aim, and fired again.  The tall man dropped off his horse.  At the same time, a man near him jerked and almost fell.  Murdoch!  Johnny thought, pleased.  There was more shouting down below, and in the melee of men and horses, Johnny missed his third shot, and was lining up the fourth when they all tore out of the canyon at top speed.

“Down!  After them!”  Murdoch shouted.  “Get the horses!”

Someone down below realized the importance of the now-empty horses as well and tried to round them up.  He caught one, but under the steady barrage of rifle fire from all sides, he gave up and spurred his own mount out of the canyon.  Johnny grabbed his crutches and tossed them over the cliff.  He slung his rifle over his shoulder again and slid down the slope on a path he had already picked out, using hands and foot to steady and guide what otherwise would have turned into a headlong fall.  Across the way, that ranger had stopped shooting, come out from behind the tree he had ducked behind, and was skidding down as well, as were both Murdoch and Scott.  By the time Johnny reached his crutches, gathered them and  made it upright again, Murdoch was also on the valley floor, and Scott was already holding the reins of and trying to calm one of the riderless horses.  Johnny caught another one easily as it had stepped on its own dangling rein and was caught fast.  Murdoch paused to look at the faces of the two men on the valley floor who were dead.

“We got all the snipers,” he said, half a statment, half a question.

“One won’t bother us,” Scott said.

“Two,” Johnny said.

“All three,” Tex said.  “Wasn’t sure about mine, but no one’s shooting at us.”

“This part I didn’t plan for,” Murdoch admitted, “But they left us some horses, let’s get after them!”

Johnny passed his crutches to Murdoch and flung himself belly-down over the saddle of the horse he had caught.  Using his arms he pulled himself up until he managed to get his one foot into the stirrup.  He tried settling his seat onto the saddle but shook his head.

“Double,” Murdoch said, and Scott handed the reins of the horse he had caught to Tex and used the far stirrup to swing up behind Johnny, behind the saddle.  He shoved his own rifle into the empty saddle boot and adjusted his weight so that he leaned one way while Johnny balanced by leaning the other.  Murdoch stuffed Johnny’s crutches into the rifle scabbard on the horse he held and swung aboard with his rifle still clutched in his hand.  He emptied a stirrup for the Ranger to join him, but the kid shook his head, grabbed onto the saddle instead, and chose to hang on and run beside the horse.  They kicked the animals into a run and headed out past the bottleneck of the canyon after their would-be ambushers.

Only to ride right into another ambush.  Gunshots peppered them from all sides.  Johnny levered bullet after bullet into the firing chamber, shooting back.  A man fell from his saddle.  Another dropped out of the rocks — Johnny hadn’t even seen that one.  The kid had taken him out, letting go of the horse to drop to one knee and shoot upwards.  Another man jerked in pain, and the attackers fled again.

“After them!”  Murdoch yelled.  “They could head straight for the house!”

“I got a double guard alerted,” Scott said in a strained voice.  “And I have great confidence in Teresa.”

“We’ll never catch them double loaded like this,” Johnny said.  “Anyway, we have to see to ourselves before we take out after them.”

“Bullet still in there?”  Tex asked.

Murdoch only then realized that Scott was bleeding.

Scott nodded without speaking and the kid said, “Dig it out here?  Or wait until we get back to where our horses are?  There was good water there, and I have some medical supplies in my saddlebag.”

“Wait,” Scott said.

“Now,” Johnny said.

“Compromise,” the kid said, and he walked off a few feet to scrape something off a tree.  He came back with a handful of moss, and Scott leaned, but didn’t dismount, so the kid could pack the moss against his shoulder and wrap it tight with his bandana.       

“That’ll hold for awhile,” the kid said.

“Thanks,” Scott said.

“Might as well mount up now,” Murdoch said, and the kid accepted his hand and pulled himself onto the back of the horse, behind Murdoch.  They rode slowly out of the canyon and turned left to head back into the draw where they had left their horses and gear.  Scott, who had originally steadied Johnny, more and more leaned on him instead.  Johnny had given up trying to sit on the horse and was standing in the one stirrup, leaning his weight to the opposite side of the horse, shifting slightly to accommodate Scott’s weight in that balancing act.

“You guys are pretty good at this,” Tex commented as they rode.  “You know, breaking ambushes and such.  Military tactics, I think you call it.”

“Experience,” all three of the Lancer men said at once.

“Remind me not to make you guys mad,” the ranger grinned.


“This is not going to be comfortable,” Johnny warned.  He had pulled the small knife out of the sheath he wore around his neck and heated it on their campfire to sterilize it.  Scott was lying on his back on his bedroll, having already — with Murdoch’s help — peeled out of his shirt.  The ranger’s makeshift bandage was cut away first, cold water poured into the wound after the moss packing was peeled back.

“Hang on,” Johnny said, and Scott nodded.  Murdoch laid himself across Scott’s chest, pinning him down, pinning his arms down with his weight.  The ranger sat on Scott’s legs.

“You guys have a real high opinion of my ability,” Scott grunted.

“You’re a big man, brother,”  Johnny said.  “I don’t want to fight you and dig this out all at one time.  Ready?”

“No,” Scott said.  Johnny grinned.

Scott flinched as the hot knife blade touched his shoulder.  Murdoch tried to make himself heavier.  Johnny pressed his hand down on Scott’s other shoulder to hold him still while he cut open the wound just below Scott’s left collarbone.  It was a very slow and painful few seconds, Scott trying not to scream, Johnny trying to be careful, Murdoch and Tex trying to keep Scott as still as possible.

“Got it!”  Johnny said, and he showed Scott a flattened, bloody lump of lead.  Scott sighed.

“Don’t relax yet, the fun is about to begin,” Johnny said grimly and he uncorked a bottle and raised it over the wound.

“Hey!  Hey, wait!”  the kid said, grabbing Johnny arm.

“It has to be done,” Johnny said.  “Haven’t you ever heard of infection?”

“Haven’t you ever heard of medicine?”  the kid responded.  “Here!”  He opened a small pack he had brought earlier from his saddlebag, and moved closer to the firelight to look into it.

Scott sighed.  “Thank you,” he said.


“Felt like you were breaking my legs,” Scott murmured.

“Oh, sorry,” the kid said, but he was grinning.  They all were.  It was not that they were pleased with Scott’s discomfort, but the fact that he was able to complain made them all more sure of his eventual recovery.  And all of them had been in his position at one time of other.  It was a grin of comradeship, not mockery.

“This will kill the germs,” the kid said, extracting a thin packet.  “Flush it good with cold creek water first – that’ll slow the bleeding too.”

“But is creek water sanitary?”  Scott asked.

He was teasing back, but the kid said, “This one’s flowing fast enough, I’m sure it is.”

 Murdoch and Johnny flushed the wound well with cold water, then pressed and held a compress tight against Scott’s shoulder.  They waited for the bleeding to slow, then let the kid sprinkled his powder onto the wound before packing and bandaging it tightly again.

“What was that?”  Johnny asked.

“Sulfa powder,” the kid said.  He started to put it away, but Johnny took the pack from him and examined it.  It rolled into a tight bundle, and inside were several pockets containing other packets and bottles, rolls of bandaging, even sewing thread and a needle .

“You must expect a lot of trouble, to tote this thing all over with you,” he commented.

“Ma’s idea,” the kid said.  “I think she thinks it makes me safer.”

“Huh,” Johnny said.

“How’s it feel?”  Murdoch asked Scott.

“It hurts,” Scott said.

“You think that hurts?”  the kid said, his teeth gleaming in the firelight.  “Just think if you had disinfected it with that alcohol!”

They’d pulled Scott to a sitting position to get the bandages around him.  Now Murdoch helped him to lean back again.

“We’ll get some food into you, you’ll feel better,” Murdoch said.

“Don’t really want to eat,” Scott said, and he closed his eyes to rest.

“You need it,” Johnny said, and he began unloading their food.

“Be right back,” the kid said.  He left his medical kit near them, but disappeared back into the dark.

“Now where’s he off to?”  Johnny murmured.

“He does take off a lot, doesn’t he?”  Murdoch said.

“He definitely makes himself opportunities to report back to his cronies,” Scott said, without bothering to open his eyes.  “I still can’t tell if he’s on our side or not.”

“Better be on our side,” Johnny said grimly.  When even Scott raised an eyelid to look at him he added, “Well, he was almost my godson.  Hate to think I nearly baptized a criminal.”

“Didn’t he say his daddy was an outlaw?”  Murdoch asked.

“Hickock was barely on the right side of the law most of the time,” Scott added.  “And those Earp boys tend to be lawmen, but they had to hide from the law after that shootout in Tombstone.”

“Only because the law there was crooked as a log fence,” Johnny said.

“I never trusted that Garret character completely either,” Murdoch commented.  And, “I wonder who his other godfathers are?”

“Doesn’t really matter, does it?” Johnny said. “The fact is, he had a chance to shoot us in the back today.  He shot the men shooting at us instead.  Brought down at least two of them.”

“By his count,” Murdoch said.

“We saw one,” Johnny pointed out.

“Do you think he really tripped?”  Scott asked.  “Or did he pretend to fall to warn them we were there?”

“If he did, that plan backfired on him,” Johnny said.  “Them shooting at him gave us more of a chance at them than we would have had if we just opened fire.  Their shots blocked the noise of ours.”

“Problem is,” Scott said, “he reminds me of Melborne Kinney.”

“Excuse me?”  Murdoch said.

“Long time ago,” Scott said.  “Our law firm mostly dealt in business and real estate, but Melborne was the grandson of one of the original partners, and when he was arrested for rape, we defended him.  Very plausible kid.  Everything he did checked out, spotless record, references, perfect alibi.  He was cleared, of course.  As he was leaving the courtroom I heard him say to one of his freinds that next time he’d have to be more careful, pick a girl who wasn’t so likely to tell.”

“Huh,” Murdoch said.

“I think,” Johnny said, after a long silence, “the main reason we’re all so unwilling to trust him is that we all… like him.”

“He seems like a good kid,” Murdoch agreed.

“Melborne,” Scott conceded, “never made me feel that way.”

“Melborne?”  The kid’s voice came to them out of the dark, and a moment later, he was there in person.  “That’s a city down in Australia, isn’t it?  You traveled that far, Mr.  Lancer?”

“No,” Scott said.

“Where’d you go?”  Murdoch asked.

“Picking something to make Mr.  Scott feel a bit better,” Tex said, squatting near the fire.

“Raspberries?”  Johnny asked.

The kid grinned.  “Found em on the way.  Figured they’d make a good desert.  No, this is what I was looking for.  Thought I saw some earlier today, but it was harder to find them in the dark.”  And he held out a hand to display a bunch of  slender, green branches.

“Right,” Murdoch said.

“Willow,” the kid said.  “I’ll make him a tea with the bark.  Not quite as good as morphine for the pain, but it has the advantage of taking out fever and swelling as well.”

With the worse wound cared for, the rest of them took stock while they prepared dinner, and the kid made his tea.  Johnny had lost a good deal of skin on the back of his leg sliding down the mountain but was otherwise unhurt.  Murdoch had several scrapes and bruises and had torn open a hand grabbing a bush at some point, but it wasn’t deep, and creek water and a bandage was all he needed.  Next to Scott, the kid was the worst off, but mostly what he had was scrapes and bruises from his tumble down the mountain.  His right wrist was swollen and he was favoring it, but he claimed it wouldn’t slow him down tomorrow, when they planned to track the invaders back to their hiding place.

“That tastes awful,” Scott said when the kid gave him a few sips of cooled tea.

“Good for you,” Tex said.  “Drink it all.”

“I’m not real comfortable with home remedies,” Murdoch commented.

“You’d give him morphine if you had it, wouldn’t you?”  Tex asked.


“Well, that’s made out of flowers.  Just cause someone dried it and ground it into powder and stuck it in a bottle don’t mean it didn’t start out as a home remedy.”

“Willow bark’s an old Indian cure,” Johnny said from where he was boiling coffee.  “I’ve used it myself many times.  Kid’s right.  It’s good stuff.”

Scott grimaced and drank off the tea Tex gave him.  “So, you know chemistry and botany as well as everything else,” he said, handing back the cup.  “Anything you aren’t good at?”

“Mountain climbing, apparently,” the kid said.

“Falling would have made a good decoy,” Murdoch said offhandedly.  “If someone were smart enough to do it purposely, at just the right moment.”

“Maybe.  I do try not to hit the ground that hard on purpose, though,” the kid said.  If it had been intentional, Murdoch thought, he probably would have found a way to fall without spraining his wrist and getting himself so bruised up.  It was probably a good indication of how hard he really had hit the ground when Tex poured himself a cup of the tea, too.   He also offered some to Johnny and Murdoch.

“You’ll be less stiff come morning,” he told Murdoch, and after a moment, Murdoch accepted the concoction.  Johnny drank his tea  immediately, tossing it back as soon as it was offered.  He knew it’s benefits.  Knew it would give him a good night’s rest.  Losing a bit of skin wasn’t as serious as taking a bullet, but the leg was stiff and sore and uncomfortable, and would probably bruise up as well.

Dinner was cold beans and enchiladas, wrapped in tortillas, which Johnny had packed for them before they left, coffee and creek water, and Tex’s raspberries for desert.  Scott only nibbled at the sandwich he was given, but he did justice to the small, sour-sweet berries.

“I’ll take first watch,” the kid volunteered when he came back from rinsing their coffee cups in the creek.  Murdoch, Johnny and Scott exchanged looks.  They hadn’t decided to completely trust him yet… And at the same time, he had slipped into their trust without their realizing it.

“Wake me at midnight,” Johnny said finally, and he rolled himself into his bedroll.  And that settled the question they had been struggling with since the kid first arrived.  They would trust him.  They really had no reason not to.  But in the end, Tex didn’t wake Johnny at midnight.  He didn’t have to.  Johnny woke all of them when the nightmare tore him out of a sound sleep.

“Here,” the kid said.  He handed something to Johnny and stepped over to put a handful of dry twigs on the embers of the nearly-dead fire.  Thick, white smoke billowed up into the night until the twigs finally blazed to life and flames crackled around them.  The kid fed in more bits of dry wood and by the flickering light, Murdoch could now see Johnny tipping back a bottle.

“Whiskey?”  he asked, raising an eyebrow at the kid.

Tex shrugged.  “I know Miss Teresa makes him hot chocolate when he has these nightmares.  But, I figure anyone who screams like that could use something a mite stronger.”

“He needs something stronger?” Scott said.  He groaned as he pushed himself to a sitting position.  “What about us?  A sound like that can stop a man’s heart!”

Johnny leaned to pass Scott the bottle, and Scott took a drink himself.  His whole shoulder throbbed painfully, despite the kid’s tea, and he took a second drink before passing the bottle around the fire to Murdoch.

“I know you don’t like to talk about it,” Scott said.  “But I can’t help but wonder what could possibly be that bad.”

“Lots of things,” Johnny said cryptically, and he added, “Thanks,” as the kid accepted the bottle from Murdoch and passed it on to Johnny without taking a drink.

“I don’t like to talk about it…”  Johnny said.

“I know, I just said…”  Scott started, but stopped when Johnny raised his voice slightly to finish.



“Because it sounds stupid when I try to put it into words,”  Johnny finished finally.  He contemplated the amber color of the firelight on the brown glass bottle for a moment, then tipped another sip into his mouth.

“I dream,” he said.  “Over and over, about a girl on a stage coach.”

“Terrifying,” Scott said, taking the bottle again.

“The coach is attacked by Indians,” Johnny added.  “And the girl is… is killed.  And scalped.”

“That would make me scream,” the kid said.

“Is it a memory?”  Murdoch asked after the silence stretched out several seconds.  “Something that happened to you once?”

Johnny shook his head.  “No.  Not to me,” he sighed.  The bottle made another circuit around the fire, the kid, again, passing it untouched, before Johnny elaborated any more.  “I may have mentioned that once, a long time ago, I was… Well, there was this girl…This girl that…I thought I could never live without.”

“No,” Scott said.  “This doesn’t sound like a story I’ve heard before.”

“Maybe parts of it,” Murdoch said, thinking of the conversation he had had with Johnny just the other night.

“Maybe,” Scott agreed, taking another turn at the bottle.   “Give us some details, and I’ll remember.”

“There are no details,” Johnny said, helping himself to a long drink.  “It was a long time ago, before I knew you, and anyway, she died.  She died, and I discovered that, like it or not, I had no choice but to live without her.”

“In a stagecoach?”  Murdoch guessed.  “Is that how she died?”

Johnny nodded, and for several long seconds there was no sound but the crackling of the fire and the distant screech of a night bird.  It wasn’t until the bottle came around his way again and Johnny took another drink that he even tried to continue the story.

“I had to leave her,” he said.  “I didn’t want to, but I had to go.  They’d have hung me if I stayed, and I was more scared of being caught with her than of being caught myself.  So, I left.  While I was gone, she… I guess she went to visit her aunt.  That’s what I heard when… later.  The coach was hit not fifteen miles from town, just before the first way station.  Apaches.  No survivors.  All the bodies were scalped and…  and  mutilated.”

He had to stop to fortify himself with another drink.

“I don’t suppose it’s possible that she survived?”  Scott asked.  “I mean, if the bodies were… It might have been hard to…  Well.  Anyway, Apaches are known to take prisoners.”

But Johnny shook his head.  “Her father went out as soon as he heard, brought her body back for burial.  I got back too late even for the funeral.  There was just a grave.”  He took another long drink.  “Because I wasn’t there,” he said.

Scott leaned to take the bottle away from him.

“I doubt that would have made any difference,” Murdoch said gently.

“If I had been there, she wouldn’t have gone visiting.  She would have had no reason to.  We…  She would never have been in that coach.”

“You don’t know that,” Scott said.

“Yeah,” Johnny said.  “I do.”  He sighed and ran his hands back through his hair, which was still wet from the sweat the dream had brought.  “In the dream,” he said, “I’m there.  I’m in the coach, sitting there, and she’s sitting opposite, smiling at me.  And the worst thing is, I know what’s going to happen.  I know how it comes out, but I can’t seem to say or do anything.  I just sit there like an idiot.  The coach is rocking along, I can feel the heat of the sun, smell the dust… It’s so real, and I know what’s going to happen.  I can hear them coming, the war cries getting louder, and she’s still smiling at me, and I want to stop the coach, I want to get out, do something!  But I just sit there.  Then the  coach careens sideways and rolls over, and we end up in a heap on the floor, her on top of me, and hands come in the window and pull her up, pull her out through the window, and she’s screaming now, and I can see it.  Night after night, I see it all happening to her, over and over.  I hear her screams, I smell her blood, I feel it, hot and wet, pouring over my face…but I can never stop it… I can never change it…”  His voice broke.

“Here,” the kid said, thrusting the bottle into his hand again.

Scott recalled, watching Johnny, something the kid had said that first night about a guilty conscience keeping a man from sleeping.  Guilt was what had interrupted Johnny sleep all these years.  A deep sense of guilt.  And Scott had a bad feeling that the dreams would never end completely, since there was no reasoning behind this guilt: it was for something that wasn’t his fault, but he would be tormented by it until he could believe that himself.

Which, Scott reflected, wasn’t going to happen.  If anything had happened to Teresa,  he would blame himself just as much, he knew that.  Some part of his mind or heart would always blame himself if she died — however she died.  God, help him, he thought, taking the bottle out of Johnny’s hand again.  Because I don’t think we can.


The town was smaller than Johnny had imagined it would be, and much closer to his hiding place.  He wasn’t sure if this was a good thing (it meant Hilary was not traveling too far alone in this very dangerous country), or bad (he was much closer to the local law than he would have liked).  He knew that the partial roof of the three-sided shelter diffused his small cook fires fairly well, not leaving much for anyone to track down.  Still…

Anyway, too late to worry about that now, after he had been holed up there all this time.   Now he needed to worry about something else.

There were two buildings among the handful of mud and log huts that made up the town decorated with a cross on top, but Johnny figured — correctly — that the one he sought was more likely to be the crumbling, old, adobe than the new split-log cabin.  He just hoped that a community this small actually had a priest in residence.  Many towns in the southwest had to share their priests with several other towns.   He approached the front door of the cross-shaped building first.  In the faint moonlight, he could just make out the words Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles carved over the front door.  He wondered if it was a good sign or a bad one that the church bore the same name as the town in southern California where he had murdered his step-father.

The church itself was unlocked, but deserted inside.  Though his eyes were useless in the near-total blackness of the interior,  he stood still and quiet long enough to know that no one but maybe a few mice were in residence.  Dimly, a tiny candle flickered at the front of the building, a long, dark way from where he stood.  But he knew that that candle was always lit, as long as the Body of Jesus resided in the tabernacle.  It didn’t mean anyone else was there.  He hadn’t been inside a church in years, but he did drop to one knee and cross himself, facing that candle, before backing out and easing the door shut carefully.  It wasn’t habit that prompted that action.  It was the first step to coming home.

Behind the church itself and to one side was a squat adobe building that looked more like a storage shed than a residence, but the flowers planted in the window box made him realize that this was probably where the priest lived.  He knocked softly on the door, but the sound that came back told him that it was a thick, heavy door.  He’d have to pound on it to be heard from the inside, and that would rouse the entire town.  Instead, he crept to the window and tried to peek in over the flowers.  The interior was even darker than the inside of the church had been, if that were possible.  He couldn’t even make out shapes, but as he listened, he could hear the soft, even sound of breathing.  Human breathing.  Someone was in residence.

“Father,” he whispered.  He tapped lightly on the wooden window well.  “Father!”

There was an interruption in the soft breathing inside, a moment of silence he knew was the man in there listening to see what had awakened him.  “Father,” he whispered again.

“Quien esta allá?”  the priest asked, not bothering to lower his voice.

“Shsh!  Padre, por favor.  Necesito ayuda.  Es muy importante.”

“Esperate por la mañana,” the priest said, and Johnny hear creaking as he settled himself back into his bed.

“I can’t wait,” Johnny said, keeping to the Spanish that was obviously this man’s main — or only — language.

“What is so important that it can’t wait until the sun rises?”

“Confession,” Johnny whispered into the dark.

The priest hesitated.  “Are you dying?”

Now it was Johnny who hesitated.  If he said no, the priest might refuse to see him now.  On the other hand, coming to cleanse one’s soul, it was probably not a real good idea to start by lying.  But was it a lie?  He could feel inside a yearning that he had never before imagined, a yearning that had begun, really, at the sight of that small candle burning on the altar.  His soul was dying, had been for some time.  He needed help, as surely as a wounded man needs a doctor.  This wasn’t just about Hilary any more.  It was for his own sake as well.

“Maybe,” he said finally.  Compromising.  He heard a deep sigh.

“Five minutes,” the priest said.  “Cinco minutos.  Inside.”

“I’ll be waiting,” Johnny said, and he crept off into the night, wondering if the priest would really come, or if he would call for the law instead.  It was a risk he would have to take.  He eased open the heavy church door again, and when it shut behind him, he moved cautiously forward, eyes on that tiny candle.  There were no pews in the old church to impede his way, and he slid his feet forward, one at a time, over the rough stones of the floor until he had reached the altar rail at the front of the church.  The candle was brighter here, and cast odd flickering shadows over the altar, the tall crucifix standing next to it, and the brightly colored, hand-painted bultos and santos that decorated the wall behind the altar.  On the near side of the railing was a low step, and Johnny tried to kneel upon that step, but his leg still pained him greatly, and he was still standing when the priest came in through the sacristy.  Johnny took a step towards him, to meet him at the side of the church, but after the long hike, the leg had stiffened up on him and he stumbled.

“You are hurt?”  the priest said, hurrying closer.  He wasn’t an old man as Johnny had imagined, but a man not too many years older than himself, wearing the plain robe of a Franciscan under the vestments he had donned to hear a formal confession.

“I didn’t lie, father, exactly.  But the… the physical wounds are healing.”

The priest considered him for several seconds, eyes glittering in the dim candlelight.  “I’m up,” he decided finally with a shrug.  “You can kneel?”

He wasn’t sure he could.

“You can stand,” the priest offered, but Johnny got the leg to bend, lowered himself onto the stone step with the aid of the altar rail.  It was painful, and his leg stiffened up at once, but Johnny adjusted his weight on his knees and nodded to the priest.  A little penance would be good for him, him thought.  He waited while the priest fussed about with a few things, and when the man made the sign of the cross over him and said, “In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sacti,” Johnny recited the words he had learned so long ago: “Forgive me, father, for I have sinned.”

There was a long pause.

“Yes,” the priest asked finally.

“Uh…  I don’t know where to begin,” Johnny admitted.

It was, the priest realized, going to be a long night.  He sighed and tucked his robe under himself for more padding.  “At the beginning?” he suggested.

“Is…  anger a sin?”  Johnny asked.

“Anger is one of the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins, yes,” the  priest said.  “After Pride…”

“I think pride came later,” Johnny said thoughtfully.  “Anger.  It started with anger.”

“Very well,” the priest said patiently.  “We will start with anger.”


The priest moved about the church, lighting candles.  Johnny lifted his head.  His leg was now a single mass of pain.  He was not sure he could get to his feet without help.  But he had embraced that pain these past hours, clinging to it, using it to keep him focused on his task.

“You are finished?”  the priest asked.

Johnny nodded.  Ten complete fifteen-mystery rosaries, the life and death of Christ, recited over and over for… hours.  He didn’t have any idea how long he had been there.

“It’s past dawn,” the priest said.

“I’ll have to ask if I can stay here until sunset,” Johnny said.

“Not here,” the priest said.  “They will be coming for morning Mass soon.  Of course, you need the healing of a Mass.”  He considered a moment.  “You may listen from the sacristy.  I will save a piece of the Blessed Sacrament for you.  Yes?”


“Then… you can sleep in my bed until it is dark.  I can share my meals with you today, but I eat lightly and I cannot ask for extra.  The ladies who so kindly bring my meals would notice.”

“That’s all right.  A day of fast won’t hurt me.”

“No,” the priest agreed.  “It might even do you good.  Come!”  he added more urgently as the heavy door at the back of the church began to creak.  He pulled Johnny to his feet and half supported, half dragged him up through the gate in the altar rail and into the sacristy.

“You don’t make a sound,” the priest whispered as they heard footsteps shuffling on the stone floor.   “Here,” he helped Johnny into a wooden chair that stood near the outside door.  He left, and a few moments later, Johnny heard the church bells ring, a long series of chimes ending with a single chime, just before the noise of the earlier ones faded away: five minute warning.  He could hear the heavy door creak and creak again as the local residents filed, singly and in small groups, into the church, to celebrate a weekday Mass before starting their normal chores.  He had done that once himself.  Coming to Mass in the morning before school started… not for long.  The year he had taken his First Holy Communion, maybe.  His mother had been living with a man named Salazar then, who had seemed better than most of them, making sure Johnny went to school and church.  He was also, as Johnny now recalled, married, although the worst thing he had done was when he had brought other men with him when he came to visit Johnny and his mother.  Another anger he would have to confess before he left this priest.  He had wanted to kill that man, later, when he was old enough to realize what had been happening.  For now, he pushed the thought out of his mind, and listened to the bells ring again, and to the Latin chanting of the congregation as the sound of the bells faded away.


“You should go now,” the priest said, and Johnny nodded.  It had been dark for several hours, and slowly, the town around them had subsided into silence.

“Thank you, Father,” Johnny said, standing up.

“A bit of bread for your trip,” he said, handing Johnny a small paper-wrapped bundle.  “It was baking day.  They gave me extra.”

“Thank you,” Johnny said again.  “Thank you for everything.”

“It’s what God brought me here for,” the priest said.  “To help his lost lambs find him again.  Or at least put them on the right path, heh?”

“Yes.  Uh, Father?  There’s just one more thing…”

“You remembered more sins?”  the priest asked, looking unhappy.

“No,” Johnny assured him.  “I think I hit all the big ones by now.  It’s..  Well, I was wondering… what I have to do to get married.”

“Married?”  the priest repeated.

“Yes, you see…”

But he stopped when the priest held up his hand.  “You understand, I hope, that being absolved by God for your sins is not the same as receiving a pardon from the law?”

“Yes, I know that.”

“You are a wanted man.  You will always be a wanted man.  There is no statute of limitations on murder, even if many of them can be excused as self-defense  — they were not, and you know it.”

“Yes, I know.”

“You would want to bring a woman — and children — into a situation like this?”

“No,” Johnny said.

“Well, then,”

“But, Father, I don’t want to live without her either.”

“You are a young man…” the priest said.

“It’s not like that,” Johnny said, hoping the candlelight was dim enough to hide the rising heat in his face.  “She healed me, father.  Here” he touched the leg that was still stiff and sore after last night.  “But here also.”  He touched his heart.  “Father, she brought me to you.  Brought me…  back to Him.”

The priest took back his gift of bread, and for a moment, Johnny’s heart fell.  But, “Come,” he said, sitting down on the bed that took up most of his small hut.  “Sit.  You and I, young man, need to talk a bit more, heh?  Not long.  Come.”


“They heard us coming,” Murdoch said grimly.  “We missed them by minutes.”

“I don’t believe this,” Scott said, looking at the still-burning cook fire tucked away just inside the ruined open end of the barn.  “Why come back to a camping place they already abandoned?”

“What better place to hide than one that’s been searched already?” Johnny said.

They had trailed the intruders right back to the old Benevidez place, where they found the fresh remains of a recently abandoned camp.  The men had left in such a hurry that they had even left behind some of their gear.  A blanket, a canteen, a pair of socks hanging over the corral fence to dry. 

“Someone’s hurt bad,” Tex commented, kicking at a pile of bloody bandages in a dark corner to the rear of the structure.  He and Murdoch had already searched the two remaining stalls and the empty hayloft for snipers.

“Serves them right,” Scott muttered.  He was pale today, in obvious pain despite the kid’s home brews.  He was easing the strain on the wounded shoulder by resting his arm in a sling made from his own bandana and some more of the clean bandages from the kid’s pack.

“Well, hello,” Johnny said, dropping down to the ground just in front of the barn.

“What is it?”  Murdoch asked.

“Just from a print, I can’t tell if it’s made of Italian leather or just plain old American,” Johnny said, and they all hurried over at that.  “But it definitely has a square toe.”

In their hurry to leave this time, no one had taken time to erase their footprints, though most of them were illegible in the grass or from being overlaid multiple times where there was dust.  But this print was clear, having been pressed into damp earth.

“Where’d the water come from?”  Murdoch asked, looking up at the clear, cloudless sky.

“From the man who made the print,” Johnny said.


“Recognize it?”  Johnny asked Tex.

“Size nine,” the kid said, putting his own much larger foot next to it to measure against.  “Fancy stitching.  Getting a little thread-bare. I’d say Palmer will be looking for a new pair of boots soon.  Meantime, you gentlemen convinced yet?”

“Could be…”  Murdoch started.

“A coincidence?  Palmer leaves Waco because he hears Murdoch Lancer is still alive.  In about the time it takes someone to get from Waco to here, you start receiving anonymous threatening letters, your ranch gets shot at, someone burns your barn and tries to lure you into a trap, and I spot Palmer’s footprints all over everything.  Bit of a stretch as a coincidence, don’t you think?”  the kid said.

“Okay,” Murdoch said.  “Some man we don’t know and have never heard of is out to get us, and we have no idea why.  How much of a stretch is that?”

“You know why,” the kid said.  “I just bet it’s something so small you’d never remember it.”  He went back to collect his horse.

“Why something small?”  Murdoch asked, trailing after him.  Johnny hauled himself back up from the ground, but Scott stood a moment longer, staring down.  Finally he sighed and followed everyone else.

“Hurt?”  Johnny asked him.

“Tired,” Scott said.

“Because you don’t remember it,” Tex said to Murdoch at the same time.  “Something big you’d remember.  I worked a case once, one of my first.  A man spent thirty years planning the murder of his neighbor because his neighbor once cut down a tree he thought was on his property.  When we caught him and he confessed to the crime — attempted murder as it turned out, fortunately — the neighbor didn’t even remember it.  It burned at the one man’s heart for years, the other man, shrugged it off.  It happens, Mr. Lancer.  I think what we got to do now is catch Palmer, and not worry about why he’s upset with you.”

“For now, we go home,” Murdoch said.  “Scott needs a real bed for a few days.  Then we’ll start combing this whole area again, get more men out here.  We’ll find him.  One way or another.”


When she stepped out the back door to toss out the dishwater, Teresa saw them riding up.  There was the kid on that big yellow horse of his, Murdoch, Johnny and the wagon — and Scott’s horse tied on behind.  She dropped the pan on the ground and ran.

“He’s all right!”  Murdoch called to her.  “He’s just in the wagon, resting!”

So, when she reached the wagon to find Scott puddled around the bedrolls and saddle packs in the tiny space behind Johnny’s seat, she was a bit less panicked.  Though the panic started to rise again when she saw how pale he was, and that his eyes were closed.


“Didn’t feel like traveling all the way back sitting up,” he said, opening his eyes.  He smiled at her.  She didn’t return it.

“Help me get him inside,” she said.

“I can walk!”  Scott said, standing up in the back of the wagon.  He wobbled, but Johnny reached around from the front and grabbed his arm.

“Steady there, you’re not on solid ground yet.”

“This thing is bouncy,”  Scott said, flexing his knees once or twice to prove it.

“What have you been using for painkiller?  Scotch?”  Teresa asked, giving him a hand as he jumped down.

“Bourbon,” Scott said, grinning foolishly.

“Hey, it helps,” Johnny said.

“Pa!”  Larissa came running from the kitchen.

“S’all right,” Scott said, patting her on the head.  “I’m fine.”

“He’s not really, but he won’t know that until tonight at the earliest,” Teresa said.  “Go make these men something to eat, please, Lissa, and some soup for your father.”

“Yes, Mother,” she said, watching wide-eyed as her father was escorted into the house.

“Don’t worry,” Johnny said as he slid down from his seat on the wagon.  “He’s hurting, but it’s clean, we got the bullet out, there’s no fever or swelling.  Really,” he said more softly, finding himself face to face with the worried girl.  “He will be just fine.”

“I believe you,.”  Larissa said, giving a little laugh as her grandfather stepped up to her side and gave her a hug.  “It’s just… everything.  Are you two all right?”

“Fine,” Murdoch assured her.  “Anything happen while we were gone?”

“No.  It was quiet.  Mama sent Mills Johnson to town for the mail today, just like you said.  He should be back soon.”

“They’re going to start wondering in town why we’ve been picking it up every day,” Johnny commented.  The whole group moved towards the stable to take care of the horses, Larissa instantly taking charge of her father’s.

“Kind of wonder why, if he’s going to send us notes, he doesn’t just leave them on the front gate or something,” Murdoch said.

“Not dramatic enough,” Johnny muttered.

“Yes, but you’d think it would be easier than going to town every day.  Especially with that face.”

“I think we’ve clearly established,” the kid said dryly, “ that he’s not working alone.”

“Still, seems like a lot of work,” Murdoch said as he stripped the saddle off his horse and lugged it into the stable.

“It is,” the kid said.  “And it’s a lot of work for us, too.  He’s harassing us, making us travel everyday to see what he’s written next.”

“When did it get to be us?”  Murdoch asked with an eyebrow raised.

“Yesterday,” Johnny said.

“Miss,” Tex said, stepping up to Larissa.  “I can take care of Mr. Scott’s horse for you, if you need to get into the kitchen.”

Larissa flushed deeply.  Of course!  They were all probably starving, and here she was, listening, gossiping.  She’d already forgotten her mother’s orders.

“I’m… Yes, thank you.  I’ll go get started…”

“We’ll be in to help out in a few minutes,” Johnny called after her as she ran back to the house.

“You don’t have to!”  she called back, hoping they would come in anyway.  Sure enough, she was just browning meat for a stew when they all trooped in, still wet from washing at the pump outside.

“Have any chile?”  Johnny asked hopefully as he came in.

“Honestly, Uncle Johnny, there are other things to eat in the world,” Larissa said.

“But, why would you want to?”  Tex said.  “Summer’s the best time of year, because you can walk right out to the garden and pick fresh green chile chiles any time you want.”

“I like the red myself,” Johnny said.  “Dry it and have it any time of the year.”

“True.  But green chile stew…!”

“Why don’t you go outside and pick some right now,” Johnny said, stoking the fire.

“Not in the stew!”  Larissa said.

“Let them have their chile,” Murdoch said, testing how hot the coffee pot on the stove was.  It was hot.  He grabbed a towel to pick it up and pour himself a cup.  “We’re all a bit hungry.  We missed breakfast taking out early after those men, figured we’d be here a little earlier than we managed it.”

 “See if there’s some carrots and onions too,” Johnny called after the kid as he left the kitchen.  “And anything else that looks good!”

“I can make a stew!”  Larissa said.

“Let me take care of that,” Murdoch said, reaching to take the spoon from her as he sipped his coffee.  “Johnny, start chopping vegetables.  Lissa, honey, you can start making a broth for your father.  He’s a bit off his feed still.”

“Okay, Grandpa,” she said, surrendering the cooking to the men.

Teresa, meantime, had gotten Scott’s shirt off, then his boots, then his trousers.

“You know, if we weren’t married, this would be indecent,” he commented as he sat on the edge of the bed in his short summer underwear.

“Hmm,” she said.

“We are still married, aren’t we?”

“For now,” she agreed, pressing him back on the sheets.  She felt his face and neck as he settled into the pillow, and they were warm — but he had just come inside out of the hot July sun.  She went across the room and poured water from the pitcher into the wash basin, dipped in a washrag and rang it out.

“Did you get my message?”  Scott asked.

“Your message?”  she asked, coming back to sit on the edge of the bed and wipe at his face with the cool, damp rag.

“I left it here for you.  On the bed,” he said.

“Oh, that message,” she said.

“Flowers,” he said.

“Yes, I found the flowers.”

“And a note.”

She hadn’t read it.  Not that one, but she wouldn’t tell him that.  “Yes, I got it,” she said.

“And?”  Scott asked.

Teresa looked down into his face, darkly suntanned except for the white strip across his forehead where his hat always sat.  There were lines around those blue eyes now, etched around his mouth, and across his forehead as well.  A little softness was starting to form below the hard line of his jaw.  Older.  But still  handsome.

“And,” she said tartly, “It’s a start.”

“A start?”

“You owe me seventeen years of that,” she said, wiping the dust out of the creases on his face.

“I guess I’d better get to work then,” he said.

“You waited this long, you can wait another day,” she said.  She got up and rinsed out the rag, came back and bathed his face again.  He closed his eyes, enjoying the coolness, but he wasn’t asleep.  When she asked, ever so softly, “Why did you wait so long?” he whispered back, “I was afraid.”

“Of me?”

“Of finding out for a certainty that I was just your second choice.”

“You should know me well enough by now,” she said, “to know I would never settle for second choice.”

Worn out from the wound, the hard ride and the sleepless night, Scott found himself already drifting towards sleep, unaware that he was smiling as he did.


Johnny carefully removed everything from her bundles and re-packed it, knowing they could take with them only the barest necessities.  Their own double weight on the horse would be burden enough, even rested and fed as it was after all this time grazing in high alpine meadows.

“Bandages?”  he asked, finding a carefully rolled bundle of rags.

“N…Not exactly,” she said, flushing deep crimson, and he shoved the bundle into the bottom of the saddlebag without further comment, his own face burning in embarrassment as he recalled how his mother had languished and complained once a month, and how the soiled, bloody rags had to be boiled clean after.

Hilary had, he had to acknowledge, packed very sparingly.  One clean dress.  A shawl for chilly weather.  Two pairs of stockings and one set of clean, white undergarments.  Had he had clothing, that was more or less what he would have packed for himself, but as it was, he was preparing to travel even lighter, with nothing more than the clothes he had on: the socks she had made him, the trousers she had mended, the shirt she had re-made, and his own jacket and hat.  She sorted through their cooking vessels, taking only what Johnny had instructed her to: a small frying pan and a cook pot, one plate and one cup.  Two forks, and a small wooden cooking spoon he had whittled while sitting in the sun, recovering from his wounds.  He still had one of his canteens, and she had supplied another, smaller one.  He filled them both from the bucket of water he had brought that morning from the creek.  There were biscuits and dried meat that she had smuggled from home, a small packet of coffee and a very small packet of brown sugar, some dried wild herbs, salt.  And eggs.  She had cleaned out the hen house on the way here and brought along a full half-dozen fresh eggs, which he packed carefully among her clothes for protection.

“These, I should just get rid of,” he said, holding up his gun belt.

“Why?”  she asked.

“Because no honest man wears a rig like this.  The second anyone sees them, they’ll start looking at wanted posters, trying to make themselves some money.”

“But, didn’t you say,” she asked shyly, “that they’re worth a good deal?”

Johnny slid one of the pistols out of its holster and, turning it back and forth in his hand, watching the sunlight glint off the silver plating.  Rubbing the tarnish off his guns was another thing that had occupied his time on his long, slow recovery.  Silly, almost, to make them look so nice when all they were was guns.  Weapons.  Whose only purpose for existence was taking the life of another man.  Unlike a rifle, which might be used for hunting, a pistol was nothing but a man-killer.  But the polish on them had saved his life in the past, he was sure.  More than once that fancy rig had caused men to back down without his ever having to draw his gun.  He spun the weapon on his finger, feeling the delicate balance, unmarred by such foolishness as notching, and laid the barrel over the forearm of the hand that still held the gun belt, sighting for a second along the straight, sleek barrel before spinning it again and dropping it back into leather.

“I saw a pistol like this in a gun shop in San Diego, marked at a hundred dollars,” he said.

“And you have two,” she said,

“A gift, I told you that,” he said.

“Yes, but, don’t you see?  Maybe you can’t get a hundred dollars a gun when you sell them to a gun shop.  But all I have worth selling is my mother’s necklace.  It’s valuable to me because it belonged to her, but it’s just garnets and jet and very tarnished silver.  I doubt I could get ten dollars for it.  Probably not even five.  But a hundred dollars…”

“Would feed us for a long time,” Johnny said, realizing finally what she was getting at.  “More than food, I could get a serviceable rifle to hunt with, a warm coat for you before winter.  Still,” he added, running a hand over the sleek leather of the gun belt, “it’s not much for a stake.”

“You don’t have to sell them,” she said quickly.  “I just thought, if you didn’t want them anyway….”

“I don’t,” he said.  “And you’re right, as far as it goes.  I’m just thinking, maybe this isn’t the best way to do things, sneaking off in the night with nothing but what fits in the saddlebags.  It sounds romantic, but you can’t eat dirt, and grass won’t keep you warm on a rainy night.”

“We’ll do okay,” Hilary said.

But Johnny sighed, thinking of nights he had spent on his own before, with hunger gnawing at him, and his fingers too cold and stiff to even try to build a fire…

“The only thing more my Ma had than I do when she got married was a trunk full of doilies and embroidered tea-towels she planned to put out for guests once she had a nice house.  They lived in a sod hut Pa found abandoned, with dirt walls and ceilings  and snakes that would come through the roof and drop on you when they tried to burrow into the ground.  And Pa never was much good with his hands.  The only thing he was ever good at was preaching, and you need people willing to put money in your basket to make a living out of that.”

“I always wondered,” Johnny said, “if farming was very difficult.  I’m sure there’s more to it than putting seeds in the ground and praying for them to grow, but I think that might be all the skill you need.  At least to get started.”

“Or we could open a restaurant,” Hilary said.  “You can hunt.  We know you can hit what you shoot at.  And whatever you bring home, I can cook it up plenty good enough to charge people who want a bite!”

“Maybe we won’t starve,” he said, bringing her hand to his lips and kissing her fingers.  “I’d still rather come knocking on your door and ask your pa for your hand.”

“He’d just say no.”

“Now,”  Johnny agreed.  “But if I could get a start somewhere, and come back able to prove I could support you…”

“You want to leave without me?”  she asked.

“I don’t want to,” he said quickly, seeing the pain in her soft eyes.  “I’m just thinking, why put you to this much hardship for no good reason?  I’d come back,” he added.  He put a hand to the back of her head and drew her closer to him, until their foreheads touched.  “I’d come back,” he whispered.

“Maybe,” she said.

“You don’t believe me?”  he asked.

“Oh, I know you mean it,” she said, pulling back and looking away so she could blink the moisture out of her eyes.  “Now.  But once you get out there, once you find a way to make a living honestly and morally…”


“There will be other girls.”

“Possibly,” he conceded.

“Prettier ones.”

He touched her chin again, drawing her face back to him and kissed the tears off her cheeks.  “What makes you think I’d want some other girl, however pretty she might be?  What makes you think I’d even be looking?”

“Sometimes you can’t help it,” Hilary said.  “Especially…”


“I know I look like I’m only about twelve years old!”  she said.  “It’s Pa!  He won’t let me wear long dresses or…But I am sixteen.  We can be married, legally, and then there wouldn’t be a thing he could do about it, once we get far enough away…”

“We don’t have to go anywhere for that,” Johnny said.  He reached in his pocket and pulled out a folded bit of paper.  When he unfolded it, and passed it over, she could see that it was a legal form, filled out with her full name and his … and tomorrow’s date.

“That’s the licence.”  Johnny said.  “Technically, the couple is supposed to go apply for it in person, but Father said he’s picked them up before for people who lived far out of town, he went to do the ceremony, and came back and recorded it.  So, he got this one for us.  I told you I’d meet you inside the Catholic church tonight at midnight.  What did you think I had planned?”

“I thought… in case anyone found you…”  The tears running down her cheeks spotted the paper and she folded it so the ink could not get wet and smear.  “Sanctuary, I suppose…”

“I wouldn’t ask you to run away with me,” Johnny said.  “Not without marrying you.  That wouldn’t be right.”

“This from a hired killer,” she said, trying to make a joke of it, but her tears choked her and she had trouble spitting the words out.

“Former hired killer,” Johnny said, drawing her into his arms.  She flung her arms around his neck and sobbed, tears of joy and he held her and stroked her hair and  kissed the tears from her face.  And where they ran down her neck.

The main weight, besides themselves, that the horse would be carrying was the bedroll,  thick and soft and built for two.  That bedroll was to be their marriage bed, and Johnny had picked out only the best of their blankets to make it up, regretting that there could be no sheets and pillows.  But they celebrated their wedding night a few hours early, there on the warm spring grass, with sunlight and the whisper of aspens overhead and the soft buzzing of insects for music.  Passion and adolescent fear warred in both of them for some time, but love won out, flooding over them, blanketing them in its warmth, and tears ran down Johnny’s face as well as hers as he whispered to her, “Now you belong to me.  And me to you.  Nothing will ever come between that.”


She left early.

“I’m planning to make a cake for Pa for dinner,” she announced, winding her hair back into its childish braid.  “It was to be a sort of good-bye and apology for running off, but I think I’ll take a piece with me when I go.  It’ll be our wedding cake.”

Riding double on his horse, he took her several miles upstream where the horse could wade across the creek where it was shallower and quieter and much safer than her usual crossing.  And, on horseback, he could take her far down the other side as well, cutting her walk back to town by half.  For several days, he had been coming and going like this to save her time and trouble.

“You shouldn’t come so close to town,” she had said, more than once, but he pointed out that even here he was well out of sight of even the farthest out-lying building, and that they were looking for a dangerous outlaw, not a boy and a girl riding bareback together, picking flowers by the creek.

“This is the last time,” she said, sliding down off the horse, hanging onto his arm until her feet reached the ground.  “I’m glad.”

“Don’t want to see me again?”  he teased.

“Don’t want to see you taking such risks again,” she said seriously.

“Midnight,” he said.  And he grinned.  “At this time tomorrow, you’ll be Mrs.  Lancer.”

“At this time tomorrow, you’ll be Mr. Lancer,” she said.  He had taken the marriage license out in that name, not the one he was known and wanted by.  “How do you think that will feel?”

“I think it will feel very good,” he said.  He watched her walk across the meadow, to where a well-traveled game trail lead into the forest.  She turned and waved, then headed into the timber.  She was visible for some time in the open forest, but soon a curve in the path hid her from his sight, and he swung his horse around and rode back up and down the creek to his camp.  He stripped off his clothes first thing and washed them in the creek, wringing them out carefully and laying them on bushes in the sun to dry.  He walked naked back to camp then and finished their packing, trying to remove all traces of himself from the three-walled ruin that had been his home for so long.  He left most of the dishes, the wild flowers they had picked earlier in the tin-can vase.  This had once been a sort of child’s playhouse, her little hideaway from  the world.  He’d leave it looking like that still, so if anyone ever did come up here, that’s all they would find: dying flowers and a broken toy doll.  The sewing kit, the last of the soap, his razor, he packed.  Or started to.   He returned to the creek, and, carefully in the fast, deep water, bathed and shaved himself.  He would be going to his wedding as neat and clean as possible, even if not in a suit.

He ate a cold dinner at sunset, and took a walk, not wanting to move too early.  But he was restless, recalling over and over the conversation of that afternoon.

“Maybe we could go north,” Hilary had suggested.  “Montana, maybe.  Or even into Canada.”

“Maybe we will, eventually,” he said.  “But even if  it’s barely the start of summer now, winter will come on way too quick.  I was thinking of staying south, this year at least.  I think we should go east to start with.”

“How far east?”

“Texas.  Texas is a big place, with lots of cities and lots of people.  Easy to get lost there.  But it’s got lots of open country too, where people with nothing might be able to get a start.  I’m not wanted in Texas, and they’re still a little uppity over there, so I’ve heard.  They tried to form their own country once, tried to secede from the Union not too long ago.  They invaded New Mexico during The War, and got soundly beaten back…”

“After taking over the capital!”

“Yeah, but they did get beat, here and back east, and I’m thinking there won’t be any love lost between Texas lawmen and Union states and territories right about now, so even if I do get spotted there, they’ll be very unlikely to want to honor any extradition to a union state or a territory — like New Mexico.  I think we can get a good start in Texas.”

He was restless now, thinking about it again.  They would not be able to get far tonight on his horse, but if her Pa started after them, the priest would record their marriage, and, like Hilary said, she would belong to him then and there would be nothing her father could ever do about it.  It would be dodgy for awhile, but the federales wouldn’t dare cross into Texas as they had into New Mexico Territory, and no local lawmen would be looking for him once they reached El Paso.  He plotted the ride in his head, southeast to Mesilla, along part of the Camino Real to El Paso.  They’d be in a little tail-end section of Texas then, but it was still Texas, and it wasn’t too far, and they could go farther east, get deep into the state, as soon as they caught their breath…

The angle of the moon told him it was time to go, finally.  Johnny tightened the cinch on his saddle, checked the bedroll to make sure it was snug, and swung into the saddle.  The horse trotted along the now-familiar route up the stream, but very soon after he started down the other way, he pulled the animal to the side and hid in the shadows of some tall boulders.  Horses coming.  Lots of them.  He squeezed his horse backwards and was gratified to find the narrow opening blossomed outwards behind them.  This was not a dead-end corner in the rocks.  He could slip into the forest from here, head down and around, using the moon as a guide.  It was a longer ride than he had anticipated, and a cautious one, as he paused frequently to make sure that the only sound of hooves now came from his own horse, and he headed into town at a much different angle than he had the other night.   It was more lit up than it had been.  There was a great deal of activity around the north and west edges of town, up mainly near the fort that had guarded the copper mines through three governments.  He skirted wide around the commotion and slipped into town on the south side, leaving his horse tied in the thick shadows of a small fruit orchard near the church, and moving like a ghost, he eased up the side steps, into the sacristy as the priest had instructed him.

“You made it!”  Hilary said at once, half a cry, half a whisper as she flung herself around his neck.  “I was afraid they would get you!”

“Who?”  Johnny asked.

“You were seen,” the priest said soberly, interrupting their reunion to explain in his native Spanish.  “It was not me!  I swear it,” he added, raising his hands.  “But you have come to town twice at least, and someone saw you.  Tonight they are doing a house to house search, and searching the mountains as well.”

Johnny recalled the riders he had hidden from, thinking at the time that it was just a hunting party from the nearby copper mines, or drovers heading back to their herds, and a cold fear bit into his belly.

“A posse came and searched our house!” Hilary said.  “They’re searching everywhere, but I snuck out after Pa went back to sleep.  I was so afraid I would be too late.”

“You are both too late,” the priest said, echoing her words almost as if he had understood them.  “They will be here in..  Maybe ten minutes. You must go now!”

“But…”  Johnny protested.

“Marriage means nothing to a dead man!  You must go now.  Come back when it is safe.”  When Johnny didn’t move, the priest shoved him towards the door.  “Think of her! It is one thing, running and hiding when there’s no one really chasing, but this is different!  If they catch you, catch the two of you…!  Think of it.  For her sake, you must go now!”

He was right.  Johnny knew that.  He knew what the federales would do to a woman they caught helping an outlaw.  And if it was the posse that caught him first…  Would that be any better?  Sure, they were local men, but what would they think of her, helping him?

But he leaned over, whispered a few words to the priest.

“Ay!”  the priest said, clutching his hair in frustration.  He made the sign of the cross in front of Johnny.  “Consider that a confession, and now you are absolved.  Very well, we don’t have time for a Mass, but we can do a communion service.  Without a homily!”

Ten minutes later, they could hear the sound of the search coming closer.

“Hilary!”  Johnny said, worried.

“She will be safe here until they go,” the priest said, pushing him towards the door.  “This is a church!  People come in the night for help all the time.  But you must go!”

“Wait for me!”  Hilary protested.

“No.  He’s right,” Johnny said.  He spun away from the priest to grab her by the shoulder and try to explain.  But they had only seconds now…   “I can’t take you.  Not now.  But I will be back…”

“When?”  she demanded.

He couldn’t promise any dates, not with the whole town up in arms against him.

“Before winter,” he said.  He caught her to him and kissed her firmly, then pulled back enough to lay hand on her breast, a gesture the priest thought highly inappropriate, until he realized Johnny was laying a hand over her heart.

“You are mine,” he said again.  He took her hand and pressed it to his own chest. “And I’m yours.  I will come back!  I can’t go away and just leave you.  Not as long as I am alive.”  He took his mother’s locket from around his neck and looped the chain around her neck.  Then he took the license that they had just signed, folded it and put it into the locket.

“I need to record that!”  the priest protested.

“When I come back,” Johnny told him.  “You record that the morning after I run out of town, they’ll know to go after her!”

“Yes,” the priest agreed.

Johnny translated the exchange quickly for Hilary’s benefit, as he tucked the locket safely into the neck of her dress, a plain school-girl smock that was all she had had to be married in.

“You have to go back home for now,” he told her.  “Stay with your father.  Pretend you never met me.”

“I… I forgot the cake,” Hilary murmured.

“We’ll get us one later.”  Johnny saw the tears on her face and he hugged her to him one last time.  “I will come back,” he promised again.

“Before winter?”  she asked         

“Before winter,” he repeated.  He buttoned his jacket up over his clean, white shirt and stepped out into the night.  The men were already banging on the big front door, pressing it open, hollering for the priest to come, as Johnny slid through the shadows behind the priest’s cottage and into the orchard.  It was no accident that his horse, his clothing, and his gear were all black.  The silver decorations that would blink brightly in the sunlight were leaden and dull now with the clouds covering the moon, and he swung into the saddle, his black-on-black outline broken up by the black-on-black shadows of the trees.  Under the noise of the men searching the church, he slipped quietly through the short, gnarled trees, jumped his horse over the back wall of the orchard, and slid like a shadow into the night.

Continue to Part 2 

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