by Margaret P.
With thanks to my beta, Terri Derr.
“Hey, look.” Johnny reined Barranca to a halt in front of the Johnson place and pointed down the left-hand side. The last rays of daylight were reflecting off a window pane.
“That’s strange.” Scott steered Ulysses closer to the fence for a better look as the vaqueros ahead of them rode on to the saloon.
Wooden planks lay criss-crossed on the dried grass below the rear window of the house and one of the peeling blue shutters hung askew, casting shadows on the white-painted clapboard.
Johnny looked for someone to ask, but it seemed the townsfolk had gone for their suppers. He could see movement and light behind the net curtains of the Majestic Hotel, but the street was deserted. “This place has been boarded up ever since we got here.”
“I asked Murdoch about it once. He said the owners had moved back east.”
“Maybe it’s rented now.”
“Sold for demolition more likely. Look around. It’s all businesses in this part of Green River now.”
“Why uncover the windows to knock it down?” Johnny frowned; the idea of tearing down such a grand lady didn’t sit right with him. She wasn’t even that old. “Waste of a good house.”
“It’s called progress.”
“In a manner of speaking.” Scott raised an eyebrow.
“It’d be a damn shame. Wouldn’t take much to—”
A wind chime above the porch jingled in the breeze, and Johnny turned his head to the sound.
Before he could stop himself, he fell inside a memory: a long row of cabañas, ropes, horses and burning torches. Juanita’s wind chime sang until the thatch over the porch collapsed, and then all he heard was the children crying and the women wailing. Lucian and what was left of the other village men knelt beside him in the dust, guns aimed at their heads.
It took a moment. He blinked and swallowed and breathed. The heat and the smoke faded, and he was back, a white clapboard house standing lonely but peaceful in front of him.
“Happy homes shouldn’t be torn down just because greedy men want land.” Glancing sideways, he forced a smile.
Scott gave him one of those long steady looks, and then tried to laugh it off. “How do you know it was happy?”
Was he blind? Johnny made a wide sweep with his hand. “Look at it—the garden, the swing hanging from the tree.” Everything was overgrown and weather-weary now, but once someone had spent a lot of time on the rose garden. Wind chimes, swings and honeysuckle growing over the porch spoke of a woman and children, and…well, shoot, he didn’t really know how he knew, but this old place had a heart. “Don’t you feel it?”
Scott stared at the house. “You could be right, but whatever’s going on, it’s got nothing to do with us.”
Johnny shrugged; it was pointless arguing, and besides, the hairs on the back of his neck told him Scott’s eyes were now on him, trying to get inside his head. To find what? A can of worms better left unopened. He didn’t look around again; Scott could think what he liked.
“Come on. It’s probably just kids being nosy.”
Before Johnny could answer, there was a thud and the scraping of wood. The un-boarded sash was pushed up, and a young man wearing fancy duds like the ones Scott had arrived in climbed out of the window.
“Hey!” Johnny stood high in his stirrups, but the kid didn’t look around. He shut the window and strode off in the opposite direction, vaulting the rear side fence and disappearing from view. “Damn it.”
“Let’s take a look.” Dismounting, Scott tied his horse to the picket fence and kneed the gate open on rusty hinges.
They crossed the yard together, skirting the once-loved rose garden to reach the rear window. While Scott investigated inside, Johnny jogged on to the road that dead-ended half way down the double lot. All he could see was the rangy orange tom cat from the granary on a parapet wall, pouncing and batting its paws at bugs, and a housemaid bringing in sheets from the clothes lines at the rear of Mrs Flower’s boarding house.
Where in hell did the kid go? Buildings—some with backyards, some without—stretched towards the centre of town; he could have gone through any one of a dozen doors or alleys. With a shake of his head, Johnny returned to the house. “No sign of him.”
Climbing out of the window, Scott pushed the sash down. “Well, he hasn’t done any damage. This only gets you into the kitchen and washhouse. The door into the rest of the house is locked.”
“What do you think we should do?”
“Nothing we can do. I vote we join the others at the Silver Dollar.”
“I like the way you think, brother.” Johnny gave Scott a friendly punch on the arm, and they headed for their horses. A nice cold beer and a few hands of poker were just what the doctor ordered after the week they’d had. “If you’re lucky I’ll let you win.”
As it turned out, Scott beat him without any ‘letting’; the days of needing to be kind to the greenhorn were clearly over. Downing a shot of whiskey, Johnny prepared to take his revenge, but before he had reshuffled the deck three drifters asked to join the game. Relieving strangers of their hard-earned wages had to be more fun than beating each other.
He exchanged a look with Scott and his brother pulled out a chair. “The more the merrier.”
A couple of Lancer men joined them as well, and it was a good game until Walt had a winning streak and started crowing.
“You fellas need to learn how to play.” He scooped the pot towards him from the centre of the table.
“You know what happens to the rooster that crows too loudly, Walt.” Johnny started picking up cards.
“Aw, Johnny, you know I’m only foolin’.”
“Well, I reckon you cheated.” One of the strangers got to his feet. “And I want my money back.”
“I was not cheating. I won fair and square.” Walt jumped up, chest all puffed out like an indignant bullfrog.
“He wasn’t cheating.” Scott slipped his gambling money back into his pocket.
Johnny did the same—just in case. “Sit down, both of you.”
“He had to be palming cards or something to win four times in a row.” The stranger glared at Walt. “Now give me back my money.”
Johnny opened his mouth to make a joke, but it was too late.
The stranger took a swing at Walt, and Walt swung back. The stranger’s friends, the other Lancer hands and a few onlookers joined in the fracas.
Johnny and Scott got to their feet in the nick of time. Walt and the stranger crashed down on the table, and cards, money and splinters of wood went flying.
Johnny drained his glass and set it down on the bar. “I don’t suppose…?”
“No, unfortunately not. Being the boss does have its drawbacks.”
Working together they began breaking up the fight, one Lancer man at a time.
“Enough.” Johnny hauled the last one through the door onto the boardwalk ten minutes later while Scott paid for the damage and collected their guns from behind the bar. They were lucky the sheriff hadn’t shown up, but from the noise further along the street he must have had his hands full at the Pioneer.
“What do you think?” Scott looked up at the full moon as they rode home herding bruised and battered cowhands ahead of them. “Do you think Murdoch will buy moon-madness?”
Johnny rubbed his arm where it had connected with a chair. “Maybe he’ll see the funny side.” Fat chance, but it was in his interest to give false hope. Scott took his status as first born way too seriously, but in this case he was welcome to take the lead. “You tell him.”
In true big-brother style, Scott grabbed the bull by the horns and got the job done as soon as they sat down to breakfast. “Our men weren’t to blame, sir. The drifter threw the first punch. Walt only defended himself.”
“I don’t care. I was relying on you two to keep them out of trouble. You heard what Sheriff Crawford said last week.”
“Val wouldn’t really ban Lancer hands from town on a Saturday night, Murdoch. He only said that because the old biddies from the Temperance Society were listening.”
“Not the point, Johnny, and you know it.” Murdoch snatched a biscuit from the basket in the middle of the breakfast table, accidentally knocking the milk as he withdrew his arm.
Scott rescued the jug in the nick of time and changed the subject. “Some guy broke into the Johnson house on Main Street last night. Jimmied the boards off the kitchen window and got inside. We spotted him climbing out as we rode into town.”
“Did you catch him?”
“Nope. Disappeared too quick, but Scott checked inside. Whoever he was he didn’t do any harm.”
“Glad to hear it. That house belongs to old friends of mine.” Murdoch mopped up the last of his egg with his biscuit. “Daniel and Sarah Johnson were the original owners of the emporium on Main Street.”
“How come the house has been empty so long?” From what Johnny had heard, it had been shut up for years. Val Crawford reckoned the grounds only got tidied because the owner of the Majestic Hotel across the road caused a ruckus if they got too scruffy.
“The people who bought out the business rented it for a while, but when they sold up about eight years ago, the new owners didn’t want it.”
“Why didn’t the Johnsons sell then?” Scott asked between mouthfuls.
“It wasn’t long after the flood. No one was buying anything much and paying a pittance if they did. Besides, Daniel and Sarah had ideas of moving back some day when their kids grew up.” Murdoch sighed and poured himself more coffee. “I think that’s gone by the bye. Sarah writes every Christmas, but she hasn’t mentioned it recently.”
Johnny lowered his glass of milk. “Why’d they go in the first place?”
“In ’58 there was a chickenpox epidemic. Daniel and Sarah’s son, Christopher, was badly affected. The family moved to Hartford in Connecticut to get him the help he needed.”
Teresa reached for the salt. “I remember having chickenpox. I stayed with the Ramirez family. All the children slept together in Maria and Cipriano’s big bed, girls at one end and boys at the other.”
“There were ten in the bed and the little one said, ‘Roll over, roll over’.” Johnny sat back in his chair and grinned.
Scott took up the song. “So they all rolled over and Teresa fell out.”
Teresa laughed. “I did too—a few times. Mainly because, when we felt better, we had pillow fights.”
“Your daddy and Maria nursed you back to health. Cipriano had never had chickenpox so he was banned from the house, and I couldn’t remember if I’d had it or not so I was ordered to stay away too. I’m glad you and the Ramirez children have some happy memories, but for the adults it was a terrible time.” Murdoch got up from the table, folding his napkin and sliding it back into its wooden ring. “When you two have finished your breakfasts I’d like to know how many head have been brought down from the hills for branding. I’ll have a word with the men who disgraced themselves last night, and then I’ll check on the new culverts.”
So much for distracting him from the fight the night before; Johnny and Scott swapped looks of resignation. God help Walt and the others; they’d done their best.
Murdoch paused in the archway on his way out. “We’ve got to go into Green River tomorrow to get those papers signed. Malachi Lambeth is the agent for the Johnson place. We’ll visit his office afterwards and let him know what you saw.”
“When it comes to houses, Malachi’s not much of an agent,” Johnny growled as they rode past the Johnson place on their way into Green River the next day.
“It looks worse this morning than it did on Saturday night.” Scott slowed a little. The paint had peeled back to bare wood on some boards, and several roof tiles had slipped. The downpipe feeding the rain barrel near the rear corner hung loose, out from the wall. “I don’t blame Herb Saunders for being annoyed. That view can’t be good for business.”
Johnny switched his gaze to the Majestic. By the looks of the hotel, Saunders wasn’t suffering too badly.
Ahead of them, shopkeepers were opening doors and shutters and rolling barrels of wares out onto the boardwalks. Funny how towns came alive a few hours after the ranch; it was probably because townsfolk went to bed later. Once upon a time Johnny would have been sleeping off the night before in a room above the saloon at this time of the morning; never in a million years could Johnny Madrid have imagined he’d have an hour or two’s branding and a big breakfast under his belt by nine o’clock.
The land agent’s office was directly opposite the stock agent’s, but they didn’t get there until much later in the morning. Ebenezer Walker, the stock agent, seemed determined to make the paperwork take forever. Why the documents had to be so long-winded and signed in triplicate by all three of them, every page read and initialled, Johnny would never understand. He skimmed a lot of it. After all he had Murdoch and Scott, and they were much faster at reading. Why keep a dog and bark yourself?
“Government contract, gentlemen. Must dot all the ‘i’s and cross all the ‘t’s, don’t you know?”
Johnny would have liked to have dotted Ebenezer by the end of it.
It was well after eleven before they finally headed across the road. A small bell tinkled as they entered the land agent’s office, and Johnny held the door for a fancy Dan who was leaving.
“Can I help you, gentlemen?” A balding clerk with a mid-western accent turned from his filing and peered over the top of wire-rimmed spectacles.
Murdoch approached the desk. “We’d like a quick word with Mr Lambeth, if that’s possible.”
“I’m afraid he’s in a meeting, but…”
“It’s not good enough, Lambeth.” An angry voice burst through from the inner office as a fist hit something solid. The slightly open door was flung wide and the owner of Green River’s premier hotel marched out. “Fix it.”
Malachi Lambeth appeared on the threshold, flinching as the main office door slammed shut. He looked a little frazzled, but he recovered quickly. “Murdoch. Boys. Good to see you. Sorry about that. To what do I owe the pleasure? Not changed your minds about selling that parcel of land down by the river, have you?” He raised a hopeful eyebrow.
“Good try, Malachi, but no.” Murdoch smiled, and folded his arms. “Scott and Johnny saw someone poking around the old Johnson place on Saturday. We thought you ought to know.”
Johnny stepped forward. “Young fella—he climbed out of the kitchen window. I shouted, but he took off.”
Scott dragged his eyes away from the ‘for sale’ notices pinned to a large corkboard on the wall. “I checked inside as far as I could go. Nothing seemed amiss.”
Lambeth scowled. “Kit Johnson, no doubt. Came in here on Saturday afternoon demanding keys as soon as he got off the stagecoach. No warning. Nothing.”
“Johnson. Daniel and Sarah’s boy?” Murdoch brightened. “Sarah didn’t tell me they were coming back.”
“They’re not—as far as I know. The Johnsons in their wisdom have agreed to their son using the house to set up a private school.” Lambeth picked up a folder from the clerk’s desk. “The boy had a letter of introduction from his pa, but there’s been so much interest in the property lately I wasn’t taking any chances. It could have been a forgery. I made him wait until this morning until I could telegram to confirm everything was in order.”
“I remember now. Sarah mentioned Kit was training to be a teacher. You don’t look too happy, Malachi.”
“I’m not. Since you Lancers saw Pardee and his highriders off, Green River has grown fast. A central location like that would bring good money. I’ve relayed at least seven offers to Daniel in the past year, and I’ve got two interested parties right now. The man’s lost all reason; he’s virtually giving it away. Tarnation, that boy of his can’t even talk properly.”
Scott rolled his eyes. “Don’t you think jokes about eastern accents are getting old, Malachi?”
“What?” The land agent looked confused.
“Is the Johnson kid here alone?” Johnny began examining the large rubber stamps on the corner of the desk— ‘Approved’, ‘Copy’ and ‘Cancelled’—but the clerk, now sitting down, seemed protective of his territory; he moved them out of reach.
“Might as well be. A middle-aged spinster is with him—a teacher, supposedly.” Malachi checked his fob watch and frowned. “The whole thing’s doomed to failure if you ask me. Folks hereabouts won’t want a school like that in Green River.”
“Why not? Boston has several schools that started life in large houses. The Johnson place is well-located with plenty of land for expansion. Some businesses in town should do very well out of it.”
“Pack of misfits.”
What the hell was Malachi on about? Scott and Johnny exchanged puzzled looks until Murdoch solved the mystery.
“I’m guessing it’s a school for the deaf?”
Malachi gave a bad-tempered huff.
“Christopher Johnson—Kit—lost his hearing in the chicken pox epidemic I told you about.”
“As I said, ‘misfits’—imbeciles most likely. Now, if his father had been willing to spend money on the roof, I could have rented the house to a decent family long ago.”
“I’m sure Sarah wrote they gave you the go ahead for that. Didn’t you tell them there were too many other problems?” Murdoch eyed Malachi, and the agent looked uncomfortable. “Isn’t that why it’s sat empty and neglected all this time?”
“What are you suggesting?”
“Nothing, Malachi. I’m not suggesting anything, but there’s no point in complaining. Daniel and Sarah have obviously made their decision.” Murdoch tipped his hat and turned towards the door. “We’ll be seeing you. Come on boys, I want to visit young Kit. He was only five or six when the family left here.”
They headed back out onto the boardwalk and made their way south down Main Street. As they approached the Johnson house, they heard banging. The young man from two days ago, dressed in work clothes, was balanced on the porch roof prising boards off an upper storey window with a hammer. The sashes on the lower floor were already uncovered and open to the fresh air.
“Hello the house.” Johnny called as they walked up the front path, but Kit didn’t turn around.
“He’s deaf.” Scott gave Johnny a shove.
“Oh, yeah.” Grinning, Johnny picked up a stone and pitched it as close as he could to where Kit was working. It pinged off the clapboard and bounced over the shingles by his feet.
Holding onto the window frame, Kit turned. He squinted in their direction, and then smiled broadly. With a wave, he sidestepped right to an open window and climbed inside.
The Lancers continued up the path to the porch.
As they stepped onto the creaking floorboards, the door swung wide and Kit Johnson stood grinning in front of them. “Uncle Murdoch?”
“You remember me?” Murdoch grabbed Kit’s hand and clapped him on the shoulder. “I’d recognise you anywhere. You’re the spitting image of your father.”
“Ma said to look for the friendly giant.” Kit’s words were cottony, not slurred exactly, but not quite normal either.
Johnny ducked his head and laughed. “Friendly giant, eh?”
“She can’t have seen him in a bad mood.” Scott winked.
Murdoch looked slightly embarrassed. “Yes, well, you two could try the patience of a saint.”
Johnny put out his hand. “Johnny Lancer and this is my brother, Scott.”
“How do you do?” Kit shook hands and then spread his arms in welcome. “Please come inside.”
The house was empty of furniture, but someone had been scrubbing the floor and washing down woodwork. They took care to avoid the wet patches. Kit held up his hands for them to wait and stuck his head through the door to the kitchen. “Molly, we’ve got company.”
A rosy-cheeked dumpling of a woman in floral print dress and a once-white apron emerged carrying a bucket. Kit took hold of the handle and placed the bucket next to the mop leaning against the staircase. “Molly, this is Murdoch Lancer and his sons, Scott and Johnny.”
“A pleasure, I’m sure. Mrs Johnson said to expect you. I’m Molly Plumb, teacher of the deaf and maid of all works.” Banishing wisps of fair hair behind her ears, she wiped both hands on her apron and offered her right one to Murdoch.
“We’re pleased to meet you, Miss Plumb.” Murdoch shook hands as the brothers tipped their hats.
“Molly, it is, and you must call me Murdoch. So it’s true then. You’re turning Kit’s old family home into a school?”
“That’s the intention. The furniture should arrive by the end of this week, and our first students the week after that. We have two months to prove it will work. Don’t we, Kit?” Molly smiled, and he nodded. “If we succeed the American Society for the Deaf will fund us from then on.”
“A lot to do.” Kit raised his arms and looked around. “Repairs and cleaning first, and then every room needs painting.”
Johnny walked a slow circuit taking in the main rooms, checking out the staircase and how well doors opened and shut. There were a fair few jobs to be done, all right. The handrail on the balustrade was loose, several boards creaked under foot, and the paintwork had definitely seen better days. A fine layer of dust coated almost every surface and the only curtains were provided by spiders. He ran a finger over pencil marks on the kitchen door frame and smiled; the names and ages next to each line were still readable. “Looks like you could do with a hand.”
No one replied.
Scott tapped him on the shoulder. “Turn around and say it again.”
Molly touched Kit’s arm and smiled at their guests. “You need to talk so Kit can see your face. He’s very good at reading lips, especially if you talk one at a time.”
Johnny glanced at Kit as Molly spoke, and his eyes stayed on her the whole time.
“Can you…sorry, can he hear at all?” Scott looked first at Kit, but then directed his question to Molly.
“You got it right the first time. Kit can’t hear anything, but he can answer for himself most of the time.”
Kit touched her arm and then made rapid signs with his hands and fingers. Molly nodded and signed back. “Kit wants me to explain he has more trouble speaking than understanding.”
“Well, that’s good to know.” Murdoch smiled at the newcomers. “I think I can spare these two to help with the repairs for the rest of the week if you want them, and I know a young lady who’s a dab hand with a needle and thread.”
“Oh, that would be wonderful, Mr Lancer—Murdoch. Thank you all so much.” Molly beamed at them, and the Lancers smiled back. With luck the experience would be less eventful than the last time Johnny helped fix up a house.
“Hey, Kit!” Johnny reined the buckboard to a stop as his new friend came down the path to help unload. “Sorry no one’s been out for a few days. I can finish the roof today if you want.” Hopping down, he gave a wicked grin. “And I’ve come bearing gifts from the beautiful Miss Teresa.”
Kit blushed and waved the joke away. One look had been enough; he’d been completely tongue tied in a way that had nothing to do with being deaf. Fortunately the only person who couldn’t see it was Teresa.
“She is beautiful.”
Reaching over the tray of the buckboard, Johnny grabbed a large parcel wrapped in brown paper and string. “Bed sheets and pillowcases. Catch.”
“Thanks.” Kit stuffed the parcel under one arm and picked up paint brushes lying near the tailgate.
Johnny looked at him hard and then squinted towards Molly sitting on the porch bench. Was she crying? “What’s up?”
Johnny cocked his head, but Kit wouldn’t meet his eyes. Instead he started up the path towards the house.
Grabbing a hammer and a barrel of nails, Johnny followed.
“What’s wrong?” He asked again as he put his load down on the porch.
Molly stuffed her handkerchief into her apron pocket and stood up. “Not a thing. I’m fine.”
“Humph. If you say so, ma’am.” The sheriff, Val Crawford, came out of the front door before she could say anything more. “Take a look at this.” He plonked a rock and a piece of paper in Johnny’s hand. “One of the good citizens of Green River broke the living room window with it.”
A pane at the far end of the porch was shattered.
Johnny examined the crumpled note: ‘NO DUMMIES IN GREEN RIVER.’
“Apparently some people don’t want us here.” Molly blinked fast, crimping her apron with fingers that wouldn’t stay still. “It’s not the first sign, but…No, we mustn’t read more into the situation than it deserves. Most mishaps will be accidents. Coincidence. Nothing more.”
Kit put a comforting arm around her shoulder, and she gripped his hand.
“What things?” In Johnny’s experience a series of ‘mishaps’ rarely turned out to be accidents.
Kit took a deep breath. “We didn’t think it was worth mentioning before. A few tools and other items have gone missing…and if you remember, a skunk got into the house last week. Nothing we could say was anything more than bad luck really until the day you and Scott didn’t show up.”
“What happened then?”
“The prop was kicked out from under the clothesline. I thought it had just fallen, but later I found a note like that pegged to one of Kit’s shirts.” Molly pulled her handkerchief from her pocket and blew her nose. “Then yesterday, when we were out shopping someone opened the tap on the rainwater tank—drained it near empty. I’ve had to pay a man to fetch water from the river. Kit tried all afternoon to get the old pump working, but the bore seems to have dried up.”
Shit. The school couldn’t run without water. It could probably connect to Green River’s new municipal supply, but they’d be waiting a long time. Lancer had already waited six weeks to get the plumbing they wanted done. The ranch had good, clean bore water, and several outdoor pumps as well as the one in the kitchen, but up until recently there had been other priorities. Now the pipework and faucets were on order for proper indoor plumbing, upstairs as well as down. Teresa said they could even have hot water after the new coal range arrived, but lead and copper pipe didn’t come cheap, and the fact was there were only two men in the district who knew what they were doing with it. Everyone had to save their pennies and wait their turn. “I’ll take a look at the pump. Maybe I’ll get lucky.”
Kit clamped his hands on the railing and glared towards the street. “We won’t be scared off.”
Molly came up behind him and touched his arm. “It’s different this time, Kit. Someone could have been hurt. Our students arrive this afternoon. What if these things keep happening—or something worse?”
“Don’t you worry, ma’am, I’ll make sure there’s no more trouble.” Val took the rock and note back from Johnny. “You aimin’ to stick around all day?”
“Most of it.”
“Good. I’ll get Pastor Appleby to have a word with the Gospel Gerties that run this town, and I’ll sort out their menfolk. You keep an eye on things here. Between us we’ll nip this nonsense in the bud.”
“Once the children arrive, people will see the school is a good idea.” Kit squeezed Molly’s hand, and she gave a weak smile.
By lunchtime she seemed more convinced. Johnny didn’t manage to fix the pump, but they made good headway on other repairs. “I can’t believe we’ve done so much in such a short time. All the essentials are ready, and the house looks marvellous.”
“Well, the front part anyways.” Johnny gave Kit a nudge, and they laughed.
The porch and the street face of the house had been painted at Scott’s insistence within the first few days. They had all agreed the sides and back could wait, but Scott had been pig-headed about the front. “First impressions matter. The house needs to look welcoming to people walking up the path.”
“We’ll get to the rest soon enough.” Molly tied her bonnet and checked herself in the mirror by the door before leading the way out onto the porch. “Now it’s done I agree with Scott. The fresh paint will impress the officials from the Society and help the children feel like they are coming to a home and not just a school.”
Johnny appreciated Scott’s second point more than his first. Sweetening up the suits from back east was important—they could make or break the school after all—but he needed a better reason to do all that sanding and painting in such a rush.
“Please thank your family, Johnny. We couldn’t have done it without so many willing helpers.”
“Our pleasure, Molly.”
They had even finished the roof, and Johnny had used his bird’s eye view to check out the streets below for anything suspicious. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. A few strangers came and went from the hotel, including the middle-aged businessman he’d seen at the land agent’s the week before, but that was about all.
“Odds are whoever it was has had their fun,” he said as he opened the gate for Molly. One little white lie couldn’t hurt.
They headed towards the Wells Fargo office with Kit and Val bringing up the rear, and the afternoon stage came clattering into town before he could think too deeply about what he really believed. Two minutes later the school’s first students climbed down from the coach with shy, excited smiles.
Johnny hovered in the background with Val as Kit and Molly greeted the children.
“Mary Armstrong?” As she spoke Molly held up a card with the child’s name, and a girl of about ten stepped forward. Molly directed her onto the boardwalk and held up another card. “Sarah Davis.” And so on until she had identified every one of the seven girls and boys.
As the children lined up, Kit collected envelopes pinned to their clothing. “These letters were in case someone got lost on the journey.”
Wide-eyed, the girls held hands while the two older boys slouched and scuffed their boots, pretending to be brave. They turned their backs on the youngest boy, Seth. He stood trembling like a terrified mouse until Kit took his hand.
Once the youngsters were all lined up, clutching bags Val and Johnny helped unload, Molly stood at the front and raised her arm. One by one, the children looked her way. When she had their full attention, she smiled. Lowering her arm, she touched the tips of her fingers to her lips and brought her right hand down into the flat of her left. “Good.” Then she led her new pupils back to the Johnson place, waddling along the boardwalk like a mother duck with a string of ducklings.
Johnny and Val trailed along behind, watching the reaction of the townsfolk as the girls and boys passed by.
“Not all bad,” Johnny remarked, swiping an apple off the top of a barrel outside Mayor Higgs’ general store. He flicked a coin to the shop boy gawking in the doorway.
“Nope, not all bad. The shopkeepers fixin’ to make money from the school seem happy enough.” Val scratched his chin, scanning the street ahead. “Dang shame about the rest.”
“I used to try real hard to make folks look that scared.” Johnny bit into his apple, chewing slowly and mulling over possibilities.
“Don’t feel so smart now, huh?”
“I can’t figure out what’s bothering everyone. They’re only kids.”
“Doc Owens reckons someone’s been telling tall ‘uns. Folks think they’re dangerous—lunatics. The Widow Crombie asked him to sign a petition. Claimed Mayor Higgs promised to push a motion through council to close the school down if she could get the doc’s signature. She threatened to take her many ailments to Doc Mort in Morro Coyo if he didn’t sign.”
“What did Doc Owens say to that?”
Val grinned. “I’ll give you three guesses.”
Johnny laughed, nearly choking on a piece of apple.
Val slapped him hard on the back. “Doc Mort might not be too happy if she follows through.” He snorted, and then turned serious. “Bert Miller reckons if any of those kids come near his livery he’ll see them off with buckshot. Dang fool meant it too. He’s convinced they’ll steal stuff or set the hay on fire.”
“Where’d he get a hare-brained notion like that?”
“I don’t know. He’s not saying. No one’s saying.”
“Malachi Lambeth wasn’t too pleased about the school when Kit and Molly first arrived.”
“Yep, but he says he ain’t been bad-mouthing them.”
“You believe him?”
“Maybe. The feeling in town is more than his bellyaching alone could whip up. Someone has gone out of their way to put a rattler in the chicken coop if you ask me.” Val tongued the wad of tobacco he’d been chewing to one side and spat on the ground. “This morning I heard Jed Barkman order Jed junior to bring his sister straight home after school. Barkman’s afraid them boys will bother his Lizzie.” Val nodded towards the boys trooping along ahead of them—the oldest couldn’t be more than twelve. “When I asked him if he had cat’s piss for brains, he said everyone was talking about it. Common knowledge, he reckons. ‘Them kids ain’t right in the head, and the boys are a danger to womenfolk’.”
“Pfft! Look at them. Those respectable citizens need to open their eyes.”
“More than likely the fuss will die down now the kids are here.” Val lifted his hat and mussed up his hair as they reached the Johnson’s gate. “But I’ll keep an eye out for the next few days.”
“Let me know if you need help.” Johnny rested his right hand on his Colt and gazed around. There were plenty of people in the street, but he couldn’t see who he was looking for.
“See you later.” Val touched his hat and headed back towards his office.
Dropping his apple core into a bush, Johnny strolled up the path. The others had gone inside. Mounting the front steps, he leaned against a porch post. The tinsmith, Jed Barkman, met his eye for a second, and then got back to loading crates onto a cart outside his workshop.
Mrs Leyton and Miss Chalmers gossiped on the corner of the alley between the Johnson’s and the row of businesses stretching towards the town centre. They stopped talking and stared in his direction, but when he tipped his hat, they got flustered and hurried off.
Herb Saunders was in a pucker with one of his clerks by the looks of things, but then a porter carrying luggage came out of the hotel, followed by a silk-clad lady, wearing a fancy bonnet and wielding a parasol, and Saunders instantly switched on the charm.
The clerk escaped inside just as Brett and Rex Allcock rode by. They kicked up dust and hollered “Howdy” in passing.
By the time he looked back towards the hotel, the boardwalk outside the Majestic was empty.
Raising his eyes, he scanned the upper floor windows of all the businesses across the street, but the net curtains and shutters kept their secrets—if they had any. Nothing stirred along the parapets and roof tops either. Slapping the post, he gave it up and went inside.
“Why so grim if everything looked normal?” Murdoch shook out his napkin as the family sat down to supper that evening.
Johnny fingered the top of his wine glass, arm and elbow resting on the white damask tablecloth, ignoring the food in front of him.
“It felt like the school was being watched.”
Scott accepted a serving dish from Teresa. “Maybe you imagined it.” He spooned a large helping of mashed potatoes onto his plate and passed the dish on to Johnny. “Too much time for daydreaming—unlike those of us digging ditches since dawn.”
Johnny chuckled; he wasn’t sorry to have escaped that job. “You tossed the coin.”
Murdoch chewed slowly and took a sip of wine. “We should be able to spare you for a few more days. Why don’t you go back to Green River and give Val a hand?”
Johnny met his father’s eyes and nodded.
He started adding pot roasted beef and vegetables to his plate. Murdoch often trusted his judgement these days. Why he valued each instance as though it was something special, he wasn’t sure, but he did. They had come a long way since the spring of 1870; the fact that Scott and Teresa didn’t bat an eyelid proved it. They went back to debating the merits of A Midsummer Night’s Dream over Under the Gaslight as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
The next morning Johnny said goodbye to Scott and the rest of the culvert crew outside the barn. “Have fun digging holes, fellas.”
“Your turn will come. Stay out of trouble.”
Johnny saluted and spurred Barranca to a canter. He reached the outskirts of Green River, humming ‘Clementine’, as shopkeepers began unlocking their doors. A few carts rolled along the rutted street and clerks and others with clean fingernails hurried to their place of work.
Up ahead the Majestic Hotel came into view on the right. A man swept the boardwalk outside and a maid dressed in a frilly apron and cap watered hanging baskets.
One of the leading lights of the Temperance Society bustled out of the jewellery store next door, rummaging in her purse as if she had lost something. It was the beak-nosed woman with the voice that scratched the inside of his ears like barbed wire. Johnny was sorry for the wives of drunkards, but any man married to that Bible-thumbing crow needed a saloon once in a while.
Closer to him, on the left, three girls carried primers and lunch pails on their way to school. As he drew near, they started to cross the street. The youngest dawdled and stopped in the middle to examine something on the ground. One of the older ones ran back and tugged at her sleeve. “Come on, Alice. You heard what Ma said.” They glanced towards the Johnson place and then ran to their friend waiting on the boardwalk outside Jed Barkman’s workshop.
A lump formed in Johnny’s stomach. Not feeling much like humming anymore, he tied Barranca to the new hitching post by the Johnson’s gate and headed up the path.
“What the hell?” He stopped before reaching the stairs.
Kit got to his feet, a paint scraper in hand.
“What happened?” Johnny took the steps two at a time and pointed at the scorch mark, stretching from the porch floorboards up to the top of the front door. Except for where Kit was working, the once blue and white paint was crinkled and charred.
Kit scowled and pulled the burnt remains of an old shawl out of a bucket sitting on the bench seat.
Taking the ruined garment from Kit’s hands, Johnny sniffed: kerosene, wool and… “Gunpowder?”
The shawl was wet from being doused with water. Johnny looked more closely and picked bits of burnt red paper from the knit. “Dang stupid prank.”
“Prank?” Kit exploded like a firecracker. “Someone tried to burn the house down with us inside.”
“Whoa. Take it easy. Most folks around here know wool burns slow, and the crackers were likely to make sure Molly woke up.”
“Well, she didn’t. Molly’s bedroom is out back, and she sleeps like a log.”
“Shoot.” Johnny stared at the door again. It was badly scorched at the bottom, far worse than could be expected from smouldering cloth, and that was heat damage, not just smoke stains, higher up.
“The door was on fire and the house full of smoke by the time Sheriff Crawford woke us.” Kit sounded more like a snarling bear than a man speaking words.
“Are the kids okay?”
“But no one was hurt?”
“No, no one actually got hurt.” Kit glared at the shawl. “Come and see this.”
Johnny followed him around to the side of the house, passing a discarded paint can and brush in the rose garden. They must have been the ones left in the shed after the front door and shutters were repainted, because a small river of blue paint trailed over the now weed-free soil.
“Well?” Kit pointed at a message painted on the wall:
DUMMIES GO HOME!
Johnny swallowed a curse. “Does the sheriff know about this?”
“Not yet. He came running last night, but he was at the other end of town when the fireworks went off. Whoever did it was long gone by the time he got here, and it was too dark to check much. We found the message this morning.”
“I think I’ll go tell him.” Johnny turned towards the street, striding across the lawn and jumping the fence instead of going through the gate.
After some searching, he found Val coming out of the hardware store.
“Whoever lit those firecrackers last night painted a ‘Go Home’ message.”
“Yeah, well, I’m pretty sure I know who done it.”
“You’ll see.” Val led the way towards the north end of town. “I might need your help, but stay out of sight until I call you.”
Johnny raised an eyebrow.
“Trust me.” Val waved him down the alley between the school and the town hall. “Hide around the side of the woodshed. Go on.” He grinned and headed around the front of the schoolhouse.
Johnny rested his shoulder against the side wall of the shed and waited until he heard voices in the alley.
“We ain’t done nothing, sheriff.”
Johnny peeked around the corner, taking care not to be seen. Val had extracted Kyle Dobson, the butcher’s son, and another boy from their lessons. Kyle was whining as he tried to wriggle free of the grip Val had on his collar.
The other boy backed towards the woodshed. “Why’d you always think it’s us?”
Val pushed Kyle forward to join his friend. “One: because it usually is, and two: because Mayor Higgs says you were in his store wanting to buy firecrackers on Tuesday.”
“Yeah, but he didn’t have none. Too long past Independence Day, he said.” The second boy sounded bitter, as though he didn’t believe what they’d been told.
“What did you want them for?”
“Just some fun.”
“Like scaring the kids at the new school?”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about.” The boy kicked at a stone, and Johnny fell back as it bounced within an inch of his boot.
“My pa says those dummies should go back where they came from.” Kyle was a cocky so-and-so. He’d better hope Val was in a good mood or he’d get a clout around the ear.
“Funny, that’s pretty much what someone painted on the wall of the Johnson place.”
“Yeah? Well, you can’t prove it was us. Everybody hereabouts calls them dummies.”
“It’s a school for the deaf. That’s folk who can’t hear right good. They think just fine—which is more than I can say for you and Dick.” Val crowded the boys further into the vee formed by the schoolhouse and shed walls, well clear of any windows and out of easy sight from the street. “Mayor Higgs says he told you to try the hardware store on South Street.”
Dick fiddled with his braces. “We don’t go there. Old Man Ferguson doesn’t like us.”
“Well, ain’t that peculiar? Seems like he’d be real fond of fellas who let a bunch of roaches loose in his store.” Val stroked his chin. Then he took a plug of chewing tobacco out of his pocket and bit a piece off. “Thing is, boys, Mr Ferguson is mighty good at stocktaking. He’s positive he had fireworks out back, but when we looked the box was empty.”
“That don’t mean nothing.” Kyle swaggered forward, but Val blocked his path. They exchanged looks, and Kyle stepped back again.
“Stealing means something all right, son, but we’ll talk about that later. For now I just want to know why you’re so set against those nice folks at the deaf school.”
“We told you already; we ain’t.” The smirk had returned to Kyle’s voice.
Val’s face darkened.
“It wasn’t our…”
Kyle elbowed Dick hard in the ribs.
“Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. Go on.”
Dick bowed his head and shuffled his feet.
“We ain’t saying.” Kyle puffed out his chest and tried to maintain the bravado. “You can’t make us. Innocent until proven guilty.”
“You don’t say?”
“Lock us up if you want; I dare you. My pa is on the town council. He’d get us out real quick. You’d get the sack.”
Dick’s head shot up. “Yeah. And then my pa would knock your block off.”
Val chortled as he scratched the back of his neck. “Well, that’s me put in my place, but thing is, I ain’t aimin’ to put you boys in jail. I got better things to do with my time than listen to you two belly-aching while I drink my coffee.”
Johnny sensed the boys’ confusion. He would have laughed, except he had a gut feeling he knew what was coming next.
“So we can go back to class?” Kyle sounded hopeful and nervous at the same time as if he thought freedom was too good to be true—which it was.
Johnny leant against the shed wall, not bothering to spy anymore. He didn’t need to see the boys’ faces to know they looked like a pair of scared rabbits. As sheriff, though, Val had gone about as far as he could go without getting the boys’ parents involved. He could finish it himself, but it would take time they didn’t really have.
“Fact is, fellas, I ain’t the only one wanting to know who put you up to this.” Val raised his voice a little. “Johnny, you still there?”
Damn you Val Crawford. Johnny watched a wisp of cloud float out of sight over the roof tops; it would serve Val right if he walked in the same direction and left him hanging.
But, they needed to find out what was going on with the school—the sooner the better—and this was their only lead. Even if they followed the sheriff’s rule book, they couldn’t be sure the boys’ fathers would help.
Taking a deep breath, he slipped around the corner, ambled up and circled his quarry real slow. Kyle and Dick’s eyes widened and their bodies stiffened as he approached; they didn’t even dare to turn around when he stopped behind them. Throwing Val a look that said he might have to reconsider their friendship, he completed the loop and came to a standstill beside him.
Chewing with his mouth open, Val glanced over. “You want a word with these boys?”
Johnny relaxed his weight onto one foot and rested his hand on his Colt. The game had begun.
He fixed his eyes on the rabbits and smiled.
Kyle and Dick paled.
“You can’t…” Kyle grabbed Val’s arm. “You can’t give us to him.”
Val stared down at the fingers clutching his shirt. The boy let go and stuffed his hands into his pockets. “Sorry.”
“Mr Lancer here wants to have a little chat. Is there a problem?”
“He…he’s a gunfighter.”
“He’s Johnny Madrid.” Dick shuddered.
“He’s Mr Lancer to you boys and he’s retired from gun fighting. He’s a respectable rancher now.” Val picked at a scab almost hidden by his day-old stubble as the boys stood goggle-eyed like goldfish. “Okay, I’m off. Don’t look so worried; I’ll look into any accidents.” He touched his hat and without waiting for a reply, sauntered towards the street. “Innocent until proven guilty. Good rule. I like it.”
“Wait. You….” Dick’s head swivelled desperately between Johnny and Val’s retreating back. “We’ll tell our pas.”
Val stopped. He leaned forward slightly with his hands on his hips as if giving Dick’s threat due consideration. Then he spat on the ground and kept on walking.
As he rounded the corner of the schoolhouse into the street, the boys backed away towards the shed.
Johnny frowned. It suited his purpose for the boys to be a little scared of him, but they weren’t just scared; they were terrified. What was he? Green River’s boogeyman? The possibility hit him hard in the pit of his stomach. Val must have known it too. Why else would he have thought up this scheme?
Folding his arms over his chest, Johnny gritted his teeth and stared down at the fine coating of dust covering his boots. Wasn’t it time folks got over his past? Damn it, he’d bought those boots with calluses and back-breaking ranch work, not his reputation with a gun. After nearly two years, he deserved the benefit of the doubt as much as Kit and his students.
“You can’t hurt us,” Kyle blustered, breaking through Johnny’s thoughts. “We’re still at school. We just turned fifteen.”
Johnny lifted his head. Talk about a different world…but he had a job to do. Adjusting his hat, he took a step closer. “Well, now that’s real interesting, but it don’t make no difference.” He clamped Dick’s shoulder with his left hand and crowded Kyle into the schoolhouse, planting his right hand on the wall behind the boy’s ear. “Now are you two going to tell me what’s going on or do I need to teach you a few things I learned at fifteen?”
Kyle gulped and looked for a way out— there wasn’t one. He licked his lips. “He said not to tell anyone.”
“The man.” Spine pressed hard to the rough-sawn timber, Kyle tried to increase the gap between him and Johnny by sidling into the vee of the walls.
Johnny raised an eyebrow.
He turned to Dick. “Do you know him?”
The boy shook his head, lips tight shut as if he was about to puke.
Johnny straightened. He’d better get this over with quick.
Letting go of Dick, he pulled a soft leather glove from his pocket. The boys watched as he wriggled his left hand into it, but before he was done he aimed another question at Kyle. “What did this man look like?”
“W-wore a suit….About your height.”
“Young? Old?” Johnny pushed his hat back a little and stood with hands on hips.
“I dunno. Older than you. Y-younger than my pa.” Kyle scuffed the toe of his boot in the dirt. “He had oil in his hair…and he talked funny.”
“Not from around here.”
Johnny pondered for a second. “Did he sound like my brother?”
Kyle shrugged. “Sort of.”
But Dick shook his head.
“What did he say?”
Neither boy answered. For a second Dick looked like he was going to say something, but he thought better of it.
Kyle breathed in some courage. “We can’t remember.”
Johnny grabbed the front of the boy’s shirt, and he squawked.
“Well, start remembering. How come you did his dirty work?”
“Pfft.” Johnny shoved Kyle back and then pushed him and Dick roughly together. “You know one thing I learnt at fifteen, fellas? There are worse punishments for a smart mouth than a whupping.” He stepped back and flexed his un-gloved hand.
“Tell him, Kyle.”
“Yeah, Kyle, I’m losing patience.” Johnny’s right hand hung loose by his Colt.
Kyle eyed the gun. “He…he blackmailed us.”
“Is that so?” Johnny cocked his head and hooked the thumb of his gun hand into his belt. “Go on.”
“He reckoned unless we helped him he’d say he’d seen us untie the gate on the livery corral and scare the horses out.”
“You scared them, huh? Let me guess: with firecrackers?”
“What did he want you to do?”
“Cause a ruckus. Leave a message.”
“Who’s idea was ‘Final Warning’?”
“His. He said it would have more…more…impact.” Kyle’s relief when he remembered the word made Johnny want to laugh. “He said we’d be doing the town a favour.”
“The lying bastard didn’t see anything. He only guessed.”
“So what? After last time Madman Miller would have scalped us. We had no choice.”
Well, it was good to know Johnny wasn’t the only fella to scare the shit out of kids in this town. A small consolation though; even Val thought Miller was crazy.
“Okay, let me get this straight. You had fireworks left over so you decided it would be a good idea to set the Johnson place on fire? Someone could have been killed.”
Dick squirmed uncomfortably. “We just wanted to frighten them.”
“It wasn’t our fault. The lady teacher must have been liquored up to sleep through that racket.”
Johnny cuffed Kyle around the ear. “How much did he pay you?”
Rubbing the side of his head, Kyle avoided Johnny’s eyes.
“I said ‘How much’?”
“Fifty cents each. A dollar once we’d done it.”
“Hand it over.”
Grumbling and scuffing the ground with their boots, the boys ponied up.
“That’s for the damage.” Johnny dropped the coins into his shirt pocket. “Where’d you get paid?”
“We met him around back of the Majestic before school started,” Kyle growled.
“Is he staying there? Working there, maybe?
“Dunno.” The boys answered together.
Dick looked up with pleading eyes. “Honest injun, Mr Lancer, we’ve told you all we know.”
Johnny studied the two troublemakers, weighing up whether they could tell him anything more worth knowing. Then he heard children laughing. He checked his watch; the morning’s lessons were over.
“Report to Kit Johnson after school. He’ll have chores for you.” He thumbed the boys away, and they edged past him with their backs scraping the wall. “Don’t make me come looking.”
“No, sir.” Touching their hats, they made a dash for the schoolyard.
The coffee was brewing and Val was eating beef and pickle sandwiches when Johnny arrived at the sheriff’s office.
“You shoulda warned me,” he said pinching a sandwich from the tin plate on the corner of the desk.
“Where’s the fun in that?” Val handed him a cup of coffee. He began pouring himself a refill, but when he glanced over at Johnny, he lowered the coffee pot. “What’s up?”
Johnny shrugged. “Just tell me before you do something like that again, okay?”
“Sure—if you want.” Val frowned. “I thought you liked being Madrid once in a while.”
“I do—sometimes.” Johnny kicked at the leg of the desk. “Darn it, Val, I wouldn’t mind if they were older, but I don’t like scaring kids.” It made him feel like a bully.
“They’ll be leaving school next year. When you were their age…”
“That’s got nothing to do with it. When I was their age I wasn’t a kid.”
Damn it, he didn’t want to go there. The point was Kyle and Dick both had a Ma and a Pa who loved them and took care of them. They didn’t have to grow up fast. As far as Johnny knew the boys were Green River born and bred. They’d never had to fit into a strange town or learn to find their own meals or defend themselves. They lived in happy homes and at fifteen they were still kids.
“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t put me in that situation again.”
“Fair enough. I just thought it was the quickest way to find out what was going on. As sheriff I couldn’t beat the truth out of the little hoodlums.” Val put the coffee pot down and offered a hand. “Still friends?”
Johnny slapped his hand into Val’s. “It’ll take a more than that for me to shoot you.”
Val laughed and set about stoking the potbelly.
Johnny plumped down in the leather chair behind the desk and put his feet up on a half-open drawer.
“I ain’t that sorry,” Val said when he turned around. “Are you going to move, or do I pour this over your head?” He held his mug high like the sword of that Greek fella in Murdoch’s book of parables.
“Spoilsport.” Johnny shifted to the bench seat by the window and Val reclaimed his throne.
“So what did you find out?”
“Some guy they didn’t know hired them near the livery. He was wearing a suit.” Johnny rested his back against a filing cabinet and stretched one leg out along the bench.
“Hmm, can’t see Miller being involved. More like him to fetch the hemp and raise a lynch mob.”
“The same guy paid them out back of the Majestic.”
“Could be a connection there. Everyone knows Herb Saunders plans to expand.” Val’s words were muffled by a mouthful of sandwich. “A lot of the fellas working for him wear suits.”
“Are you going to question him?”
“I will when I get back.” Val licked pickle from his fingers and drained the last of his coffee. “Gotta go out to the Reynolds spread first. Lancer had any trouble with rustlers lately?”
“Not so you’d notice.” Johnny raised his eyes as his friend stood up and started getting ready to leave. “Mind if I dig a little while you’re gone?”
“Be my guest, but remember Saunders is on the town council. He’s one of the stuffed shirts paying my wages. Don’t go throwing accusations around until you’ve got hard evidence.”
Johnny chuckled. Val liked the job of sheriff more than he’d admit. Since he got his badge back after the Criswell fracas, he and the town council had come to an understanding, and neither side wanted to rock the boat. “I might save Saunders for you. I’ll start with Malachi Lambeth. He knows more than he’s saying. Besides, I reckon his clerk is from out of state, and those boys said the fella who hired them wasn’t from around here.”
As it happened Lambeth was leaving the bank with Herb Saunders when Johnny finally tracked him down. They seemed a lot friendlier than they had been when Johnny last saw them together. Shaking hands, the two men walked off in opposite directions.
“So you said you had two buyers for the Johnson place.” Johnny fell into step beside Malachi. “I’m guessing Saunders was one of them?”
“I’m on official business for Sheriff Crawford.”
“I don’t see a deputy’s badge.” Malachi glanced at Johnny’s chest and kept walking.
“You know it could be arranged, Malachi. Why not just tell me?” Johnny quickened his pace to keep up. “Anyone would think you didn’t want to talk to me.”
Malachi stopped outside the Green River Courier’s office. “Anyone would be right.” Dropping a dime into the honesty box, he picked up a newspaper from the pile. “Well, I don’t suppose it matters now. Okay, if you must know, Herb Saunders was interested.”
“That why he was in a pucker the other day?”
Malachi nodded. “I’ve wired Daniel Johnson three offers on his behalf, all above valuation. You can’t blame Herb for being angry.”
“Luck of the draw. He could have been outbid.”
“True, but then at least he’d have a complementary business opposite and not a house-lot of crazies.” Malachi thrust the newspaper under his arm and started walking towards his office.
Johnny caught up with him again. “They’re not crazies.”
Malachi sniffed. “That’s a matter of opinion.”
“Do you think Saunders would do anything stupid?”
“Not now I’ve come up with an alternative proposition.” The land agent looked smug.
“None of your business. We’re still in negotiations, but I can assure you, it has nothing to do with the Johnson place.”
“What about the other buyer?” Johnny blocked Malachi’s path.
“A consortium of influential investors.” Malachi sidestepped, trying to reach the door of his office. “Get out of my way, Lancer. That’s all I’m telling you.”
“Who was the man all smarted up leaving your office last week when we arrived? He wouldn’t be part of this consortium, would he?”
“For goodness sake!” Malachi glared at Johnny, but his annoyance was like water off a duck’s back; Johnny wouldn’t let him pass. “My secretary did say a Mr Reece called while I was breaking the news to Herb, but I don’t know his connections. He didn’t come back. As for the consortium, I notified them by telegram as soon as I confirmed the Johnson place was off the market. Unfortunately, they’ll probably look elsewhere. Green River could miss out on an exciting new enterprise, a real asset to the town.”
“An asset, huh? What were they planning to build?”
“I’m not saying. With luck I’ll be able to find another site near the town centre. If I can’t, Kit Johnson and that infernal school will have lost me a nice fat commission.”
“Sour grapes, Malachi? I hope you’re not playing games with Kit and Molly.”
“How dare you?” Malachi puffed up like a rooster in a cockfight. “I’ll have you know Johnny Lancer I run a respectable business. I’ll sue you or anyone else who says different.”
Johnny tipped his hat. “Don’t get your dander up. Let me know if you hear anything.” He dropped down from the boardwalk onto the street and dodging two wagons headed towards the Majestic Hotel.
“Knock, knock.” He rapped the mahogany reception desk with his knuckles and gazed around. Whooee, the Majestic had got hoity-toity since he’d last been inside—Persian carpets, fancy wallpaper and doodads everywhere. It had the Harlan Garretts of this world written all over it.
A clerk with oiled hair and a tailored suit emerged from the office behind the desk. He paused in the doorway and then came forward as though he had a bad smell under his nose. “Are you lost? The Lincoln Hotel is on South Street.”
Johnny blinked. When he’d been small he’d lived a time in New Orleans, and the folks there sounded just like this asshole. Maybe Saunders was at the bottom of it all. Maybe he’d gotten his desk clerk to bribe the boys before Malachi had come up with his ‘alternative’.
“Or Mrs Flower’s boarding house is across the street, a few doors down. I believe she accepts—”
“Where’s Charlie?” Not waiting for a reply, Johnny turned the register on the desk so he could read the entries.
The clerk reached over the polished wood and with a manicured hand closed the book. “If you mean my predecessor, I believe he has moved to Stockton to manage a less salubrious establishment. The Majestic, as you might have noticed, has undergone refurbishment. I am Grayson Birchall, the new assistant manager. And the hotel register is private.”
“Johnny Lancer. I want to see if a fella named Reece is staying here.”
“As it happens, we had the honour to be of service to Mr and Mrs Reece for nearly two weeks, but they departed yesterday.”
“Yesterday, huh? Do you know what Reece does for a living?”
“I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to discuss the private concerns of our guests. Particularly not with—”
“How do I get a message to him?” Johnny stepped back from the desk and looked around, not caring to hear the assistant manager finish his sentence.
“I doubt…” Birchall hesitated and frowned as he took in Johnny’s ten dollar hat and the cut of his soft suede jacket. The cause couldn’t be Johnny’s gun—Birchall didn’t look low enough—but something in his manner changed. It was like the pajero’s brain had suddenly caught up with his eyes. “Lancer, you say? You aren’t by any chance from that big spread, south of here?”
“But of course you are. How silly of me.” Birchall straightened his waist coat and conjured a Uriah Heep smile. “I had heard it was owned by an early settler and his two sons. I presume, sir, you are the younger son?”
“Excellent. Well, in that case, Mr Lancer, Mr Featherstone might be willing to assist you.”
“Mr Featherstone is Mr Reece’s secretary. Business keeps him with us a little longer. You can often find him in the lounge. He has taken a great liking to one of the armchairs by the window.” Birchall nodded towards a doorway draped with green brocade curtains.
Strolling over to the arched entrance, Johnny hovered behind the gold fringed velvet until he had scanned the room. Sure enough, sitting by one of the large feature windows was a slightly older version of Birchall: the same pencil moustache and Macassar oil-slicked hair, parted down the middle; wearing an almost identical suit with starched collar and cuffs, and a gold fob watch strung across his vest.
“Howdy.” Taking off his hat, Johnny swung a balloon back chair around from a nearby table and sat down next to the businessman.
But before Featherstone could say a word, there was a shout from outside.
Through the window Johnny saw a wagoner cursing a stray dog, and in the background, diagonally opposite, Kit was giving lessons to a group of children on the front porch of the Johnson house.
Turning back to Featherstone he offered his hand. “Johnny Lancer.”
Featherstone looked at Johnny and then lowered his eyes to the proffered hand. Ignoring it, he put the document he had been reading to one side and leaned forward to refresh his cup with coffee from a silver pot on the occasional table in front of him.
Johnny withdrew the hand. “I wanted a word with Mr Reece, but I hear he’s gone. The assistant manager said you might be able to help me instead.”
“Indeed?” Featherstone threw a dirty look towards the hotel reception.
“I’m a local rancher. I hear Mr Reece is interested in land.”
Featherstone picked up his cup, and leaned back in his armchair. “I’m afraid you have been misinformed.” His voice was almost as oily as his hair. Not a Boston accent, but the man was definitely from back east. “Mr Reece represents the Phoenix Group of New York and St Louis.”
Sipping his coffee, Featherstone appeared to think that settled the matter. Johnny waited until he realized it didn’t.
“Theatres and other venues of entertainment, Mr Lancer; my employers haven’t much use for cattle land.”
“Ah, but I know people who own property near the centre of town.”
Featherstone studied Johnny for a moment. “I believe I have seen you across the road.”
“I believe you have.”
“The Phoenix Group could be interested in the Johnson property—at the right price.”
“I thought it might be. So when can I see Reece?”
“Mr Reece returned to San Francisco yesterday. He trusted me to tie up any loose ends.”
“Like stirring up trouble for the school so it gives up on Green River?”
“You have a vivid imagination, Mr Lancer. You should take up playwriting; melodrama is all the rage these days.” Featherstone put down his cup and retrieved a silver case from his inside pocket. He lit a cigarette, tossing the match into an ashtray bearing the hotel’s name. “The Johnson property is a suitable location for a theatre. If your friends are thinking of moving on, I am authorised to make the owner a reasonable offer.”
“And you’re just hanging around on the off-chance?”
“Even a visitor to this town can see the school is not welcome.” Featherstone blew smoke towards the ceiling. “More mishaps seem likely, don’t you think?”
Johnny didn’t reply. The man reminded him of Scott’s grandfather; he had the same superior smirk and probably the same fox-like nature. Johnny wouldn’t trust him as far as he could throw him.
“I was planning to wait a week and then see how young Mr Johnson was feeling about things.”
Leaning forward, Johnny rested his arms on his knees and fiddled with the rim of his hat. “Well, you could, but it seems to me you might be better off packing your bags and catching the late stage out of here.”
“Now why would I want to do that?”
“Oh, I don’t know; maybe because the sheriff’s out to get the stranger who paid two locals to cause the last ‘mishap’.”
“I see.” Featherstone drew on his cigarette and exhaled slowly. “Am I to understand that you suspect me of being this unknown gentleman?”
“From what the witnesses say: maybe. Now I admit there are a few other candidates, but the question is, do you want to risk a line up?”
“No court would convict me, or anyone else, on the word of a couple of school boys.”
Johnny smiled again. “Yeah, you could be right, but Sheriff Crawford isn’t that particular. If those boys pick you out, he’ll lock you up until the trial, and they don’t provide Macassar oil and cologne in jail, Mr Featherstone. By the time the circuit judge comes around next month you might not look or smell too pretty.”
Featherstone stared at the painting of Lee’s surrender on the opposite wall, his lips a tight line.
Replacing his hat, Johnny slapped his knee and got up. “Shoot, Mr Featherstone, you do what you think is best. A respectable gent like you wouldn’t stoop to put the lives of little kids in danger to make a few bucks. If those boys get confused and say different…well, there’s Mr Reece to set things to rights. A big-gun company like the Phoenix Group isn’t going to let a loyal employee rot in jail just to save its reputation.”
Featherstone’s eyes narrowed. A shimmer of sweat on his temple suggested he wasn’t so sure about that, but nonetheless he was an experienced player of the game. “I am confident the proprietor of this establishment would not let things get that far.”
“Saunders can’t stop the sheriff from investigating.”
“You might be surprised what men who hold purse strings can do, Mr Lancer.” Featherstone knocked ash into the ashtray. “I feel sure Mr Saunders would not allow a valued guest to be harassed by an over-zealous lawman, and on that basis I believe the odds remain in my favour.”
“If these ‘mishaps’ keep happening.” Johnny put the chair back at the card table.
“Indeed. It’s only a matter of time. The school will reconsider the suitability of Green River as a location, and as the representative of the Phoenix Group I will be here ready and waiting to present a fair offer for the property. I might even sweeten the deal and help the school move elsewhere.” Featherstone coughed. He rested his cigarette on the rim of the ash tray and reached for his coffee cup.
Johnny watched Featherstone as he drank. “How many rungs up the ladder do you jump if you get old man Johnson’s signature?”
Featherstone didn’t answer, but the smug glint in his eye as he put his cup down said it all.
“Yeah, well, I admit I understand where you’re coming from. In my old line of work reputation was everything, and a fella can’t make a name for himself without taking a risk now and then.”
“I am a businessman, Mr Lancer, not a cardsharp.”
If Johnny was right, there wasn’t much difference. “Of course those odds you were talking about don’t take me into account.”
“I aim to stop anymore mishaps.”
“And you think you can do that?”
Johnny locked eyes with Featherstone and gave the smallest of smiles.
Featherstone looked away. He picked up the document he’d been working on when Johnny arrived and pretended to read again.
Johnny waited, enjoying the man’s twitching eye and tensing jaw—the tiny signs of a nervous rat.
“What was your old line of work, Mr Lancer, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“It’s no secret.” Johnny leaned closer as Featherstone looked up at him. “Gunfighting, Mr Featherstone. And between you and me, I was good at it.”
The businessman froze.
Johnny grinned and touched the brim of his hat. Sauntering towards the vestibule, he stopped under the arch and glanced back. Featherstone’s face was stony, and his eyes were fixed on Johnny.
Johnny lifted his Colt from its holster. He checked the barrel and spun the gun on his finger before putting it back. “If you want me, I’ll be across the road. I’m sticking around for a week or two.”
Ambling out onto the boardwalk, he stretched and breathed in the warm afternoon air. There was a hint of much-needed rain in it, and a few hopeful looking clouds floated across the sky.
Softly singing ‘The Old Chisholm Trail’, he crossed the street to the school and started scraping the warning message off the side wall. The old paint underneath was so crazed, it wouldn’t take him long, and he could watch for anything interesting as he worked.
Two hours later, paint scraping done and dusted, Val found him with a cold beer and his feet up on a box outside the Wet Your Whistle saloon.
“So you’ve done it all without me, huh?” Val blew the froth off his own beer and settled down in the rocking chair nearest the saloon entrance.
“Looks like it.” Johnny heeled the box sideways and back between the two chairs and put his drink down on top.
They drank and rocked lazily as Bert Miller led fresh horses from the livery and hitched them up to the stagecoach in front of the depot opposite.
Then, they watched Mr Featherstone of the mighty Phoenix Group board the four o’clock stage.
“Funny how things turn out.” Johnny licked the foam off his top lip. The driver released the brake, shook the reins and drove the coach towards the railhead. “I guess Featherstone wasn’t a gambling man after all.”
“That should do it.” With hammer in hand Scott hopped the fence and admired his handiwork.
“It’s still lopsided.”
“Are you sure?” Scott cocked his head to one-side to view the sign from a different angle.
“Shush, you two. They’re getting ready to start.” Murdoch nodded towards Mayor Higgs standing between the sign and the gate, shuffling pages and mopping his brow with a handkerchief.
A small crowd of townspeople and folk from neighbouring ranches and farms had gathered in the street outside the Johnson place for the official opening of the school.
American School for the Deaf
Principal: Miss M. Plumb”
Molly clapped her hands with joy as she read. “Oh, doesn’t it look wonderful? And to think, a few weeks ago we feared this day would never come.”
“You and Kit have done a marvellous job, Molly. The gentlemen from the Society for the Deaf couldn’t help but recognize that.” Teresa squeezed the older woman’s hand.
“We couldn’t have done it without your help—all your help. We almost sent the children home at one point, but now Green River seems happy to have us, we have a charter, and the school’s future is secure.” She beamed at the Lancers and Sheriff Crawford, and then hurried to the front of the crowd. Mayor Higgs had mounted his soapbox and as principal of the school she needed to stand with the town dignitaries when he began his speech.
Kit gave up lip reading after the first few pompous sentences. He slipped away from Murdoch, Scott and Teresa as they listened politely, and joined Johnny and Val at the back of the audience. “Sometimes there are advantages to being deaf.”
The others grinned.
“I’ve been so busy I haven’t had a chance to thank you two properly.” He offered a hand to Johnny and then Val. “We owe you more than everyone else combined. Thank you.”
“Folks just needed time to get to know you all,” Val replied, rubbing the back of his neck and looking self-conscious. “The worst of it turned out to be a couple of fool kids. No trouble to fix once we knew who they were.”
Johnny smiled. “Nope, no trouble at all.” He’d enjoyed his share of the fixing—the last part anyway. Val had had the harder job, chipping away at the fear and prejudice Featherstone had whipped up. Even with Kit and his pupils there in front of them, it had taken some people in Green River time to admit their mistake and start acting like the good Christians they claimed to be. “Those boys didn’t mean to set the house on fire neither. It was a prank that got out of hand.”
“That might be true, and I think Molly believes your stories, but you forget a man without hearing makes good use of his other faculties.” Kit looked steadily at his friends. Being deaf sure hadn’t affected his brains any. Johnny shrugged, Val nodded, and then all three burst out laughing.
“And now—if the gentlemen at the back would pay attention—as mayor of Green River, it gives me great pleasure to declare the Californian campus of the American School for the Deaf officially open.” Mayor Higgs cut the red ribbon strung across the gate with a large pair of draper’s scissors, and everyone clapped and cheered.
As the applause died down, Johnny dodged through the crowd and hopped up onto the soapbox Higgs had vacated. He raised an arm in the air. The children from the new school for the deaf and several others looked his way. “Okay, who wants the first ride?” He signed as he spoke.
Shouts came from all sides.
Within minutes Johnny, Scott, and Murdoch were hoisting children up into the saddles of their horses, tethered for the occasion on the inside of the new school’s yard.
Molly, Teresa and the other women started filling the long trestle tables on the front lawn with pies, fresh baked loaves of bread, salads, preserves and cold cuts, and in between serving homemade lemonade and ginger beer Val and Kit welcomed more visitors onto the grounds to join in the festivities.
“Can we help, Mr Lancer?”
Johnny turned from lifting a new rider onto Barranca’s saddle. Kyle Dobson and Dick Hoffman stood hats held respectfully in front of them.
“I guess so. If you want.” Johnny handed Kyle Barranca’s reins. “You know about horses?”
“Yes, sir. I look after pa’s carthorse, Maisie.”
Johnny wasn’t sure Maisie was quite in the same league as Barranca, but Kyle would be walking not riding so it should be okay. “Dick, you walk alongside Sarah and make sure she doesn’t fall off.”
Dick nodded and smiled up at the little girl in the saddle. She smiled back, and Kyle led Barranca away.
Johnny watched as the two boys followed the same path as Scott and Murdoch around the fence line.
What was it Teresa said? ‘Time is a great healer.’ Things certainly had turned out better than expected if Kyle and Dick had grown up a little. They didn’t seem scared of him anymore either. Val must have had something to do with that; it would be just like him to try and fix his mistakes.
Johnny gazed around. It was nice to think he might not be the local boogeyman anymore, and even nicer that the residents of Green River had gotten over their fears about the school and its students. Herb Saunders had donated baskets of flowers for the opening, and even though Bert Miller and Phyllis Crombie hadn’t shown up, Malachi Lambeth was there, and Jed Barkman and his wife were chatting to Molly over slices of apple pie. Their daughter, Lizzie, was pushing Kit’s star pupil, Mary, on the swing—those new ropes would be well used today.
Johnny looked over at the house. The side closest to town where the ‘dummies’ message had been written was fully whitewashed to match the front, and the other side was half done. Only the back wall hadn’t been touched yet.
With regular watering the roses in the garden were in full bloom, even though it was early December.
Best of all, the wind chime sang above the porch as it had done for so many years before the school for the deaf opened. Kit and his pupils could enjoy it too, because Molly had added small squares of coloured glass. The sunlight now cast patterns on the surrounding woodwork and winked at him off the freshly washed glass of the windows.
The glints of light and the tinkling of the wind chime warmed him deep inside. He’d done good. The Madrid part of him had done good, and that made him feel better about his past and his future. Two years ago in Mexico he’d failed to rescue happy homes and good people from the greed of powerful men. This time he’d succeeded.
- The Johnson family first appeared in my back story for Murdoch Lancer, From Highlands to Homecoming. The chicken pox epidemic was the subject of Chapter 41.
- Lucian was the Mexican prisoner kneeling next to Johnny waiting to take his turn in front of the firing squad in the Lancer pilot, The Highriders. Day Pardee was the leader of the highriders.
- Val Crawford was Green River’s sheriff in The Man Without a Gun, Series 1, Episode 23; Mayor Higgs was the owner of the General Store in the same episode; and Clay Criswell was the conman who temporarily robbed Val of his job.
- Under the Gaslight is an 1867 play by Augustin Daly and a primary example of melodrama, best known for its suspense scene where a person is tied to railroad tracks as a train approaches, only to be saved from death at the last possible moment. A Midsummer’s Night Dream is of course by William Shakespeare.
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