Word Count 9,462
Episode tag: Shadow of A Dead Man
Scott watched his brother work on the fence line, trying to put his finger on what was wrong. Johnny was subtly different these days. A bit…distracted. Yes, that was it. Preoccupied. And that was an unusual state of mind for John Madrid Lancer. He was typically keenly aware of his surroundings at all times.
Not that he was slacking on his assigned duties or neglecting anything. It was just that he seemed to be doing it mechanically. As if his heart was no longer in it. Scott frowned in worry at the thought. Was it possible Johnny was becoming disenchanted with ranch life after all?
“Something wrong?” Johnny asked him without stopping or looking up.
“Wrong?” Scott feigned innocence.
“Yeh. You been staring at me for the better part of an hour.” He finished hammering and tossed his tools in the waiting bucket. Pulling off his work gloves, he finally looked Scott in the eye. “So, what’s wrong?”
“You tell me.”
They held each other’s eyes for several moments. Scott was determined that he would some day win a staring contest with his little brother. But today was not going to be the day.
He sighed. “By all indications something is on your mind.”
Johnny shrugged and went over to the supply wagon for a drink from his canteen. As he put the cap back on, he said, “Just something I need to work out.”
“And no one can help you work it out,” Scott said, a bit wearily. They were in their third year at Lancer together. Would Johnny ever learn to trust them to help him with his problems?
Johnny looked at his brother’s face. “I know you want to help, Scott. There really isn’t anything for anyone here to do. I need to settle something with someone.”
“Something important, I take it?”
To Scott’s surprise, Johnny smiled. “Yeah.”
“I see.” But did he? Could it be…? “What’s her name?”
Johnny’s smile slipped, and he gave a heavy sigh. “I wish it was that simple.”
With that, Johnny went back to work, turning his back on his brother and the topic. Figuring that he was not going to get anymore on the subject, Scott let it drop. In fact, he didn’t ask any more about it over the next several days. When Johnny caught him watching, his little brother would just shrug and turn away.
It was a week later before any more clues came to light. The family was sitting around the fireplace after dinner as usual. It had been a good satisfying day work wise, and they had just finished a delicious meal.
Murdoch looked around and smiled. “It’s moments like this that redeem all the past empty ones.”
Teresa smiled and came over to sit beside him. Scott raised his glass of sherry in agreement. Johnny, sitting on the floor, turned his back to his father and stared into the flames. Murdoch frowned and glanced at Scott for an explanation. Scott could only shake his head.
“John?” Murdoch asked. “Is something wrong?”
Johnny poked at the fire for a few seconds before finally asking, “Does it really?”
“Does it really what, son?”
“Make up for everything?”
“You mean does the old pain ever completely go away?”
Johnny turned around and looked at him. “Exactly.”
“No,” his father admitted. “Will having Scott here now undo my not seeing his first steps? His first day of school? His first love? No. Does having you by my side today change all the birthdays I’ve missed? No. It doesn’t take away yesterday. But it does give me today and all the tomorrows.”
Johnny thought for a moment more. “So, we should make sure we don’t turn any todays into more empty yesterdays by missing out on things now.”
Scott raised his glass again. “Quite profound, Little Brother.”
“Is there something specific on your mind that we’re missing, Johnny?” Murdoch asked gently.
Johnny glanced at Scott. “I got…,” he began, then stopped. “It’s not something you’re missing out…well, I guess it kinda is…but” he stopped again. “There’s something I gotta figure out. I hope…” This time, when he stopped, it seemed final. He turned back to the fire.
Scott’s breath caught. Johnny had said the word ‘hope’. He used to never say words like hope, or want, explaining that saying things out loud just made it hurt worse to lose it. He could count at least three times Johnny had given his heart and life to a woman only to have her change her mind. Johnny’s shy smile out on the fence line the other day had concerned him. The last thing he wanted was for his brother to be hurt again. It seemed like Johnny was wrestling with the same thoughts. Was it better to risk the possible loss, or the guaranteed regrets?
Johnny was right. There was no way for him to help. Damn.
A few more days passed, and Scott began wondering if Johnny had come to a satisfactory decision. He seemed more his normal, cheerful self. Dare he look forward to meeting the young lady in question? If it was in fact a young lady at the heart of the issue.
Scott tore his thoughts away from the theoretical love interest, and back to the bookwork he was supposed to be doing with his father, when Johnny came storming in.
“I gotta be gone for a while,” he announced.
Murdoch put down the pen he had been using and leaned back in his chair. “How long is a while?”
Scott, leaning over his father’s shoulder, straightened up in surprise. Both at Johnny’s statement, and Murdoch’s calm reply. Things had certainly changed over the past couple of years.
“Don’t know,” Johnny told them. “Couple of weeks maybe.”
Murdoch looked at him steadily. “Are you in any danger?”
Johnny shook his head. “Not like you mean. I plan on coming back.”
Murdoch and Scott both blinked. Neither had considered otherwise.
“Good.” Their father said. “When do you plan on going?”
“Today. Now. As soon as I get my gear together.” And with that he dashed up the stairs to this room.
Murdoch sat forward and blew out his breath. “Will we ever know what is going on in that boy’s head?”
Scott shook his head. “I’m not dead sure I want to sometimes. And then other times…”
“Other times what?”
Scott looked toward the stairs. “Other times I want to reach inside him and fix all the hurt.”
Murdoch smiled. “You’re in good company, there, son.”
That evening, after Johnny had rushed out, calling a quick promise to keep them informed, Scott walked past his brother’s bedroom. The door was ajar. Looking in, Scott smiled. Only Johnny could leave a room worse than he found it after only being in it for the five minutes in took to pack his saddlebags. He stepped in, picked up a quilt from the floor and automatically folded it and hung it across the foot of the bed.
As he was leaving, he spied an open letter on the table. Ah. So that was what prompted this trip. A letter from the mystery woman. Johnny had just been in town and picked up the mail along with the supplies. Knowing he really shouldn’t, he began reading. The guilty smile that had been on his face froze, then disappeared completely. He took the letter and stomped downstairs. He went over to Murdoch and thrust it at him. “Congratulations, sir. You’re a grandfather!”
“What are you talking about?”
“I found this in Johnny’s room.”
“Scott, you shouldn’t have…”
Murdoch took in Scott’s angry face and accepted the letter. He began to read out loud. “Dear Papi…” His eyes jerked back to Scott.
“It gets better,” Scott huffed then went to pour himself a drink.
“What gets better?” Teresa asked, coming in from the kitchen.
Murdoch was torn. This was Johnny’s personal mail and business. But what if…? Didn’t he have a right to…? He gave up arguing with himself and read on. When he finished, he sat down on the couch, stunned.
“Murdoch? Scott, what’s going on?” Teresa demanded.
“Apparently, Johnny’s soon to be eight-year-old son wrote asking him to come for his birthday.” Scott bit out.
“His what?!” Teresa reached for the letter shamelessly.
“Scott, we don’t know the whole story,” Murdoch began.
“Sir, do you know how many times I wrote that letter?”
That was the second sir in the conversation. An indication of Scott’s fury. “Son,” he began again in an anguished voice.
“I’m not angry at you, Murdoch. But…” he slammed his glass down. “Dammit! He knows! We both know what it’s like to grow up fatherless. How can he not…” he took a breath and made the words come out more calmly. “How can he not be there? Be involved?”
“Are you sure he’s not?” Murdoch took the letter back from a shocked Teresa. “ “I miss you awful…’ “ he read. “That sounds like he’s there enough to be close. And this line about being a rancher now. And Johnny seems to have a pet cat there. That doesn’t sound like he’s avoiding them.”
“Alright!” Scott ground out. “So, I’m overreacting. It’s just that,” he took another breath. “It hurts to…I thought we were close. I thought I knew my brother.”
“You are close. But we are still learning about each other. And…” Murdoch reminded him. “I’ve heard of cases where a father might have desperately wanted contact and it wasn’t possible. We don’t know anything about the boy’s mother. Perhaps Johnny is under stipulation how much he can say or do.” Murdoch paused. “Plus, there’s the math.”
Scott frowned. “The math?”
“How old is Johnny?”
“So, eight years ago…”
Scott took his point. “Johnny was 15.”
“A 15-year-old gunfighter with no stability in his life. That’s not someone able to help raise a child. Don’t get me wrong. I’m hurt and confused right along with you to some degree. But it appears Johnny has been doing the best he can with the situation.”
Scott looked down. “I’m sorry I lost my temper.”
“Absolutely nothing to be sorry for. It’s all a shock no matter how you look at it.”
“I must say, you are taking it all quite calmly.”
Murdoch gave a small smile. “I’m remembering what your brother said the other day. I don’t want to lose my tomorrows by jumping to conclusions today. I’ve made that mistake with him too often.”
Teresa picked up the envelope that Scott had tossed down at some point and looked at the address. “Why does Cavitt Springs sound familiar?”
Murdoch took it. “Cavitt Springs.”
“The land you had Johnny sell,” Scott recalled.
“Yes. For a dollar. Because Johnny said it was worthless. It seems your brother has been doing whatever he could to take care of them.”
“It seems so,” Scott agreed. “I just wish…” he shook his head and changed it to, “You know, he’s been thinking about all of this for quite a while. He’s been distracted and quiet. Saying he had something to work out. I assumed he had a woman on his mind and teased him about it. I never dreamed a child was involved.”
“Do you suppose he’s gone to try and work it out?” Teresa brightened. “Do you think he wants to marry her?”
Murdoch paused. “He’s been hurt so badly before. I would hate to see that happen again.” He folded the letter and put it back in the envelope. “We should put this back in his room.”
“And act surprised?” Teresa asked.
“It will be my best performance,” Scott assured her and took the letter upstairs.
Johnny rode along, his mind swirling as Barranca’s steady pace ate up the miles. By pushing the big horse, he could make the trip in about three days. He thought of Grady peering out a window or through the fence, waiting for him. And he smiled.
He had heard songs and tales of love at first sight between a man and a woman. He never knew it could happen between a man and a child. But it had. He loved Grady Lancer like he was his own true son.
And the boy’s mama… That was a whole different level of love. She was beautiful. And strong. And smart. She protected Grady like a fierce mama bear and had given him everything he needed. And to top it all off, she was a great cook and a crack shot.
And she understood.
She knew the powerful regret of taking a life. She knew the stomach-wrenching dread of living looking over your shoulder. She knew and understood who and what Johnny Madrid was and loved him anyway.
The grin he had been wearing as he thought of her slipped. The very thing he loved most about her was what kept them apart. They had talked it over every time he came to visit, and their letters spoke of little else. She would protect her boy to her dying breath.
And because of that, Johnny Madrid could never be his father.
If only he had been honest with her from the first. No, if he had, they would have finished the transaction, and he would have gone home. Horner would have come, and she and Grady would both be dead.
He blew out a frustrated breath. Was it enough that they were alive, even if he couldn’t have them? That was a question he couldn’t honestly answer.
His heart had been broken by women before, and he lived. He lived and walked away. But he wasn’t walking this time. He would stay and keep taking care of them. He would not walk away from Grady.
Maybe this time she would see who he really was. Maybe she would see him as Johnny Lancer. Maybe this time he asked, she wouldn’t say no.
Almost unconsciously, he spurred his horse to move a little faster.
She knew Grady didn’t fully understand how Johnny could be a gunfighter named Lancer and not be his fantasy pa. She had unbent enough to let him call Johnny “Papi” maybe thinking that the foreign word made it more of a nickname than a relationship. Or maybe it was the first indication of her changing her mind.
Johnny grinned again.
He came over a rise, about half a day from his destination. Looking down, he saw an overturned wagon at the bottom of the hill. A horse stood, still, partially trapped by the lines. He rode towards the wreck, making enough noise for the trapped horse to hear them coming, and not bolt in fear.
He dismounted and edged toward the animal. “Whoa, there, fella. Whoa. It’s okay. You’re okay. I’m gonna get you loose here.” He pulled his knife from his boot and took a hold of the harness. As the straps were cut, the horse shook himself free. The wagon jostled a little and Johnny heard a moan from the other side.
As the horse stepped over to the grass it had probably been eyeing for who knew how long, Johnny stepped around the wagon. Boxes, baggage and blankets spilled over the side onto the ground. The pile of blankets moved as another groan was heard.
Johnny put his knife away and pulled out his gun. Carefully, he pushed the blanket aside with his foot. His eyes widened in shock at what he found.
A young woman obviously Mexican, and also obviously in the throes of labor.
Johnny dropped to his knees. “Ma’am. Senora. What…?” Desperately, he looked around to see if there was anyone else nearby. No one. And no sign that there ever had been. “Are you alone?”
Her eyes landed on him, filled with more pain than fear of the stranger by her. “No hablo…” she began, then moaned again. “Por favor…”
Johnny had not a clue what to do. A colt he could deliver. A calf coming the wrong way around he could deal with. But a baby?
He pulled one of the blankets loose and rolled it into a sort of pillow, stuffing it behind her. She seemed to lean into it gratefully. Then he retrieved his canteen and bathed her face. She gave a weak hint of a smile at that.
Johnny switched to Spanish as he puttered helplessly around. “My name is Johnny. What’s yours?”
“Lupita,” she answered, then gritted her teeth and pushed.
Oh, boy, this kid was coming soon.
When she stopped for breath, he tried again. “You got family near? The baby’s father?”
“No. No one. We have no one. His father was a gringo, but he’s …he’s dead. We have no one.”
Johnny bathed her face again. “You’re wrong. You have me. I’ll get you, get you both somewhere …”
She was pushing again. He babbled as she pushed. “I live on a big, beautiful ranch. You can come there. We’ll take good care of you.”
“Promise? Promise me? You’ll take care of my little one?”
“I’ll take care of you both. It’s gonna be okay.”
And then the baby was coming. There was nothing to do but to lift her full skirts and help this little guy into the world. Except it wasn’t a little guy.
“It’s a girl, Lupita! A beautiful, beautiful girl!”
She smiled weakly. “Mi tesora,” she sighed.
Johnny set about cleaning the child with some clothing he found and his canteen water. Then he wrapped her up in what looked like a pretty shawl. He turned to give her to her waiting mama.
“Here she is, Lupita, your little treasure…” he said, then stared in dismay at the lifeless eyes staring back at him. “No, no, no…” He felt her wrist and her neck, felt for breath or heartbeat. Anything to deny what his eyes told him.
At last, all he could do was sit on the ground, gently rocking the tiny bundle and weep.
He rode away from the broken wagon and the fresh mound of dirt beside it. A crude cross made of wagon pieces bore the words. “Lupita. Beloved Mother.” With a few scavenged belongings tied to the former carthorse, the horse itself tied to Barranca, and the precious bundle tied in the shawl to his chest, Johnny started toward the only place he could go.
He arrived at what he had dubbed “Little Lancer” on previous visits. As soon as he was within shouting distance, he called out.
“Jessamie!” And a fraction of a second later, “Jessamie!!!”
She came running out of the cabin, hair bundled in a scarf, wiping her hands on her apron. “Johnny! What are you…?” She took in the shawl tied around him. “What’s that?”
He climbed down carefully, dropped the reins and pushed the gate open. “A baby. Just born. Her mama died. Jess, she’s had no milk.”
Jessamie pulled the shawl away from the tiny face. “Oh, my goodness! Bring her in.”
Inside the small house, Johnny unwrapped the infant as Jessamie washed flour off her hands. She took a better look at the child. “Just born is right!” Then she looked in wonder at Johnny. “You?”
He nodded. “No one else was there.” The baby made a mewling sound. “Jess, what do we do? Will she be okay? I promised…Dios! Jess, I promised…”
Jessamie took a breath, then put a hand on Johnny’s arm. “Let’s just get her through today.”
Johnny hovered at her elbow while she cleaned and swaddled the baby. “Her mama couldn’t feed her. She never even held her. She just said ‘mi tesora’ and died.”
“What’s it mean?”
“She is that. Tesora. Any kin?”
“She said she didn’t have any.”
Jessamie dipped a soft cloth in warm milk and pressed it to the tiny lips. After a second, Tesora sucked on it greedily. Johnny nearly melted with relief as he watched her take it in.
“Here,” Jessamie put the baby back in his arms. “Hold her while I find something for a bed. When she came back in with a cloth lined box, she watched as Johnny rocked and spoke softly in Spanish. “What are you telling her?”
Johnny touched the tiny face with his finger. “I told her I’m sorry I couldn’t help her mama. That I promised to take care of her.”
Jessamie knelt by the rocking chair. “You did help her, Johnny. She died knowing her baby was safe. That’s a lot.” She looked from the small face to his. “Are you okay?”
He shook his head. “Don’t’ know. I feel like my heart’s gonna explode.”
She smiled. “That’s cause you’re in love with a beautiful little lady.”
He looked her in the eyes. “I didn’t know I had room for that. Considering I’m in love with a beautiful grown lady.”
“That’s why I was coming here. I got Grady’s letter and I couldn’t go on like this anymore. I haven’t been able to think right. Scott was getting worried about me, and Murdoch thought I was in danger or something.
I’m Johnny Lancer, Jess. I swear I am. Things come up now and then; I won’t lie. But I’m Johnny Lancer.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about us, Jessamie. Me and you. And Grady. I came back here to ask you to be Mrs. Lancer for real. Marry me, Jessamie.”
She took a long breath. And then another. “Me and you. And Grady.”
He looked down at the sleeping child, and back at her. “Can you? Will you?”
She stroked the small head for a moment. “I reckon if you can papa Grady, I can mama Tess.”
He blinked in amazement. “That’s a yes?”
She smiled. “That’s a yes.”
Johnny’s free hand wrapped around the back of her head and pulled her close. He kissed her with all the joy he felt inside. This amazing, amazing woman had said yes!
When they pulled apart, she sat back and grinned at him. “I guess we got a lot to work out.”
“I know. I told Murdoch I’d be gone for a couple of weeks.” He looked again at Tesora and laughed. “Man, oh man. Is he gonna flip. Two grandkids and a daughter-in-law!” He looked around the cabin as if just remembering something. “Where is Grady?”
“Out and about. Should be here any minute as its close to dinner time.” She stood and held out her arms. “Now, let me take her for a bit, seeing as how she’s gonna be mine.”
They traded places and he placed the sleeping baby in her arms. “Yeah, I gotta take care of the horses. The stuff she had is tied on her carthorse.”
“We’ll save anything we can and give it to her someday.”
Johnny leaned down and kissed her again. “I love you, Mrs. Lancer.”
She put up her hand. “Jessamie. Let’s save Mrs. Lancer for when it’s real.”
“Okay.” He kissed her again.
Another quick kiss. “Horses. Right.”
As he reached for the door, he heard her saying softly, “Your papa is quite a man, Tesora.” Turning back to take in the sight of the two of them, he blinked and headed out.
About the time he finished up with the horses, he heard the voice he had been waiting for.
“Johnny! Papi!” Grady jumped over the fence and flung himself into Johnny’s arms. “You’re back!”
Johnny held him tight. “Yeah, I’m back, Grady. For good.”
Grady pulled back and looked at him, eyes wide. “For good! Really honest!” He hugged him again. “Does ma know?”
Johnny laughed, sat him down on the porch step and settled down beside him. “Yeah, she knows. Grady, we gotta talk. I’m gonna marry your ma and be your pa from now on. But there’s something else.”
Grady cocked his head. “What?”
“Well, I found a lady who had a new baby. Just born today. A little girl. Only her mama died, and I promised her I’d keep her and take care of her. So, there’s gonna be four of us. You, and me and your ma and Tesora.”
Grady’s eyes couldn’t get any bigger. “A baby? A baby girl? I have a sister?”
Johnny ruffled his hair. “Yup. That means you’re a big brother. And from what I hear from Scott, that’s an awful important job.”
“Can I see her? Is she here?”
“Yeah, she’s here. Your ma’s holding her.”
Grady got up, then looked back at Johnny. “You’re really my Papi now, aren’t you?”
Johnny’s smile softened. “Yes. I am.”
“I knew it.” Grady told him and opened the door.
Johnny shook his head and laughed a little to himself. Yup. No two ways about it. He loved that kid.
Stepping back into the cabin, Johnny found Jessamie in the rocker and Grady leaning over, staring in wonder at the bundle on her lap.
“Is she really ours? For good?”
“Yes, she’s really ours. For good” his mother assured him.
“She sure is something!”
“She sure is.”
Grady scrunched up his face. “And her name is Tess…?”
“Tesora,” Johnny supplied, joining them.
“Tesora’s an awful funny name.”
“It’s Spanish. It means treasure.”
“Tesora,” Grady repeated. “She’s our tesora.”
Johnny squatted down in front of the rocker. His and Jess’s eyes met, and for a second, the enormity of what they were agreeing to hung in the air between them.
Murdoch leaned on the corral fence watching some of the cowboys working with young horses. They were good men, and good horses. It always gave him a bit of a thrill to see the combination. An even bigger one when those cowboys and horses were pushing his cattle to their next destination. Lancer at its best.
A cloud of dust under the distant ranch archway caught his attention, and he squinted at the incoming rider. No. He was wrong. THIS was Lancer at its best. He smiled as Scott cantered up the lane and pulled to a stop near him.
“You’re back earlier than I thought:” Murdoch told his son.
Scott dismounted and pulled an envelope from his shirt. “I had a feeling you would be interested in this.”
Murdoch took it and stared at it for a moment. Then he looked back up at Scott. “Let’s go inside.”
Once in the house, he bellowed for Teresa to join them. She came scurrying out of the kitchen with a worried look on her face.
Murdoch waved the envelope. “I don’t know. But I figured we should all find out together.”
She frowned in puzzlement for a second, then her eyes opened wide. “A telegram from Johnny!”
Murdoch tore open the envelope and pulled out the message. He read it over once, then stood still.
Scott unceremoniously took it from his hand and real aloud. “Home in two weeks.” He grinned. “With bride.”
“Just bride?” Teresa pulled on Scott’s arm to read for herself.
“It would be a lot to try to explain in a telegram,” Murdoch reminded her. “We’ll know the rest when they get here.” He took the paper back from Scott. He shook his head as he read it again. “Bride. Johnny married. That’s going to take some getting used to.”
Scott grinned again. “Indeed. I wasn’t used to Johnny unmarried yet!”
“Wait a minute!” Teresa snatched the telegram. “He’s not married yet is he? Without us? He can’t!”
Murdoch put an arm around her shoulders. “I know he did whatever is best for his family. And whatever that is, we will support it.”
She blew out her breath in disappointment, then managed a smile. “Then we’ll just have to give them the best reception ever!”
He hugged her close and kissed the top of her head. “That we will, darling. That we will.”
Johnny tugged on the last rope, securing everything in the wagon. Beside him, Grady bounced with excitement.
“Are we ready to go now, Papi?”
“Yep. Just about ready. Just waiting on your ma and sister.”
While Grady climbed to the top of the belongings, Johnny went into the much emptier cabin. Jessamie stood with her back to him, gently bouncing the baby in her arms. “We’re ready,” he said softly. When she didn’t respond, he came up and put his arms around the two of them. “Regrets?”
She looked around. “I’d be lying to say no. I squatted on this land for seven years. I reckon I enjoyed the feeling of knowing it was rightfully mine.” She turned around to face him. “But Peterson has bugged me for as long as I can recall wanting to buy me out. He’s happy with this, I’m happy with you. It’s right and good.”
He touched her cheek almost reverently. “Right and good can still sometimes hurt. Part of me is excited as a schoolboy to show you my home…and part of me regrets taking you away from yours.”
She stretched up and kissed him.
He gave a little laugh. “What was that for?”
“For understanding.” She took a breath. “Now let’s get going. I admit I’m real curious to see this home of yours. Although I still don’t believe the part about 25 rooms.”
A week later, Murdoch, Scott and Teresa stood in front of the hacienda watching the wagon drive under the arch, Barranca tied to the back. Murdoch wore a huge grin; Teresa was actually bouncing on her toes with excitement, but Scott took a deep breath.
“Well. Here we go,” he said.
“It’s going to be wonderful,” Teresa assured him.
The wagon finally stopped in front of them. “Whoa Chub! Whoa Cab!” Johnny looked down at his waiting family. “Hello Murdoch!”
Johnny jumped down, then turned to help Jessamie. Grady sat up in the back and looked at them all a bit shyly.
“Murdoch, Scott, Teresa,” Johnny couldn’t keep the boyish grin off his face. “This is Jessamie.”
Murdoch stepped forward and took her hands in his. “It’s a joy to meet you, my dear.”
She nodded nervously and he dropped her hands. Teresa came over and hugged her. Apparently flustered by the hug, Jessamie looked relieved when Scott merely took one hand with a quiet, “My pleasure.”
Johnny reached around and lifted Grady from the wagon. “And this is Grady.” He continued to hold him. “This is my father,” he introduced. Grady whispered something to him, and Johnny whispered back.
“Abuelo,” Grady said to Murdoch.
“And this is your Aunt Teresa and Uncle Scott.”
All three stood and stared for a minute. Then Scott put out a hand. “Nice to meet you, Grady.”
Grady turned to Johnny again. “Get her, Papi,”
“Ok, ok,” Johnny set him down and reached again into the wagon.
Scott leaned over to Teresa. “My money’s on Johnny’s Cat” he whispered.
Johnny carefully lifted a blanket-wrapped bundle from a basket and held it proudly. “And THIS is Tesora.” He pulled the blanket back just in time for her to give a big yawn.
Jaws dropped and voices floundered.
“That’s…” Scott managed, “…a baby!”
Johnny nudged Jess. “You see. I told you he was educated.”
“Johnny,” Murdoch began in a bewildered tone.
Teresa recovered first and sprang to his side to look into the bundle. “She’s beautiful! And so tiny! How old is she?”
Jessamie gave a quick glance at Johnny. “Three weeks,” she spoke for the first time.
Scott also glanced at Johnny, obviously doing the calculations in his head.
Johnny stepped over and placed her in Murdoch’s arms. “Here, Abuelo.”
Jess grinned at his face. “You should feel honored. Johnny barely lets ME hold her.”
Murdoch peered down in awe. “Oh, my lord, Johnny,” he whispered.
Grady spoke up. “Her name means Treasure,” he said proudly. “It’s Spanish. I’m her big brother. Papi said ‘cording to Uncle Scott that’s an important job.”
“And he’s absolutely right,” Scott agreed. “It’s up to us to keep younger siblings out of trouble.”
“She’s no trouble” he argued.
Scott pretended to be wistful. “Then you have better luck with siblings.”
Johnny gave him a playful swat, then looked around. “Jelly here?”
“Checking line shacks,” Murdoch informed him. “He should be back tomorrow.” He handed the baby back to her mother. “Let’s all go inside.”
Once they were all standing in the Great Room, Jessamie came to a dead standstill. Her large eyes took in everything around her.
“What’s the matter?” Johnny teased. “Not big enough?” She turned her terrified face to him, and he relented. “You’ll be ok. If I can learn to live here, you can.”
She swallowed once. “Twenty five rooms.”
Grady ran straight to the large model ship. “Is this it” The ship like the one your pa rode on from Scotland?”
Johnny grinned. “Ask him yourself.”
Grady looked at Murdoch expectantly.
“Yes, Grady. It looked very much like this.” Murdoch knelt down next to the boy.
“You musta been awful brave to come clear across an ocean. I got books about the world. Says it takes weeks. And there’s storms and sharks and pirates.”
Murdoch put a hand affectionately on Grady’s shoulder. “We had a storm or two as I recall. But luckily no pirates.”
“Will you tell about it sometime?”
About then, Tesora decided to make herself heard. “Uh, oh,” Johnny peeked at her. “Someone is wet and hungry. C’mon Grady let’s go get her stuff.” Grady ran to him and took his hand as they went back out to the wagon.
“I’ll show you where you can take care of her,” Teresa led Jessamie back to rooms by the kitchen.
Scott and Murdoch were left standing alone.
“On the bright side,” Scott said, “ I didn’t have to feign surprise.”
Murdoch blew out a breath and sat down. “Two children. He has two children.”
“Yes. And how are you feeling about that…Abuelo?”
He shook his head a little. “It’s funny. You always hear about how becoming a grandparent makes you feel old. But holding that beautiful baby, I felt 20 years younger. Like I was holding Johnny all over again.” He looked up at Scott. “And Grady being so serious about his books. For a moment, I got a glimpse of you.” He smiled. “These children may just be the greatest gift Johnny has ever given me.”
Scott smiled along with him. “They are something. Life will never be the same around here.”
“That, my son, is an understatement!”
Johnny’s little family settled into the three-room guest suite on the first floor. He would join them after the wedding, which, Teresa was thrilled to learn, had not happened yet.
“Something nice,” Johnny had informed them of Jessamie’s wishes. “But small. Jess don’t want a bunch of folks she don’t know to have to explain things to.”
At that, the two ladies began putting their heads together. It did not take long for them to begin a solid friendship, both happy to have another woman in their lives.
As they sat down to dinner that first evening, Murdoch looked around the table at his newly expanded family. “I know according to the calendar, this is not a holiday,” he mused. “Yet in my heart, I feel it is a time for Thanksgiving. “He smiled at them all. “I am truly a blessed man.”
Johnny and Jessamie looked at each other over Grady’s head. Neither could believe the extent of the welcome and acceptance they had received, no matter how much they had hoped.
“What are we gonna do tomorrow?” Grady asked around a mouthful.
“Well, I’ve been gone for a bit, so I reckon I got a lot to catch up on.” Johnny told him.
“Can I help?” The boy persisted. “You know I’m a good helper. I helped you fix the fence and the roof and the windmill. And I helped with your boots when you was shot.”
“I remember…” Johnny began, then frowned. “Wait a minute. When did you help with the windmill?”
“Weeell…,” Grady drew the word out. “Maybe I didn’t. But I brung you some biscuits!”
“Brought,” Scott said automatically, then glanced apologetically at Jessamie.
She merely smiled.
“Best biscuits in the world,” Johnny agreed.
Grady leaned forward toward Scott. “I snitched them off the table and took to his camp.”
“His camp?” Scott raised a brow in puzzlement.
“Yeah, he used to sleep on the other side of the fence, specially if ma was mad. Cept when he got shot, and she let him sleep in her bed.”
Murdoch froze with his glass nearly to his lips. Scott, who was not lucky enough to have stopped in time, choked on his wine. Teresa smothered a giggle in her napkin and Johnny just grinned.
“Grady Lancer!” Jessamie admonished.
“What?” His face screwed up in confusion.
Just then, Tesora gave a little cry.
“Good timing, m’ija!” Johnny said, jumping up to get her from her basket. “Go ahead and eat, Jess. I got her.”
He bounced her gently and spoke quietly in Spanish.
“I’m gonna have to learn that just so I know what you’re saying to her,” Jessamie teased.
“Knowing Johnny, it could be poetry,” Scott teased.
Johnny pointed at him. “I told you if you brought up that poetry stuff, I’d have to shoot you!”
At Jessamie’s voice, Johnny’s smile evaporated. He looked at Grady’s eyes locked on him and at the child in his arms. Without a word he handed her to Jess and went out the door.
No one said anything for a moment. Then Grady said softly;” Is he mad at himself again?”
“Probably,” his mother said. “But it’s me he should be mad at.”
“He was kidding, ma. He wouldn’t shoot Uncle Scott.”
“I know, Grady.”
Teresa came around the table and held out her arms. “Go ahead. I’ll watch her.”
Gratefully, she handed over her daughter and followed Johnny out. She found him leaning against a wall, arms wrapped around himself. She leaned against the wall next to him.
“Sorry,” she opened.
“For hookin up with someone like me?”
“That’s so crazy, I’m not even answering,” she folded her arms.
“Not crazy, Jess.” He held his hands out in front of himself. “How does someone like me have the nerve to hold something so beautiful as her?”
She took one of his hands and pulled it to her. “Johnny I am so sorry I yelled like that. Even Grady knew you were just kidding your brother.”
“Some joke. I realize how much I say things like that.”
“Being married, being a pa is gonna mean changing some things. At least for now. And some things may be things you don’t like changing. But you’ve changed before. When you came here.”
“I know. But Murdoch’s life didn’t depend on me changing. Grady and Tesora’s lives are in my hands now…and they’re not very clean hands.”
She kissed his fingers. “They’re fine hands, Johnny Lancer. I love them. Grady loves them. Even Tess knows your touch. You are who you are. And I love who you are.”
He put his head down. “I’m scared Jessamie.”
“Just means you understand the job you’re facing.”
He looked back up at her. “You got a smart answer for everything?”
She thought for a second. “Yup.”
He pulled her into his arms and whispered. “I love you, Mrs. Lancer.”
“I love you too Mr. Lancer.”
Grady stepped back from the French doors he was peeking through. “It’s okay. They’re hugging again.”
“Of course, it’s okay,” Murdoch told him. “Now come here and finish your dinner.”
He came back and sat down. He looked at the empty seats on either side of him. “Must be nice to run off from your dinner and not get yelled at.”
All three adults worked hard at not laughing. Finally, Teresa said, ‘Well, they may not get yelled at, but they will miss dessert if they don’t come back soon.”
Grady’s eyes lit up at the word ‘dessert’.
“So, finish your dinner so you don’t miss it too,” Murdoch repeated.
“Yes, sir, Abuelo Murdoch,” he said, taking a large bite of mashed potatoes.
Out on the portico, Jessamie looked over Johnny’s shoulder to see a group of riders coming under the arch and up the lane. “Who’s that?”
Johnny turned and looked at them and stiffened. “Don’t know. Go inside, Jess.”
“What is it, Johnny?”
“Don’t know. I just….” He gave her a little nudge toward the door.
When she came in, Scott took one look at the frown on her face. “What’s wrong? Where’s Johnny?”
“Some men are riding in. He didn’t seem happy about it.”
Without a word, Murdoch and Scott both went outside. They found Johnny standing in the shadows of the portico.
“Do you know them?” Murdoch asked.
“Nope,” Johnny answered. “Just got a funny feeling.”
The group of men stopped in front of the house. They were all Mexican, the front man richly dressed and obviously in charge.
“Senor Lancer?” he addressed them without dismounting.
“I’m Murdoch Lancer. What can we do for you?”
“You can give me what is mine.”
Scott and Murdoch both frowned. Johnny’s funny feeling got a lot worse.
“I don’t understand. What do we have that is yours?’
Johnny stepped forward. “She’s not yours,” he said coldly.
“Ah, the gallant gentleman who gave my Lupe a decent burial. I thank you.”
Murdoch’s frown drew down further and was directed at his son for a moment before turning back to their visitor. “I’m afraid you have the advantage on us. Who are you?”
The man put his hand to his chest in a mock bow. “I am Don Emilio Jimenez. Lupe Ruiz was my…betrothed. She belonged to me, therefore, so does her child.”
Johnny’s hands clenched in fury. “She’s mine.”
Don Emilio looked faintly annoyed. “No, she is not. I know what lover fathered her child. And it was not you.”
“I brought her into this world. I’m the one Lupita asked to take care of her.”
“That was not her right.”
“She was Tesora’s mother. She had the best right!”
Scott stepped forward to enter the conversation. “My brother evidently had the request of the child’s parent. If you were not married, and are not the father, by what authority do you claim her?”
Don Emilio pulled himself up straighter in his saddle. “I have an agreement with Lupe’s father. For practical and political purposes, we have contracted to align our families and estates. Lupe and her child were part of that agreement.”
Murdoch seemed to sense the tension building in Johnny with every word and put a restraining hand on his arm. “Do you have proof of this agreement?”
“Murdoch!” Johnny hissed.
“I have a signed contract, yes.”
Scott moved closer, as if he might need to do some additional restraining. “May we see it?”
Johnny jerked free. “No! She’s…”
“I do not have it with me,” Don Emilio overrode.
“The child is not going anywhere unless we see the proof,” Murdoch said firmly.
Don Emilio seemed to think for a moment. “Very well. It will be a day’s ride to retrieve it, and another to return. For those two days, no one may enter or leave your house.” He barked some orders to his men, who began spreading out around the hacienda. Then Don Emilio and his remaining escort wheeled their horses around and galloped away.
All three Lancer men stormed into the house. Teresa, Jessamie and both children were by the fireplace. Jessamie’s eyes were wide with the horror of what they had overheard.
Murdoch closed the door, took a breath, and began looking for answers. “Johnny, I think we need…”
“He’s not taking my daughter!” Johnny shouted.
“I need … we all need, to know what exactly is going on.” Murdoch tried again.
Johnny flung his arm toward the window, his whole body conveying his fury. “What’s going on is that bastard is trying to take my child away from me and I don’t see anybody trying to stop him!”
Murdoch was quickly losing his own patience. “What exactly do you think we should be doing?”
“I’m not letting somebody take away my child,” Johnny reiterated. “Not like….” By some shred of common sense, he bit off what he had almost said.
Murdoch’s eyes squinted in his own fury. “Say it,” he growled.
At that, Scott stepped between them. “That’s enough! The enemy is out there. Not in here. We need to use our wits and energy figuring out how to protect my niece.” He turned directly to Johnny. “And to do that, we need information.”
Johnny tore his glare away from his father. He blew out his breath and stomped a few steps away. Looking up, he met Jessamie’s gaze, her eyes begging him to fix this. He turned back.
“I found Lupita on the road. In a wrecked wagon. She said she had no one. No one anywhere. Even while she was having the baby, she was begging me to promise… “ His voice lowered. “…to promise I would take care of it. So, I promised. I guess I figured I would help them get set up somewhere. Then…” he swallowed. “Then while I was cleaning up this beautiful little baby girl…her mama died. Leaving me sitting in the dirt with this little….” He looked again at Jess. “I took her to Jessamie. She got her to drink, and then to nurse.
I brought her into this world, Murdoch. I was the first person to see or touch her. Jessamie keeps her alive. She’s ours.” He went over and looked at the tiny girl in Jess’s arms, then turned to his father, his voice filled with anguish and passion. “They’re my children, Murdoch. He can’t take my child.”
No one said a word. The clock ticked a couple of times. Grady sniffed.
Murdoch looked at the little boy, desperately clutching his mother’s skirt. And at Johnny, looking more terrified than he had ever seen him. “No,” he agreed. “He can’t.”
Johnny eased the door closed and stepped away from the room. He walked quietly into the kitchen, not at all surprised to see everyone sitting there by lantern light.
“Are they okay?” Teresa asked.
Johnny shrugged. “Grady finally went to sleep. Jess is sitting in the rocker. She won’t let go of Tess.” He got himself a cup of coffee and sat down but didn’t drink it. “I guess I better start at the beginning.”
Murdoch settled back in his chair, inviting him to talk.
“I guess it starts eight years ago in Laramie. This drunk bastard attacked Jess. In the scuffle, he was killed, and his family put a bounty on her head. She ran and found that bit of land you owned in Cavitt Springs. She moved in and made a life for her and her baby.
When I went there to sell it, I stayed and helped fix up the place. And I fell for both of them. I helped them deal with a bounty hunter that showed up, which is how I got hurt. I stayed in touch and visited when I could. Grady had this make-believe pa that was a famous gunfighter, so I think I just slid into that spot in his head. Anyways, I kept trying to get her to marry me. She’s so perfect. She’s beautiful, she’s smart, she’d do anything for Grady, plus she’s an amazing cook, and a crack shot!” He smiled in memory.” In fact, she nearly blew my head off to keep me off the property when I first showed up.”
Scott smiled too. “Little Brother, only you would fall for someone because they shot at you.”
“She was just trying to protect what was hers. But I tell you, Boston, she could give you a run for your money with a rifle!” He pulled himself back to his story. “Then Grady wrote to me here a while back, and I knew I couldn’t do it any longer. I was on my way to convince her that I was Johnny Lancer for good, when I came across Lupita. When I took her baby to Jess’ farm, she finally agreed that I would be Grady’s pa, and she would be Tesora’s ma.” Johnny looked his father in the eye. “I wasn’t trying to lie to you. I just want you all to see them like I do.”
Murdoch reached over and put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “I don’t care whose seed was involved. I think you’ve proven who their father is. I couldn’t love my grandchildren any more than I do. As far as I’m concerned, Grady’s inheritance and legacy as a Lancer is intact.”
Johnny’s eyes closed briefly in relief. Then he said, “I’m sorry for blowing up in there. And for saying, or almost saying…”
“It’s a hard situation,” Murdoch interrupted him.” “We both almost said things we would have regretted.”
“A situation that we still don’t know how to handle,” Scott reminded them. “Just what are we going to do two days from now.”
“Make a stand,” Murdoch said firmly. “Lancer takes care of its own.”
Two days later, they stood in front of their home, rifles loaded and ready, facing the men Don Emilio had left to guard them. The women and children were safely in the wine cellar, far from any stray bullets. It was nearly noon when the don arrived back.
Ignoring their show of arms, he rode arrogantly up to them. Again, staying mounted on his horse, he pulled some papers from his jacket. “I have the contract, as you wished. Now you will give me the child, and we will both go on with our lives.”
When none of the Lancers moved, the don handed the paper to one of his men to take to them. He started to give it to Johnny, but at a word from Don Emilio, handed it instead to Murdoch. Without so much as glancing at it, Murdoch passed it in turn to Johnny.
Johnny took it, read it , then dropped it in the dirt.
Don Emilio almost smiled. “You must know that is not the only copy. Even if you burn it, it would change nothing.”
“Well, that’s the first thing we agree on,” Johnny told him. “It changes nothing.”
Don Emilio’s face grew hard. “I will have that child!”
Murdoch raised his rifle. Scott cocked his.
Johnny raised his and pointed it right at Don Emilio. “Get off our land.”
Evidently threatening their patron was going a step too far. A shot rang out from one of his men.
Scott spun around and returned fire. At that, all hell broke loose. Johnny hit the dirt; Murdoch ducked behind a pillar. Don Emilio’s men shot cover fire as he turned and raced his horse behind the guardhouse. Bullets flew past their heads, slamming into the stucco walls of the hacienda.
Suddenly, they heard shots from farther away.
“The back door!” Scott shouted.
Jelly and Frank ran around the corner of the house and joined them. “We were able to get out of the bunkhouse when the shooting started,” Frank called over the din. “We got men around back.”
Murdoch nodded approval before going back to firing. An attacker fell. A bullet hit right next to Scott’s head, spraying dust and debris in his face.
“Scott!” Johnny yelled.
“I’m alright!” his brother yelled back.
The shooting continued. His rifle spent, Johnny tossed it to the side and drew his handgun. He looked vainly for a way to get in range of the guardhouse. But it was too far across the yard. If they couldn’t at least get their hands on Jimenez, this could be going on for a while. He didn’t know how much ammunition his men had brought with them, but the Lancers had plenty at their disposal.
Another man went down. One of the hands, shooting from the bunkhouse window, cried out and fell back. A bullet skimmed across Johnny’s left arm, but he barely felt it. Glass shattered somewhere.
Jelly, at the other end of the porch, was muttering even while shooting. “What in tarnation is this all about? I barely get back to the ranch when they hustle me into the bunkhouse and lock us in. What do they want?”
“Johnny’s daughter!” Murdoch called back to him.
“Oh,” then, “His what?!”
Time lost meaning as the fighting raged on. Then a movement caught their eye. Another group of men, clearly also Mexican were riding up.
“Dammit!” Johnny said, “Reinforcements!” He aimed his gun their way.
“Alto!” The man in front called. “Alto!”
The firing slowed as the attackers obeyed the command to stop.
“Hold your fire!” Murdoch yelled to his own men.
When all was quiet, the newcomer rode to the guardhouse and dismounted. Don Emilio came around the building to meet him. They talked, gesturing angrily, with much pointing at the Lancers. At long last, this new man walked cautiously up to the house.
“I am Don Alvaro Garrido,” he announced. “I am Lupe’s father.”
Scott and Murdoch exchanged a glance, but none of them lowered their guard.
The man continued. “May I speak to you concerning the child?”
Johnny stood and faced him, gun still in his hand. “That depends on what you’re wanting to talk about.”
Don Alvaro eyed him. “You are the one who helped my Lupe?”
Johnny eyed him back. “I was there when her girl baby was born. And I dug her grave.”
Lupe’s father bowed his head in a moment of grief. “Gracias. I am glad she was not alone.”
“She was alone,” Johnny said angrily. “She said she had no one.” He gestured to Don Emilio. “And this b… fella says you all but sold her and her baby to him.”
“Not sold!” He denied. “An arrangement. To our mutual benefit.”
“I gained protection. Don Emilio gained a lovely wife. And my grandchild gained an honorable name.”
“A name she would rather die alone in the dirt than claim,” Johnny glared at him.
Don Alvaro paused a long time before asking, “May I see my granddaughter?”
Johnny wanted to say no. He wanted to chase them all off the ranch at gunpoint rather than let anyone near Tesora. He paused an even longer time before nodding.
Only Garrido was let inside the house. When they came up out of the cellar at Johnny’s call, Jessamie shrank back upon seeing the stranger.
She shook her head violently. “No! Johnny…”
“He’s just looking,” he assured her, hoping like hell he was telling her the truth.
Don Alvaro gazed at the sleeping infant for quite a while, but never reached even a finger toward her. Then he looked at Jessamie’s arms, holding her securely. “Hand her to your husband,” he told her.
Knowing their relationship was too complicated at this point to even try to explain, she handed the baby to Johnny. He took her and looked down at her face, feeling much the same way he had on that road. He would die for this little girl.
Don Alvaro studied them a little longer, then turned to Murdoch. “Do you have paper and pen I may use?”
He finished and signed his name with a flourish. Letting it dry for a moment, he handed it to Johnny.
“I will make a new agreement with Emilio. If you are the one my daughter chose to be the father of her child, I will abide by her wishes.” He glanced at Tesora, once again in Jessamie’s arms. “It would be pleasant to know …” he trailed off.
“We’ll let you know how she’s doing,” Johnny told him.
Murdoch, Scott and Johnny followed him out and watched as both dons and all their men rode away. They all gave a sigh of relief.
Scott clapped Johnny on the shoulder. “By the way, brother. I never got around to telling you congratulations.”
“Thanks.” Johnny looked serious. “Thanks for…you know. Everything.”
“It’s what we do,” Murdoch told him. “We take care of family. Although, I am rather hoping yours and Scott’s future children require a little less … excitement.”
Scott smiled and watched them walk back into the house together. Then he frowned. “Wait, a minute. Scott’s future what?”
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