Word Count 2,510
The Appaloosa Series – Epilogue.
I walked in after a good day of being a rancher and not a gun hawk, to find Murdoch and Scott, heads together, at that big old desk studying paperwork.
Don’t much care for having to ride that desk, but I do understand contracts between ranchers and have first-hand experience of the disputes they can cause. I stood over the desk and fingered the papers. “Anything you need help with here?”
Scott grinned but Murdoch scowled. And the thought flashed through my mind, that I’d gone and put my foot in my mouth again. Murdoch ran his hand through his grey hair and he looked out of sorts. Anyway, he sighed and told me it’s a proposal to be discussed at the upcoming Cattlemen’s meeting in San Francisco.
“Something you are worried will affect Lancer?”
Scott raised an eyebrow but kept quiet while Murdoch got up stretched his back and went to the drinks cabinet. I waited. This ol’ man of mine sure does take caring for his land down to each period and comma in all those papers that go across his desk.
He handed me a glass of tequila and Scott some of his imported Scotch, telling us, well mostly me, that yes, the proposal to extend the rail line through the valley would affect Lancer. Some to the good, but not at the expense of diverting our water supplies. Now that I understand, hired out in more than one range war over water rights.
I sipped the good tequila and pointed my glass at the desk. “Which cattleman wrote that?”
Murdoch blinked and sat back down telling me the current President of the Association, Donald Porter. Being the President of a Cattleman’s Association doesn’t carry any weight with me. “Does it work to his advantage?”
Murdoch had that scowl back and I knew he was about to launch into his telling me, yet again, I had to start trusting his fellow cattlemen. Luckily Scott butted in. “The proposal is to build a spur and new cattle pens on Mr Porters’s land. It would save us a long cattle drive to market but would give him some power over who could use the spur and any charges he could make.” He looked from me to Murdoch. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr Porter hasn’t been offered shares in the railway company, it’s what Grandfather would do.”
Murdoch had gone red at the mention of Harlan Garrett, I held my hand up in surrender to calm him. ”If it’s only a proposal I guess some negotiations can make it more acceptable to us and the other cattlemen. Scott, here, he’s learned a lot about making them legal words work to our advantage, Me, I have learned how to just stand quiet and look dangerous.”
Scott laughed but Murdoch just shook his head. “I don’t want Madrid intimidating my friends and fellow cattlemen. Maybe you should stay at Lancer and not go with us to San Francisco.”
That hurt, I could feel that temper of mine start to boil but I wasn’t going to rise to his bait. “Nope, I’ll be going, I need to keep an eye on my share of this ranch. If you’re afraid I’ll bring shame on Lancer I’ll stay in a nice quiet place I know in the Mexican quarter.”
He threw his drink down his throat and actually said sorry to me! Oh, boy did that pour cold water over the fire of my temper. “Sorry, Johnny, of course I want both my sons there.” He looked closely at me. “When did you go to San Francisco?”
I realised I’d let slip some of my past so gave him my shy smile. “Oh, few years back. Too crowded for my liking so I took a sailboat back down to Mexico; didn’t care much for that either.”
Scott joined in the conversation joking about me not having the makings of a sailor. The moment passed and for the next few days I made an effort to be on my best behaviour before we all de-camped to the city. Teresa was all over-excited to be coming along as Mz Conway’s companion, and Murdoch was more than happy to tell me and Scott all about the men we were likely to meet.
One of them might be one who arranged the hiring of the bounty hunter who killed my Tia Maria Madison. I know Murdoch said he had been put in touch with a private investigator; probably the deal was passed on, maybe not; but I would find out.
San Francisco was even more crowded than I remembered, but there I was and I wasn’t refused entry to the fancy hotel. I got some hard looks for wearing a gun but Murdoch sure can swing some weight and I landed in a real comfy room with Scott. I checked out the view over the front of the hotel and tested the bed springs, Murdoch had a connecting room and Teresa and Mz Conway were across the hall. As I bounced on the bed I grinned at Scott. “This up to your Boston standards?”
He sees me as such a kid, does no harm, and told me in that oh so proper way of his it was very comfortable.
I stayed awake at the first meeting, it reminded me of some town meetings I’d been too except of course it was in a big swanky room full of big shot ranchers all puffed up with their own importance. Important thing for me was putting names to faces and a couple of names were familiar to me from my past. I kept slouched down. This wasn’t the time or place to draw attention. I reckoned Murdoch and Scott would explain the goings-on to me later but I got the drift: organising cattle drives, price of beef, water rights, and that proposed rail spur and cattle pens. Electing a new President seemed mighty important to some of them. I looked over at Murdoch and nudged him. “You going in for that badge?”
He shook his head, “Not enough votes would come my way. I’ve ruffled too many feathers over the years.”
I blinked in surprise, having thought Murdoch would have earned a lot of credit over the years. Guess putting Lancer first and throwing his weight about would have been to the disadvantage of some of these other ranchers. He leaned down to talk quietly in my ear. “I have a few close and trusted friends and a number of men I’m happy to do business with. You understand?”
I nodded. Still an’ all, I’m going to make my own mind up on these men, especially the ones close to him.
There was a lunch laid on before the afternoon meeting but I skedaddled out of there. I had someone to meet.
As I expected Murdoch and Scott were both in a pucker when I got back to the hotel. Before they could get into it I introduced the man I had gone to meet. “Hey Murdoch, I’d like you to meet Amos Burkman. He’s the Pink who rescued me.” Well, that had the desired effect of putting me back in their good books. I put my arm across Amos’s shoulders. “Amos told me he was based here in San Francisco, so I thought I’d look him up and treat him to a slap-up meal and a drink.”
Murdoch was almost lost for words—not quite, but almost. After he gave me a long look he got into saying thank you’s and asking Amos for the details beyond those in the report. That’s on account of me being tight-lipped about the whole incident.
If anyone doesn’t look like a hero who came to my rescue it’s Amos. He’s busy telling how foolish a city-based man like him was going into such wild and dangerous country. Then he looks at me. “Mr Lancer, your son has some very loyal and brave friends without whom I would never have found Johnny and most certainly wouldn’t have got back to safety.” We have to stop reliving that journey when Teresa and Mz Conway appear because it ain’t the sort of talk for their ears. Murdoch sent me upstairs telling me to get changed and leave my gun behind. I had to take a deep breath while I decided if I would argue with him, but Scott and Teresa both had that don’t do it look on them so I didn’t.
Amos joined us for the evening meal, plain beef served on a table sparkling with the best plates and glasses. Me, I prefer my food with more chillies and spice served in the hacienda kitchen, and it didn’t make the wine taste any different drunk from a glass I was afraid to hold too tightly. Still, everyone else seemed impressed and either Murdoch or Scott had arranged for a table where I could sit with my back against a wall. I was a mite nervous in that full noisy room not wearing my gun, but I could feel my hideaway gun resting in the back of my jacket and I hadn’t seen anyone openly wearing a gun.
Going off to another room dancing after the meal was not in my plan, but Teresa and Mz Conway wouldn’t listen to my excuses. I chewed on my bottom lip and must have looked put out ‘cos Murdoch put a hand on my shoulder and told me I needn’t stay beyond dancing with Teresa and Aggie; he would then take over from me. It struck me then that he is trying to make inroads at being a father to me, so I went along with him, knowing I would have time later to have a serious talk with Amos about these cattlemen.
After taking a couple of turns around the dance floor I found Amos and Murdoch sat in a quiet corner of the lounge looking all friendly and drinking scotch. I wasn’t worried about what Amos would have told him about our travels away from that firing squad. Murdoch’s money paid for it so he had a right to know. I sat and joined them, telling Murdoch Teresa was proving real popular with the young ranchers looking for a dance partner. I knew that would hurry him up to keeping a watch over her. It sure did the trick. He shook hands with Amos saying how pleased he was to have met him, gave me a pat on the shoulder, and smiled before he strode off.
I guess me and Amos make an odd pair but I learned when I was a kid to not take people on appearance. Amos Burkman might not be street smart, flashing his money clip in dangerous company was a lesson he was lucky to stay alive to learn from, but he has grit and I trust him.
As a Pinkerton I’d set him to finding who had sent a bounty hunter to San Del Rio. He smiled at me, “I told your father the facts of finding you that weren’t in the official report. How lucky it was that the message from your sheriff friend Val Crawford came into the office when I was there and not just filed away with all the other vague leads and newspaper articles.”
“Murdoch have anything to say about that?”
“No, Johnny, I got the impression he is just grateful you have at least a few good friends who care for your welfare. I did ask him who had sent him to San Del Rio looking for you.”
I looked around and sat forward keeping my voice low. “Who?”
Amos took the hint and kept his voice quiet. “It was over drinks with a group of these cattlemen. He was recommended the services of a man going by the name H E Norman. He calls himself an investigation and land agent and takes on work the Pinkertons will not. A lot of it is for the rail companies, not everyone willingly sells out. Mr Norman contracts out to men who are paid to persuade reluctant landowners that it is in their best interests to take the deal.” He stopped to take a drink watching me.
“Yeah, well, I’ve been at the sharp end of those fracases. Word and money does reach gun hawks.”
Amos looked around. “Norman provides plausible deniability for his clients.”
I sniffed. “That sounds like something Scott would say.”
“It means those clients have an excuse for not being responsible.”
I rubbed my thumb against my nose, giving some thought to going after Norman, asking him who he had passed the contract to.
It was as if he read my mind. “Border town law isn’t something I’d recommend Johnny.”
“No I guess not, have to be sneakier.”
Amos nodded “As you requested I’ve looked into who has an interest or shares in the Green River Bank and the company that intends to run through the San Joaquin Valley. There are a couple who may have known of Norman and his business and recommend him to your father.”
“Donald Porter and Tim Phillips.”
Now Porters’s name didn’t surprise me but Tim Phillips did, ‘cos he is one of the men Murdoch classes as a close friend.
Amos put his hand on my arm to keep me still. “Also on the railway’s shareholders’ list is Garrett Enterprises That is not surprising as they do have shares in a number of railway companies.”
I sighed. I wondered if Scott knew of that investment? “A few suspects. I guess going to see Norman is the fastest route.”
“I’d agree, but he has disappeared, allegedly a trip to Europe. But he has made enemies. His tactics and the people he contracted work to were becoming an embarrassment to his clients.”
We looked at each other and my eyebrows went up. “A dead end.”
Amos almost smiled and shook his head. “But not at your hands. Can I make a suggestion, Johnny? You should discuss your concerns and this information with your family.”
Now ain’t that just the same advice Tio Joe gave me? So I nodded. “You know, Amos, the gun hawk who thought he had tracked me and Mama to San Del Rio is dead. Word will have got back to whoever hired him, along with the fact I’m at Lancer and Mama passed away some time ago.”
He took a sip of his scotch. “Make him come to you?”
I grinned. “I’m dangerous as Madrid, but you should hear Murdoch talk about Lancer looking after its own.”
I shook hands with one of the best men I had ever met. He was a friend who in his own way would be watching my back. In the meantime, I’ll do what I’ve always done: keep my eyes and ears open and not give credit to anyone until I’m sure of them.
TBC in Looking After His Own.
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