The Real Johnny Madrid by LindaB (Kona)

Part 1 of 3 | Chapters 1 – 13

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Word count: 103,900

Chapter 1

It was only ten a.m. and already the streets of Morro Coyo were sweltering with the heat of an unusually hot summer. It was more than four months since a drop of rain had touched the parched land. But this was mid September, and the promise of rain was only a few weeks away. By mid October the days would grow cooler and the blessed rain would return.

This time of year Morro Coyo and Green River bustled with activity early in the mornings, before the heat of the day settled in. Supplies were bought and loaded into buckboards, and business was transacted before the heat of the day hit in earnest.

Johnny loaded the last barrel of nails into the back of the buckboard and tied the load of supplies down securely while Teresa finished her shopping in Baldemero’s store.

Johnny stepped into the cool darkness of the mercantile. It would be as hot as outside come afternoon, but right now it was an oasis of comfort. “You almost done, querida? I wanna get back before nightfall.”

Teresa rolled her eyes at Senora Baldemero and giggled lightly as she slipped a small bag of candy into her satchel and paid Senora Baldemero. “If he was looking at horses we’d be here all day. I’ll see you in a fortnight, Senora Baldemero.”

“Si.” The diminutive Mexican shopkeeper smiled. “Don’t let Jaunito eat all that candy at once.”

“I won’t,” Teresa called over her shoulder as she stepped out of the cool darkness of the store into the bright sunshine and pretended to heft an extraordinarily heavy satchel.

Johnny grabbed for the satchel. “What ya got in there, the whole store?” He sniggered, surprised at how light the bag really was.

“If you behave, I may let you see.”

“And if I don’t,” he teased.

Teresa tugged at Johnny’s hat, slipping it down over his forehead. “You won’t get one of those peppermint sticks I bought.”

“Then.” He grinned. “I will be on my best behavior.”

***

“Look at that breed hanging all over that pretty little girl. Ain’t right,” Arlo Brand hissed, punching his fist into his meaty hand. “That boy needs to be taught a lesson.”

Clive Hanks nodded. “Only trouble is, who’s gonna teach ‘em? He can call himself a Lancer all he wants…but we all know that he’s Johnny Madrid. Can’t take the stain of a killer off a man by just changing his name.”

Arlo agreed. He and Clive had worked for Matt Clarkson for seven years on his small ranch outside Morro Coyo. Barely eking out a living, they made just enough money to throw back a few whiskeys and beers over a game of poker at the saloon on Saturday nights. Then Madrid showed up. Suddenly part owner of the biggest cattle ranch in the valley.

He knew the kid was trouble the first time he laid eyes on him. And it wasn’t just the fact that his pa was white and his ma was Mexican. It was the way he moved. He was so cock sure of everything he did. The women noticed it too. Those bright colored shirts and concho pants…like he was telling all the hens that he was the head rooster. He needed to be taken down a peg or two. And soon. There were some people in town who were starting to like him. Even with that gunbelt strapped on his hip, they were forgetting who he really was; Johnny Madrid, killer for hire.

Clive leaned against the barber’s pole outside the saloon. “I heard some of the ranchers were gonna pay Murdoch Lancer a call…try to talk some sense into him. No one is safe with the likes of Johnny Madrid hanging round. I can understand Murdoch wanting the boy here when Day Pardee and his gang was causing all that ruckus. But Pardee’s dead…ain’t no reason Madrid needs ta hang around anymore.”

“Hey.” Arlo elbowed Clive in the side. “Look who’s coming.”

A nasty smile crept across Clive’s face as he recognized Hortence Shaffer walking down the boardwalk toward them. No one knew how old Hortence was, or when she first came to Morro Coyo. She just seemed to always be around, adding her two cents to every conversation she came within ten feet of. Tall and thin, she wore her gray hair pulled into a strident bun atop her head, accenting her beak-like nose that shadowed her thin lips permanently locked into a frown. Her black dress with high starched white collar and cuffs added to the severity of her looks.

“Gentlemen,” Hortence nodded as she passed by, “a fine morning, isn’t it?”

Clive nodded. “Yes ‘em, it is. Well, it was…”

Hortence stopped and turned back, her frown deepening. “And why is that, Mr. Hanks?”

Arlo took Clive’s lead and pointed across the street. “It’s really none of my business…but it pains me to see a pretty little thing like Miss Teresa being in such close proximity to a half Mex gunslinger like Johnny Madrid.”

Hortence’s already rigid shoulders grew even stiffer as she spotted Teresa O’Brien standing outside Baldemero’s General Store in an animated conversation with Murdoch Lancer’s youngest son. The sound of her laughter floated across the dirt street as she reached up and pulled Johnny’s hat down over his face playfully.

“Shameful. Utterly shameful,” she seethed in righteous indignation. “I have never witnessed such scurrilous behavior. It is high time someone talked to that child about deporting herself in public. Heaven knows what happens behind closed doors.”

Clive bit down on the smile that threatened to spread across his face. “We was just talking about that, Miss Hortence. We don’t see why Murdoch Lancer just doesn’t send the boy packin’. He don’t need him no more…and he don’t belong around here, mingling with good, honest folk.”

Hortence sighed. “Murdoch Lancer has always been a hard man to understand. Heaven knows I’ve tried. When Mrs. O’Brien died, Teresa was barely three years old. I tried to tell Murdoch and Paul then, that it wasn’t right for a young girl to be raised by two men alone. I told him I would gladly take the child in, and raise her as my own. She could see them, of course, but she would be raised in a good Christian home, with values and manners. But they thought they knew everything. And look what happened.”

Hortence watched as Johnny lifted Teresa onto the seat of their buckboard, his hands clamped around her tiny waist a moment too long.

“And when Paul O’Brien was killed by those dreadful high riders, and Murdoch was laid up from that bullet wound in his back, I again tried to persuade him that it was best for Teresa to come live with me. It was only him and that Mexican housekeeper…the woman can barely speak English. And again he refused.”

“I hear tell it’s all legal,” Arlo said. “Paul O’Brien made Murdoch the girl’s ward if anything was to happen to him.”

“That was before his sons came home. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing bad to say about his oldest boy, Scott. A fine man. Polite and college educated. He was even a lieutenant in the cavalry. He would make any of the young ladies a fine husband. But that one.” Her dark black eyes seemed to sink deeper into her eye sockets as she stared at Johnny Madrid. Clive thought he never saw another human look more like an old barn owl.

“I heard he killed his first man when he was ten years old,” Arlo offered, his eyes glued to the buckboard as Johnny snapped the reins and the horses pulled away from the boardwalk. “He was a bad seed from the very start.”

“Too bad something can’t be done for that poor girl legally,” Clive said. “I mean, it sure would be nice if she was being raised by a fine lady like yourself, instead of in a house with a known killer sleeping in the room next to hers. If that’s where she sleeps,” he added under his breath.

“My hearing is quite acute, Mr. Brand, and I insist that you keep comments like that to yourself. However, I am in agreement. That child does not belong in that house.”

“What are you going to do about it?” Clive asked.

“What I should have done three months ago. I am going to write the governor and ask that Murdoch Lancer’s status as Teresa O’Brien’s ward be terminated. I’m sure the governor will agree with me when I explain to him the kind of life that child is leading now.”

“You think that will work?” Arlo followed the buckboard as it finally took the last turn out of town. “Teresa is already sixteen, ain’t she?”

“Yes, but she won’t be of age for another two years. I think I still have time to retrain her in the ways of a proper lady. The thought of her staying in that house with that killer another day brings me to tears. Teresa may not understand now…but she will thank me in time. Now, if you will excuse me gentlemen, I have a letter to write.”

As Hortence turned to walk away she suddenly stopped. “It comes to my attention that you know quite a bit about Johnny Madrid, gentlemen.”

Clive nodded. “He’s got a reputation from here to Mexico. One side calls him a hero, the other side calls him what he is…a born killer. I know just about everything there is to know about the boy.”

“Then you are exactly the man I need. Would you and Mr. Brand like to join me for lunch at my house? I want to hear all about Johnny Madrid, as unpleasant as that may be, before I write my letter to the governor. I want him to understand just how dangerous Johnny Madrid Lancer truly is.”

“We’d be happy to, Miss Hortence. We wanna save that pretty young girl just as much as you do.”

“Fine, it is settled. I will see you both at my house at one o’clock sharp.”

***

Scott saw the trail of dust moving closer to the Lancer arch and waited in the courtyard to see who was coming. It was too early in the day for one of the hands to be returning, unless there was trouble.

As the figure on horseback drew closer he recognized Val Crawford. It wasn’t often that the sheriff made it all the way out to Lancer, but occasionally he dropped by to see Johnny. It was a strange friendship…a sheriff and an ex-gunslinger. But they trusted each other, perhaps because they knew each other so well. Scott would never know the side of Johnny that Val did. Johnny would never allow it.

“Johnny around?” Val asked, as the dirt settled back down around the horse. It seemed that Val had picked up almost every speck of dust in the state of California and wore it proudly on his clothes.

“Sorry, he’s gone for a couple of days. He and Cipriano are up at the north pasture mending fences. They’re going to stay at the line shack up there.”

“The boy feeling a little penned in?” Val grinned, taking off his hat and wiping the sweat from his brow with his arm before settling the hat back on his head.

“I think so. Anything I can help you with?”

“To tell you the truth,” Val said as he dismounted. “I was hoping Johnny wouldn’t be around. You and me and your old man have a problem.”

“Johnny?”

“Who else?”

***

Murdoch raised an eyebrow as Scott led Val into the great room. The look on both their faces told him whatever they had to say, he was not going to like it.

“Val, what brings you out here in this heat? Care for a drink?” Murdoch asked, walking over to the sideboard where he kept his bourbon and Johnny’s tequila.

“Better make it a double.” Val nodded. “In fact, ya better make it a double…all around.”

“All right, Sheriff.” Murdoch sighed. “Out with it. What has Johnny done this time?”

Scott glared at is father. “That’s unfair, Sir. We don’t know that Johnny has done anything wrong yet. No wonder Johnny gets so angry. You’re always jumping to conclusions.”

“It’s not hard with the track record your brother has,” Murdoch snapped. “So Val…”

“Well, it ain’t Johnny’s doing…this time.” Val tossed back his drink in one gulp and handed Murdoch his glass. “I’ll take one more for the road, if ya don’t mind.”

Murdoch raised an eyebrow but refilled the sheriff’s glass. “All right, Val, what’s this about?” he asked gruffly.

“Hortence Shaffer,” Val said simply, pulling an envelope from inside his vest pocket. The once pristine white envelope was now smudged with dirty fingerprints. “She gave me this, said it was a copy of a letter she sent to the governor.”

Murdoch took the envelope, confusion written on his face, and slowly pulled out the neatly folded letter. It was apparent that Val had been especially careful handling the missive. He looked at the small crisp handwriting…as severe and inflexible as the woman herself. Hortence Shaffer had been a thorn in his side for as long as he could remember. To be more accurate, she was a thorn in everyone’s side. Opinionated, and tough as nails, she would not back down from a fight, no matter how long it took. And more often than not she won. Not because she was right, but because she wore her opponent down with her implacable steadfastness. If it took years for her to make her point, she would wait. Such a war had brewed between her and Murdoch for thirteen years. The very day Anna O’Brien was reported dead, she was at the Lancer doorstep, demanding that Teresa be turned over to her to be raised properly.

Scott watched as Murdoch’s hand began to tremble, a look of absolute hatred darkening his face as he finally looked up at Val. “Did she send this to the governor already?”

Val nodded. “ ‘Fraid so. Went out on the morning stage.”

Scott held out his hand. “May I, sir?”

Rage burned in his father’s eyes as Scott eased the letter from his hand. His own hands began to tremble as he began to read. Silence filled the great room, only the ticking of the old grandfather clock in the corner broke the stillness. Murdoch and Val both watched as Scott read fact after fact, outlining the life of Johnny Madrid in horrific detail.

At last Scott looked up, his face pale, his eyes haunted. “I knew Johnny was a gunfighter…but this can’t be true.”

Val sniffed. “There are facts, then there’s the truth. Not always the same animal.”

Murdoch took the letter back, rereading it. “There is more here than the Pinkertons gave me in their reports, where did Hortence get all this?”

“Best I can figure, she talked to Arlo and Clive. Not the two most upstanding citizens in Morro Coyo.”

“I don’t understand, Sir. Why would she question your ability to be Teresa’s guardian? Surely she can see that Teresa is happy. That she is educated and well cared for.”

“This has been going on since the day Paul’s wife died. She has always wanted to raise Teresa. Now I believe she has finally found a weapon to use against me.”

“Johnny?” Val looked at Murdoch incredulously. “You don’t think this letter here could get the governor ta change his mind and take Teresa away from you, do you?”

“If I read this letter,” Scott ground out, “and believed even half of it, I couldn’t see how I could, in good conscious, allow a young woman to stay in the same house with Johnny Madrid.”

“What are we gonna to do?”

The question wasn’t lost on either Murdoch or Scott. Val had said “we”.

“Somehow we’ve got to get the governor to know the real Johnny Lancer,” Murdoch said thoughtfully.

“How do you propose to do that?” Scott asked.

“Victoria Barkley and her son, Jarrod, know the governor well. They attend parties at the Governor’s Mansion every year, he even visits the Barkley ranch on occasion. I think we should ask Victoria to invite him here for a visit.”

“Ta Lancer?” Val asked, surprised.

“I see no other way. We could talk until we were blue in the face about how Johnny has changed. But the governor would still see that damn letter. No, the man has to meet the real Johnny Madrid – the real Johnny Lancer.”

Scott smiled. “I think it might work, Sir”

“Let’s hope so. Val, send a wire to Stockton as soon as you get into town. Tell Mrs. Barkley that Scott is on his way to their ranch. I think it would be best if you explained it in person, Scott.”

Scott agreed. “I’ll leave within the hour. May I take this with me?” Scott tapped the letter Murdoch still held in his hand.

Murdoch blanched. He didn’t want anyone else to see what was written there: The truths and half truths of his son’s life. A past that he had hoped to bury, but seemed to rise out of the grave to haunt Johnny.

“Sir,” Scott said softly, “it would be best if Victoria knew exactly what the governor knew. She knows Johnny; she won’t be swayed by what she reads here.”

Murdoch nodded reluctantly. “You’d better get ready, son. And one more thing. Neither Johnny or Teresa are to know anything about this until we hear from the governor. If Johnny finds out…he won’t stay if he thinks his being here will hurt Teresa in any way. And I don’t want Teresa to be burdened by this until it is absolutely necessary.”

“I agree. That means keeping them both here, around the house. This kind of thing won’t stay quiet for long. Hortence Shaffer is bound to say something to someone. She’ll want the world to know what kind of good Samaritan she is.”

Murdoch sighed deeply. “I’m afraid there is no way that Johnny and Teresa won’t be hurt by this. Damn Hortence Shaffer.”

Val downed his forgotten glass of whiskey and settled his hat back on his head. “I’ll have that telegram posted in a couple hours, and I’ll try to keep a lid on things in town.”

Murdoch held his hand out to Val. “Thank you, Val, you’re a good friend.”

Val nodded, turning toward the door and walking out of the great room with an angry gait.

His friend was going to get hurt, and hurt bad.

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Chapter 2

“Juanito, we have done well today, no?” Cipriano spoke softly in the darkness.

“Si,” Johnny said lazily. The language of his childhood soothed his tired body and mind. He was not surprised when Cipriano had brought his bedroll out of the line shack and laid it down next to him. He knew the old Segundo treasured these warm, star filled nights as much as he did. Knew the old vaquero felt humbled beneath the magnificent blanket of stars that spilled across the ink black sky, knew it eased his mind as he listened to the chirp of crickets harmonizing with a thousand other night sounds singing nature’s lullaby.

There was no need for a fire, the air was still warm from the heat of the day and the ground still held the sun’s warmth.

Johnny looked over to see the outline of Cipriano’s face. He had made friends in the three months he’d been at Lancer, but none so natural as his friendship with this man. Cipriano seemed to know him so well. Not just because they shared part of the same heritage…but because Cipriano knew the lure of freedom…knew the cost of settling down.

“Ain’t my old man gonna be surprised when we come back half a day early tomorrow.”

“We did the work of four men today. He will be proud of you.”

Johnny snorted. “Maybe even proud enough to say ‘good job, son?’”

Johnny heard Cipriano take a deep breath, letting it pass slowly through his lips as he exhaled, contemplating his next words.

“It has not been easy, I know. Your father is a hard man. He lost much when your mother took you away. I think he fears losing you again.”

“Not by my reckoning. I think sometimes he would like nothing better than to see me hit the road. I’m not the son he lost twenty years ago.”

“How could you be?”

Johnny saw Cipriano shift in the darkness, turning toward him. “You were but a child then. You are a man now. He doesn’t always know how to treat you. He feels guilty that he was not there for you when you needed him. That he was not able to be there when your mama died, that he was not able to keep you from being hurt. It is a heavy burden he walks with.”

“It wasn’t his fault. I know that now. You knew my mother, how could she have lied like she did?”

“Ah, mi hijo, no one but Maria knew what was in her mind and her heart. But I fear it may have been anger.”

“Not anger, Cip. She hated him with every breath she took. And I hated him. Sometimes I still…”

A branch fell in the copse of Ironwood beyond them in the darkness and the crickets suddenly fell silent for just a moment, leaving his unsaid words hanging in the stillness.

The gentle sounds of the night returned and Cipriano’s voice was like a balm to Johnny’s soul.

“No, Juanito. You do not hate him. I see how you look at him when you think no one is watching. I see how he looks at you when you don’t see. I see the pain in his eyes. The longing to say the right words. Give him time. Give yourself time.”

“Sometimes I think it’s just too hard.”

“If it is good, and meant to be, then it is worth fighting for. You will see tomorrow. When we get back to the hacienda your father will be proud of the work you have done.”

Cipriano leaned over and laid his hand gently on Johnny’s shoulder. “A journey starts with one step. You and your father have just begun that journey.”

Johnny smiled in the darkness. “You are either very wise, Cip, or full of mierda.”

He heard Cipriano laugh heartily and then they both fell silent, and as the moon began to rise in the sky they fell into a peaceful sleep.

***

“I won’t be gone long,” Scott assured Teresa, kissing her on the cheek and lifting the lunch sack from her hands. “Three, four days at the most. Murdoch wants me to check out that new bull Nick Barkley bought at the Stockton auction last week.”

“I wish I could go with you,” she said longingly. “Audra and I have such a good time when we are together.”

“Maybe next time,” Scott promised. He and Murdoch had discussed taking Teresa with him. It would keep her away from Hortence and her nasty tongue…but the letter that scorched his skin as it sat in his breast pocket needed the Barkley’s full attention. Having to worry about Teresa overhearing their conversation would be counter productive.

“Besides, I don’t think Johnny and Murdoch are ready to spend four days together without at least one of us to referee.” Scott grinned as he mounted Charley. “Send them to their rooms if they start misbehaving.”

Teresa giggled as she waved to Scott, watching as he trotted beneath the Lancer arch. But then her smile disappeared. There was something brewing. She could feel it. An uneasiness. And there was no doubt it involved Johnny.

She stepped back into the coolness of the hacienda. It was going to be another very hot day, and even though the adobe bricks kept a lot of the heat out of the house, it still became uncomfortably hot in the afternoon, making it well worth her while to hurry through her chores in the morning.

***

Murdoch wasn’t quite sure what he was doing riding into Green River. His excuse that he wanted to make sure Val had sent the telegram to Victoria Barkley was a flimsy one. Val would do as he promised, post the message to Victoria as soon as he got back to town, and when he received an answer he would get it to the ranch immediately…whether in person or in the capable hands of his deputy. There was no need for this trip…but he could not help himself.

His children were being threatened. It didn’t matter that Johnny was a grown man, wise beyond his years. There was nothing he could do to protect his son as he grew up, save him from a life filled with pain and disappointment. But, by God, he would be there for him now.

And his heart went out to Teresa. The stigma from the gossip that was sure to erupt once Hortence Shaffer spewed her vile opinions would linger, tainting an innocent child. Tainting the entire Lancer household.

There were few people he could think of at the moment that he hated more.

As he rode down the middle of the street, he felt every eye on him…whether real or perceived; it sent a shiver down his spine. This was what Johnny felt each time he rode into town, any town. He had watched his son, his face passive, his eyes staring straight ahead, although Murdoch knew Johnny was taking everything in, every detail.

 It saddened him to know that this was the life Johnny led. That his inability to keep his wife happy, the mother of his child contented, condemned his son to a life of abuse and poverty. The scars on Johnny’s back read like a map of his life. Scars from bullets, knives, even the vicious stroke of a whip. He had yet to ask Johnny what that life was really like, because in all honesty, Murdoch didn’t know if he could stand to know.

Murdoch turned his horse toward Val’s office, sitting unmoving in front of the hitching post as his mind wandered.

He had been so close to losing Lancer to Day Pardee and his High Riders. His Segundo and best friend was dead, he had a bullet in his back that left him dependent on a cane. And Teresa, his darling Teresa, mourning for her father, yet fighting with every ounce of her being to stay strong and beat the marauders who wanted to claim Lancer and the valley as their own.

In a last desperate attempt to save his land, he had called for his sons, never expecting them to come. But they did, and three months later they were becoming a family. Johnny’s near death from Pardee’s bullet strengthened Murdoch’s resolve to make this family work. But he didn’t know how. None of them did. Most of all himself. He didn’t know how to talk to his sons. Scott was the easiest. But there was a distance between them, a gap formed by Scott’s strict, unemotional upbringing and Murdoch’s inability to show his true feelings. Johnny on the other hand was the antithesis of Scott. A hotbed of emotion. Murdoch had only seen glimpses of those emotions…some so hot they would singe you if you got too close, and some so cold that they froze the very air around him.

“Murdoch…?”

Murdoch shook himself out of his reverie. Val stood in the doorway to his office, one hand leaning on the doorknob and the other holding a tin cup, still steaming with thick black coffee.

“Buy ya a cup of coffee?” he asked.

Murdoch dismounted slowly. Long rides still bothered his back. Sam had warned him that it could be years before he was pain free…if ever.

“Thanks, but no thanks. You and Johnny are the only two I know with cast iron stomachs strong enough to handle that brew.”

“Suit yerself,” Val grinned. “What brings ya all the way to town?”

“Thought I’d see if you got a reply from Stockton. Scott’s already on his way.”

Val stepped back inside his office. The room was already sweltering and it was barely nine in the morning.

The sheriff nodded. “Got it about an hour ago. Never thought you’d be in town ta pick it up so I sent my deputy to deliver it.”

“To Lancer?”

Val snorted. “Where else?”

Murdoch paled. “There’s only Teresa with Jelly and Maria. What did the telegram say?”

“Nothing ta get excited about. Just that they’re looking forward to seeing Scott. If Teresa sees it she won’t think nothing of it. So, what’s the real reason ya came inta town?”

Murdoch didn’t answer, instead he looked around for a place to sit. Val finally came to his rescue and brushed a stack of posters off a chair. Murdoch watched them slide across the floor, and looked back up at Val.

Val shrugged. “I’ll get to them when I can. Most of ‘em are too old to worry about. You worried about Johnny?”

Murdoch eased himself into the chair, hearing the wood creak beneath his weight. “He’s just beginning to let his guard down. You know,” he laughed sardonically, “that two days ago was the first time he slept without his gun under his pillow? He still has his rig hanging from his headboard…but it was a big step for Johnny. Now I’m afraid…”

“Yer afraid that Hortence and all her butting in where she don’t belong will ruin all that.”

Murdoch nodded. He looked down at a poster lying next to his boot. The face looking up at him was not much older than Johnny’s. The artist took great pains to make his eyes look cold and emotionless. With a shiver, Murdoch remembered seeing those same eyes looking at him the first couple of weeks after Johnny had come home.

“You knew Johnny Madrid,” Murdoch said softly. It was a statement, not a question.

Val nodded.

Murdoch leaned over and picked up the poster studying it. “Are there any of these out on my son?”

“Not here, but there are plenty across the border. You worried about them things you read about Johnny yesterday?” Val asked, a little harsher than he meant to.

“I thought I had seen all I could stand in those Pinkerton reports. But…” Murdoch closed his eyes, trying to erase the thoughts that wouldn’t leave him alone. The images that Hortence’s letter invoked.

Val opened his desk drawer and pulled out a half empty bottle of whiskey and two glasses, one clean and one smudged with fingerprints. “I know its kind early for this, but you look like you could use something.”

Murdoch was grateful when Val passed him the clean glass.

“You think you can hear what I got ta say with an open mind?” Val asked.

Murdoch nodded. But inside he wondered if he could, if he really wanted to hear what Val had to tell him.

“I met Johnny Madrid in Los Alamos, he was probably fifteen, maybe sixteen. I was a deputy at the time. Johnny had a mouth, even back then, got himself into a lot of trouble with it. A range war was just simmering down. Johnny fought on the homesteaders’ side, against the big ranchers. The homesteaders lost in the end, but Johnny brought a lot of the ranchers’ men down. They didn’t take kindly to him and ambushed him in the middle of the street.”

“He was fifteen?” Murdoch groaned softly.

“Maybe in years, but not in guts or know-how. The ranchers knew it was Johnny who had killed most of their men. Bushwhacker missed Johnny’s heart, got him high in the left shoulder…”

Murdoch squeezed his eyes closed. He remembered that scar, wondered how his son had got that one along with all the others.

“He refused to let anyone help him. Somehow this kid, bleeding and half dead, climbed on his horse and rode out of town. I figured he’d die of blood loss or infection.”

“You didn’t go after him?” Murdoch asked incredulously, his temper flaring.

“Sheriff wouldn’t let me. Said Johnny Madrid deserved everything he got. Good and bad. Seemed to me though, that the boy didn’t get much that was good. Ta make a long story short, a couple months later a couple of drifters passed through town, ended up in the saloon. Seemed that word had gotten around about Johnny Madrid and the range war. But it weren’t the same war I saw. According to them, Johnny bushwhacked most of the ranch hands. The ones he didn’t bushwhack, he goaded into a fast draw that they didn’t stand a chance of winning. Thirty three men died…Johnny Madrid was credited with killing twenty-six of ‘em.”

Murdoch found it hard to breathe.

“So ya see…most of those things Hortence has down in that letter have a little bit of truth to them…Johnny was probably there…but he never was a back shooter…he never goaded anybody into a gunfight. Fame is a double edged sword, and most of the time a deadly one.”

Murdoch lowered his head and ran his fingers through his gray hair, pulling at it, needing to feel the pain to counter the ache in his heart. “Will he ever live down Johnny Madrid?”

“If he can stay out of gunfights…if someone faster comes along. But, I don’t see nobody being faster than Johnny.”

Murdoch looked up. “You were friends. You met again?”

Val nodded, a smile coming to his craggy face. “I moved on from Los Alamos. Found a job as sheriff in a hole in the wall down near San Jose. Was transporting a prisoner up to Vallejo. The kid got the jump on me, was ready to blow my brains out when Johnny came along. He just sat on his horse, calm as could be, asked the prisoner if he thought it was such a good idea to shoot a sheriff. Damn if that boy didn’t talk for fifteen minutes until the prisoner took his gun off me and Johnny shot it out of his hand. He saved my life, and the kid’s too. Ever hear of Trace Underwood?”

Murdoch nodded. “I have a couple of his books in my library.”

“That’s him. Underwood was scared out of his mind. Thought the only way he could get out of the mess he put himself into was to kill me. Johnny convinced him that he could serve his time and get on with his life. Don’t know how Johnny did it. But he did. We rode together to Vallejo, then back. Then he headed back across the border. Said he had some unfinished business. Never saw him again until I saw him lying on his belly on that big soft bed of his at Lancer. I don’t think he ever had a bed like that before in his life.”

“He should have had that bed all his life.”

Val shrugged. “He has it now. And we got ta make sure he keeps it. You know he’s gonna try to bolt as soon as he knows what this could do to Teresa.”

“I know. I only hope Victoria can convince the governor to come to Lancer. He has to meet Johnny, he has to hear stories like you just told.”

“Why don’t you try to find Trace Underwood? A good word from him might help Johnny’s case.”

Murdoch slapped his knees and stood up. “I’ll send a telegram to Stockton. Between Scott and Victoria maybe they can find a way to get Underwood here too.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Val slapped Murdoch on the shoulder…”We’ll get them kids through this…”

The door opened and Hortence Shaffer stood in the doorway. She looked at Murdoch and smiled.

“Murdoch, good, you’re here” She handed Val a neatly folded letter. “Judge Hampton has agreed that Teresa O’Brien is in both physical and mental danger while in the presence of Johnny Madrid. He is not to be within six hundred yards of her at anytime. Sheriff Crawford, it is your duty to see that the judge’s order is carried out at once. Good day gentlemen.”

.

Chapter 3

Murdoch stood frozen in the doorway. Despite the heat blasting him in the face, he felt a cold shiver shake his huge frame as Hortence Shaffer stood there, her head held stiffly in place, her shoulders pulled back…the epitome of self-righteous conviction.

Behind her, a crowd of townsfolk gathered despite the heat. Sweat stained the men’s shirts and dampened the women’s hair, strands of it hanging limply as it escaped imprisonment beneath their bonnets. Murdoch saw their lips pressed into thin lines of condemnation, their eyes boring into him. Waiting for him to say what? That he was going to send Johnny away…ban him from the only home he had ever known?

“It’s not right,” a woman called out, “that that child should be under the same roof with a known killer. What would Teresa’s mother think if she knew what kind of home her child was forced to live in?”

“It’s disgraceful,” another woman called.

Mrs. Brewster forced her way to the front of the crowd, pulling her sixteen year old daughter by the wrist. “Tell him,” she demanded of the girl. “Tell Murdoch what Teresa really thought.”

“Ma, please…”

“Tell him, child,” Mrs. Brewster ordered.

In a voice shaking with fear, Elizabeth spoke haltingly. “Teresa said she was afraid of Johnny Madrid coming to live with them.”

“All of it, child,” Mrs. Brewster coaxed.

“She said…she said he was probably no better than the high riders that were trying to drive us off our land.”

Murdoch’s mind reeled. He had had the same thoughts…at first…on that day in the great room, when Johnny Madrid stood before him, looking so much like his mother, so full of insolence. He had been so wrong. But he had never known that Teresa had the same fears.

“Send him away,” Stewart Jacobs shouted. “Send him away before he destroys what you worked so hard to build.”

Val stepped to the edge of the boardwalk. “You all go home, ya hear? This is none of your business.”

“It is our business,” Hortence protested loudly. “It is the business of every God fearing man women and child here.”

Murdoch’s head spun. The thought of squeezing the life out of Hortence Shaffer whispered in his mind…her and her single-minded determination to destroy his life and his family.

“I said, go home!” Val shouted. “I’m the law and I’ll take care of anything that needs taking care of. Now get!”

Val pulled Murdoch into the office and slammed the door shut.

Murdoch found the seat he had been sitting in and collapsed into it, the legs splaying a fraction beneath his weight.

Val snatched the injunction, forgotten in Murdoch’s hand, and studied the document closer. “It’s the judge’s signature all right. Damn that woman, anyway.”

“What are we going to do?” Murdoch asked, his voice trembling with rage.

“We’re gonna stay cool, that’s what we’re gonna do. Hortence has those people out there, so riled up, who knows what they’ll do. One thing’s for sure, Johnny can’t come to town, not until this thing blows over. Meantime…” Val snatched his hat off his desk and plopped it on his head angrily. “I’m gonna have a talk with the judge.”

“What good is that going to do?”

“Judge Hampton is scared of his own reflection in his shaving mirror. Hortence Shaffer probably scared the starch right out of ‘im.”

“Damn it Val, the man already signed the injunction.”

“Judge Hampton may be a sniveling coward, but he also likes wearing them robes. And he don’t expect to be judging here in this valley the rest of his life…he’s got plans for Stockton, maybe even Sacramento or San Francisco. What do ya think he would do to get a private meeting with the governor? Huh? Ya think that might make him think twice about this here injunction? Hortence may a scared ‘im half way to his grave…but I’m betting he wants out of this valley more.”

Murdoch looked at Val Crawford with a new found respect. Few people gave Val his due…and Murdoch was just as guilty. He knew Val through his friendship with Johnny, but never took the time to really get to know the man. “Johnny ever teach you to play chess, Val?”

“Cain’t say as he has…and I ain’t looking ta learn. Never could figure out why Johnny likes that game.”

“Well, if he ever does, he will have a formidable opponent.”

Val looked at him suspiciously. “Whatever that means. I’m gonna have that little powwow with the judge. As soon as that mob out there breaks up, you high tail it over to the telegraph office and send that note to Miz Barkley about Underwood, and then get yerself back here. I’ll be back in an hour or so…then we can figure out what we got ta do with Johnny.”

***

Teresa was startled to find Johnny standing behind her, a smirk on his face and a red rose in his hand.

“I wish you would stop doing that,” she complained, setting a pot to boil on the stove.

“What?” Johnny asked innocently. “Bringing ya roses?”

“No. Sneaking up on me. You’re quieter than a house cat.”

“Want me ta start shaking the house like Murdoch?”

“Well, at least I know he’s coming. What are you doing back so early?”

“Me and Cip got that fence done lickity split. Where’s Murdoch?”

“He went into Green River this morning. Something was on his mind, he seemed kind of worried about something. And before you ask, Scott left yesterday for Stockton.”

“Stockton? Kind a sudden. What’s he doing there?”

“Nick Barkley bought a bull Murdoch wanted Scott to look at. He’ll be back in a few days.”

Johnny looked at her, perplexed. “That’s funny. They didn’t say anything to me about it.”

“You know Murdoch, he can do things on the spur of the moment. But you know what this means? Maria can make some of those extra spicy tamales you love.”

Johnny sniffed the air. “I can smell them already.” Kissing her lightly on the cheek, he headed out the back door. “I’m going to go tackle that hole in the barn roof.”

“But, Johnny, it’s so hot out there. Why don’t you just rest while you have the chance?”

“It is tempting, querida…but it’s got to get done.”

“I’ll make up some cool lemonade for you. Murdoch will be hot when he gets back too.”

***

Johnny wished he had heeded Teresa’s advice. It was hot enough to fry eggs on the barn’s roof and getting hotter. He looked down the road, meandering beneath the white adobe arch proclaiming this as Lancer land and through the tall green fields as far as the eye could see. In the distance the high, rugged peaks of the Sierras stood against the blue sky. This was truly God’s land. Lent to them for a time, but not really theirs.

He felt a slight twinge in his back as he moved the wrong way, a reminder that three months ago he had fought for this land, for his father and Teresa, and had almost lost. He knew just how close he had come to buying it for the last time…and he knew without a doubt, that he would not have survived if his family had not been there for him. Family…familia…a word he had thought for so long would never pass his lips, would never fill his heart.

The nails lying in a pile beside him nearly glowed red with the heat and would have blistered his fingers if he wasn’t wearing gloves as he nailed another shingle in place.

He had shucked his shirt an hour ago, kneeling on it, trying to protect his knees from the hot shingles. If he wasn’t careful, he’d be sporting the first sunburn he’d had since he was a kid. He’d never hear the end of it from Scott.

Thinking of Scott, he wondered why Murdoch had sent him off in such a hurry to look at that bull. He’d said nothing about being interested in a bull, at least not to Johnny. And that niggling feeling slithered its way into his mind again. Maybe he just wasn’t important enough to bother with. His conversation with Cipriano came back to him and he wanted to believe what the old segundo had said. Because as much as he believed he had found his family, that his place belonged here…he knew Murdoch worried about who he was, the life he had lived. Cip said if it was worth having, then it was worth fighting for. This…all this…was worth the fight…

A plume of dust appeared just at the edge of his eyesight and grew as it drew closer. Soon there was no mistaking the set of the rider in the saddle. For a big man Murdoch Lancer sat a horse well. Johnny went back to repairing the roof as Murdoch’s horse finally passed beneath the arch and stopped in the middle of the courtyard.

“What are you doing up there?” Murdoch demanded.

“Getting this roof patched while I got time,” Johnny replied, a hint of sarcasm in his voice. So much for familia.

“Why aren’t you working on that fencing? I told you I wanted that fence to hold this time.”

“It will. If you want an answer you can believe, go ask Cipriano. He won’t tell you no lies.”

Murdoch swung down off his horse, handing the reins to Jelly.

“I done told that boy not to go up on that roof in this heat,” Jelly complained, jutting his chin out, his beard sparkling with sweat. “It’s just too blamed hot. It’s only been three months, he ain’t ready for work like that.”

Murdoch nodded. “Come on down, Johnny. I’ve got something to discuss with you.”

“I’ll be down when I’m done.”

“You’re done now,” Murdoch ordered.

Johnny bristled at the order, but threw his hammer and remaining shingles to the ground. Rounding up the rest of the nails in his shirt, he slid down the roof until his feet hit the ladder.

***

Murdoch watched Johnny, his heart in his throat, as he so seemingly, carelessly slid to the edge of the roof and climbed down the tall ladder without a moment’s hesitation.

Johnny gathered his tools off the ground. “I’ll put these away and be in…”

“It’ll take ‘em for ya,” Jelly offered, pulling the hammer and shingles out of Johnny’s hands. “And I’ll get this back to ya as soon as I can.” He held up Johnny’s shirt, heavy with the weight of the nails. “Darn stupid thing ta do, if ya ask me,” Jelly sputtered. “Takin’ yer shirt off on a day like taday…ya kin get sun poisoning on a day like this.”

Johnny smiled. “I’ll take a lot more than a couple hours in the sun to burn my hide, Jelly. Got used to running around without a shirt when I was a kid. No shoes either,” he added reflectively.

The simple statement from his son drilled a hole through Murdoch’s heart. Johnny didn’t speak very often of his childhood, but little statements like that leaked out every once in awhile, sketching a picture of poverty and neglect. There was so much he wanted to know about Johnny, and so much he was afraid to know.

“Clean up before you come in the house,” Murdoch ordered brusquely, shoving back the thoughts of Johnny’s childhood. “And make sure you’re wearing a shirt when you come in. Johnny, I don’t want you parading around the house or anywhere near the house without a shirt on. Teresa is still a child, it’s not right that she has to see you half naked all the time.”

A cold smile formed on Johnny’s face, and he regretted the words that passed his lips even as he said them. “Seems ta me that Teresa saw more than half of me naked when I was half dead from Pardee’s bullet.”

Murdoch’s shoulders stiffened. “I’ll pretend I never heard that, John. Now, get cleaned up, I have something to discuss with you.”

Murdoch turned on his heels and walked into the house, his footsteps heavy with worry and his heart crying out for what he was about to do to his son.

***

Victoria Barkley’s hand fell to her side, the letter lost in the folds of her skirt, the silence filling the library with a heavy uneasiness.

Scott studied Victoria’s face, trying to read her thoughts. But she simply stared past his shoulder, past the window and out to the green grass beyond the house.

Jarrod reached for the letter and gently tugged it from her fingers. His face remained impassive as he read the scathing report.

Scott waited until Jarrod folded the letter closed and laid it on the desk top, looking toward Victoria.

She finally drew her eyes away from the window and to a portrait of Tom Barkley hanging on the wall.

“My husband first met your father soon after he moved to the San Joaquin Valley. We were already established and tried to help the new ranchers whenever we could. Murdoch Lancer was a stubborn man, still is – as you well know. Tom offered to sell Murdoch one of our prized bulls at below market price to get his herd going. Murdoch reluctantly agreed, but with the promise of paying us back someday, somehow. And he did. In so many ways I couldn’t begin to count.

I knew your mother briefly…she was a beautiful woman and Murdoch was as happy as a man could be…until the trouble began. I agreed with him that it was best to send Catherine to Boston until it was once again safe for her and you to return. No one could have foreseen the tragedy that was about to happen. Murdoch blamed himself, and I will always live with the fact that I encouraged her to leave.

“Two years later your father met Maria, and once again he was happy. We visited him often in those first two years, my boys were only a few years older than Johnny. When Maria left it devastated him. Once again his world had been shattered. He was never the same man after that. While on the outside he still seemed just a sadder version of himself, I knew that he was a shattered man.

“Then the high riders started attacking the ranches and he wrote and told me that he had sent for you and your brother. I questioned his idea of sending for Johnny. We all knew by then who he had become. I worried for both Murdoch and Teresa…”

She nodded at the letter sitting on the desk. “From what that letter says, I had every right to be concerned.”

Scott’s face flushed with unconcealed anger. “If you believe everything that is in that letter, then I am wasting my time here. I don’t know why Murdoch thought that someone who had never met Johnny could possibly know who he really is.”

“Then tell me, tell us…” Victoria challenged. “Make us know him as you know him. Tell us why Murdoch Lancer has thrown caution to the wind and accepted Johnny Madrid into his house. Don’t think that I haven’t heard the stories…because I have.”

“Then you have already made up your mind, and this is just a waste of my time and yours. If you don’t mind…” Scott stepped back but Victoria caught his arm.

“I do mind. Your father sent you here…and by God, you are going to tell me everything. I have never turned my back on a friend, and I won’t start now.”

She turned to Jarrod. “Please tell Silas that we will be late for dinner tonight, then get three glasses and that bottle of cognac you brought from San Francisco last month.”

Turning back to Scott she said, “I want to know everything about Johnny Madrid Lancer, the good and the bad, and I don’t want it sugarcoated. If you expect me to help you, then I expect to hear the truth…all of it.”

Jarrod returned with three glasses and the cognac. “I have been a lawyer long enough to know that facts alone don’t always tell the truth.”

Scott nodded and saluted Victoria and Jarrod with the cognac, uncustomarily knocking it back in one gulp. “It’s been one hell of a day.”

Jarrod filled the glass again. “Why don’t you tell us about it?”

Victoria threaded her arm through Scott’s and led him to the couch facing a floor to ceiling bookcase. “Tell us about the real Johnny Madrid.”

.

Chapter 4

Johnny briskly dried himself off, wishing he could just spend the rest of the afternoon resting. Teresa was right, it was too hot to be up on that roof, and despite his dark skin, and his years under the hot sun, he still felt light headed from the excessive heat. He’d already chugged down a gallon of water, and he could still chug down another one.

He slipped into a fresh pair of pants and his flowered blue shirt, the material already clinging to his sweaty chest and stomach. He looked at himself in the small mirror above his washstand. After three months at Lancer, his choice of shirts was still looked at with skepticism. He could always remember wearing bright colored shirts, even as a little boy when he had to steal them, and later as his reputation grew, when he could buy one for every day of the week if he wanted to. It had soon evolved into a way of separating himself from the other up and coming gunfighters, that and his lighting fast draw. Both were signatures of who he was and what he had been, as much a part of him as breathing in and out. Murdoch understood in his own way…but Scott…Scott still found it hard…too much Boston still inbred in him.

He ran a comb through his wet hair and buckled his gun belt on before heading downstairs. It was still a sore spot for Murdoch…Johnny wearing his gun in the hacienda. It went against one of Murdoch’s strictest rules…but it was a rule Johnny could not, would not, conform to. Given time, maybe he could change his mind…but not yet, it was too soon and especially not today…not after he had seen the way Murdoch looked when he returned from town.

Something had the old man’s temper up. As far as Johnny knew he had done nothing wrong in the past few days. But, there was always something. Real or imagined: It all ended in the same way…a shouting match with Johnny slamming the door and riding away from the house. One of these days…one of these days, he would not return.

He found Murdoch leaning over his massive desk, a map spread out across the highly polished top.

“You wanted to see me,” Johnny said, his voice flat. There was something more than just Murdoch’s usual gruff manner that put Johnny on edge. He could feel the tension in the room.

“Yes.” Murdoch turned around to face him. “I think it is about time that you pulled your weight around here.”

“Meaning?” Johnny bristled.

“Meaning, that you take responsibility for more than just punching cows and mending fences. I’ve watched you the past three months. Nothing gets by you. You absorb everything like a sponge. I want to see exactly what you’re made of.”

“That sounds like a challenge,” Johnny said, cautiously.

“It is. Are you man enough to accept it?”

Johnny remained silent, waiting.

“You know that we need a new dam built up above the Iverson Wash.”

Johnny nodded. “It would keep that lower pasture from flooding come spring.”

“Exactly. I hired a survey team and even took bids on hiring out to have it built before Pardee turned this valley upside down. I’ve decided to go ahead with the project. If it is started now, it will be finished before the snows melt in the sierras. And I’ve decided to put it in your hands.”

“Why?” Johnny asked unemotionally, masking his shock. “You couldn’t even trust my word when I said we got the fence done early. Why would you trust me on a project like this?”

Johnny waited, watching his father.

“Because I think it’s time. You’re part owner of Lancer, Johnny, it is time you took the reins and proved to yourself and the men that you are just that.”

“And you?”

There was no hesitation in Murdoch’s answer. “You proved who you are to me the day you took a bullet in the back saving this ranch. But I don’t think you’ve proved it to yourself yet.”

Johnny slowly circled the desk, his hands on his hips, his lips pursed in deep thought. “I think you’re better off waiting for Scott to get back.”

“And I think you can do the job,” Murdoch countered. “Take Cipriano and a couple of men up to the site, build a line shack and a lean to for the horses. While you’re there, check out the area.” Murdoch rolled the map and survey reports and handed them to Johnny. “See what you think about these. I’ve already sent Cipriano and a couple of the hands into town to pick up supplies. You can take off first thing in the morning. It should take you two, maybe three weeks. Scott will be back from Stockton by the end of the week, if you think you still need some help, I’ll send him up.”

Something was wrong and Johnny didn’t like it. He eyed his father suspiciously. The whole thing didn’t make sense. There was no way Murdoch would hand him a project as big or important as building a dam at the drop of a hat. No, something was definitely up and he was going to find out exactly what that something was.

Johnny threw the map back onto the desk. “What’s really going on here, old man? I can tell when you’re hiding somethin’. What’s really going on?”

“Nothing. I simply want you…”

“Cut the crap, Murdoch. I can smell a lie…and you reek of it.”

“Can’t you just do as I ask, just once? Trust me to know what’s best?”

Johnny lowered his head. “Sorry Murdoch, I can’t. I stayed alive a whole lot of years by looking out for myself. And I get the feeling you’re trying to do it for me.”

Murdoch turned away from Johnny, not able to look him in the face. He didn’t want to hurt his son, didn’t want to subject him to the malicious attack being fostered on him by a single-minded old crone. Val had been able to get the judge to lift the injunction, but that didn’t change the hate and outrage that now festered in town.

Realization suddenly dawned on Johnny’s face and his eyes turned cold. “You ashamed of me, old man?” Johnny’s voice was steeped with accusation. “You got someone coming and you want me out of the way so I don’t embarrass you?”

Murdoch spun around, startling Johnny “Don’t ever ask that question again,” he growled. “You are my son, and there is not a man alive I would not be proud to introduce you to as John Lancer.”

“Doesn’t always seem that way.”

Murdoch took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Why are you making this so hard? Just do as I ask. I promise to explain it all to you later. Trust me, Johnny.”

Johnny shook his head slowly. “What’s going on Murdoch? The tension in here is thick enough to cut with a knife. Where’s Scott? Why did you send him to Stockton all of a sudden? If it was for a bull you’d of said something about it before. If you want me out of here for a couple of weeks tell me why.”

Murdoch’s shoulders slumped. “Before I do, I want you to promise me that you will stay on Lancer land. That you will not ride off. That when I call for you, you will return. This is none of your doing, but I’m afraid you are the one who will be hurt the most.”

Johnny waited a long moment. Never before had he made a promise without knowing the reasons behind it. He survived all these years because he made sure he always knew exactly where he stood. Now he was being asked to go against a basic rule of survival.

Not once since he had come home had Murdoch ever asked anything of him that remotely equaled the magnitude of trust and loyalty he was asking for now. At this moment, Johnny knew he was being asked to make the biggest leap of faith in his life. His father was asking him to trust him completely. It was a step he didn’t know if he could take.

Looking up into Murdoch’s face, he saw a sadness that made him catch his breath. Whatever was going on, it was destroying his father.

Without even realizing it, Johnny was nodding yes.

Murdoch nodded back and slowly walked over to the cabinet pouring two measures of tequila into a glass and handing it to Johnny before pouring himself the same amount of bourbon.

“Johnny, when Teresa’s mother took off years ago, it was easier to explain that she had died in an accident than admit that she had run out on her husband and her daughter.”

“Seems like a lot of that went on around here,” Johnny said softly.

Murdoch ignored the jibe and continued. “Hortence Shaffer decided it would be best for Teresa to live with her than be raised by two men alone on a ranch the size of Lancer.”

“The bruja should mind her own business.”

“Hortence believes she knows what is best for everyone…and she will stop at nothing to get her way. She tried again when Paul died. I left the decision in Teresa’s hands. You know the answer of course.”

“And…?”

“She has decided it is not proper for Teresa to be living here now that you and Scott have returned.”

Johnny’s shoulder’s stiffened. “You mean now that I have returned.”

Murdoch had to nod. “She has stirred up a lot of angry talk in town.”

“Seems to me she’s gotten to you too, a little.”

“How dare you think…”

“What was that about not parading around half naked in front of Teresa? No, she’s got ya thinking too.”

“Johnny, I’m trying to protect both of you. I don’t want either of you hurt. Johnny, Hortence Shaffer has turned that town into an angry mob…they can only see what she is feeding them. I don’t want to lose you, and I don’t want to lose Teresa.”

Johnny looked down at his glass, watched the tequila swirl around, nearly spilling over the edge. “And after all this time, she finally has the ammunition she needs…Johnny Madrid.”

“Johnny, this will all blow over with time. The people in town are good people; I’ve known some of them for years. They are just caught up in the frenzy. Given time, they will forget about Hortence and her crusade, like they have forgotten about all her other crusades.”

“You’re asking me to run and hide?”

“I’m asking you to stay out of sight for a couple of weeks. Johnny, you will not be helping yourself or Teresa by going into town and confronting….”

“Teresa knows?” Johnny asked, a cold shiver going down his back.

“No. I won’t let her go into town either.”

Johnny downed the last of his tequila in one long gulp. Anger swelled up inside him so fierce that his hand shook from it. In a fit of rage he threw the glass into the cold, empty fireplace and said, “It ain’t fair Murdoch. Not for Teresa. She’s done nothing wrong.”

“And neither have you, Johnny.”

Johnny gave his father a scathing look. “You don’t know half the things I’ve done.”

“That’s in the past. You’re Johnny Lancer now.”

Johnny sighed deeply. “You’re a fool, Murdoch, if you really think that. Something was bound to happen.”

“No, Johnny…”

Johnny whirled around, drawing his gun so fast that Murdoch merely saw a blur of movement and the gun was in his hand. “For a long time this was my father, my mother, my brother…my best friend. I never thought it wouldn’t be the only thing I could ever love and trust. I figured I would die with it, one way or the other.

“I never back shot a man, or called out a man to be killed who wasn’t already looking for me. But it doesn’t mean I ain’t got the stench of death on me. I hoped it would never brush off on you or Scott…and especially not Teresa. But it looks like it has.”

Murdoch reached out and pushed Johnny’s gun hand back down, and Johnny just let it dangle there. “Johnny, just give it time. A couple of weeks…Don’t let Hortence Shaffer destroy what we have been able to build in the past three months. I know it’s not always been easy…but its been right…and you know it.”

“You really think a couple of weeks is gonna make any difference? Most of them people in town never trusted me in the first place. How are they going to trust me now? Johnny Lancer doesn’t exist anymore. Madrid has come to call.”

Johnny re-holstered his gun and turned toward the stairs.

“Where are you going?” Murdoch demanded.

“I’m going to pack my saddle bags and get out of here before Teresa finds out what is going on. That bruja is not going to get her hands on Teresa cause of me.”

Murdoch grabbed for Johnny’s arm and whipped him back. “You made a promise.”

“Don’t count no more. I didn’t know what I was promising.”

“You have always said you were a man of your word.”

Johnny smiled coldly. “I’m Johnny Madrid, hired gun, remember?”

“You’re my son! If you think I’m going to let an old bitch like Hortence Shaffer destroy my family then you don’t know me very well yet.”

Johnny pushed Murdoch’s hands away. “It was never goin’ to work, you know. I did what I needed to. I helped to stop Day Pardee and his men. I earned my listening money. If I was smart, I would of left as soon as I could get out of bed. I just made it harder for all of us.”

“Johnny, no, that’s not the way it is…”

Johnny sighed deeply. “It is and you know it. I was never cut out to be a rancher. Especially not part owner of the biggest spread in the valley. Not when it means making friends in town, expecting them to forget who I am…who I was. A dog tries to join a coyote pack, sooner or later the coyotes are gonna turn on him. Say good bye to Teresa and Scott. Tell Scott not to try coming after me. If I don’t want to be found, he won’t find me.”

“This is not the way, Johnny.”

“It’s the only way,” Johnny said with finality.

Johnny made to turn as Murdoch breathed, “No it’s not.” With a fist made of iron, Murdoch punched Johnny in the jaw. Johnny didn’t even have the time to register surprise as his legs collapsed and he fell into Murdoch’s strong arms.

“Forgive me, son,” he whispered as he flung Johnny over this shoulder and headed for the front door, yelling for Jelly.

.

Chapter 5

Victoria Barkley studied the young man sitting across from her. To his credit he sat erect and never shied away from her penetrating gaze.

She saw no resemblance to Murdoch Lancer, except perhaps a stubborn streak. In all other ways he favored his fair-haired mother. But there was a harried look about him. She could see the turbulence in his eyes, but he never pushed, just sat and waited. Perhaps there was more of Murdoch in him then met the eye. He was no doubt a shrewd businessman. Given his upbringing in Boston, it appeared he was a culmination of both worlds.

The letter sat on the coffee table between them like a cancer. It seemed to eat up the very air in the room with its sickening presence, filled with half-truths and speculations.

Jarrod sat in a chair next to the sofa where Victoria sat. He too, was assessing the young man. Three months was not nearly long enough to take the Boston breeding out of him, and despite his road weary appearance, he carried himself with dignity, demanding respect. Jarrod decided he liked this young man. His brother, however, was a different story.

“Tell me how your father and Teresa are.” Victoria finally broke the silence.

“Murdoch is well,” Scott answered. “Worried about Johnny, and angry. But physically he is getting better by the day. The wound from Pardee’s bullet still keeps him off a horse more than he would like.”

“And Teresa?”

“Teresa knows nothing about what is going on…yet. I’m afraid it will only be a matter of time before she finds out.”

“Is it wise to keep it from her? She has a right to know what is going on. Especially since it all centers around her.”

Scott shrugged. “It’s Murdoch’s decision. He loves her like his own daughter. He wants to protect her as long as possible.”

Jarrod shifted in his seat. “Allowing a gunfighter to live under the same roof…is that protecting her?”

Scott turned toward Jarrod. “You’re a lawyer, I thought you of all people would know that not everything that is written down in black and white is the truth.”

Jarrod nodded. “And I also know where there is smoke there is fire.”

Scott’s eyes turned cold and he stood angrily, snatching the letter from the table. “I knew this was a waste of my time the moment I stepped in the door. I don’t have time for this. I’ll speak to the governor myself.”

“Sit down, Scott,” Victoria ordered. Her demand brokering no challenge.

Scott sat down, the letter nearly burning his fingers as he held it.

“If you try to see the governor on your own you will not get through the front door. Now tell us what is going on, every bit of it.”

Scott sat ridged in the chair, telling Victoria and Jarrod everything that had happened so far.

“Why would the town follow this Hortence like lemmings?” Jarrod asked.

A small smile tugged at Victoria’s mouth. “Any father with a teenage daughter would jump at the chance to run him out of town. There is something quite alluring about a man with an air of danger surrounding him. Add his dark good looks, you have a powder keg ready to explode. Then add gunfighter to the mix and this Hortence has the entire town on her side.”

Scott raised an eyebrow. “You’ve met Johnny?”

Victoria nodded. “I stopped by to see your father soon after Day Pardee had been defeated…single-handedly by you two, according to Murdoch. You were gone for the day, but Johnny was on the couch, the first day he was allowed out of bed. He was not happy with his confinement, but he was polite none the less.”

“Those first few weeks were very hard,” Scott admitted, remembering back to the angry young Johnny Madrid. It was only after Johnny was allowed to start working at his side that Scott really got to know the enigma that was Johnny Lancer. “But I’ve come to know him…and trust him.”

“And that?” Jarrod nodded to the letter that still dangled from Scott’s fingers.

“Johnny has never tried to deny who he was, what he was. And he won’t apologize for it either. But he is not the cold-blooded killer this letter describes. He did what he had to do to survive. Who knows what any of us would have done if we were in Johnny’s shoes, alone at ten, killing the man who killed his mother.”

Victoria visibly shuddered. Heath could have been Johnny Madrid. Almost was.

“I’ve seen how people look at him…” Scott said angrily. “The shallow minded bigots who treat him like half a person because he is neither pure Mexican or pure white.”

“It doesn’t take away the fact that Johnny Madrid is a dangerous man,” Jarrod argued, “with dangerous friends and enemies who could pop up at Lancer at anytime.”

“As much as I hate to admit it,” Victoria said, “Jarrod has a point. How will you convince the governor that Teresa will be safe in an environment like that?”

Scott jumped to his feet again, waving the letter in his hand. “Johnny is NOT the man described in this report. Where are the circumstances leading up to these…these deaths? Was Johnny defending himself, someone else? Was he hired to defend property from land grabbers and rustlers? He’s still famous in Mexico for standing beside the peons against the rurales. How many times was he called out by another gunslinger? I saw it happen myself just last month. We were in town for a beer and a man spotted Johnny in the saloon. Johnny did everything he could to talk him out of it. But he wanted the reputation. He wanted to be the one to take down Johnny Madrid. Johnny was faster…”

Jarrod shook his head. His point made. “And that is just what the governor will see. I may be playing Devil’s Advocate here, but Scott, its going to be an uphill battle to convince the governor that Hortence doesn’t have a good case for either taking Teresa out of a dangerous household or sending Johnny away.”

“That is exactly why the governor has to come to Lancer.”

“To Lancer?” Victoria looked at Scott, not sure how to respond.

“It is the only way. Don’t you see?” Scott sat back down on the edge of the seat. “We have to let the governor know the real Johnny Madrid…the real Johnny Lancer. He has to see the love he and Teresa have for each other. He has to see the kid Johnny is sometimes. For all that my brother has been through, he can still be entranced by a spectacular sunrise or stare at a blanket of stars overhead for hours, mesmerized. Don’t get me wrong, he can still fight like a bear and is as stubborn as a mule. But the good in him far outweighs the bad. Let the governor see that before he makes his decision. Because, believe me, if Hortence gets her way and Johnny has to leave it will destroy him. He will go back to being Johnny Madrid…and you will never persuade Teresa that it is not her fault in some way.”

“You’re asking for a lot, Scott,” Jarrod said. “You are asking us to put our reputation on the line for a man we don’t even know. If we persuade the governor to ride out to Lancer and…”

“And what?” Scott demanded. “Do you think Johnny is going to gun him down?”

Jarrod jumped to his feet. “I didn’t say that.”

“I may have only known Johnny for three months, but I know him enough to trust him with my life and with Teresa’s. If you can’t see past that report, then I’m sorry for you, because you are missing out on knowing a good, decent man.” Scott turned to Victoria. “Now, if you don’t mind my taking advantage of your hospitability, I would like to rest here tonight and be on my way tomorrow morning.”

“Well, I do mind. Both of you sit down!” Victoria waited until both men were seated…albeit, glowering at each other. “I have known Murdoch Lancer since he first came to California. Your father and Murdoch were the best of friends. I watched him endure the loss of two wives and two sons. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that one of those sons would be standing before me asking for our help.”

“Mother…”

Victoria raised her hand. “Let me finish, Jarrod, then you can have the floor. I have also watched Teresa grow into a fine young woman. I know for a fact that Murdoch loves her like his own daughter and he would let no one…and I mean no one, harm her in any way. If he thought that Johnny was a threat to her, he would be gone.”

“And his past doesn’t worry you?” Jarrod demanded.

“Of course it worries me. But would you send Heath away because of his past?”

“They have nothing in common,” Jarrod exploded. “Johnny Madrid was a gunslinger…a killer for hire.”

“And so was Heath, for a short time. He has admitted it. So do we worry about Audra living in the same house with Heath?”

“They are brother and sister for God’s sake.”

“Half brother and half sister. We know a lot less about Heath’s past then we know of Johnny’s. Jarrod, please, I am only asking that you try to see past that report and give Johnny a chance.”

“And if we’re wrong? If we convince the governor to go to Lancer and Johnny turns out to be what this report states?”

“It won’t be the first mistake we’ve made, and it won’t be the last. I am willing to take the chance.”

Silence hung in the room, broken only by the sound coming from the swishing of Victoria’s skirt as she settled back down on the couch.

“All right,” Jarrod conceded finally. “I will go into town first thing in the morning and purchase three tickets to Sacramento.”

“If you don’t mind,” Scott said, “I would rather let you handle the governor alone…I’m afraid of what Murdoch might be facing trying to keep a rein on Johnny once he finds out what’s happening.”

“He doesn’t know either?” Victoria asked, surprised.

“Not when I left. Murdoch was going to try to keep him out of town until we could get the governor there.”

“So you are afraid of what he will do then,” Jarrod said.

Scott shook his head. “Not afraid of what he would do. I’m afraid he will leave. We would never find him again if he left thinking that he was to blame for any harm coming to Teresa.”

“You make him sound like a saint.”

Scott snorted, “Johnny Lancer…a saint?” He smiled and laughed under his breath. “Far from it. He’s a good man Jarrod. You’ll find that out when you meet him and get to know him.”

“I’m looking forward to it. I want to meet the man who can invoke so much passion. But for right now I’m starving. Mother, shall we eat?”

Victoria nodded. “After Scott has had time to freshen up. I will have Silas show you to your room. I’m sure a hot bath will feel quite refreshing after your long trip. And don’t hurry on our account. Jarrod is always hungry and the rest of the family is out tonight, so it is just the three of us.”

Scott smiled. “It will feel good to soak in a hot bath. It is one of the things I find the hardest to get used to out here. There were times when I would take two baths a day in Boston. There have been times out here when I have been lucky to take two in one week.”

“That my friend,” Jarrod slapped Scott on the back, “is not something we scrimp on around here. So take your time. I will raid the kitchen if need be.”

Victoria stepped forward and drew Hortence’s letter from Scott’s hand. “And you won’t be needing this tonight. I’m sure the governor has his own copy by now. I know it will be hard, but try to relax and enjoy the evening. I’m sure your father has everything under control at home.

.

Chapter 6

“What happened ta Johnny?” Jelly was shadowing Murdoch’s steps as he rushed out of the great room with Johnny slumped over his shoulder.

“Get the wagon hitched,” Murdoch ordered. “And put some hay in the back to cushion it.”

“You taking Johnny inta town to see the doc?” Jelly continued to dog Murdoch’s heels, trying to get a look at Johnny to see why the boy was unconscious.

“No. I’m taking him to the line shack. Now get a move on. I want to be up there before Johnny comes around.”

“Did he fall or somethin’?”

“No,” Murdoch hissed in frustration. “I knocked him out. Now hurry.”

“What in tarnation…?”

“Just do it Jelly, please. I’ll explain everything on the way up.”

Jelly shook his head as he hurried toward the barn. “You better know what yer doin’,” he muttered to himself. “‘Cause that boy ain’t gonna be happy when he wakes up.”

***

It felt like someone had taken a sledge hammer to his jaw. Johnny lay very still, trying to make sense of what had happened to him and where he was, but he couldn’t think past the pounding in his head.

He only knew two things for sure…his head was about to explode and his rebellious stomach was going to do likewise.

Johnny wasn’t sure how much time passed before his head cleared enough for him to decide he was lying on something softer than the ground, but a lot harder than his mattress. And someone was hovering over him. He could feel their presence, but it was too much effort to open his eyes yet to find out who it was. He couldn’t do anything about it anyway.

Something cool and damp pressed against his face and he flinched to get away from the pain.

“Take it easy, boy,” a familiar voice soothed through the ringing in his ears. “Nothin’s broke, ya just won’t be chomping down on no steak for a good long while.”

Prying his eyes open, Johnny saw two Jellys leaning over him, both of them wearing a worried expression.

“What…” Johnny tried to ask, but his jaw was so swollen he couldn’t form the word.

“No need ta be askin’ questions yet. Ya just rest a bit. Ole Jelly’ll take good care a ya. Now, just go back ta sleep, ya hear?”

Johnny had no intention of going back to sleep. Someone had belted him good and… “Murdoch!”

The name was garbled, but by Jelly’s reaction, Johnny knew he had hit pay dirt.

“Now ya just relax, Johnny. Murdoch had his reasons.”

Johnny leered at the old man.

“We’re just gonna spend a few days here at this line shack. Jest the two of us.”

Anger spawned a burst of adrenalin, and Johnny climbed to his feet, pushing Jelly aside roughly.

“Ain’t gonna do ya no good, Johnny. Yer pa done took the wagon back with `im.”

“Why?” Johnny tried to yell, incensed, but he only managed a garbled grunt.

“Maybe ta give ya time ta think twice ’bout what you were gonna do. Runnin’ off ain’t gonna solve nothin’, save makin’ them that loves ya sadder than a dog without a bone.”

Johnny suddenly felt his bare feet on the wooden floor and looked down to see his toes.

“He done took yer boots an socks too,” Jelly informed him. “Didn’t want ya ta get the fool notion of trying ta walk back ta the house. Even though it be more’n fifteen miles, I kin see yer ornery enough ta try it though.”

Johnny looked down at Jelly’s feet.

“He’s smarter than ya thought.” Jelly grinned, wiggling his bare toes. “He knew ya was gonna take my boots if’n I had `im. Now, ya jest sit down an relax. Ain’t no place ta go.”

Anger mixed with the throbbing in his head and Johnny staggered toward the door. If he had to walk barefoot he was going to give Murdoch Lancer a piece of his mind before he left. He reached the door and tried to turn the knob, but his world suddenly spun and he felt Jelly’s arms around his chest guiding him back toward the cot.

“Yer pa carries a wallop like a Brahma bull. Now ya jest lay there an let that head of yours clear up `fore ya start galavantin’ `round tryin’ ta find a way out a here…when there is none ta begin with.”

//I’m going to kill him…// Johnny promised silently, as Jelly placed a cool cloth on his jaw again. //I’m going to kill him, then ride as far away from Lancer as I can get.//

Jelly shook his head as he watched Johnny’s eyes slide closed, and his breathing slowed to an even rhythm.

The door opened and Murdoch slipped in. “Is he going to be all right?” he asked, his voice struggling to contain his worry and regret.

“Think so,” Jelly answered. “Ya hit him pretty hard. He’s probably got one of `em concussions Doc’s always talkin’ `bout. But he’s got a hard head and even harder jaw.”

Murdoch massaged his right hand. “I can attest to that. Will you be all right with him out here alone for a few days?”

“A course I will. Johnny’s gonna be madder than a wet hen when he gets back on his feet, but it’s a dang sight better than him taking off fer good. But what ya gonna do when them few days is up? He ain’t gonna wanna stay any more’n he wants ta now.”

“I know, Jelly. But time. I need time. I won’t lose my son because of a meddlesome old bitch.”

“Ya won’t boss, we’ll see ta that. Now ya get yerself out a here `fore he wakes up again. If I need anythin’ I’ll signal fer Joe. And make sure he stays outa sight. I swear Johnny kin see a cat’s whisker a mile away.”

Murdoch nodded, looking down at Johnny sleeping. He seemed so young when he slept. It was hard to believe he’d led the life he had. Things could have been so different if Maria had never taken off, and had not filled his head with all those lies. “Try to talk to him Jelly. Try to make him understand why I did this. As soon as Scott gets back from Stockton we’ll come back and talk to him. Hopefully by then he’ll listen to reason.”

“And that poor little girl? Are ya gonna tell Teresa what’s goin’ on?”

“Eventually, I’ll have to. But not yet.”

Jelly watched Murdoch reluctantly slip out the door, then looked back down at Johnny. His jaw was turning a deep black and blue and his right eye was showing signs of blackening.

“Murdoch,” he whispered. “What have ya done?”

*****

Jelly poured a cup of coffee and sat back to study Johnny in the flickering light from the two oil lamps he had set on either side of the cot. He had awoken just that one time while Murdoch was still here…but that was hours ago. Jelly was more than just a little worried now.

When they’d first arrived at the shack Jelly had done his best to check the inside of Johnny’s mouth. After clearing out most of the blood and trying to wiggle the boy’s back teeth, he was satisfied that the blow had not loosened any teeth. But his inside cheek had a deep gash where his teeth had cut the soft tissue and it would take

time to heal.

Jelly shook his head sadly. Murdoch had a powerful punch, and he was acting out of desperation. The combination could have been lethal.

Murdoch told him what was going on in town as they brought Johnny up to the line shack. He couldn’t blame his boss. Murdoch was doing the only thing he could think of, in a desperate attempt to keep Johnny from packing up and taking off like a bat out of hell for parts unknown. Murdoch might not know his son all that well, but he knew him well enough to know that if Johnny had gotten on that horse of his, he would have ridden off for good. No, Murdoch did what he had to do; Jelly just wished he hadn’t done it so well. Time would tell, but Jelly feared that that punch had done more harm than a bruise and a cut cheek. It may have reawakened Johnny Madrid.

Johnny moaned and his long dark eyelashes fluttered against his bruised cheek, then opened.

“Ya with me again, boy?” Jelly asked, leaning over Johnny and waiting for some sign of recognition that the young man knew who he was or where he was.

“Jelly?” Johnny mumbled.

“The one an’ only.” Jelly gently helped Johnny swing his legs over the edge of the cot and handed him a glass, watching him carefully raise it to his mouth and take several painful swallows. “There now, that should clear yer head a bit. Got some beef stew simmering on the stove. A bowl of broth would settle that stomach of yours.”

Johnny shook his head guardedly.

“Maybe in a little while then. Got coffee here too. And when yer feelin’ a little more like yerself, I found a bottle stashed behind a `tatter sack. Someone’s been doin’ a little nippin’ on Lancer time. Yer pa ain’t gonna be pleased `bout that.”

With the mention of Murdoch’s name, Johnny glowered up at Jelly.

“I know,” Jelly tried to placate him, “yer not feeling too fond towards yer pa right about now…can’t blame ya, but it was just about the only thing he could do ta keep ya from riding off. Ya got a quick temper, boy, and ya do things rash sometimes. Murdoch didn’t want ya takin’ off `fore he could make ya listen to sense.”

Johnny pushed himself off the cot and swayed a moment before he caught his equilibrium. Murdoch punched harder than a mule kicked. He always wondered what it would feel like to be on the receiving end of one of his fathers hay makers. Now he knew, and he wished he didn’t. He gingerly felt his jaw, surprised how swollen it was. It would be days before the swelling went down completely.

Damn it to hell…what was Murdoch thinking? What right did he have to slug him like that? If he wanted to leave that was his business. He’d lived on his own for most of his life, he took care of himself then and he could take care of himself now.

He knew it had been a mistake to let down his guard, to trust someone so much. He never would have been sucker punched like that three months ago. He’d gotten soft…living in that big house, having people around to protect him. It was a mistake. He knew it from the very beginning…and now the most innocent of all was gonna get hurt. He would protect Teresa with his life. He would protect her by getting out of her life.

Jelly was standing by him, silently watching him, holding a cup of steaming coffee in his hand.

Johnny nodded toward the cup.

“I put a little somethin’ extra in it ta dull the pain…” Jelly winked.

Johnny accepted the cup gratefully. It hurt like hell to work his swollen mouth around the cup, and the alcohol in the coffee stung his cut cheek, forcing a hiss of pain, but the hot liquid felt good going down.

“You thinkin’ `bout your pa?” Jelly asked. “He just done what he thought was right.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed, turning cold. Jelly took an involuntary step backwards. It was always an unnerving experience when Johnny Madrid came to call. There was an aura of danger about him that could not be explained.

“Johnny.” Jelly circled Johnny and sat down on one of the kitchen chairs, the light from the lanterns casting dancing shadows in the corner, and waited for Johnny to join him. Johnny didn’t move. “This thing with that old piece of buzzard bait, Hortence Shaffer, is gonna blow over. Ya just have ta give it time.”

Johnny shook his head. If Johnny could have talked, he would have told Jelly that things had just changed. He had already stayed longer than he had intended. It was time he moved on. And everyone would be better for it. Especially Teresa. He would never do anything to harm her. If he rode this out, if Jelly was right and it soon blew over…how long before the next Hortence butted in? And who was to say that she wasn’t right? Johnny Madrid spelled trouble, no matter how you looked at it.

Jelly looked down at Johnny’s bare feet. “Ya might as well set yerself down, yer not goin’ no where until someone brings back our boots. Why don’t ya just try ta rest. I’m bettin’ yer head feels like a team of drummers was in there pounding away. Sleep is what ya need right now.”

Johnny had to admit sleep sounded very tempting, and Jelly was right, there was nothing he could do until he had his boots back. But after that…

Jelly jumped to his feet as Johnny walked over to the bed. “Now yer bein’ sensible. A good night’s sleep and you’ll be feeling a whole bunch better.”

Johnny raised a doubtful eyebrow. Nothing was going to make him feel better. Not for a very long time.

*****

Murdoch poured himself a glass of bourbon and eased his tired body into his favorite chair in front of the fire. It was a nice evening, warm enough that night that he didn’t need the heat from the crackling flames, but it gave him the solace he so desperately needed.

He thought back on the past three months; it had been a turbulent time, filled with the loss of an old friend and the return of his two sons. Nothing had been easy. Unasked questions still remained unanswered like, why he didn’t try to bring Scott home or why he hadn’t realized that Maria was so unhappy. Why had she felt the need to flee in the middle of the night with a stranger, a gambler no less, taking his precious Johnny with her?

But they had also made progress. Johnny was settling in, as much as he could, into the everyday life of a ranch owner. His friendship with Scott had emerged as the backbone that kept the family together. Teresa was never happier, just having Johnny and Scott around brightened her life.

But it was all being ripped apart by a selfish old woman who wanted to prove that she could win, no matter what the cost.

And the cost was heavy. Johnny was only the first casualty. If she succeeded in sending him away, then she would find another reason why this house was not a fit place for Teresa to be raised in.

Sipping at his drink, Murdoch wondered what Johnny was doing at that very moment. Was he sleeping or was he just staring up at the ceiling of the line shack? Murdoch smiled into his glass thinking that Johnny must have a million and one questions going through his head right now and smoldering with a deep-set desire to throttle him for what he had done.

Murdoch hoped and prayed there was some way to set this right with Johnny. Some way to explain to his son, why he had raised his hand in such a horrific manner. Murdoch shook his head and sighed, troubled by the thought that he’d had to resort to such desperate measures in the first place. An act of violence was never the answer to solving a problem and something he was not prone to doing unless pushed into a corner with nowhere to turn. Would his son understand and accept his explanation? Forgive him? Only time would tell.

No matter how this turned out, this was going to be a black day in his life for as long as he lived. His only hope was that they came out of this a bit scarred and not broken.

He had received Scott’s telegram earlier. The note was short, just that the bid on the bull was successful and he would be home late the next day. Their only hope now was that Victoria could convince the governor to come to Lancer and meet Johnny. But which Johnny would he be meeting? Lancer or Madrid? “Damn you Hortence…Damn you to hell.”

Drinking the last of his bourbon, he stood up slowly and covered the open hearth with a screen and headed for bed. His steps were heavy and slow…the gait of an old man.

He had lost something today…something more precious than gold or silver or even this land he professed to love more than life itself…he had lost Johnny’s trust, and he didn’t know if he would ever earn it back.

.

Chapter 7

Sam Jenkins was livid as he hurried toward the sheriff’s office. A week away on his monthly rounds and he had returned to a town beset by gossip, innuendo and out right condemnation. And at the center of the controversy was the largest ranch in the San Joaquin Valley: The Lancer spread, or more accurately, Johnny Lancer.

He could not believe the stories that were circling, spinning into a cauldron of hate and fear, spoken by men, women and children alike.

“What in the name of all that is holy is going on here?” Sam demanded, as he burst into Val Crawford’s office.

“You’re back,” Val said, dragging his feet down off his desk and righting his chair.

“Yes I’m back. But I’m not sure I’m in the right town.”

“Oh, yer in the right town, all right, its jest got a little crazy is all.” Val drew a bottle of cheap whiskey from his desk drawer with two glasses. “You might want a shot before I tell ya,” the scruffy sheriff suggested.

Sam dragged a chair over to the desk and sat down. “I’ve heard some pretty disgusting things since I got back in town. Where is all this dirt coming from?”

“Well it don’t take no one with more than a lick of sense to figure that one out. Hortence Shaffer, a course.”

Sam downed the drink Val had poured him and pushed his glass toward the sheriff for a refill. “Hortence. I might have known, but whatever for? Johnny has never done anything to…”

“It ain’t Johnny she wants, it’s Teresa. Or so she says.”

Sam eyed Val skeptically. “Teresa?”

Val nodded.

“And what does Johnny have to do with Teresa?”

“Just a means to an end,” Val sighed. ”Just a means to an end. Murdoch tells me she’s been fightin’ this war since Teresa’s mama up and died. It’s just now she’s got the ammunition she needs.”

“What are you doing about it?”

“Not much I can do, Sam. She ain’t broke no laws yet, not legal ones, anyways, not yet. It ain’t against the law ta speak yer mind. But I tell ya, she’s jest on the edge of inciting a riot…she does that and I’ll haul her in fer disturbing the peace.”

Sam downed another shot and grimaced at the taste. “I’ll tell you what’s against the law, sheriff, t gut whiskey like this. What did you pay for this, penny a bottle? Because if you paid any more, you were robbed.”

“I ain’t holding no gun to yer head ta make ya swoller it, Sam.”

“No, but the taste I got in my mouth from that no good excuse for a woman, tastes worse. How’s Johnny taking all this?”

“Johnny don’t know nothing about it, least ways not that I know. Teresa neither.”

This surprised Sam. “How is Murdoch keeping it away from them?”

“He won’t let Teresa come inta town, and he was gonna send Johnny off to build a bridge or somethin’. I jest know when Johnny finds out, he ain’t gonna be happy ta know that his old man didn’t tell him what was goin’ on.”

“That’s an understatement. Where’s Scott in all this?”

“In Stockton.”

Sam set his glass down hard on the desk, frustrated. “Val, just tell me everything…don’t make me pull it out of you.”

Val shrugged. “Ain’t much more ta tell. Scott went ta see the Barkley’s ta see if they’d put a good word in fer Johnny with the governor, and maybe bring him out to the ranch so he could meet Johnny and find out fer himself what kinda man Johnny Lancer really is.”

“The governor? How did the governor get involved?”

“Hortence again. She sent a letter ta him. I tell ya Sam, if I didn’t know Johnny, and I read that letter, I wouldn’t come within a mile of Johnny Lancer. She done a real good job on the boy, that’s fer sure”

Sam sighed heavily. “Maybe I should have a talk with Hortence, see if I can talk some sense into her.”

“Good luck, but ya might as well just stay here fer a spell, she should be right along any time now.”

“What?”

Val pulled a folded letter out of his drawer. “I sent one of these over ta her this mornin’. As soon as she reads it she’s gonna be as mad as a witch without a broom.”

Sam read the letter and a smile crawled across his face. “You think this up, Val?” he asked.

“Sure did. Took a look at one ‘em law books Dennis Caruthers keeps in his office for when he’s in town. Came up with this here little law. Cain’t pronounce it…but I can sure uphold it.”

Sam smiled. “Then I think I’ll stick around until Hortence shows up. This could be interesting.”

***

They didn’t have to wait long until the door slammed open and Hortence Shaffer stood in the doorway, her face a peculiar shade between red and purple, holding a duplicate letter to the one that sat on Val’s desk.

“What is the meaning of this?” she demanded, waving the letter. “This isn’t legal.”

“I’m afraid it is, Hortence.” Sam grinned. “I’m sure Val would be pleased to show you the law book he got it from. Wouldn’t you, Val?”

“I got the page number written down right here.” Val tapped the letter on his desk. “Ya kin follow me over ta Dennis Caruthers’ office if ya want. It says right there in that book that what yer doing is…is… ”

“Defamation of character.” Sam supplied, helpfully.

“Def…yeah…what he just said.”

“Everything I’ve said about Johnny Madrid has been true. Just ask anyone in town, they all know of his exploits. They all know he is an out and out killer. And you’re trying to protect him?”

“I’m doing what the law tells me to,” Val snapped back.

“This is outrageous,” she fumed. “It’s unethical.”

“You’d certainly be the one to know,” Sam quipped.

“This is none of your business, Sam Jenkins. So stay out of it.”

“Seems to me that you have made it everyone’s business…all the way to the governor.”

“I’m just trying to save that poor child,” Hortence said defensively.

“Hogwash!” Val jumped to his feet, his chair scraping across the wooden floor. “You just want ta win a battle you’ve been fighting since ya first moved to this town. And yer using Johnny and Teresa ta fight it. Well I’m tired of it, and you better pay attention to that law…cause if I see ya passing that letter ‘round to another person, I’ll throw ya in jail and throw away the key ‘til the circuit judge comes ta town, and that ain’t fer another five weeks.”

“We’ll see about this, Sheriff,” Hortence warned, her face now dark with anger. “I only have that child’s best interest at heart. If you can’t see that, then maybe we should find a new sheriff who can.”

“Is that a threat, Hortence?” Val asked sharply. “Cause if it is, I kin run ya in fer threatening a peace officer. I saw that too, in that book.”

Hortence’s eyes grew cold as steel. “Nothing is going to stop me from getting that half-breed killer out of this town, or that poor young girl out of that household. The shame of it…living with all those men, not one of them a blood relation…with only a Mexican housekeeper as a female role model. Something should have been done about it years ago. Now Johnny Madrid is pawing all over her. It has to stop, gentlemen, and I am going to stop it!”

Sam jumped to his feet. “If anything happens to that boy because of your meddling, so help me, I will see that you spend the rest of your life in jail for conspiracy to murder. And don’t think I won’t. Johnny Lancer lived a tough life, and now that he’s found a home and a family I won’t let a sour old reprobate take it away from him.”

Hortence nearly shook she was so mad. “Sheriff,” she cried, “I want this man arrested.”

“Fer what?” Val asked.

“For insulting a lady.”

“Well, seems ta me like he’d have ta find a lady first…”

Hortence turned on her heels, nearly knocking down two women walking along the boardwalk. “You’ll be sorry,” she called as she hurried across the street, dodging horses and wagons. “You’ll be sorry,” her voice trailed off as she headed down the opposite boardwalk toward her home.

There was no levity in Val’s voice as he sat down in his chair and ran his hands through his unruly hair. “There’s no way this is gonna end without someone gettin’ hurt.”

Sam nodded. “And we both know who that is.”

***

Murdoch sat at his desk, the day’s ledger open, but untouched. The pencil he held in his hand tapped unnoticed on the page, peppering the line of figures with black dots.

He had spent the night before sitting in a chair pushed up to his bedroom window overlooking the courtyard below. How he wanted things to be as they were, not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but improving. He had established a strong bond between himself and his oldest boy. That had been easy. Scott was everything a father could be proud of, even if he had not raised him. The simple fact that his blood ran in his son’s veins made him a part of Scott. He could trust Scot to keep a level head, make business decisions that profited the ranch. He could attend any Cattlemen’s Association and fit right in. No one had a disparaging word against Scott Lancer.

Then there was Johnny. Everything that Scott was not. Unrefined, raw at times. Raised in the streets of a dozen poverty stricken Mexican towns, branded a half-breed every time he opened his startling blue eyes. He had survived on his wits and a fast draw.

But there was a soft side to Johnny, the side he tried so hard to hide. But it was there. No one who knew Johnny could miss it. And that was the Johnny he wanted everyone to know. Not the hardened ex-gunfighter. And there lay the crux of the problem. Johnny could never totally escape Johnny Madrid.

In the three months since Johnny first arrived, filled with anger and hate so deep it nearly seeped from his pores, he saw a change in the boy. Scott had seen it first, had known instinctively that there was a good man beneath the façade that was Johnny Madrid. And Johnny had trusted Scott enough to let him in, to see the real Johnny. Just recently was Murdoch rewarded with a taste of that same trust. A word here, a look there, all adding up to Johnny allowing him to be a part of his life.

Then Hortence had to raise her ugly head. The thing that Johnny feared the most, that his past would hurt them, was happening, and not by some eager gunslinger looking to add Johnny Madrid to a notch on his gunbelt, but a spiteful old woman who would do anything to win her cause.

And in trying to protect him, in trying to keep Johnny from hearing the scathing half- truths and bald face lies, he had destroyed all the trust he had nurtured in the past three months. Because Murdoch had no doubt that that fist hitting Johnny’s jaw had summoned Johnny Madrid to the forefront.

They would have to begin again. He would have to regain the boy’s trust, try to make him understand that he would do anything not to lose him again.

The sound of a rider pulling up to the front hitching rail drew Murdoch’s attention out the window and he saw Scott slowly dismount. How was he going to explain this to Scott?

***

“You did what!” Scott threw his saddlebags on the sofa and glared at Murdoch.

“I had no choice,” Murdoch defended. “He was turning to leave. What would you have me do, shoot him? If your brother had left this ranch we would have never seen him again. I had to do something. I just hope someday he will forgive me and understand.”

Scot shook his head. “I told Victoria Barkley that you had everything under control here. How wrong I was. Well, I’d better go up and talk to him.”

“He’s not there,” Murdoch mumbled.

“What?”

“He’s not there,” Murdoch said a little louder. How strange it felt to be on this end of the conversation. It didn’t feel very good. If this was how Johnny felt every time he was lambasted by Murdoch’s harsh criticism, then he would have to change his ways. It’s a wonder Johnny had stayed as long as he did.

“Where is he then?” Scott asked.

“In the North boundary line shack. He’s not alone, Jelly’s with him.”

“And why is Johnny just sitting in a line shack and not trying to ride off.”

“Because I stranded them without horses…and…and I took their socks and boots. Johnny won’t be going anywhere until we’re ready.”

“We’re ready? Oh no, there is no “we’re” here. It was your decision. I had no part in it.”

“What would you have me do, Scott? I had to do something. I’m sorry I hit him. You can’t know how sorry I really am. But, I would do it again if it meant keeping Johnny here long enough to straighten this nightmare out. Now, what did Victoria say?”

Scott poured himself a drink and handed one to Murdoch. “Both she and Jarrod were reluctant at first. But they agreed, only because she trusts you. They left this morning on a train to Sacramento. They will wire us when they have any news. And don’t worry, they will be discreet. The telegram will simply say that they are coming for a visit. Nothing will be said about the governor.”

Murdoch walked back to his desk and sat down heavily in his favored chair. The years he had spent at this desk, through the good times and the bad. “I haven’t been out to see your brother since the incident. I thought it best to wait for you, I may need a referee.”

“What you’ll need is a miracle.”

***

Murdoch dreaded this moment. He pulled his horse to a stop at the top of a rise overlooking the line shack below. Everything looked deceptively quiet. The only sign that anyone was there was the smoke curling out of the stove’s chimney, wafting off into the air as a slight summer breeze caught it.

Scott pulled up beside him. “At least everything is quiet.”

Murdoch nodded, but he had the feeling that it was too quiet.

“You’ve got to talk to him sometime,” Scott said. “And you know he knows we’re here.”

Murdoch knew all too well that nothing slipped by Johnny, except, he thought ruefully, a sucker punch from his own father.

As they moved down closer to the shack, Murdoch noticed a figure sitting against a tree a few yards away from the cabin. There was no mistaking the colorful salmon shirt or the glint of sun off the silver conchos on his pants.

“Hello, brother,” Scott said casually.

Johnny squinted up at him. “Brother. Did you find that bull all right in Stockton,” he asked in a flat voice.

Scott nodded. “Well worth the trip.”

Murdoch nervously shifted in the saddle. “Nice boots,” he commented, at the pair of boots Johnny wore.

.

Chapter 8

Scott had not been to this line shack before. Only fifteen miles from the hacienda, it was in rugged territory and took some skillful riding for them to wend their way down to a valley of spruce trees. Murdoch had mentioned in passing that the cabin had been built years ago when this was the only trail to Spanish Wells. Since then an easier road had been built.

Nestled in a copse of dense trees the shack was the perfect place to leave Johnny marooned.

Scott shook his head in disgust. He wasn’t sure what he would find here, but it wasn’t the pale sullen brother he saw sitting beneath a tree a few yards from the shack. The right side of his jaw was swollen and deeply bruised. Lighter bruising extended up his cheek and beneath his eye.

But it was the look in his eyes that startled Scott the most. There was so much anger there…and hurt. The two days Murdoch had waited for his return had left Johnny too much time to sit and think, to bolster his anger. Anger Scott knew was well deserved, but in the end, Murdoch had done the only thing he could to keep his son from riding off. Scott just wished his father had not done it so well.

“Are you all right?” Scott asked tentatively.

Johnny shrugged. “I’ve had worse.”

Sadly, Scott knew that was all too true. Johnny’s body was a testament to the abuse and hard life he had led before returning to Lancer. They had come so far in the short three months since they both arrived. Johnny had just started to let his guard down, to allow people to really get to know him. And he was a man well worth knowing…but now…now Scott feared that the Johnny they were getting to know would disappear like a wounded animal behind the safety of Johnny Madrid.

“I’m surprised you’re still here,” Scott nodded toward the old pair of boots. “Joe’s?”

Again a shrug, cold and indifferent. “Didn’t feel much like walking….” With that, a pistol seemed to appear out of nowhere. “I’d rather ride.”

“Johnny…” Murdoch implored.

Scott nodded toward the gun. “Looks like you borrowed more than Joe’s boots.”

Johnny didn’t answer, just continued to watch them cautiously.

“Mind if we talk first?” Scott asked, not waiting for an answer before dismounting.

“The old man said all there was to say already,” Johnny replied, his voice still cold and unemotional. “Didn’t ya, Murdoch? You can pack a hell of a lot of words in one punch.”

“Johnny, please.” Murdoch dismounted, taking a step away from Scott. “I’m sorry I hit you. But I had no other choice.”

Johnny laughed, but there was no humor in it. Carefully he began to stand up, using the trunk of the tree for support. Inching his way up until he was standing, one hand on the tree and one hand steadying the gun between Scott and Murdoch, he never took his eyes off them. By the time he made it to his feet, Scott noticed a sheen of sweat popping out on his face and an attempt to hide a pronounced sway as he pushed himself away from the tree.

“If you don’t mind, I’ll borrow your horse, Scott,” he said. “Now move away…slowly.”

Scott obeyed. Dropping the reins he took a step away from Charlemagne and his father. He hoped that Murdoch would catch on and do the same. To his relief he saw his father take a step away from his horse too. Now they made a wider target.

“Where do you plan on going?” Scott asked, taking another small step.

“Don’t know, don’t much care. Just away from here.”

“Johnny.” Murdoch kept his voice calm, taking another small step away from Scott. “We have to talk, Son.”

“Nothing to talk about. I made a mistake in coming here. I made an even bigger mistake when I decided to stay. I knew it couldn’t work.”

“But it is working…don’t you see, Johnny, it is working.”

“Just wishful thinkin’ on your part. I told ya, I got too much riding behind me to settle down and try to be a rancher’s son.”

“You are a rancher’s son,” Murdoch growled. “You’re my son, and I won’t let some bitter old woman drive you away from what’s rightfully yours.”

“What if I don’t want it?” Johnny asked bitterly.

“Oh you want it, Johnny, you want it so bad you can taste it. I’ve seen it in your eyes…when you’re looking over miles and miles of Lancer land…your land…when you’re sitting by the fireplace at night with nothing more to worry about than what time you’ll head upstairs to bed…your bed…your room…your…”

“Shut up!” Johnny yelled. “I don’t want to hear anymore, I just want to get out of here. I’ll leave Charlie at the house and take Barranca. I figure Barranca is a fair enough trade for my third of Lancer.”

“Johnny, don’t end it like this,” Murdoch pleaded. “There are so many things I need to tell you before you leave. If you still want to go after we’ve talked, then I won’t stop you.”

Johnny looked cautiously between his brother and his father. It was plain to both men that Johnny was not his usual self. His actions were slow and too deliberate…as if he knew one wrong move would send him toppling to the ground.

Scott glanced over at his father and nodded surreptitiously and Murdoch nodded back.

Seeing the cornered look in Johnny eyes, Murdoch spoke gently, the way he had watched Johnny gentle a wild and frightened horse.

“Don’t throw these last three months away, Johnny. We can work through this…if we stay together as a family. Don’t let the hatred of one old woman drive you away from what is rightfully yours.”

Murdoch took another step, toward Johnny this time, drawing his attention away from Scott.

“Stay where you are,” Johnny warned, wiping his brow with the sleeve of his left arm to stop the beads of sweat from running into his eyes, while at the same time swinging the gun toward Murdoch.

Murdoch sighed deeply. “That gun isn’t the answer, John. Please, put it down. I told you I wouldn’t stop you if you really wanted to leave.”

“I said, stay where you are.”

Murdoch stopped. “Jelly and Joe?” he asked gently. He needed to keep Johnny’s attention diverted toward him, and away from Scott. But he knew his son was on the very edge of bolting.

“In the shack,” Johnny answered. The gun wavered in his hand for just a moment…then he smiled coldly. “What do you think I did, old man? Shoot them? Or maybe knock them senseless into next year?”

“I’m sorry I hit you so hard, Johnny. I just wanted to stop you.” Murdoch took another step closer and now Johnny’s attention was fully on him, allowing Scott to move silently behind him.

“Well, you stopped me all right. But you could have saved yourself some sore knuckles…because I’m leaving anyway.”

“Not until the three of us have had a talk,” Scott said from behind him.

Startled, Johnny tried to turn around, but the move sent his head spinning and he fell against the tree trunk like a drunken cowboy. Scott caught Johnny’s arm, steadying him, while at the same time grabbing his gun and tossing it to Murdoch.

“Boy, you really must be hurting if I can trump you like this. Now, let’s get you back inside.”

“Leave me alone,” Johnny protested, trying to jerk his arm away from Scott, the motion sending him further off kilter.

Murdoch hurried across the short distance catching Johnny’s free arm as his knees buckled.

“Come on, Son, you need to lie down.”

“I need to be left alone.”

Johnny’s protests landed on deaf ears as he was half dragged, half carried back into the line shack.

***

“Well it’s about time ya got us untied,” Jelly harrumphed. Both he and Joe were sitting on the floor, their wrists bound to the legs of the cot with Jelly’s suspenders. Both men’s feet were conspicuously bare.

Scott and Murdoch led Johnny toward the cot.

“No,” Johnny protested. “Don’t want to lie down…over there on the chair.”

Murdoch nodded to Scott and they changed direction, easing Johnny down onto one of the straight backed chairs next to the small table in the corner. They both knew Johnny would not be comfortable there on the hard wooden chair, but comfort was not what Johnny wanted for the confrontation ahead.

Murdoch quickly turned to Jelly and Joe and untied the bound men.

“How long have you been here like this?” Murdoch asked, noting that the restraints were tied loose enough not to hurt the two men.

“Not more’n fifteen minutes, boss,” Jelly said sheepishly. “That dern boy a yours gots ears like a jack rabbit. He heard ya coming a mile away.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Lancer.” Joe bowed his head. “Johnny got the drop on me yesterday. I tried to be as quiet as I could.”

“It’s all right, Joe. Jelly’s right…Johnny could hear a pin drop in a wind storm. And ah…” Murdoch couldn’t keep the smile off his face as he saw both men wiggling their bare toes. “Sorry about the boots.”

Jelly climbed to his feet, rubbing his wrist. “Ya got my boots with ya? I got blisters on top a blisters.”

“You’ll find them in a sack tied to my saddle. Johnny,” he turned to Johnny, nodding toward the boots he still wore, “if you’ll give Joe back his boots he can get yours and Jelly’s.”

Johnny shrugged, raising his leg to Scott. “They’re too tight anyway.”

Scott grabbed Johnny’s ankle roughly and yanked the boot off. “This isn’t funny, Johnny.”

Johnny raised his other leg. “Never said it was.”

Scott threw the boots and socks toward Joe, who caught them and silently sat on the cot to pull them on.

Jelly walked over to Johnny, laying the back of his hand on Johnny’s forehead. “Runnin’ a tetch of fever,” he reported. “Don’t know why, but them ‘cussions do that sometimes. And he ain’t ate a thing since he’s been here. Cain’t rightly chew nothin’ with that jaw.

“Ya best have Doc take a look at him when we get home.”

Johnny moved his head away from Jelly’s hand. “Leave it be, Jelly.”

Jelly cleared his throat walking back over to pull Joe up by his arm. “Come on, I’ll help ya get them boots. I have a feeling these three here have a mite ta talk about.”

“Don’t go on my account, Jelly. I got nothing ta say,” Johnny said, lowly.

Jelly finished fastening his suspenders to his pants than snapped them angrily. “Well, ya may not have nothin’ ta say, but ya better listen ta what yer daddy and yer brother have ta say…cause… if ya walk away from ‘em now, then yer the biggest damn fool I ever had the misfortune ta meet.”

Jelly yanked the door open and waited for Joe to step outside before slamming it shut.

The silence that followed was palpable.

Johnny closed his eyes against the throbbing in his head. It wasn’t just his jaw that ached…it was his whole head. And he had to fight back the nausea that threatened to make a fool of him. If Johnny had ever wondered what it would be like to be on the receiving end of one of his father’s punches, he knew all too well now.

Jelly had taken good care of him, and he felt bad when he tied him and Joe to the bed frame. But he couldn’t stay here…and he wouldn’t stay here…no matter what anyone said. He should have headed out on foot. But he had never seen this line shack before and neither Jelly nor Joe would tell him exactly where it was.

Murdoch had begun pacing the floor, and the sound was grating on Johnny’s nerves, each step keeping cadence with the throbbing in his head.

“If ya got something to say, old man, say it,” Johnny snapped.

Murdoch stopped…his anger rising. He looked down at Johnny sitting in the uncomfortable chair and the sight of his bruised face made him sick to his stomach. To think that his hand was the one to inflict so much damage.

“How do you feel, Johnny?” Murdoch asked. “And I want the truth,” he added sternly.

Johnny turned his face away. He damned the voice inside his head that wanted to answer his father. But the anger overrode it and he closed his eyes again.

He heard Murdoch’s heavy footsteps walk across the wooden floor and stop by his chair. Gently a huge hand, the one that had hit him so painfully, now tipped his head up, forcing Johnny to look at him.

“I’m sorry, Johnny. You have no idea how sorry I am. I acted without thinking. I didn’t want you to leave…not like that.”

The depth of hurt and anger in those impossibly blue eyes washed over Murdoch, leaving him breathless.

“I grew up knowing what it felt to eat another man’s fist for as far back as I can remember,” Johnny said bitterly. “I promised myself, when I was old enough to fight back, that I would never let another man hit me like that again. Ever.”

“Johnny…” Murdoch began to reach for Johnny, but Johnny slipped out of his chair, swaying before he reached out for the wall, leaning his shoulder against it for support.

 “I don’t wanna hear how sorry you are, Murdoch,” Johnny hissed. “I just want you to leave me alone.”

“I can’t do that…not yet. I told you outside that I would let you go if you still wanted to, after you listened to what I have to say. I still mean it. You can leave with Barranca and I’ll buy you out of your share of Lancer. Give you enough to start out somewhere else.”

Johnny eyed him warily.

“You know I am a man of my word, Johnny.”

Johnny said nothing. He looked over Murdoch’s shoulder at Scott. His brother stood silently by the door, his arms crossed over his chest. Johnny knew that look. His brother was mad. But was he mad at him, or at Murdoch? Probably both.

“Will you listen to what I have to say?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny could feel his brother’s eyes boring into him. “Yes,” Scott shouted silently.

Johnny nodded once.

Murdoch looked at him critically. “Then will you sit down and tell me how you feel…honestly?”

“Do it, Brother,” Scott said from his perch against the door. “It beats sliding down that wall and landing flat on your face.”

Johnny thought about it for a moment, then casually sat down. Or at least he thought it looked casual. To Murdoch and Scott it looked like a man who was ready to collapse.

 “Besides a raging headache and a bout of dizziness, are you hurt anywhere else?”

“Ain’t that enough?” Johnny asked sarcastically.

“Murdoch couldn’t help but smile. “No, that’s quite enough.”

“So, get on with your talk so I can get out of here.”

Murdoch grabbed a chair and sat it down in front of Johnny, the rickety chair groaning beneath his large frame.

Silence once again filled the shack as Murdoch collected his thoughts.

“Johnny,” he finally said, “I made a mistake in not telling you the truth right from the beginning. But I was afraid you would react just like you did. I was afraid that you would feel responsible, when none of this was your fault.”

“My being Johnny Madrid makes me responsible.”

“No it doesn’t. Johnny listen to me…If you leave Hortence will just find another reason why Teresa is not safe at Lancer. She won’t stop until she has won, or Teresa is of age and can decide for herself. If we don’t stand together and fight for Teresa, Hortence will win.

You’ve got to understand, Johnny, it’s not Teresa she wants, it’s the game she started playing years ago, and she will play as dirty as she has to, to win. You’re her first pawn. Scott, Jelly, who knows who would be next.

“If you won’t fight for yourself, will you at least fight for Teresa?”

“I’d do anything for Teresa, you know that. But my staying isn’t gonna help that little girl. She’ll only get hurt when she finds out what I did all those years.”

“She already knows, Johnny,” Scott said.

“She don’t know the half of it,” Johnny snapped back bitterly. “Neither do you.”

“Then don’t you think you should be around to tell her the truth when she does find out, because, Brother, she will find out. Hortence is going to use every trick in the book to make you look like a cold blooded killer.”

“And what makes you think I’m not?” Johnny asked coldly.

“Because,” Murdoch answered immediately, “we know you enough. Don’t think for one second that I would have allowed you to stay if I thought differently. I would not have put Scott or the rest of the ranch in jeopardy if I thought you were the kind of man Hortence is trying to make others believe you are.”

“What do you expect me to do then? You said so yourself, the town is ready to lynch me. What am I supposed to do? Hide out at the ranch?”

“No, not hide. Just don’t go into town for a few weeks. There’s plenty to do at Lancer.”

“You’re asking too much, Murdoch. I’ve never run from a fight in my life. And I’ve never let someone else do my fightin’ for me. If I stay I’ll do it on my terms. That means, if I wanna go into town, I’ll go. I won’t look for a fight, but I won’t back down if one comes a callin’.”

“Johnny that’s exactly what she expects you to do. She wants the town to see Johnny Madrid, and only Johnny Madrid. I want them to see Johnny Lancer…the Johnny Lancer I know – we know. The man Teresa loves with all her heart.”

“And if I don’t? If I leave here today?”

Murdoch took a deep breath. “Then I’ll have no other choice but to send Teresa away.”

.

Chapter 9

“Where is everyone?”

Teresa paced the kitchen, then the great room, stopping to look out the window every few steps. The silence goaded her, reminding her that she was once again left out. Something was wrong; she could feel it in the very air. Murdoch was acting like a caged animal, ready to bite off anyone’s head if they got too near. And Scott, he had left so suddenly, was it really and truly a bull in Stockton that he was looking at?

Then Johnny was gone. Without a word. Murdoch said he was overseeing the building of a new bridge in an outlying part of the ranch. But he should have said good bye first…it just didn’t make sense. And she had not heard a word about a new bridge being built.

Scott returned this morning, looking worried, only to head out a few minutes later with Murdoch, the anger between them so tense you could see it shimmering in the air.

Never had she felt so alienated in this hacienda she called home. Not even when she lost her father and then almost lost Murdoch and Lancer to Day Pardee. Not even when two strangers came to live with her, men she neither knew nor trusted. Related to Murdoch only by blood…

Now they were a family. They trusted each other, or so she thought, but secrets had abounded, and she felt she was the only one who didn’t know what was going on. She was no longer a child, she deserved more respect than this.

“They will be here when they are here, chica,” Maria tisked, stuffing a dust rag in her hand. “The room needs dusting, you clean while you worry…no?”

“No. I don’t understand, Maria, everyone looks at me and turns away. I’m not allowed to go into town. Murdoch wouldn’t let me go to Father Ernesto’s brunch at the orphanage. There is something going on, and I just know it’s something terrible. When will they learn that I’m old enough to be a part of this family, not just when things are good, or God forbid, when I have to nurse one of them back to health, but all the time. And, why did Scott take off so suddenly?”

“I know you are worried, chica, but they will tell you, when the time is right.” Maria patted her hand, making circular motions with the rag. ”Now clean.”

Teresa snapped her hand back. “Then there is something wrong,” she cried. “I knew it. What, Maria, what is it. Please tell me.”

“I cannot, Chiquita, it is not my place. Por favor, all your questions will be answered in time.”

“I am not your little one anymore, Maria,” Teresa said, exasperated. “When will you and everyone else around here stop treating me like one?”

She looked out the window and saw a cloud of dust moving in the distance along the road toward the house.

“I wonder who that is.”

She didn’t recognize the buggy until it was nearly beneath the Lancer arch, then she noticed a green parasol shading a fancy little bonnet with white bows and green ribbons to match the parasol, and knew it was Bethany Rogers. Bethany was a friend, but not a close one. Her ways were too proper. Her family played at being rich. Her father was a clerk at the bank, but Bethany’s mother came from old money, all spent now. The lack of money didn’t keep Bethany’s mother from instilling in her daughter that she was a step above everyone else. Especially Teresa O’Brien.

Bethany pulled the buggy to a stop, fighting her long skirt out of the way as she jumped from the carriage and grabbed Teresa around the shoulders.

“Are you are all right?” Bethany panted, her cheeks red from excitement. “I mean, he didn’t hurt you, did he?”

“Hurt me?” Stunned, Teresa tried to pull away. “What are you talking about? Who hurt me?”

Bethany looked at her, exasperated. “Johnny Madrid, of course. Mother says it’s just a matter of time before you are killed…or worse.”

Teresa looked at her dumbfounded. “Johnny would never hurt me. Bethany…”

“Everyone in town knows how dangerous he is. If Miss Shaffer weren’t trying to get you out of here, I’m sure someone else would try just as hard.”

“Hortence Shaffer? Bethany, what are you talking about?”

“You don’t know?”

Teresa shook her head. The ominous specter of a conspiracy to keep her in the dark was coming to fruition. What was going on here?

Bethany took Teresa’s arm and tried to lead her into her buggy. “Hurry, we have to get you out of here before it’s too late, you’re in terrible danger.”

Teresa snapped her arm away. “I’m not going anywhere. Now, tell me what’s going on.”

Bethany looked around surreptitiously, her hand held against her bosom, her face mirroring her fear. “Is he here?”

“Who?”

“Johnny Madrid, of course.”

Teresa looked at her, completely baffled. “Johnny?”

Bethany nodded her head emphatically. “Johnny Madrid.”

“Johnny Lancer. His name is Johnny Lancer. And no, he’s not here. He hasn’t been for the last two days.”

“Thank God. Then we still have time. Mother says you can stay with us until he’s gone, or Miss Shaffer arranges for you to stay with her.”

“Hortence Shaffer? Why would I want to stay with that old witch?” Confusion turned to anger and Teresa clutched Bethany’s arm, dragging her toward the house. “I want to know what’s going on. All of it!”

Bethany grabbed her pretty little hat with the white bows and green ribbons as Teresa pulled her into the house.

***

Teresa hustled Bethany through the great room into the kitchen, pouring her friend a glass of lemonade and sitting at the small serving table near the stove.

Bethany looked around and cringed. “I don’t know why you like it in here so much. Mother says it’s the cook’s domain. I rarely see the kitchen.”

“Well, since I’m one of the cooks, I like it. And Maria won’t be back for awhile, so start talking.”

“I don’t know. If your… if Mr. Lancer hasn’t told you yet, then maybe…”

“Just tell me, Bethany, please. No one has told me anything.”

Bethany was reluctant at first, then as she realized she was the first person to tell Teresa all the news, she undid the ribbon holding her hat on and placed it in the middle of the table.

“All right.” She leaned over the table conspiratorially. “This is what I know. Hortence Shaffer saw Johnny Madrid pawing all over you outside the mercantile…”

“Pawing? How dare you say something like that. Johnny would never paw over me, or any other woman.”

“I’m just telling you what they are saying in town. Do you want to hear it or not?”

Teresa fought back her anger. “Go on.”

“They say Miss Shaffer tried once before to get you out of this place, right after your mama died, she knew you needed a woman to raise you. But your father and Mr. Lancer couldn’t see it, and fought her. I guess she tried a couple more times. but now, now with Johnny Madrid living here, well, everyone knows he’s a killer…and…” Bethany looked around the kitchen making sure it was as deserted as Teresa said. “He takes advantage of young women.”

“What!”

“Everyone knows you’re not safe here with him, Teresa. Miss Shaffer is working with the governor to get you out of here. It won’t be long. But if you want to come right now, Mother will…”

“You can’t really believe that about Johnny.”

“He is Johnny Madrid.”

“He was. Now he’s Johnny Lancer.”

“Mother says you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”

Teresa fought back the urge to slap Bethany Rogers across the face.

“I just know what I know,” Bethany continued, “and you are not safe here, not with him. And we are going to save you, in spite of yourself. You’ll look back on this someday and thank each and every person who helped rid this valley of the likes of Johnny Madrid.”

“Rid the valley?”

“Of course. No one wants him here. No one is safe with him around. Mother says if Sheriff Crawford can’t do the job then there are men willing to risk their lives to do it for him.”

Teresa jumped to her feet, upending the chair. “I want you to leave, Bethany.”

“What?”

“I want you to leave and never come back, not until you apologize for all the horrible things you just said about Johnny.”

“Well, forgive me for worrying about a friend. I came to warn you, Teresa.” Bethany grabbed her pretty little hat and placed it on her head, tying the ribbon beneath her chin just so. “If they find you with a bullet in your heart and your skirt up over your head…”

“Bethany LeAnn Rogers! What a filthy thing to say.”

“It’s what my pa said. Oh, please, Teresa, come with me before it’s too late. Before Johnny Madrid kills you and everyone in this house.”

“Get out, Bethany…Now!”

“Very well….but…” Bethany pulled a folded sheet of paper from a pocket hidden in the folds of her dress. “Read this before it’s too late. Miss Shaffer knows all about Johnny Madrid,” she said as she slipped it into Teresa’s skirt pocket.

“Get out!” Teresa cried and made her way blindly toward her rose garden outside the great room. Why hadn’t they told her? Why did Murdoch keep it a secret? Then a thought came to her, and her knees nearly buckled. She sat down hard on the bench, the one she and Johnny had sat on, side by side, watching the sun set. What if Murdoch had already sent him away?

***

Teresa wasn’t sure how long she had been sitting in her garden. Maria had returned, preparing the kitchen for dinner, and she made her way back into the kitchen.

She couldn’t get the horrible things Bethany had said out of her mind. She tried to confront Maria, but the old woman’s eyes gleamed with tears and she could only mutter, “No es mi lugar.” (It is not my place.)

Then the sound of another buggy drew her to the window, and with a sinking feeling in her heart, she realized it was Sam Jenkins.

“What is Sam doing here?” she demanded. “Is someone hurt? Johnny, its Johnny isn’t it? Murdoch said he was overseeing that bridge, but he wouldn’t leave Barranca behind. What’s happened, Maria?”

Rushing out the door, she waited impatiently for Sam to pull up.

“What’s wrong, Sam? Who’s hurt?”

Sam climbed down from his buggy, grabbing his medical bag. “Johnny, who else?”

“How bad?”

“I don’t know. A ranch hand came into town and said I was needed here. That Johnny had been injured. I have no idea how, or how bad. He’s not here?”

Teresa shook her head. “He hasn’t been here for two days.” She grabbed his bag and threaded her arm around his elbow, leading him toward the front door. “Sam, what is going on around here? Bethany had this fantastic story about Hortence and Johnny Madrid.”

Sam stopped, pulling Teresa up short. “You know nothing of what’s going on?” he asked, incredulous. “Murdoch hasn’t told you?”

“No. I’ve been stuck here like a prisoner. Oh no. Oh my God, Sam, it is true? Please, Sam, tell me what’s happening.”

Sam shook his head, lost for words. “Teresa,” he finally said. “I ‘m not your guardian, its up to Murdoch to tell you when he feels its time.”

Teresa began to protest.

Sam held up his hand for silence. “But since Bethany has told you what she knows, in her own inimitable way, I am sure, I guess it won’t hurt for me to…”

The sound of approaching horses stopped Sam in mid-sentence and Teresa turned to see Murdoch and Scott riding on either side of Johnny. Their gait was too slow, and she knew immediately from the way Johnny’s dark head sagged against his chest that he was in trouble.

Jelly and Joe quickly moved ahead of them and dismounted, ready to take the reins.

“What happened?” Teresa cried, rushing up to stand next to Johnny’s horse as Murdoch and Scott tried to help him down.

Johnny angrily pushed their hands away, dismounting awkwardly before staggering toward the door.

Teresa caught his arm to steady him and she noticed his bruised jaw. “Johnny, what happened?”

“Ask Murdoch,” he growled and pulled away from her grip, disappearing, unsteadily, into the house.

“Murdoch?” Teresa spun angrily on him. “What happened?”

“Later,” Murdoch snapped. He turned to Scott. “Make sure he makes it up to his bedroom.”

“I’ll be right behind you,” Sam called. “Now,” Sam stood in front of Murdoch, “exactly what is going on here?”

Murdoch was too tired, emotionally and physically. “See to Johnny first, Sam…please. Then,” he turned to Teresa, “we’ll all discuss what’s going on after Sam has checked on Johnny.”

Teresa nodded. She needed to see for herself how badly Johnny was hurt. But after that, she wanted answers.

***

Johnny had his arm draped over his eyes, keeping the light out. His head hurt and he felt like the bed was trying to buck him off, the room was spinning so fast. But above all, he just wanted to be left alone. He had agreed with Murdoch to come back, just long enough for Sam to check him out. But the more he thought about it the less he was sure of his decision. Now that he was here, it was going to be a lot harder to leave.

And what if Murdoch was right? What if his leaving made him send Teresa away? The thought made his head hurt more, and he just wanted to fall asleep and forget everything.

But the door opened and closed and he felt someone walk over to the bed.

“Leave me alone,” he ordered.

“Not until I’ve checked you over,” came Sam’s voice.

“I’m fine, Sam. Just let me be.”

Sam dragged Johnny’s arm away from his eyes and Johnny looked up into the old doctor’s no nonsense glare.

“I’ll be the one to decide that. Now, do we do this the easy way or the hard way?”

Johnny sighed deeply. “I’ve got a bruised jaw, Sam, that’s all. I’m gonna rest for a couple hours then be outta here.”

“Leave, just like that?”

Johnny nodded and regretted it immediately. His stomach churned and he knew he was going to be sick.

He heard the sound of the water basin dragged across the nightstand and then felt Sam roll him to the side just as his stomach erupted.

“You are going nowhere, young man,” Sam said as he lowered Johnny back down. “Besides, you aren’t going to take off when Teresa needs you the most, are you?”

Johnny felt Sam begin to undress him and he didn’t have the energy to stop him.

“John,” Sam continued, “that young woman down there is scared to death. Murdoch has told her nothing.”

“Sam, I’ll only cause more problems if I stay. It’s because of me that Hortence has her claws in Teresa. If I go.”

“Your leaving will only break that young girl’s heart and not do a damn thing to stop Hortence Shaffer. I spoke with her this morning, she is a bitter old woman who wants only one thing, to make your father suffer. Now hold still while I take a look at you.”

Johnny silently suffered the indignities of Sam’s examination. At last the old doctor sighed and closed his medical bag.

“Well, as you might have already figured out, you have a serious concussion. And I believe that swelling has affected your right ear, something in there controls our equilibrium…our balance. We’re not sure how or why, it just does. I think once the swelling goes down the world will stop spinning. Meantime, I want you in this bed, flat on your back for at least four days, then we’ll discuss if you’ve improved enough to sit up.”

“Sam…”

“I’m not joking here, John. This is serious. I can’t believe Murdoch hit you so hard, but he did. Now, it’s already been three days since you were hit, so I am going to give you some sleeping powders to take, and I expect you to take them. It’s either that, or one of Jelly’s concoctions. You need sleep, young man, and you are going to get it.”

Sighing deeply, Johnny agreed. “But I want to talk to Teresa first. I gotta know she’s all right.”

Sam nodded. “Then you sleep, agreed?”

Johnny couldn’t help the smile. The old fox had outwitted him again. “Agreed.”

“Good. I’ll send Maria in to stay with you while I talk to your family downstairs. Then I’ll send Teresa up.”

“Sam.” Johnny folded his arm over his eyes again to keep the light out. “How could things go so wrong so fast?”

.

Chapter 10

Murdoch sat at his desk looking stoically out the picture window on the land he had so carefully nurtured into a dynasty. At one time it had meant life itself to him. The remembered words, spoken so callously to his sons on their first meeting, tasted like poison in his mouth now: “I love this ground more than anything God ever created. I’ve got a gray hair for every good blade of grass you see there.” How those words must have sounded. But they meant nothing now. Not when his world was crashing in around him. Not when he faced the possibility of losing Johnny.

He heard Teresa crying softly from her garden, out through the open French doors, her sadness filling the room, as she wept alone. She refused to be consoled by anyone but Johnny. She would not even look at him as Scott followed Johnny up the stairs, a cautious hand on his back the only contact Johnny would allow.

When Scott came back downstairs he had said nothing, just poured himself a drink and sat on the sofa, his eyes locked on the French doors, listening to the cries of a broken heart.

Neither had spoken to the other on the long ride home. They had both watched Johnny as he swayed in the saddle, steadfastly refusing any help. He returned with them only because he had no other choice. It was like his days as Johnny Madrid, when he’d seek a safe place to hide and lick his wounds, and then be gone again. Murdoch hoped this time they could convince him to stay.

Murdoch sighed deeply and ran his hands through his graying hair. “I never did ask you how your trip to Stockton went.”

Scott looked up, his voice distant. “It went well. We should hear from Victoria and Jarrod any time now. Victoria felt confident that she could get the governor here.”

Murdoch lowered his head into his hands, his elbows propped on the desktop. “What the hell good is that going to do now? The idea was for him to meet Johnny Lancer, not…”

“Johnny Madrid? Whose fault is that?” Scott challenged.

Murdoch snapped his head up. “Damn it Scott, don’t you think I know that already? I have thought of nothing else. But what else could I do? Let Johnny ride away? I had to stop him.”

Scott looked at his father, exasperated. “Don’t you see, Murdoch, it wasn’t the punch that did the most damage, it was the waiting. Leaving Johnny trapped up there with Jelly and Joe. You should have returned there that night.”

“I did. I was never far from the shack.”

“And you never went in?” Scott asked, astounded. “You never told him you were there?”

Murdoch shook his head. “I didn’t know what to say to him, how to tell him I was sorry.”

Scott could not answer him. There were no words to tell his father that he merely had to open the door and walk in, just show Johnny that he cared.

Both men looked up at the sound of footsteps heralding the arrival of a very angry doctor.

“What in the name of heaven made you hit that boy so hard, Murdoch?” Sam demanded. “You nearly broke his jaw. As it is, he has a serious concussion.”

Murdoch shook his head. “I didn’t mean to hit him that hard. I was trying to keep him from leaving.”

“Well you did that all right. He won’t be sitting a horse for at least two weeks, maybe longer.”

“Why is he so dizzy?” Scott asked. “He’s had concussions before.”

“The swelling from the bruising has affected his inner ear. When the swelling goes down he’ll regain his equilibrium. Meantime, I have ordered him to stay in bed, flat on his back for the next four days.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Scott scoffed. “Johnny, staying flat on his back for four days?”

“I know, I know. I said four, and I expect two. It’s the best I can hope for. Maria is giving him willow bark tea for the fever and Aconitum for the nausea. We know very little about the inner ear, just that it affects balance. I’ve read a tiny tear can accompany a blow like that leading to an inner-ear infection. I’ll keep a close eye on him, but it should heal with rest. Now, I’ll leave some sleeping powders, and he has promised to take them, but he would like to see Teresa first. You know, if you had been honest with him and Teresa from the beginning this would never have happened.”

“I was only trying to protect …” Murdoch began, but Sam raised his hand sharply.

“Johnny doesn’t need protecting, he needs your trust. The only thing you have done so far is prove to him that you don’t trust him. You are playing right into Hortence’s hands. This family is falling apart like a house made of cards. The only way you can fight her is together, as a family. Where is Teresa?”

“Out in the garden.” Scott needlessly pointed out the French doors. Sam knew the house as well as any of them.

“All right, I’ll bring her upstairs. Hopefully by tomorrow he’ll talk to the both of you.”

“I wouldn’t blame him if he didn’t,” Scott muttered.

***

Val Crawford poured himself another mug of his frying pan coffee and grimaced at the taste. Johnny was right, it was God-awful stuff…but it kept him awake. Not that he was in danger of falling asleep, not when the whole town was like a tinderbox, ready to explode. He’d seen this kind of mindset before, and it scared him.

Hortence Shaffer had whispered in enough ears and frightened enough folks with her tall tales about Johnny Madrid that Val was afraid there would be a lynching party before the week was out. Unfortunately, he had done everything he could, so far, everything the law would allow. He just hoped she would take one step too many and he could throw her into a cell where she belonged.

The office door swung open and Kurt Adams stuck his head in. “You better take a look see at this Sheriff,” the boy said. Only fourteen and he was already a head taller than Val.

Following the boy outside he saw a crowd of people standing around the livery stable, the drone of excited voices drifting down the street toward him.

“What’s goin’ on down there?” he growled, grabbing his rifle as he left the office.

“Don’t rightly know. I just heard someone holler something about Johnny Madrid and I thought I better come tell ya.”

“You did good, Boy. Now you git along, I don’t want you or anyone else getting hurt round here.”

“Sheriff,” Kurt looked down at his boots, “them things Miss Shaffer is sayin’ bout Johnny Madrid…”

“His name’s Lancer, Boy, Johnny Lancer. And you don’t pay no never mind to that nonsense. I’ve known Johnny a lot of years. All them stories is just a pack of half truths and outright lies.” Val had to reach up to lay his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You remember that, Kurt, when things get real bad, cause I can smell it in the air, things are gonna get right ugly.”

Val left Kurt standing on the boardwalk and walked toward the livery, wishing he didn’t believe in his own prophecy. As he drew closer he could hear a familiar voice talking loudly from inside the crowd.

“Now, don’t shove,” Hortence Shaffer placated, “there’s enough for everyone.”

Val pushed his way to the front of the crowd to find Hortence standing next to a buckboard filled with books. It took every ounce of willpower to keep from strangling the woman when he read the titles. ‘The Legend of Johnny Madrid’,’ Johnny Madrid Half-Breed’, ‘Johnny Madrid Killer’.

“What in the hell do you think you’re doing?” Val demanded, shoving his way past Arlo Brand and Clive Hanks.

“Sheriff Crawford. It’s obvious, isn’t it? I’m selling books.”

Val picked up one of the books with disgust. “Where’d ya get these?”

“Mr. Baldemero had them in his storeroom. Boxes of them. I persuaded him to sell them to me.”

He turned on her, fire in his eyes. “Didn’t I tell you that I’d lock ya up if you did any of them Slan…Sland…”

“Slanderous?” Hortence supplied, smugly. “Sheriff Crawford, this is not slander, this is just works of fiction. Everyone knows it. I am doing nothing against the law, just providing some light entertainment. Here, you see.” She picked up several other titles. “There is something here for everyone. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, among others. I’m sure there is even something here that would amuse you, Sheriff.

“Yer inciting a riot,” Val bellowed.

“Sheriff, do any of these fine people look like they are ready to riot? I have done nothing wrong, so please, there are still people who want to purchase a book.”

Val looked around. She may have not been inciting a riot…yet. But there were some ugly faces in the crowd.

“But yer creating a nuisance, now, all of ya, get outta here.”

“If anyone else wishes to purchase a book you can buy one at the saloon,” Hortence called quickly before she lost her audience. “Mr. Hanks has been gracious enough to volunteer to take a few along with him. And Mr. Brand will have a few at the barber shop.” She turned to Val and tapped the book he still held in his hand. “You can have that one for free, Sheriff. I’m sure it would be quite interesting reading.”

Val threw it back onto the pile in the buckboard as if it had suddenly started to burn his hands.

“You watch yerself, Miss Shaffer, one wrong move and you’ll be in a cell so fast that broom of yours won’t catch up”

“How dare you, Sheriff.”

Val used every ounce of will power not to knock Hortence Shaffer on her butt. She was within her rights, had done nothing against the law, but as sure as the sun came up every morning, she had just put one more nail in Johnny Madrid Lancer’s coffin.

***

Johnny lay very quietly in his bed. He listened to Maria move around the room, too tired to open his eyes; he felt her work -roughed hand press against his brow then a cool cloth was draped over his forehead.

The ride back from the line shack had been more than he could handle, and he could think of nowhere he would rather be at this moment than in this bed. He just wished everyone would go away though, and leave him in peace.

The horrific spinning seemed to settle down a bit as long as he kept his head perfectly still. Any small movement sent his world into a stomach-churning whirlpool. Sam’s explanation that it was his ear that was causing it seemed too far-fetched to believe, but he would stay here for a couple of days.

The sound of the door opening made him instinctively raise his head to see who walked in and he paid dearly for the move. He groaned softly as the bed bucked like the worst stallion he had ever tried to break, and Maria’s soft recriminations that he was to stay still seemed to float in the air around him.

He slammed his eyes shut and waited for what seemed a lifetime before the spinning settled and he felt Sam holding his wrist to take his pulse.

“What did I tell you about staying perfectly still?” Sam admonished.

“I know. Is Teresa…?”

“I’m right here, Johnny.” And Teresa’s hand wrapped around his other hand and he felt her brush her soft cheek against it, wet with tears.

“You’ve been crying, Querida,” he said, alarmed.

“A little,” she admitted, and there was a hint of embarrassment in her voice. “Here I am trying to tell everyone I’m nearly a grown woman and I cry at the drop of a hat.”

Johnny kept his eyes closed, feeling safe here with Sam and Teresa. “That’s ok, it’ll be our secret, right, Sam?”

“Right. Now I want you to get some rest, young man. Teresa…”

“I’ll stay with him, Sam.”

“See that he takes the sleeping powder.”

Johnny sighed. “We’ll be fine, Sam.”

“I know.” He cleared his throat. “And I know there are a lot of things you two need to discuss, but they can wait till tomorrow.”

“I’ll make sure he rests, Sam,” Teresa promised.

Johnny kept his eyes closed but he heard Sam’s reluctant retreat from the room.

“Is he gone?” he asked.

“Yes. And I meant what I said. You are going to get some sleep.”

The sound of a spoon stirring liquid in a glass told Johnny that Teresa was mixing the sleeping powder.

“Are you going to be ok, querida? The truth now.”

He heard the catch in her voice. “It’s just so unfair. What they are saying about you. What Miss Shaffer is trying to do.”

“You know about her then?”

“Bethany Rogers stopped by earlier today.”

Johnny couldn’t keep a smile from twitching at the corners of his mouth. “Hortence Shaffer’s little shadow, huh?”

“Yes. Oh, Johnny. They are saying some terrible things about you, and about my living here. How can people be so cruel and vindictive?”

Johnny took a shuddering breath. “Honey, not all those things they say are lies. I did a lot of things before I came here.”

“That was Johnny Madrid. You’re Johnny Lancer now.”

“Just changing a man’s name doesn’t change who he is. I don’t want my past to cause you any pain.”

“Johnny, I love you and Scott, you’re my brothers. And I know Murdoch would never let you go. Here, drink this, you promised, remember?”

Teresa gently lifted his head, just a fraction off the pillow, and tipped the glass to his lips. “Drink it all,” she ordered.

He did as he was told, his stomach warring with the invading liquid. But he held it down, and before long he could feel himself floating away. He hoped with every ounce of his being as the darkness of sleep overpowered him, that he would not be the one to hurt Teresa the most.

Fifteen minutes later, Teresa looked up from the overstuffed chair pushed close to the bed, tears streaming down her cheeks. She looked at Johnny, his jaw and cheek bruised and swollen, but it was his long dark lashes that caught her attention, she loved those eyelashes, those blue eyes so much. She trusted him…had trusted him…

Bethany’s letter fell from her fingers to flutter to the floor…the obscene list facing up, taunting her.

Who was Johnny?

.

Chapter 11

Johnny awoke and fought back the fuzzy feeling from Sam’s sleeping powder. Somehow Maria had slipped him the medicine, probably in the honeyed water. He would take her to task for it, but gently. She only did what she thought was best for him. There was no way she could understand his need to always be alert, even when he slept. It was engrained in his body and his mind. Three months ago it could have cost him his life. Now, although he was safe, he was still not ready to relax completely. He still felt the need to be in control, especially with the chaos surrounding him.

He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and turned to see that the soft cushioned chair pushed up close to his bed was empty, conspicuously empty. Most times he would find Teresa sitting there, keeping watch over him as he slept, and keeping him company as the long hours of the day crept by. Even when he would complain that he was fine, she would steadfastly stay by him as much as she could, telling him it made her feel good to take care of him. He liked listening to her talk about things going on around the house, a new bolt of material that came into Baldemero’s store or her friends and their latest infatuations. Most times he tuned the words out, just listened to her lilting voice, so innocent and trusting.

But not this time. On the few occasions she did come into his room, to check if he needed anything or had taken his medicine, she seemed so sad and distant. He wanted to ask her why. He wanted to see her sit down in her chair and talk to him, to ease the pain of guilt he felt crushing his chest. But he didn’t know how, so he just closed his eyes until he heard her leave the room.

Murdoch and Scott had visited, when work permitted. Murdoch had his own guilt to contend with, and he wore it openly on his sleeve. But Johnny could not forgive him easily. Not for the punch which landed him here in this bed, but for trying to keep the truth from him. Didn’t he understand that hiding the truth from him could get him killed? Knowing his enemies, knowing the lay of the land, that is what kept him alive all these years. When Murdoch tried to shelter him from the painful truth, no matter how well intentioned, it put him in jeopardy.

And Scott had gone along with the subterfuge. He still hadn’t told him why he went to Stockton so suddenly, and Johnny was not fool enough to think it was to look at a prized bull, Murdoch would have been talking about it for weeks. No, Scott had gone for another reason, and until his brother told him the truth he could not trust him.

And that was it, that was the crux of the problem, no one trusted him, and he could trust no one. He had survived on his own for most of his life, had danced with the devil himself, and came out singed but not burned. Fate, or just damn good luck had saved him from the firing squad, and he had suddenly found himself surrounded by a family he didn’t know he had. And it had been working. Murdoch was right, it was working, but something had broken.

He could see it in Teresa’s eyes and it stabbed him in the heart like a knife. The one innocent one, the one who had believed in him without the filth of his past to sully her trust in him. She was unsure now, like the rest of them.

He threw the covers off and sat up slowly. The room still spun, but not as chaotic as before. The biggest problem was his double vision. He could see two of everything and it was disorienting. He carefully shuffled his way toward the bureau in the corner, dragging his hand along the bed for support. The three feet of open space between the bed and the bureau left him staggering slightly.

Johnny knew he would get hell for this. But he had given them two days, and that was all he had in him. He found a shirt and pants in the top drawer and staggered over to the chair…Teresa’s chair.

It was a daunting task to try to figure out which of the four pant legs to push his foot into, and more than once he found nothing but air. But finally he had them on and buttoned. His shirt wasn’t a problem until he had to button it, and frustrated, he simply pulled it closed and tucked his shirttails into his pants.

His boots proved to be another big problem, but finally he had those on too, sans socks.

He knew he looked like a drunkard coming out of the saloon on a Saturday night, and he felt somewhat like it. But that would not keep him in his room another minute.

Satisfied with himself that he had gotten this far, it was time to face the stairs. He gathered up his resolve and made his way down the hallway, running his hands down the wall for support, just in case his world suddenly spun out of control again. When he felt a warm draft of air on his face he knew he was next to the dreaded steps.

*****

“How dare she?!” Murdoch bellowed, his tall frame towering over Val Crawford as the sheriff stood in the great room with his head bowed, feeling terrible that he was the one to deliver the bad news. Murdoch held a copy of `Johnny Madrid- Half Breed’ in his shaking hand. The cover was a ribald depiction of a Johnny Madrid he didn’t know. Face shadowed beneath a black hat, gun spitting fire, a dozen bodies lying at his feet, men, women and children alike. The drawing made him sick to his stomach.

“I know how ya feel, Murdoch,” Val said, “but I thought it best if it was me ya heard it from first. Hortence sold a couple dozen of `em this morning `fore I got ta her. Don’t know how many people got their hands on `em all told.”

Scott carefully pulled the book from Murdoch’s grip, his own face blanching at the title and the lurid drawing on the cover. “Where did this trash come from?”

“Baldemero’s store.” Val held a hand up. “Now wait, afore ya start blaming the Baldemero’s, ya know how they feel about Johnny. They would never hurt him intentionally. Hortence tricked `em. She got wind of them books, sitting in the Baldemero’s storeroom. Refused ta sell `em, ya know. But she convinced them that they was takin’ up valuable space, and offered to take `em off their hands. Promised she would get rid of them, right and proper. They feel just awful knowing they was tricked.”

Scott rifled through the book, the words cold-blooded killer and murderer glaring at him from the pages. A passage caught his eye, depicting Johnny Madrid as a women beating back shooter. Words had always been his passion, to read them and to write them. He knew the power they could evoke. They could make or break a nation or a man. They could turn good into evil and evil against good. They were even more powerful than the spoken word. They could even kill. Hortence Shaffer knew their power and she was using them in the vilest way.

“Damn it, does it never end?” he asked, as he started to slip the book under his shirt to dispose of later. “Let’s just hope that Teresa hasn’t seen this.”

“Seen what?” Johnny’s voice asked from the door leading from the kitchen into the great room.

“Johnny!” Scott spun around, stunned. “What are you doing out of bed?”

“Sam didn’t say you could get out of bed yet,” Murdoch exploded. “You could have broken your neck coming down those stairs!”

“I asked a question, old man,” Johnny demanded coldly. He stood with his hand gripping the doorframe, his eyes noticeably unfocussed. The swelling around his eye had disappeared and only a hint of a black eye remained. The bruising on his chin was lessening too, but still looked terribly painful.

“Hey, Johnny.” Val stepped in front of Murdoch, swiping his hat off and worrying the brim between his fingers. “Sam said you were a bit off kilter…hell, I could a told him that a long time ago. Looks like ya had a few too many. How ya feeling?”

Johnny ignored the question. Looking toward Scott again he asked, “What ya got in your hand, Scott?”

Scott sighed; there was no way of hiding it from him now. “A book,” he replied flatly, keeping the cover turned toward him, though he doubted that Johnny could see well enough to read the title.

“Yeah? What kinda book?” Johnny stayed in the doorway, leaning his shoulder against the doorjamb for extra support. He could handle the vertigo now, but in combination with the double vision he didn’t trust himself to take another step.

Scott looked from Murdoch to Val then walked over to Johnny. “One of those Johnny Madrid books. Sorry, Johnny, but Hortence Shaffer has been selling them all over Green River.”

Johnny grabbed the book out of Scott’s hand, the missed attempt the first time not lost on the men in the room. He squinted down at the title then looked back up at Scott.

“Johnny Madrid- Half- Breed,” Scott supplied.

Johnny snorted derisively. “That’s been around for years. Can’t they come up with something new?”

“Sorry, Johnny, I wish I knowed what Hortence had planned, I would a stopped her somehow. But no one’ll believe that hogwash anyway,” Val sputtered.

Johnny let the book fall from his hands, landing on the floor between him and Scott. “They’ll believe every word of it because they’ll want to,” he said lowly. “You still think it’s a good idea that I stay, old man? Now everyone will know what kind of mean son of a bitch you have living under your roof. You should a just let me ride off.”

“No one will believe that garbage,” Scott yelled, picking up the book and throwing it into the cold fireplace.

“You don’t think so?” Johnny turned to Val. “Tell him, Sheriff. Yell him what a mob can do when they’re riled up enough. Tell them what will happen if any of you get in their

way…if Teresa gets in their way.”

“Those people are our friends and neighbors, Johnny,” Murdoch said.

“Your friends, Murdoch, your neighbors. They only know that you made the biggest mistake of your life asking me to stay after Pardee was gone. Face it; your life will be hell as long as I’m here. Cut your losses while you still can.”

“No!” Murdoch made a move toward Johnny and Johnny tried to step back, nearly losing his white knuckled grasp on the doorjamb.

“Leave me alone, Murdoch. Everyone, leave me the hell alone. I know what’s happening around here. Teresa is too scared to look me in the eye anymore and you’re losing your friends right and left. It’s not worth it, Murdoch. I’m not worth it.”

Silence filled the great room. Johnny cleared his throat, trying to master his voice. “I would be beholding to you if you’d tell Jelly to hitch up the wagon. I don’t think I can ride just yet.”

“Well I never thought the day’d come when I’d see you turn tail and run, Johnny,” Val exploded, slamming his hat back on his head. “You lettin’ an old biddy like Hortence Shaffer get the better of Johnny Madrid? I thought ya had more in ya, Boy.”

“I’m not running, Val, I’m just catching my breath. I’ll stay at Cip’s place, he’s got that extra room no one uses. I’ll stay there until my head clears.”

“That’s crazy, Johnny,” Scott said. “Who is going to take care of you while Cipriano is working?”

“I can take care of myself. Sam said my head would clear in a few days.”

“Johnny, this isn’t the answer,” Murdoch began.

“I won’t run out on you or Teresa. I’ll stay until this is settled. I just won’t stay here. When I’m feeling better I’m gonna fix up old Darber’s place. I’ve been thinking about it anyway.”

“No you haven’t,” Scott snapped. “Or you would have said something.”

“Your place is here, in this house. Not ten miles away,” Murdoch said, his voice rising in frustration.

“Who’s Darber?” Val looked around, lost.

“He was my segundo before Paul O’Brien,” Murdoch explained, not taking his eyes off Johnny. “We built another place bigger and closer for Paul and his wife when she was expecting Teresa. It’s been sitting vacant ever since.”

“At least stay here until Sam has cleared you,” Scott tried, “then we can talk about Darber’s…”

“I’ve made up my mind. Now, are you going to tell Jelly?”

“You’re not leaving this house,” Murdoch growled.

“How are you going to stop me, old man, punch my lights out again?”

The words seemed to echo off the walls in the now silent room.

Stung, Murdoch turned away and walked toward his desk. He sat down, opening the ledger as he spoke. “Scott, tell Jelly to get the wagon hitched, then gather what Johnny needs.”

“Just like that?” Scott asked, shocked. “You’re going to let him go, just like that?”

“He’s a grown man, he can make his own decisions. If he doesn’t feel comfortable here, then he shouldn’t have to stay. Johnny, I only ask that you continue to take the medicines Sam left for you, and stay in bed as much as you can. Val, would you mind helping Johnny outside? He doesn’t look very steady on his feet yet.”

“Ya sure ya want him leavin’ like this?” Val looked helplessly from Murdoch to Scott as he slowly made his way over to Johnny.

“I said it was his decision,” Murdoch replied gruffly. “I’ll have Teresa…”

“No!” Johnny cut him off. “Tell her she doesn’t have ta bother. Let’s go Val, before I make even more of a fool of myself.”

Val threaded his arm around Johnny’s elbow and slowly guided him toward the front door. “Oh, by the way, I almost fergot,” Val said, pulling an envelope out of his pocket. “This came in fer ya this mornin’, Murdoch.”

Scott took the envelope from Val’s hand, noting Johnny’s unfocused eyes and shook his head in disgust before setting it on the desk. “You’re just going to let him leave?” he

demanded.

“What do you expect me to do, Scott?” The sound of the front door closing left both men unable to look at each other.

Scott walked over to the liquor cabinet. “I know it’s a little early, but under the circumstances…do you want one?”

Murdoch nodded.

“I’ll check on him later,” Scott said as he handed Murdoch his drink. “Meantime I’m going to have a talk with Teresa.”

“No, I’ll do that.” Murdoch could not hide his anger. “She has a lot to answer for. There is no excuse for the way she’s been avoiding Johnny.”

Sighing, Murdoch picked up the envelope and pulled out a telegram. “It’s from Victoria. The governor will be here in three weeks.”

“Well, we’ve got to stop him. He can’t come now, not when Johnny and Teresa are…”

“And what do we say to him, Scott? Would you mind coming some other time when Johnny is not being Johnny Madrid and Teresa is not being a spoiled child? No…he can’t think anything is wrong or Hortence will have won already. We have three weeks to figure this out, or we could lose this family.

.

Chapter 12

Maria set the breakfast plates on the table without a word. Her gaze drifted to the empty seat and she shook her head sadly. Three days and still Jaunito had not returned. She had hoped that El Patron or Senor Scott could convince him he belonged here with his family. But he still remained at Cipriano’s.

“Your hijo and your hermano needs your help,” she had said to Murdoch and Scott each morning. “He is confuso…he does not know what is best for him.”

But the answer was always the same. “Maria, he is a grown man, it is his decision to make.” But this morning the Patron had had enough. “And,” he added, “I would appreciate it if you would drop the subject. I know you worry about him, but we have done all we can. He has to make this decision on his own.”

Maria nodded curtly, turning on her heel, but not before seeing the look of contempt on Scott’s face. The pot was boiling, and about to spill over…Madre de Dios …there would be no happy ending here.

***

Scott set his knife and fork down, with forced gentleness.

Teresa lowered her eyes. She could tell that he was on the very edge of exploding. They had been walking on eggshells since Johnny left. She almost wished the explosion would come. Anything was better than this tension.

“I’m going to stop by and see Johnny before heading out today. Do you have any message for him?” Scott asked Murdoch pointedly.

Murdoch shook his head. “Just make sure he is doing well. Sam is supposed to check him this afternoon. But don’t tell him. I don’t want him wandering off before Sam gets there.”

Scott blanched. “That’s it, isn’t it,” he snapped, “don’t tell him anything. If we all had been truthful in the beginning this would never have happened.”

“If we had been truthful from the beginning,” Murdoch retorted, “Johnny would be in Mexico by now. I am not proud of what I did, and God knows I never intended to hurt him so badly, but I would do it again.”

“Three months…” Scott sighed deeply, “and you still don’t understand him at all. I’ll tell him you were worried about him,” he added sarcastically.

“You do that,” Murdoch bristled. “And while you’re at it, tell him how much his little temper tantrum is destroying this family.”

“Temper tantrum?”

“Yes. If he took a minute to think about anyone else but himself he would see that Hortence’s attack is affecting all of us. And if he weren’t so damn pig-headed in the first place I would not have had to hit him. When is that boy going to understand he has a family now? When will he put Johnny Madrid behind him and trust us?”

“Trust us? What have we done to gain that trust? Lied to him, punched him senseless, avoided him like the plague.”

“Stop it!” Teresa cried, pushing her chair away from the table. “Stop it both of you. I can’t stand this anymore. I just want everything back the way it was. I want Johnny home. I want Hortence to go away and leave us alone.”

“Teresa, sweetheart.” Murdoch began to stand, but Teresa waved him off.

“No! Leave me alone. I just want Johnny!” She whirled away from the table, tears streaming down her face and she was gone, out the French doors toward her rose garden.

Murdoch made a move to go after her but Maria raised her hand.

“Please, Patron, let me talk to her.”

“It may be best, Sir,” Scott agreed.

Murdoch sat back down heavily in his chair. “All right, but tell her I would like to talk to her later. In fact, I think it is time we all talked.” Making his mind up he added, “We are all going to visit Johnny this afternoon whether he likes it or not.”

Maria nodded. “I will tell her, Senor.”

Murdoch turned back to see a worried look on Scott’s face. He hoped he was making the right decision. But things could not continue on as they were. Something had to be done.

***

Maria heard Teresa crying from somewhere deep in her rose garden. She followed the sound past the wooden bench to a small arbor the young woman ran to when she sought solace in the beauty of her garden.

“Ah, chica,” she said, watching Teresa’s back shake as she cried. “Por favor, may we talk?”

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Teresa sobbed.

“I think there is. Senora Hortence has caused a lot of pain for this familia…but she can only win if she can push you apart. You must be strong.”

“But it’s all my fault. Johnny left because of me.”

“How can you say that? You are not responsible for that bruja.”

“No, you don’t understand.”

“Then tell me, Teresa. Tell me why this is all your fault.”

Teresa turned around, her face flushed from crying, her eyes red and swollen. “I was scared of him…of Johnny.”

“Of Juanito?”

Teresa nodded. “He was a gunfighter.”

“Si. But you have known that since before he came home. The Patron explained that to you. We all knew who he was, what he was, but you saw past that person he was and took the real Juanito into your heart. You are his favorite, you know.”

“I know…and I betrayed him.”

“Betrayed him? How?”

Slowly Teresa drew Hortence’s letter from the waistband of her skirt. “I read this,” she said, her hand trembling.

“What is it?”

Maria could see the young woman’s world collapsing around her. “It is the letter Hortence wrote about Johnny Madrid. Maria…it says awful things.”

“And you believe them?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what to believe. I want to think that Johnny couldn’t have done any of these terrible things…but what if he did?”

“And if he did?”

Teresa looked at her, horrified. “Maria…if he did…if he killed people for money…woman and children…”

“Enough!” Maria grabbed the letter from Teresa’s hand and began to tear it apart, her own eyes filling with tears. “This suciedad, this filth. It is the words of El Diablo himself. Juanito may have used his gun, but you know he never would hurt a woman or a nino. This letter, it is meant to make you question those you love. You are so young, you do not know the ways of the truly evil ones. They use your doubts and turn them into fear and hate.”

“But what if he did any of those things?”

“If he did, do you turn your back on him? Is he not the same man today that he was last week? Has he not always treated you with kindness and respect?

“Chica, a man like Juanito does not give his love and trust easily. He has been hurt by life too often. But he gave them to you. He trusted you, felt something in you…that is why this has hurt him so deeply.”

“I’m sorry….”

“Sorry is only a word. You have it to prove to him.

“Teresa, you have no knowledge of life beyond this land. Si, you have seen many bad things, the death of your padre, the fight for this rancho. But you know nothing of the life Juanito led. El Patron has protected you from the ugliness of his childhood. Life is different for a boy alone in Mexico, especially one who is neither Mexican or White. Mestizo…they call them. They are wanted by no one. They roam the streets begging for food…prey to the worst people. He did what he did to survive.”

“What can I do, Maria?”

“Talk to him. You must make Juanito understand. You must open your heart to him. Tell him your temores – your fears. You must see him as you did, before you saw this suciedad.”

“But how?”

“I heard the Patron say that you and Senor Scott would accompany him to Cipriano’s house tonight to speak with Juanito. You must tell him then what is in your heart.”

Maria drew Teresa into her arms. “It will mean much to Juanito to know that you still love him.”

Teresa nodded, wiping her tears away.

“Si, that is better. Now, you have a long day to think about what you must say to your hermano. Trust yourself Teresa…you will know the right thing to say.”

“Gracias, Maria,” Teresa said. “I think I will stay here for awhile and think.” She couldn’t help but look down at the pieces of letter lying at her feet. “How can someone be so hateful?”

Maria shook her head, unable to answer the question. “I will tell the Patron that you are fine and that you will be in shortly.”

“Thank you, Maria. I have a lot of thinking to do.”

***

Johnny drank the last of his coffee and threw the tin cup into the sink. Cipriano had opened his house to him, and he had been nothing but foul tempered and closed mouthed.

He was angry with himself for letting himself fall into the trap, not at the old Segundo who had taken him under his wing from the day he had first rolled up his sleeves and gone to work. He should have listened to his instincts from the beginning. Left Lancer as soon as he was on his feet. Collected his money and been on his way. But instead he thought he could make it here. Could live a normal life… but that was not to be. His life had been mapped out from the moment his mother fled under the cover of night with a gambler who left her high and dry a month later.

Pushing himself to his feet, he steadied himself before heading for the front door. He needed some fresh air. He needed to get his head straight so he could move on. The dizziness was still too unpredictable. He felt fine one minute then without warning his world turned upside down and he was flat on his butt if he couldn’t grab onto something in time. Sam said it would take time. Maybe months before he was completely free of the debilitating vertigo.

But he didn’t have months. He would start fixing up Darber’s shack tomorrow and move out by the weekend. He promised himself that he would stay until Hortence lost interest in her war against Murdoch, then he would move on, find a place to hole up until he was sure he was in control again then head for Texas. He could find work there. He had already decided he would find ranch work. He would not go back to gunfighting…not after having a taste of life without it.

He stopped at the sound of horses approaching and realized he had become careless the last couple of days and left his holster in the small room off the kitchen. He retrieved it quickly and strapped it on. “Those kind of mistakes can get you killed Johnny,” he chastised himself.

Leaning against the wall he peeked out the curtain. Damn, he didn’t need this. Teresa was flanked on either side by Murdoch and Scott, all three looking hesitantly toward the front door.

Slowly he opened it, sliding his shoulder along the doorframe until he was leaning against the doorjamb.

“Hello, Son,” Murdoch called. “How are you feeling?”

“Better,” Johnny replied flatly. He wanted to tell them to turn around and go home, but somehow he knew that that was not going to happen. “I don’t have much more than hot coffee to give ya, but come in if you want.”

He watched Murdoch and Scott dismount and then helped Teresa down with a large satchel.

“Maria thought of that one, Brother,” Scott grinned. “I hope you haven’t eaten, because she cooked us up a feast.”

Teresa walked past him into the cabin, nervously, and went right to work setting the table for dinner.

“What time do you expect Cipriano back?” she asked.

“Not tonight. He’s decided to stay at the line shack while he works on the bridge.”

“You’re here alone?” Murdoch snapped.

“I can take care of myself, old man,” Johnny snapped back.

“He knows you can,” Scott rushed in before tempers flared. “He’s just concerned. We all are.”

“There’s nothing to worry about. I’m doing fine.”

That got a raised eyebrow from Murdoch, but nothing more.

Teresa arranged the food on the table, fried chicken, corn on the cob, biscuits.

“Dig in, Brother,” Scott said, helping himself to the food, “I bet Cipriano can’t cook like this.”

“Lots of tamales.” Johnny couldn’t help but grin at Scott’s look of disgust.

“I’ve had Cipriano’s tamales. Nearly burned the inside of my stomach.”

“I hate to tell you, Boston, but he made `em mild for you.” The easy banter felt good and Johnny lost himself for a moment in it. If only things could be as they were. Then he looked over at Teresa, her head bowed, her food untouched. “But now you don’t have to worry no more,” he said, the humor forced now. “Maria can cook all them easy foods you like.”

“She misses you, we all do,” Scott said.

“Yea?” Johnny looked at Teresa. “Well, get used to it cause I’m not coming back.”

“Son.” Murdoch set his fork down, searching for the right words. His rehearsed speech seemed so inane now. “I’m sorry that I hit you. I was only trying to keep you with us.”

“I know that, Murdoch. I wouldn’t recommend trying it again. But I know why you did it.”

“Then why won’t you come back?”

Silence hung in the small cabin, touching each one of them.

“Because I don’t belong there…never did.”

“That’s not true!” Murdoch railed. “You are Johnny Lancer, my son. You belong there as much as any one of us.”

“Johnny Lancer, maybe.” And Johnny looked pointedly at Teresa. “But not Johnny Madrid.”

“They are one and the same, aren’t they?” Scott asked. “Two parts of the same person?”

“Some people don’t see it that way. Some people can only see Johnny Madrid.”

“Stop it!” Teresa cried out. “Stop it all of you. I know you’re talking about me. And I’m sorry but…”

“But what?” Scott asked. “What changed? Johnny is the same person he was last week.”

“I can’t do this.” Teresa started to stand up but Murdoch’s booming voice stopped her.

“Sit down, young lady. Now, I want to know what’s going on, and I want to know now.”

“Murdoch, please, “Johnny said softly. “Leave her alone. It’s not her fault. I knew I was doing wrong when I decided to stay.”

“And you shut up too!” Scott shouted. “The two of you have escalated this way out of proportion.”

Johnny’s hand automatically slipped under the table, but Scott was not to be denied. “You are both acting like children. Maria is practically in tears all the time. The men know something is up and it’s spread all over the ranch. Everyone is on pins and needles. It’s time to put a stop to it.”

“And,” Murdoch said softly, his huge hand moving to cover Teresa’s small one, “I think you hold the answer to all of it. What happened, Sweetheart?”

Teresa dropped her head…”The letter,” she whispered.

Murdoch paled. “The letter?”

“What letter?” Johnny demanded.

Teresa’s voice dipped lower, her eyes glued to a gouge in the table. She didn’t want to have this conversation in front of everyone. It was supposed to be just between her and Johnny. But now that she saw how much her betrayal hurt him she couldn’t look him in the eyes. “The one Hortence wrote…I read it.”

“Teresa,” Scott felt like he had been punched in the gut. “How did you…”

“Bethany brought it. Said I wasn’t safe living with Johnny Madrid….”

“What letter?” Johnny asked again, this time his voice was low and menacing. Johnny Madrid was knocking at the door.

Murdoch turned to Johnny. “Hortence compiled a list of all your…all the people Johnny Madrid supposedly killed.” He looked back at Teresa. “Half truths and out and out lies.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Johnny Madrid asked. That quickly…and they had lost Johnny Lancer. Murdoch now knew he had been wrong in forcing the issue. But he wanted Johnny home.

“Because I wanted to protect you. I was never able to in the past. I didn’t want you hurt again…and here you are. I’m sorry son.”

Johnny looked closely at Murdoch and asked coldly. “How do you know they’re lies?”

“Because I know you,” Murdoch said firmly.

“For three months? That’s not enough time.”

“Time enough to know you wouldn’t kill women and children or back shoot anyone.”

“Is that what that letter said?” Johnny slowly turned to look at Teresa. “And you believed that?” he asked, his Madrid mask slipping for just a moment.

Teresa cringed away from the hurt she heard in Johnny’s voice.

“I asked you a question!” Johnny shouted. “Did you believe I could kill women and children?”

“No! Not them, but the others. All those names, all for money.”

Johnny stood up too fast: the cabin spun and he fell back against the wall.

“Johnny!” Scott leapt to his feet, trying to reach Johnny before he fell.

“No!” Johnny righted himself, using the wall for support. “Just leave, all of you.”

“Johnny.” Murdoch tried to move closer but Johnny shook his head. “Just go…please.”

“Johnny, don’t do this,” Scott pleaded. “We can talk this over. Teresa is confused. It was a shock to her.”

“I need time to think.”

“You won’t leave will you?” Murdoch asked.

“I said I’d stay until this is cleared up. I won’t break my promise. You can find me over at Darber’s cabin tomorrow. I’ve taken advantage of Cip’s hospitality long enough.”

“You’ll need help cleaning the place up,” Scott said.

“I can handle it by myself.”

“I’m sure you can, but you won’t. I’ll be over with a crew tomorrow. We’ll have that place fixed up before you sit down to dinner.”

“Johnny, please, won’t you reconsider?” Murdoch asked. “Your place is at home.”

Johnny closed his eyes, willing himself to have the strength. “Please, just leave.”

Murdoch took Teresa by the arm, trying to hide his distain for her right at that moment.

“We’ll be here at sunup.”

Johnny nodded carefully, still not steady on his feet. “And Scott, my clothes. This shirt’ll be standing on its own soon.”

“If you’re sure about this.”

Johnny looked at Teresa, the one person in the world who could hurt him the most. He was a fool to have opened his heart to her…to anyone. It was much safer being Johnny Madrid. “I’m sure.”

Teresa didn’t say a word, her world was as upside down as Johnny’s. Her only wish was that the floor would open up and she would disappear forever.

The door closed with a click and Johnny sat back down at the table, listening to the life he thought he could have disappear. Only a fool dreamed of having something they knew was impossible…

.

Chapter 13

Hortence Shaffer made her way down the path leading to Green River’s Protestant Church. She often thought that it was fitting that the Spanish Mission was in Morro Coyo, a smaller town with a larger Mexican population. Not that she minded the Mexicans…most of them anyway…it was just that it was easier not to have to live with them. And although the one room church was small compared to the Spanish Mission, the parishioners were of a higher caliber.

As she neared the church she admired how the new coat of paint had freshened the outside walls. And Hortence herself had taken charge of fixing up the inside for the new Reverend…Lester Montague. The old Reverend had passed in his sleep and they had been without a spiritual leader for weeks.

She just hoped the new preacher would feel comfortable in the small church with its plain straight benches and low organ.

Ironing her modest black dress with her hands and making sure her hair was captured in the pins she had so painstakingly put in place this morning, she knocked lightly on the door of the small house in back of the church. She had made sure the small cottage was ready for Reverend Montague as well. One of these days the town would realize all she did for them.

She heard footsteps inside and smiled to herself. She had given the Reverend three days to settle in before dropping in on him to welcome him personally to his new home. It was time that he learned a little about his parishioners…the good and the bad.

*****

Johnny spent the day feeling trapped like a animal. He wanted to get on with things. Fix up Darber’s place, but more than anything, he wanted something to do to block yesterday’s conversation with Teresa from his mind. It still stunned him that she thought he could be the cold blooded killer that she read about. To think that she thought him capable of killing women and children angered and frightened him. It was one of the darkest moments of his life…and he had known some dark moments.

He should have known he was laying himself wide open for the kill, trusting like he did. All those years he had spent walking away before it got personal, keeping safe. His mama was right after all, you could only trust yourself in this world.

Johnny Madrid knew the truth. Johnny Lancer was learning it.

It was getting on toward late afternoon and he thought Murdoch and Scott understood he wanted to be out of here today. He had expected them this morning, but he hadn’t seen a soul. If he was steadier on his feet he would walk, but it was ten miles, and some of it over rough country.

Strapping his gunbelt on, he headed outside. It was still hot, would be until the sun set. He was getting soft. The heat never bothered him when he was riding the trail through Mexico or the deserts down by the border. Now that was hot, sun baking the life out of man and beast, but he never complained. Not then…yep…he was getting soft, another reason to leave Lancer. Soft and careless, that’s what he was lately. That could get a man killed.

He walked over to the small barn where Cipriano kept his gear, maybe there was some tact that needed mending. Anything to do. He was lonely.

Lonely…that was something he never was before. Sure he was alone and wouldn’t have minded someone to talk to besides his horse, but never lonely like this. He missed his family.

The thought shocked him. He missed his family. His family. Damn, how did he let this happen?

Three months and his life was turned upside down. But he had to admit it was a good three months for the most part, and that was what hurt. Murdoch was right, it was working. Was…but not anymore.

“What’s done is done,” he said, not even a damn horse around to hear his words.

Stepping into the darkness of the barn he had to wait for a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the dimness. What he found surprised him. A workbench was piled high with worn tack. Intrigued, he sifted through the broken and frayed equipment then noticed a neater pile at the end. Retooled headstalls, reins, cinches and flanks looked like new. Halters and leads, even stirrups were carefully arranged on the bench.

So this is what Cip did with his time when the day was done, and the work was finished. He had made a life for himself here. In his own way a part of the family. He had found a way to belong and yet stay apart. Maybe that was what he needed to do. Darber’s cabin was a start. Maybe he didn’t have to move on. Maybe he could stay on the fringes of his family. Be a part of them but not taint them with his past. Could it work? Could he be so close to the life he shared with them and not falter in a weak moment? He had to be sure first. He had to know that he was strong enough to push them back when they crowded him. And they would -all of them. Except Teresa.

The sound of a wagon pulling up outside made him turn too quickly and he lost his balance, grabbing wildly for the bench, his fingertips tangling in the tack. He landed hard on his side, the tack raining down on him.

The commotion was enough to bring Murdoch and Scott running into the barn.

“Johnny!” Murdoch was on his knees, disentangling him from the riot of gear. “Are you all right, Son?”

“Yeah,” Johnny grumbled. “I’m fine, Murdoch…just my ego is bruised.”

Scott took Johnny’s right arm while Murdoch took his left and they hefted him to his feet.

“I know I’m from Boston,” Scott chided, “but even I know that’s meant for a horse.”

“Very funny,” Johnny muttered.

“Are you hurt?” Murdoch insisted.

“No. I told you I’m all right. How come it took you so long to get here? I told you I wanted to get over to Darber’s place so I could start fixin’ it up.”

“We know what you said, but we had things to do. This is a working ranch.” Murdoch regretted the words the minute they left his mouth and he saw the pent up anger in Johnny’s eyes. “Johnny, I’m sorry. I know you want to work, but Sam wants you to take it easy for a little longer. It won’t be long. In the meantime, we have the wagon outside and we’ll get you to your new home as soon as you climb on board.”

Johnny looked at Murdoch and Scott. Were they really going to make it this easy for him?

“I just need to get a couple things from the cabin then I’ll be ready.” As he walked out of the barn he was stunned to see Barranca tied to the back of the wagon.

“He was getting lonely. Scott grinned.

“But you have to promise not to ride him until Sam gives you the ok,” Murdoch warned.

Johnny nodded, smiling at the antics of the palomino as he recognized him. Then he turned back, the smile gone.

“I don’t understand.”

“What?” Scott asked.

“Why you’re doing this.”

“Johnny, we don’t want you to do this,” Murdoch said. “We want you home. But you have the right to make your own decision. If this is what it takes to keep you here at Lancer, then I’m willing to do it. The only thing that I ask is that you follow Sam’s orders and that you come see us before you leave, if that is what you decide in the end. We are a family, Johnny. No matter how far you go, you will always be Johnny Lancer.”

Johnny felt overwhelmed. He had been ready for a fight, he wanted to fight, it would be so much easier to walk away if there were angry words between them, but he didn’t know how to fight this.

He felt Murdoch’s hand on his shoulder. “Let’s go, Son, before it gets dark.”

Madre de Dios…could he ever live without these people again?

 ***

The ride to Darber’s…no…his cabin…took less time than he thought. Murdoch pulled the wagon to a stop in front of the cabin and Johnny climbed down carefully, still painfully aware of his dizzy spells. It wouldn’t do to let his father and brother see him like that.

As he walked closer he noticed a rocking chair on the small porch and curtains hanging in the windows.

Smoke billowed softly from the stove pipe. He remembered the last time he was here the pot bellied stove was a nesting place for all kinds of critters.

Johnny grabbed the doorknob and stopped. Once he stepped through this door, would he ever return to the hacienda? He felt a longing for things as they were, but pushed it aside for things that were to be.

Before he had a chance to open the door it flung open and Maria stood there, her wide smile not hiding her sadness.

“Juanito,” she said, grabbing his arm and pulling him inside. “Bienvenido a usted hogar temporario.” (Welcome to your temporary home.) “Temporario.” She wagged her finger before his nose.

Surprise would be a wholly inadequate word for what Johnny Madrid Lancer felt at the moment. The old falling down shack he had seen just weeks ago had been transformed in one day to a comfortable cabin. It was sparse in its decorations, just the way he liked it.

Johnny was not exactly sure who grabbed his elbow and guided him into his new home. His eyes couldn’t drink in what he saw fast enough. A small couch with a coffee table sat in one corner of the freshly painted room, a small bookcase hung from the wall nearby. Scott’s touch he was sure. A large Indian rug nearly covered the entire freshly scrubbed floor. The pot bellied stove he remembered was replaced by a small cook stove, with a counter and sink next to it. Maria already had every burner in use. The aromas of hot Mexican food made Johnny’s mouth water. In the other corner a single bed sat with a real mattress and fresh linen. A comforter lay folded at the foot of the bed in case the nights got chilly.

Johnny couldn’t say a word; the lump in his throat was so large it nearly choked him.

Murdoch seemed to be having a little trouble with his own throat. “Just a few things I had stored in the attic. might as well put them to use.”

“Gracias,” Johnny said softly.

Murdoch nodded. “Maria is right, we hope this is only temporary. But if you decide this is what you really want, then we will expand on this or build on a site wherever you want on Lancer. But Johnny, remember, your true place is with us in the hacienda.”

Johnny looked around, still stunned. “How?”

“You have a lot of friends, Johnny. We had to turn hands away who wanted to help.”

“Hola in the casa,” came Cipriano’s distinctive voice.

Johnny opened the door to find Cipriano standing on the porch with a bottle of tequila and a handful of limes. “We celebrate, no?”

“Si,” Johnny grinned. “But what are we celebrating, my new house or you losing a houseguest?”

Cipriano thought for a moment and shrugged. “Both, I think.”

“Come pronto,” Maria called. “Dinner is ready. Cipriano, bring the rocking chair in. We must all eat together.”

Johnny took his seat, painfully aware that one person was missing.

*****

The dinner was hot and spicy and more than once Johnny held back a snicker when Scott had to down a glass of water to ease his burning mouth. But all too soon the dinner dishes were washed and set into the small cabinet above the sink and the guests were ready to leave.

They were leaving later than they should, it was a long, and often hard road back to the hacienda, but no one wanted to say good…especially not Johnny.

Johnny walked them out to the buckboard. He was still reeling from the generosity of his family. They had thought of everything from dishes to soap to towels. Even an old tub sat in back, and the thought of soaking in it tomorrow appealed to him mightily.

“I’m not sure how to thank you for all this,” he began.

“No need for thanks, Johnny.” Murdoch took Johnny`s offered hand and pulled him into an unexpected hug. “You take care, Boy, you hear? The door is always open to you. No matter what time of the day or night.”

“I know,” Johnny said. “But this is best for now.”

Scott slapped him on the back. “Take care, Brother. I’ll be by with extra hay and oats for Barranca.”

Maria charged between both brother and father and wrapped her arms around Johnny. “You take care, Juanito, you hear me?”

“Si, Mamacita, I hear” Johnny grinned. “And I promise.”

There were tears in her eyes as she let Murdoch help her into the wagon.

Johnny watched the wagon pull away and wished he were on it with them. But, like he told Murdoch, this was for the best.

Cipriano walked out of the cabin, ready to leave.

“You are a lucky man, Juanito, to have so many who worry so about you.”

Johnny turned to look back through the door into his cabin. “I know.”

“Niño, you will make the right decision. Your familia has given you the gift of time. They trust you…trust yourself.”

“They may be betting on a losing hand.”

“I do not believe that, and neither do you. I will stop by tomorrow and we will talk again. Si?”

Johnny smiled. “Si.” He brushed past his good friend as he headed or the rocker and sat down. “Tomorrow” he called back as Cipriano mounted his horse and turned to ride away, leaving Johnny alone at his new home.

*****

Johnny lost track of time just sitting and rocking. He could remember a time when this would be more than he dared wish for.

Now it wasn’t enough…but it had to be. He could not go back to the hacienda with Teresa there. There would always be that doubt between them.

Johnny remembered the first time he had seen her, in that silly little hat, walking up to the stagecoach looking for Murdoch Lancer’s long lost son. Who could have known that there would be two of them to answer her call?

She had been feisty from the start. Headstrong to a fault. Undaunted when it came to caring for him after Pardee’s bullet nearly took his life. He had tried to push her away at first, both grateful and angry that she sat at his bedside so often while he slept. He warned her that he was trouble, that he had done things that she could never understand. But that didn’t seem to matter to her. She only saw him as he was, injured and needy. Then their friendship grew -a special friendship. She only knew him as Johnny Lancer. For her, Johnny Madrid didn’t exist.

What happened to that woman? It seemed that overnight she had taken a backwards step into childhood.

He knew, in age, she was just a child…not even eighteen. But she had grown up fast in the past year. They had talked about it, had supported each other. He thought nothing would come between them. Then that damn letter.

Johnny knew he had to have a look at that letter. He wouldn’t get it from Murdoch or Scott. But he knew where he would get it. Not for a day or two though…he had given his promise not to ride Barranca until Sam cleared him…but when he did…

.

To Part Two—->

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One thought on “The Real Johnny Madrid by LindaB (Kona)

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