Word Count 53,837
“To know where to go you need to know where you came from.” Anon.
Prologue: Missing Pages – Scott’s POV
I stepped into the great room to find its only occupant sprawled on the sofa, white-socked feet pointing toward the fire. My first thought was how Grandfather would have disapproved and tell Johnny to sit up straight as a gentleman should.
Instead, I asked him a question. “Where is everyone?”
Johnny stretched his neck to look over the sofa at me. “Teresa’s off with Maria visiting the new Ortez bebe.”
“And our esteemed father and tune caller?” I tried to keep my tone light, hoping his absence wasn’t due to yet another exchange of loud angry words.
Johnny turned back to study the flames. “Dunno…tallying those blades of grass of his.”
“Not in the growing gloom. He’s not that foolish.” I turned to look at the bookcase. There was an impressively wide selection.
Johnny’s voice was so soft and low I barely heard him. “He’s gone to visit Cipriano.”
I shook my head. There probably had been angry words and Murdoch had retreated to Senor and Senora Cipriano to complain about his insolent youngest son, and be offered advice he wouldn’t take. I selected A Tale of Two Cities and sat down in the chair normally claimed by Teresa.
The silence between Johnny and myself was a comfortable one, unlike the brooding between him and Murdoch.
As the fire died down I realised I was being watched. I looked up from my book and looked around. “Everything alright, Johnny?”
“Took a while for you to notice.” He had that slight smile of his to take the sting out of the words. “I need to get you sharpened up on your observational skills.”
“Yes, well, I’m in the safety of my own home, reading a good book, with my own notorious gunfighter on hand for protection.” I too smiled to take the edge off my reply.
He grinned and shook his head. “Oh Scott, so much still to learn. These adobe walls may be thick, but they ain’t no guarantee against invaders. And you may not have observed, but my gun and belt are hung up on the stand as ordered by the tune caller.”
It was my turn to grin and shake my head. “But your hideaway gun will be close by.”
“Yep, always close by.” He stretched as he stood and grinned at me. “So what you reading?”
There it was, the suddenness in his change of mood and subject. Would I ever get used to it? He was leaning over my shoulder, trying to turn the pages.
“Are all the pages there?”
I swatted his hand away. “I hope so; otherwise the full story will not be known.”
He sighed. “You ever think your life is like a storybook with a bunch of pages missing?”
He had disappeared up the stairs before I could reply.
“There it is, Barranca, the mission of Saint Augustina.” I patted his neck, “Looks pretty with the setting sun making it glow like that.”
Barranca nodded in agreement and pawed the ground. The setting sun catching the dust stirred a memory of me being real small, trying to catch the sparkling dust motes. I told myself it was a good omen, dios— better than a bad one.
The early evening service was underway so I waited out of sight in the shade of an old tree until the congregation left. When I entered I let my eyes adjust to the dimness and saw the sisters were still there on their knees at prayer. As they rose to leave I stepped forward. No point in waiting; I had been nearly a month riding to this place.
“Lo siento, I beg your pardon. My name is Juanito Alejandro Lancer Santos de Ruiz, the son of Maria Alicia Santos de Ruiz and Murdoch Lancer. I believe my Abuela, Senora Estella Maria Santos de Ruiz, is among the sisters at this mission.”
The silence was absolute as six pairs of eyes turned to me.
“I mean no harm, and I know I may be twenty years too late, but I only recently learned of Senora Santos de Ruiz taking refuge here.”
What a sight I must have presented, a scruffy dusty vaquero wearing a gun in this place of worship. I should have taken the time to clean up, not worn my gun. I was on a fool’s errand.
A slight older lady made her way toward me. “What is your reason for asking after this sister of the mission?”
I looked up at the rafters and then down into her face. “Because I need to know my history.”
She smiled. It took years off her face. She indicated I should follow her to a small office at the rear of the church.
Once we were alone with the door firmly closed she looked up at me and placed her hand against my cheek. “Juanito, I would know you anywhere! You are so like your Abuelo Alejandro. Except for your eyes— those must be from your Papa.”
I let out a breath as my heart skipped a beat. “You know of me?”
She sat down behind the desk and I sat opposite her, drinking in her features. Even the sisters’ black habit could not disguise a lady who was not as old as I first thought and who must have been a beauty in her youth. My Abuela! I reached out, putting my hands over hers. The journey from Lancer had been worth it.
She frowned and closed her eyes. “Of course, I know of you. Where to start…what can I tell you?”
I let her take her time. I’m the same, for important conversations; needing to sort out my thoughts before speaking.
“We had a rancho outside Hermosillo with orange and lemon groves, but disaster befell my family. Cholera had taken hold in the area and my husband Alejandro and son Gabriel died. It was so hard for me and Maria. We did try, but then Carlos Manuel Cruz a cruel and greedy man offered to marry Maria and take our land as a dowry.”
Beneath the calm telling by a sister of the mission, I could hear long-held anger. I had been to Hermosillo and knew of the death of my Abuelo and Tio, but I said nothing, waiting for her to continue.
“I sent Maria away to friends in Matamoros to escape. I abandoned our family land and home and took refuge here. I received word from Matamoros that she had met and married a Californian and there was a son. I thought she was safe and waited to hear from her, but then I learned that Murdoch Lancer had been to Hermosillo looking for his lost wife and son. I prayed, Juanito, but there were times my faith was tested. But here you are, a grown man.”
I realised she didn’t know of Mama’s death or my life as Madrid. The walls of this small office closed in on me. “Abuela, I have much to tell you, but first I need to see to my horse. Can you show me where I can stable him?” She smiled at me, knowing I was playing for time, delaying telling my story to this lady, my long-lost relative.
Her face lit up when she saw Barranca. “Oh my, a palomino, your Tio Gabriel bred and traded horses, he would have admired this one. I do hope your horse will not mind sharing with our donkey.”
My Uncle was a horse breeder and I looked like my Abuelo; in a matter of minutes, I already knew more about my bloodline than I had in my entire life.
“His name is Barranca. He is the best horse I’ve ever had. He’s from a palomino herd that runs wild on my father’s ranch. One day I hope I can show you Lancer.”
After I had settled Barranca in the lean-to he had to share with a donkey, I took my Abuela by her hand and sat us on a bench in the mission garden. It was peaceful. The evening sun warmed the adobe wall we sat against, and the sweet smell of herbs was in the air. Perhaps it would make what I had to say easier. “Lo siento, Abuela. This will be difficult for you to hear. Like you, I’m not sure where to start.”
“At the start, nieto, I am ready to hear it all.”
“My earliest good memories are of Mama and Papi, my stepfather. We lived on a small ranch on the American side of the Rio in Texas. They were killed by a greedy newcomer who wanted their water rights. I was ten and spared only to be sent to an orphanage on the Mexican side.” I held my hand up to stop her from asking for details and kept looking straight ahead, not wanting to see any pain or disappointment in her eyes.
“I ran away and lived wild and free. I took up a gun. It was an easy decision: to be a downtrodden half breed, a target for every bully and bigot along the borders, or earn respect by being good hiring out my gun.”
I turned to look at her. I saw no anger or disappointment, but that look of pain, I’ve seen in Murdoch. “I traded as Johnny Madrid.”
I saw she recognised the name, but she reached out and put her arms around my neck. “Oh, Juanito, my dear nieto. I had no idea that was you! We had heard Madrid had been captured by the Ruales and executed.
I let her hug me for a few moments and it brought back memories of Mama, who was always free with her hugs and kisses for me. “I’ve heard that a few times, but here I am.”
“It was Murdoch Lancer’s money that bought my freedom. I had hated him ‘cos I’d been told that he had thrown Mama and me out. Found out that was a lie, and for the last year and a half, I’ve been learning how to live as Johnny Lancer, the younger son of Murdoch Lancer. Turns out I have an older brother. Well, Scott is a half-brother—same papa but his mama died in childbirth.”
I could see she wanted to ask questions so before she could say anything I carried on. “He’s a good man even though he was raised by his Grandfather in Boston with everything money and power can buy.”
The look she gave me took me right back to being a kid and Mama knowing I was being less than truthful about whatever mischief I had been up to. Between those looks and Papi turning me over his knee, I still find it hard to outright lie to people I like. I realised it was getting late and I still had so much to tell her. “Abuela, I think I should leave the rest of my telling until tomorrow.” I helped her to her feet.
She shook her head, “No, no I shall make coffee and we will talk until it is all said.”
Once we were back in the office the smell of coffee set my stomach rumbling, reminding me I hadn’t eaten all day. On the tray, she set down in front of me, along with the coffee, was bread, cheese, salsa, and cinnamon biscuits. I realised she was watching me as I ate and drank. I wiped crumbs from my shirt and grinned at her. “Gracias, Abuela.”
“Ah, chico, it is the mission’s duty to offer sustenance and a place to rest to travellers. Even though you have brought distressing news, it is a blessing to see you, my nieto.”
The room was lit by candles that softened the lines on her face and again, I could see Mama. “It is because of Scott I’m here. A year ago his Grandfather Harlan Garrett came to visit Lancer. It wasn’t exactly a happy family reunion. He doesn’t like the heir to the Garrett empire having a half-breed for a brother and I reckon he didn’t want Scott to have a Mexican stepmother.”
I raised an eyebrow and grinned. “The Lancers have reached a sort of understanding with him. But a month ago Scott got a package from Boston. It seems his Tia Margaret, that’s Harlan’s sister, is real interested in family histories, and she had drawn up this big sheet of paper listing all of Scott’s relatives. Great Uncles and Aunts, all these cousins connected by marriage to rich and powerful people on the east coast of America… apparently one cousin is related through marriage to someone called Sam Adams who was famous for America getting independence. I could see Scott was impressed but he ain’t one to boast. Dios, lo siento, it’s like they say about us Mexicans all being related! Except I don’t know anything about my relatives. Oh, I know my father has family in Scotland; he gets letters but he doesn’t talk much about them. I remember Mama and Papi telling stories and singing songs about Spain, but she never spoke of family.”
I stopped and got up and hugged myself as I paced out the few steps the small room allowed.
“Juanito, tell me how you found me.” Her voice quiet and soothing.
I blinked. “Murdoch has all these Pinkerton detective reports going back to when Mama left Lancer with me. The details of her family home were in them. So I set off to track down my Mexican heritage. Did you know Senor Carlos Manuel Cruz, the man who wanted Mama and took your land and home, died some years ago? The land is being used by a neighbour. There are still good folks working the land who remember you and they were very welcoming to me. It was them who told me of your whereabouts.”
Abuela nodded at the news. “It is late. We should rest. Tomorrow, Juanito, I will tell you what I know of your Mexican and Spanish ancestors.”
That morning I woke to the sound of the mission bells calling the morning service. I went instead to check on Barranca and his companion, a gentle donkey. The stable chores didn’t take any time, so after grooming my horse I ran a brush over the donkey who quivered with delight at my touch and flickered her ears as I spoke quietly.
“You have that special way with these creatures. It is a gift that not many have.”
At least I wasn’t being reprimanded for not being at the service. I turned and smiled at Abuela. “Buenos Dias. As a kid I always wanted to be around horses, and there was a time I was lucky enough to meet a man who taught me how to listen to a horse.”
She put her head to one side. “He sounds like a mustanero. There are few with the true ability.”
“Senor Alberto Miguel Hernandez was a patient and kind teacher to a boy who had little patience and a great need to reach manhood.”
Abuela reached over and patted my arm. “To me, you are still a boy, one who should come to the kitchen and take breakfast with me.”
We were back in the little office and instead of her sitting behind the desk opposite me she sat next to me and opened a carved wooden box. “I took very little when I left our rancho: the land grant, journals, and the family bible which lists our family history.”
She passed the bible to me. It was old and well used. On the inside pages, it had names and dates going back, not just to my grandparents, but to their own grandparents. I traced the names with my finger and tried to imagine who they were.
“Both mine and my husband’s families can be traced back to Spain.” She pointed at the name Gabriel Jose Santos de Ruiz. “My Papa came to the new world to help build a new empire. This is my own Mama, Maria, who travelled with him from Spain. She would tell such stories of the journey! I have a sister, Consuela, who returned to Spain as she was promised in an arranged marriage to a nobleman with an estancia in Jerez de la Frontera. She is an interesting woman. You would get many a story from her.”
I raised an eyebrow and looked again at the names. I have relatives in Spain.
She pointed at the names on my Abuelo’s side. “Your Great Abuelo Enrico Juan de Aguirre had shipping interests and eventually settled in Cuba. His son Alejandro sailed around the horn to his marriage to me; we settled in Mexico.” Abuela looked at me and laughed. “He wasn’t a sailor and was happy to stay on the rancho my Papa had established. Alejandro’s brothers inherited the shipping businesses. One of them has a successful business based in San Blas.”
I must have had a shocked look ‘cos she grinned and reached up to shut my open mouth. “It is a lot to take in. Yesterday only a Papa and brother, now all this familia.”
“Yes, a lot to take in…all this history…we are people who travel great distances to find a place to call home, ain’t we?”
“And you found yours at Lancer.”
“Ah, Abuela, it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. One day I hope I’ll give Murdoch the grandchildren he says he wants, and I want to be able to tell them of these people, their ancestors.”
“You are right, Juanito. A child should know of their past. It is never really past; it lives on in them.”
She looked at me with such understanding as I sat with my hands clasped, rubbing my thumbs against each other, thinking of that angry, lonely stray I once was. Her voice interrupted my thoughts.
“What are you now thinking of?”
I grinned. “I need to repay your kindness in accepting me and sharing all this. I guess there ain’t cows to herd or wild horses to round up but I’m pretty good at fixing fences and mending leaky roofs.”
I spent some hours up on the mission roof replacing broken and missing tiles. The labour gave my mind a rest. There was a regular parade of the sisters coming by, watching and offering refreshments and complimenting me on my workmanship. I had to wonder what my Abuela had told them.
That evening I was invited to eat in a dining room with all the sisters. Scott and Murdoch would have been proud of my bringing out my most polite manners. These nice ladies were so very different from the padre and sisters I remembered from the time I spent in the orphanage. Still, I learned a long time ago there are good folks and bad folks; it makes no difference if they’re religious or wearing a badge or landowners. Dios, like Scott keeps telling me there’s good and bad in most everyone. I didn’t agree with that, can’t imagine Day Pardee and a few others ever having any good in them, but kept my lips buttoned. He and Murdoch do tend to see the good in folk…and probably just as well, as far as my past as Madrid is concerned.
Later Abuela watched me groom and feed Barranca and the donkey. I looked over at her. “Does this little donkey have a name?”
“She is called Blessing. We found her one morning by herself in our garden eating the plants. Poor thing was all skin and bones. No one knew where she had come from.”
“All God’s creatures, Abuela?”
“You remember some teachings?”
I carried on with the stable chores. “Mama and Papi taught me some, and I picked up more along the way.” I risked a glance over at her. “I’ll need to take Barranca out tomorrow. He gets bored if he is kept indoors for more than two or three days.”
“I understand. You and your horse are alike. You need time to yourself, to ride and clear your mind.”
I stopped and went to hold her by her arms and smiled at her. Even though we had only met two days ago, I knew she understood me. What I wouldn’t have given to have known her when I was a child.
The next day Barranca and I were out riding in the countryside at daybreak as I tried to sort out all the thoughts that were chasing around in my head. When I returned Abuela was working in the garden with two of the other sisters. I watched from a distance; she seemed happy and settled at this mission, but it wasn’t her family home.
The two sisters smiled at me and Abuela as they left to give us some privacy. “So, Juanito, do you want to hear more about our family?”
“I could listen to you tell me about them all day. It fills in some of the empty places in me I didn’t even know were there…but I need to ask you something. Come and sit with me.” I took her to the bench and we sat looking at each other. “Abuela, do you want me to take you back to your rancho? It is, at the moment, an unloved place which rightfully is yours and mine.” I held my hand up. “I could reclaim it if you wish. I can be very persuasive.”
“Juanito, I need to ask you something. Does your Papa know you have come looking for your Mexican family?”
I blew out a breath and looked down at my boots. “I couldn’t get Murdoch to talk about Mama. All he would say was he didn’t know why she took me and left. He ain’t one for talking much about himself; can talk up a storm issuing orders about the land, cattle, and too much rain or not enough. He has these high walls around his heart if you get my meaning?”
She nodded. “Men do not often find it easy to put into words their deep feelings. Does he know of your journey?”
“I told him I needed to know more. I left a note saying I wasn’t running away and would be back when I had the answer to my questions.” I squinted up at the sky, thinking I should have tried harder to put into words my need to know about my past without it turning loud and ugly.
“Oh, nieto, he will be worried. You should let him know you are safe.”
“I will, I promise. But you haven’t answered my question. Shall I restore our rancho? When I was there I met men and their families who are still loyal to the Santos de Ruiz family.”
“You would do this? I could return and tend the graves of my husband and son? But you would return to Lancer?”
Mexico – Cuba – Spain
My Abuela has insisted I try to keep a journal. She said it would be read and re-read by my children and grandchildren and would keep my life and adventures alive for them. I told her I wasn’t one for writing; it was sometimes hard enough to say out loud the words in my head. But I’d read her own mother’s journal that told of her Spanish childhood and then the sailing to Mexico or as she called it Nueva Espana, and I understood her reasoning.
So I can’t say it’s an elegant thing like Scott would approve of. Fact is, it already looks a bit beat up, and no matter how hard I try my spelling is sometimes guesswork.
I’m on a ship that’s due in Cadiz, that’s a port in southern Spain, and I’m re-reading what I wrote of how I came to be here…
Mexico – Hermosillo
I acquired a buggy. I couldn’t have my Abuela riding double with me on Barranca now, could I? On the way back to Hermosillo she told me more of her life and that of her family. I listened to every word, drinking them in like a man who had been lost in a desert.
She looked down the road to her home, a traditional adobe low-level building set in fertile land a few miles outside of the town. A new “Rancho Ruiz” sign graced the entrance. I’d sent word I would be returning with Senora Santos de Ruiz, and the families who lived on the rancho had obviously painted the walls with whitewash; now flowers welcoming visitors grew in planters and trailed along trellising.
“Oh, Juanito, the families did this for me?”
“Yes, I told you there were loyal families wanting to welcome you back. It will still need some fixing and tidying, but I’ll stay and help with that.”
I could see where my habit of touching everything came from as she inspected the rooms. She ran her hands over a carved rocking chair. “Your Abuelo’s chair will be the first thing I will polish. The cocina requires a good cleaning, but otherwise, there is nothing that washing and dusting cannot put right.”
I smiled at her. “But first show me the resting place of your husband and son. We should let them know you have returned.”
Two plain wooden crosses marked the graves. I thought my first task would be to make and carve new ones, and although Mama was not here I would make one for her. Abuela knelt in silent prayer; there were a few tears.
“It is not possible to change the past, but I wish you could have known them. They were good men.”
I helped her to her feet and used my thumb to wipe away a tear. “I wish the same, but feel I know them through the memories you have shared with me.”
That evening we sat on the hacienda veranda as I told her of my intention to take her to visit Senor Alberto Suarenta, who had been running his cattle on her land ever since the death of Carlos Cruz, and then to the magistrate in town to ensure the Santos de Ruiz ownership was legal. Read enough land agreements when I signed up to range wars, and the lesson I learned early on was to get the facts. I didn’t tell Murdoch that when he sat me down at his big old desk and lectured me about Lancer’s legal agreements and such he had me read. Didn’t take me long to write up an agreement for Suarenta to sign.
She had nodded. “And you will send word to your Papa a wire and a letter.”
I raised an eyebrow. She was very definitely putting her foot down as only a Mexican lady can. “I will send a wire but I ain’t one for letter writing.”
“Poof!” She flung her arms up. “Just put down the words you would say if he were in front of you. He will be reassured and treasure those words. In any case, you have written an excellent agreement for the signature of Senor Suarez, so do not tell me, Juanito, you are not able to write a letter.”
I laughed at the scolding. “Okay, okay. Some might have to be in Spanish, and you could write and say hola.”
“Yes, I would do that. Can your Papa read Spanish?”
I nodded. “Reads and speaks it fine. After all, California was still in Mexico when he first arrived in the San Joaquin.”
The next day we called on Senor Suarenta. I wore my gun and my Madrid face. He was suitably polite. I put the agreement I had written upon his desk.
“As you are aware, Senor, you have had the use of our land for more than twelve years with no rent paid or restitution for my Abuela. The land grant quite clearly is in our name.”
I pulled the grant from my jacket. “Our offer.”
I placed my hand on Abuela’s shoulder. “We will let you continue to have use of the northern pasture, on the condition you will put fences up to show the boundary. My Abuela intends to use the rest of her land to increase the orange and lemons groves. The water rights remain in the name of Santos de Ruiz, but we are happy to let it run through to the northern pasture. This agreement is with the understanding you will be a good neighbour and maintain the fencing.”
He was all nods and smiles. I had previously mentioned to him I knew Johnny Madrid who would ensure there would be no trouble. I didn’t say I was Madrid. I know, a bit sneaky, but putting a little bit of fear in the mix had the desired effect.
“Our only other condition is you will accompany us into Hermosillo to the magistrate to have our agreement legally recognised. If there are any fees to be paid,” I narrowed my eyes and gave him my gunfighter smile, knowing full well the magistrate would find some way of imposing a tax, “…it will be your responsibility to pay. Consider it payment of your outstanding rent.”
On our way back from town with our legally witnessed agreement, Abuela looked up from driving her buggy. “I am interested to know who taught you your negotiating skills.”
I looked down from Barranca and grinned at her. “Guess I inherited it from being Johnny Madrid and trying to talk my way out of trouble before any gunfire got me killed.”
She didn’t get angry at my answer. “Being Madrid taught you how to stay alive. For that I am grateful.”
I pulled my hat low to hide my eyes. “Being Madrid, I learned some lessons the hard way.”
“You have a good heart, Juanito, and inherited some of the Santos de Ruiz charm that was in your Mama and her brother. My Papa had that ability…to smile and bring the best out of those he befriended, or to charm strangers.”
I let out a breath as I realised how important it was to me she accepted my past.
A few days later after I had fixed the roof (yes, another roof) and had time to think. I found her helping to harvest a crop of lemons. “Abuela I’ve made a decision.”
She looked up from a basket. “Decision, nieto?”
I took her by her hand and walked back to the hacienda. “I wish to travel to Spain to visit my relatives. I hope you will give me your blessing and help.”
“But what of Lancer and your Papa and brother?”
“Knowing Scott, I expect as soon as my letter reaches Lancer he will come to fetch me back to California. But I will leave Barranca here for him to take back, and you can tell him I do intend to return as soon as I have satisfied my curiosity.”
Mexico – San Blas
Well, I got here without being waylaid by Scott or even Murdoch, assuming he could tear himself away from Lancer. Hell, I’ve done some crazy things in the past, but this overwhelming desire to discover my past is the craziest yet. Abuela had written some letters of introduction for me, saying if I was determined on my quest she would write to our relatives in the hope they would keep me out of trouble, and sent me on my way to San Blas with her blessing. She told me she loved me.
San Blas on the Pacific coast ain’t San Francisco but it sure does have a busy port, and where there’s a port there are sailors who are worse than cowboys at the end of a cattle drive for drinking, fighting and kicking up a ruckus. I left the horse I’d ridden here in the cleanest stable I could find and asked for directions to the offices of the de Aguirre shipping company
I learned my trade as Madrid in dangerous border towns so as I walked through busy streets I brought all those lessons from the dark place in my soul. I knew I was being followed—maybe backstabbing low-down robbers, or maybe them who kidnap unwary men for forced labour on ocean-going ships. Scott had warned me about being what he called Shanghaied one time we were in San Francisco. I didn’t tell him I already knew about those sneaky tricks, but that’s a story for another time.
I slipped down a quiet alley into the shadows and waited as the two would-be kidnappers passed me. “Hola, compadres. You looking for me?”
Before they could fully turn around, I’d knocked one out with a rock I picked up in my left hand and had my knife against the throat of number two. “You want to keep breathing, you’ll get on your knees and put your hands behind your back.”
I left them both hogtied in the dark and dirt. No reason to waste bullets on them.
The office of de Aguirre Shipping was in a prime position at the main dock above a warehouse alive with activity. I patted dust off my clothes as best I could with my hat, adjusted my gun belt, pulled my shoulders back and entered the building.
I approached one of four desks. “Pardon, I wish to speak to the owners. I have a letter of introduction to the Senors de Aguirre.”
I handed over one of the letters Abuela had written to these cousins of ours. While I waited I studied an oil portrait of Enrico de Aguirre, my Great Abuelo. The look on him would rival any grim glare Murdoch could throw at me.
“Senor, it is you who has presented this letter from Senora Estella Santos de Ruiz?”
I turned to look at the speaker, a well-dressed Mexican businessman, no gun and an impressive moustache. “Si, I am her grandson.”
He held out his hand. “You are Juanito Santos de Ruiz, Maria’s boy?”
“Yes, that’s me, but I mostly go by Johnny Lancer. It’s the Californian style.” I smiled at him. “Which of my cousins are you?”
We shook hands as he introduced himself as Antonio Enrico de Aguirre. “It is a surprise to meet you, Johnny. My family will be delighted to welcome you and hear news of Senora Santos de Ruiz.”
He gave orders to cancel any meetings as he escorted me out of the building. We rode in a very smart carriage through the town, past the harbours busy with ships loading and unloading passengers and cargo.
His family home was on the outskirts of town. High walls and a sturdy gate enclosed a traditional courtyard dominated in the centre by a large fountain and statue. As soon as we entered he was out of the carriage shouting a welcome to the hacienda. This was a man at ease with the obvious wealth but had not boastful of it.
Before I could take more than a few steps we were surrounded by a couple of women and a passel of children. He spoke over the noise to introduce me to the older lady. “Mama, we have a visitor who is a relative. This is Senor Johnny Lancer, otherwise known as Juanito Alejandro Lancer Santos de Ruiz, the Grandson of Senora Estella Santos de Ruiz.”
She let out a gasp and took my hand. “Estella is my sister-in-law. Is she well? I have not had word of her since she left the rancho in Hermosillo!”
I knew I was probably going to wear my voice out answering questions and telling my own story. “She is well and back living at the rancho. I have letters she has written, one to introduce myself, and one for the head of your family to read.” I pulled a letter from my saddlebag and handed it over. I wasn’t sure what Abuela had put in that letter but guessed it would tell of her reasons for leaving the rancho and maybe of my reputation as Johnny Madrid.
Antonio put his arms around the two ladies. “This is my grandmother, Senora Rosita. This is my wife Carlotta.”
He lined up five children, all boys. He pointed at two of them. “My own children, Rico and Sebastian. And these three are my nephews. Their parents, my brother Alfredo and his wife are away on a business trip to San Francisco. My Abuelo and Papa are at a local council meeting and should be home later.” He shook his head “My youngest brother Vincenzo is away at sea, the lucky boy. I miss those days all I had to worry about was catching the wind and tides. Now it’s all meetings and politics and unruly children.” He laughed as his two little children hugged his legs.
The older lady shooed the children away to sit quietly. “Let our visitor catch his breath. We shall take refreshment and he can tell us how he came to be here.”
At the evening meal, I got to meet the rest of the family: Senor Juan-Manuel, the Abuelo and head of the household; Antonio’s Papa, Enrico; and his wife Isabella. It was noisy in a good-natured way with a couple of servants fetching out a never-ending stream of good honest Mexican food and overseeing the table with the five youngsters. This family were well off, but nowhere near as high and mighty as some Dons I had crossed paths with.
The adults wanted to know about my Abuela and her well-being now she had returned to the rancho in Hermosillo. Over desserts of tres leches cake and sopaipillas, they all listened as I told them of the Lancer ranch in the San Joaquin. The nino’s wanted to know all about my being a vaquero and horse breaking and their eyes lit up when I told them of Barranca. It seems all they knew was sailors and the sea.
Later Juan-Manuel took us, men, into the courtyard where we were served Spanish brandy or tequila and Cuban cigars. He turned to me. “So Juanito, my sister-in-law writes not only to introduce you and tell us of your desire to understand your history but also of your reputation as Johnny Madrid. I thought it best to not mention this while the ninos were about. But stories of that pistolero have reached us here at the coast.”
I sighed. Were my newfound relatives going to condemn me? “If I am going to bring trouble to your door, I will leave.”
He looked at me, smiled, and shook his head. “My boy, you are welcome to stay. You are family. I could tell you tales of one of your ancestors who was called a pirate by his foes.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Pirate?”
He shrugged and held his hand out. “That all depends on which side you stand. Some Spaniards thought him a hero, but to the British navy he was a dangerous pirate sailing the high seas. The de Aguirre family in Cuba have many such stories of those days. If as Senora Estella says you wish to travel to Spain, you will hear them for yourself while they arrange passage on one of their steamships.”
“I’m not sure I’ll make a sailor. I’ve only been on a ship, once when I sailed from San Francisco down to Mexico.”
He was interested in that bit of information. “When was that Johnny, and was it to San Blas?”
“Be about four or five years back. I agreed to work on board in exchange for transporting my horse. I wasn’t too good a sailor, and me and my horse got off the first place we could and that was Tijuana.”
My Great Uncle looked a bit disappointed but topped up our glasses and cleared his throat. My cousin Antonio raised his glass and winked at me. “Be prepared, Johnny, for a long night. I can see we are going to hear my Abuelo tell stories of sailing around Cape Horn and of the goldfields of California.”
The evening passed with Juan-Manuel re-counting family stories and his son and grandson laughing, and pointing out to me how he was exaggerating or mis-remembering. I soaked up the words and the warmth of a family who were at ease; I wished Murdoch could have told stories in such a way. As if I had spoken my thoughts, Juan-Manuel turned to me. “Did your Papa reach California during the gold rush days?”
I shook my head. “No, the deed shows he took ownership of the land and holdings in 1843.”
He frowned at my reply. “When California was still Mexican. Of course, his cattle business would have been established by the time of the gold rush and he would have benefited from the need to feed all the newcomers. There were some who found gold and made fortunes but most successful were the businessmen that served the hopeful miners.”
Antonio spoke up. “Such as us, eh, Abuelo? The desire for passage greater than the berths available.”
“Yes, but our problem during those times was keeping a crew from jumping ship in San Francisco.” Juan-Manuel shook his head. “Of course, the hordes trying to get across to the west were responsible for the Panama rail link—so much better than sailing around Cape Horn.”
I lay in bed that night thinking of how much I enjoyed the company of these relatives of mine. It was no good wishing I had known them when I was a kid; one of the lessons I had learned was “if only’s” cause heartache. I shall just be grateful they are now filling up some of the empty space in me.
The next morning over a breakfast just as noisy as the evening meal, Juan-Manuel handed me a letter. “To introduce you to the de Aguirre family in Cuba who, if you are still determined to travel to Spain, will arrange for your passage to Cadiz.” I took the letter addressed to Senora Consuel de Mendoza of Jaen in Andalucia Southern Spain. He continued, “Now Johnny, take my advice. In Spain go by your Californian name and your Abuela’s family name Santos de Ruiz. The de Aguirre made enemies and if you think Mexican politics and the Rurales have long-held vendettas and memories, it is nothing compared to the feudal system in Spain. But your Abuela’s sister and her family are well connected and you will find your use of that family name will be respected.”
I understand the ways of Mexican families who are proud of their Spanish roots. “Gracias. I will respect the honour of using that name. Can I ask further favours of you?”
“I rode here from Hermosillo and stabled the horse at a livery run by Senor Alberto Sanchez. Can you arrange for its return to my Abuela? The other thing is, you may be visited by my brother, Scott Lancer. If you are, please tell him of my plans to travel but that I do intend to return to Lancer.”
It was Antonio who replied. “I will happily volunteer to return the horse.”
His Papa looked up from his breakfast. “Any excuse to escape the desk, eh hijo?”
Antonio and I grinned at each other, sharing that feeling.
Juan-Manuel tapped the table and the look he gave his son and grandson reminded me of Murdoch’s tune-calling face. “I think my wife and I will accompany Antonio. It will only be proper we pay our respects to my sister-in-law.”
I nodded in acknowledgment. “Gracias. It will be good that my Abuela’s neighbours and citizens of Hermosillo are aware she has family who will take an interest in her welfare.”
Hermosillo Scott’s POV
His note stated he was leaving, but would return when he had filled in the missing pages of his past. I was prepared to chase Johnny through every border town; of course, I found no trail even with Val Crawford’s help. At least there was no word of Madrid being involved in gunfights.
When I returned from the border, Murdoch and I had angry words. I blamed him for his cold refusal to discuss our mothers and the past that had prompted Johnny into searching for answers. Murdoch retorted Johnny had inherited his mother’s inability to settle down.
Then we received his wire telling us he was fine and that letters were on the way. Sure enough, we got not one but two letters. There was one he had written addressed to me, typically Johnny—brief and to the point. He had found his grandmother and had settled her back in the family ranch outside Hermosillo. Could I arrange for Barranca to be taken to Lancer?
The second letter was from Senora Santos de Ruiz addressed to Murdoch. He didn’t tell me what was in it, but there was a change in his attitude. All he said was, we should ride to Hermosillo.
We were too late. The bitter taste of disappointment made me feel sick and Murdoch looked grey. The ride had been hard for him, both physically and it seemed, emotionally.
Senora Estella Santos de Ruiz had exclaimed in delight when we arrived. Murdoch, I think, was more than a little taken back by her welcome and simply shook his head when she told us Johnny had left to visit his Abuela’s family in San Blas. She took his arm. “Come in, you need to rest and then we shall talk.”
The hacienda was a typical adobe low building, not as imposing as Lancer’s but obviously recently whitewashed and decorated in the typical Mexican. Inside was tidy and homely with colourful blankets and the aroma of beeswax and lemon. Senora Santos de Ruiz waved her hand. “My casa stood empty for some years, but it is slowly becoming the home it once was. Juanito fixed the missing roof slates and helped whitewash the walls. He is such a hard worker.”
There was pride in her statement, but Murdoch seemed to have lost his voice as his eyes took in the childhood home of his second wife.
I smiled down at her. “It is a charming home, Senora, and I hope you don’t object to our visit.”
“No, no Scott! You were expected and I knew in my heart, despite Juanito not being sure, my son-in-law Murdoch Lancer would make the journey.” With that, she took Murdoch by his arm. “I know it is a disappointment Juanito is not here, but you can rest and then we can talk.”
We had separate rooms connected by a door. Murdoch had his back to me, but by his stance, I could see he was weary. I stepped into his room. “Are you okay, Murdoch? I know it’s frustrating Johnny isn’t here, but we are on the right trail.”
He pulled his shoulders back and turned to me. “I’ll be fine, son. It’s been a long ride.”
I could see that faraway look in his eyes. I wasn’t convinced he was fine—that word Johnny used every time he was hurting, and not just physically. “But…?”
Murdoch ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “I tell you, Scott it has taken my breath away seeing Senora Santos de Ruiz. Even knowing she is Maria’s mother, the resemblance is remarkable.”
“I take it you never met Maria’s parents?”
“When we met in Matamoros she was living with friends. She told me her family in Hermosillo had died.” He again ran his hand through his hair. I guessed there was more, but as always, any talk of the past was not forthcoming.
While Murdoch rested I went in search of my brother’s horse. Barranca was in a small corral and seemed pleased to see me. As I petted him Senora Santos de Ruiz came alongside me. “A fine palomino. Juanito is very proud of him. He told me he is the best horse he has ever had.”
“Yes, and for Johnny to leave him causes me concern.”
She put her head to one side to study me. “But surely it is a good sign your brother wishes you to take Barranca home? It shows he intends to return to Lancer.”
I looked over at Barranca, now happily feeding on hay that had been left in the far corner for him. and sighed. She took my hand. “I take it he did not write to you with details of his plans?”
I couldn’t help but snort with derision. “My brother is a man of few words and even fewer when given a pen and paper.”
She laughed. “That is not a trait he inherited from the Santos de Ruiz or de Aguirre side of his family. One from your Papa, eh?”
I nodded. “Murdoch is annoyingly silent on what he considers the past and matters of our families. He and Johnny have had some loud misunderstandings which I worry may have provoked Johnny into leaving.”
“Oh, Scott, my dear grandson, I think this conversation about the reason Juanito is on a mission to understand his roots should include Murdoch.”
It struck me with a mixture of surprise and delight the ease with which Senora Estella Santos de Ruiz used that family description for me. She was not only Johnny’s grandmother, but was mine by marriage. Her attitude was so very different to that of my grandfather and how he had treated Johnny.
After we had eaten she produced a bottle of brandy and a bottle of tequila. “Please help yourselves while I begin.” She didn’t wait for our agreement but looked at Murdoch. “I take it you have not discussed my letter to you with Scott?”
Murdoch shook his head. So did she.
“Juanito tracked me down to the mission of St. Augustina where I have lived for 20 years. My husband and son had died of the cholera fever and I sent my daughter Maria away to friends in Matamoros. This was necessary for her to escape a forced marriage. Word did reach me of her marriage to a Californian rancher and the birth of a son. Until Juanito found me I knew nothing of her death. I thought all that time she was safe.”
At this point, she stopped; her hand shook as she sipped on a small measure of tequila. “Juanito told me how he had travelled here after reading of his mother’s family home in some papers he found in a desk. They recorded how efforts were made to find her and himself. The people of this rancho are loyal to me and had kept silent all those years about where I was, and Maria’s whereabouts. They saw in Juanito his Abuelo and Tio, and they told him where I could be found.”
She went to a desk and took out a photograph, a family portrait. She was much younger, with her husband and children. I recognised Maria from the photographs Murdoch had of her and my own mother. Johnny’s resemblance to his male relatives was unmistakable. Murdoch remained silent as he studied the photograph.
I cleared my throat. “Who were you so afraid of that you and Maria left here?”
“That was Carlos Manuel Cruz, a cruel bully of a man.” She looked at us both. “There is no need to worry. He, too, is dead.”
My heart sank, “Did Johnny…?”
“Oh no Scott, Senor Cruz died some eleven or twelve years ago. The people here say it was an act of God. He was drunk and fell. He is un-mourned.”
Murdoch pushed away from the table and without a word went outside. I wondered if I should follow, but Senora Santos de Ruiz put her hand over mine and shook her head.
“I know you are worried that Juanito’s reputation as Madrid has followed him here, but do not be afraid. Here he is Johnny Lancer and my grandson, a young man with a good heart and good business head. He negotiated a fair and legal agreement with my neighbour.” She smiled and we exchanged a knowing look. “I have not witnessed any gunplay or threats being involved.”
I shared her smile. “He can turn on a certain charm when he sets his mind to it. I think I’ll check on Murdoch.”
It was dark; clouds masked the moon, but I could see Murdoch in the shadows leaning against the corral fence.
“Hey, Murdoch, are you okay?” I stood close by his side and turned to study his face, grey in the gloom and aged. “It seems our boy has mostly put Madrid to one side while he is on this adventure.” I tried to put some humour in my voice to alleviate his mood.
His voice was low. “I think it was me who killed Cruz.” He gripped the top plank. “After years of lost and false trails, the Pinkertons reported a woman named Maria living at this ranch with a man who had taken ownership of the property. I immediately travelled here, knowing it had been her family home. It wasn’t my Maria, but a poor woman bearing the marks and bruises of ill-treatment. When Cruz realised I was searching for Maria Santos de Ruiz and her son, he insisted we have a drink.”
Murdoch stopped and took a deep breath. He didn’t look at me but stared into the distance. “He disgusted me, Scott, with his description of how he had desired Maria since she was a child. He laughed and called her a whore who had run away from both of us. I lost my temper and hit him, hard. He went down and there was blood. I went to see the damage but his woman pushed me aside. She said he was always falling when drunk. She said I should leave—there was nothing for me here. I did leave and when my temper cooled thought to return…but knowing Maria and Johnny were not there, I returned to Lancer. I buried the guilt. I told myself it was no worse than a bar brawl.”
He looked over towards the hacienda. “I’m glad Maria escaped him.”
I put my hand on his shoulder. “You don’t know his death was at your hands, and it certainly wasn’t at Johnny’s.”
I thought to myself to ask the estate Segundo at the first opportunity what was known of the death of Cruz. In the meantime, I urged Murdoch to return indoors where Senora Santos de Ruiz had lit lamps and had hot chocolate drinks waiting for us.
She fussed at us as we entered. “Please do not be distressed, Murdoch. Until the fever was in the land we had a good life. The orange and lime groves did well and my son was successful in training and trading horses. And Maria, oh my dear daughter, as a child she wanted to do everything her older brother did. She was brave and fearless, wanting to ride like a boy.”
The Senora shook her head. “We would scold her…as she grew out of childhood, she found her nimble fingers were talented with a needle and could make a guitar sing.”
Murdoch reached over the table to take her hand. “I loved her. She mended my broken heart…to this day I do not why she left with Johnny. Perhaps I loved the land too much. Perhaps my desire to have my firstborn back blinded me to her needs and fears. Johnny will not speak of her—only that he thought I had thrown them out, which isn’t true.”
She was nodding throughout Murdoch’s speech. “Johnny and I spoke a great deal on our journey back here. He told me of Lancer and how it had been described to him as the most beautiful place in the world. I knew from how he spoke of the peace he has found there it is his home. However, he does not know why Maria left nor would say how or where she died. He has though made a cross for her besides those of his Abuelo and Tio so I can pray for her soul.”
I felt like an intruder at that moment into their shared grief. I made a decision then to arrange for a marker for my own mother to go into the burial grounds at Lancer and ask Johnny if he wanted one for his own mother. It is for Murdoch to close the door on his past. It does not mean Johnny or I have to do the same.
It was early the next day when I found the segundo and his family who warmly greeted me. He told me how pleased he and the other families were to help the Santos de Ruiz grandson restore the Senora to her home. He took me for a walk and quietly said the rancho adults knew of Johnny’s Madrid reputation but accepted him as a Santos de Ruiz. Johnny had charmed these good people just as he had the Mexican families on Lancer.
“My brother has a good heart that good people recognise.” I paused and looked back towards the veranda where Murdoch sat drinking coffee with Senora Santos de Ruiz. “Can you tell me anything of the death of Carlos Cruz?”
He too looked over towards the hacienda. “He was drunk and thrown from his horse. He treated his horses as badly as he treated his woman.” The contempt he held for Cruz was obvious. “The horse limped back and his body was found on the road to Hermosillo. His woman left to return to her family and his body was buried in an unmarked grave in the graveyard in Hermosillo. No one who knew him was surprised at his death or mourned him.”
I nodded and thanked him. I would tell Murdoch and trust he would accept this version of an accidental death.
We had planned to follow Johnny’s trail to San Blas, but that didn’t happen. While we were preparing to leave, a carriage and rider appeared. A reunion with loud greetings and tears between Senora Estella and her late husband’s relatives played out.
Senora Estella introduced us and Murdoch and I found our hands being shaken and Senora Rosita kissing our cheeks. She smiled “Johnny is a charming young man, and showing up so unexpectedly with the news of Estella. Here we are a family being reunited.
I could see Murdoch trying to keep his temper and I worried, where was my brother if he wasn’t with these people? “Is Johnny in San Blas, has trouble found him?”
Senor Juan-Manuel de Aguirre patted Murdoch on his back. “Do not worry, your son is fine, he has in him a great curiosity to discover his Spanish heritage. We saw him safely on his way to family in Cuba. Between our families, is it any surprise he has it in his blood to undertake this journey?”
“Cuba!!” Murdoch’s voice grew loud. I swear I saw more of his hair turn grey.
Murdoch simply shook his head; but I agreed with Johnny’s great-uncle. “The journeys Murdoch and I have experienced do not compare to the wandering along the borders Johnny has done. I just wish I was with him to watch his back. He can attract trouble.”
“Have faith in him Scott. He is a very capable young man.” Senor Juan-Manuel looked from me to Murdoch. It was clear the de Aguirre family, to whom Johnny had been a stranger, had taken him to their hearts with no questions asked.
A train is better than a stagecoach. This seat is comfortable, got a table in front of me, no one sitting with me, and I can get up to stretch my legs. Even so, can’t help but feel antsy at being closed in and uneasy about the other passengers. The country we are travelling through looks like real Badlands—all swamps alive with mosquitos. The conductor told me that before the train, folks went by canoes and walked to get to California. Made me wonder if Murdoch ever came this way.
The blank page in the journal Abuela Estella gave me taunts me and I bite my bottom lip. I never was one for writing down my thoughts, not like Scott. If he was here I’d be telling him what I think and he’d be putting down the words. I sniff and can hear in my mind Abuela telling me how in years to come my children and grandchildren will enjoy reading of my search for my family history. Children and grandchildren, now, wouldn’t that be something? I stop biting my lip and bite the end of the pencil and decide to start with listing my Mama’s Santos del Ruiz family.
I’d no sooner made a start when that warning chill ran down my back. I kept my head down but squinted up. There were two of them, Anglos, not dressed as desperados but suited. I guessed security and probably carrying them small derringers so as not to draw attention. The conductor was backing out of the carriage door shaking his head.
Of course of all the other passengers, it was me they crowded. I looked up as one sat next to me and the other sat opposite. “Gents?”
The one opposite kept his voice low. “We don’t want any trouble, Madrid, so just keep your hands on the table.”
I didn’t recognise either of them but they obviously knew me. “I go by Lancer these days.” Knew it wouldn’t change anything but it felt good to say it.
He leaned over the table, talking even quieter. “And Santos del Ruiz?”
That would be the conductor; he had seen the ticket my tio had insisted on buying for me. “Family.” I, too, leaned forward and looked him in the eye. “What of it?”
The one sat next to me coughed. “Gentlemen, let us keep this polite. Mr Lancer, there is someone in a private carriage who wants to speak to you, but he requires some discretion.”
I turned to look at the second guy. Now he had my interest. If they were going to cause me trouble, better away from the innocent folk. “Okay, who is it?”
The polite guy smiled as he got up. “We call him Mr Smith.”
Mr Smith was just as suited and booted as the two who escorted me into this fancy travelling office, with a big shiny desk and well-upholstered chairs, even a drinks cabinet. I eyed him up sitting behind the desk. “Very nice way to travel, Mr Smith.”
He waved his hand for me to sit. “Working for the train company has its advantages. Can we get you a drink?”
I very nearly told him I only drink with a man I know but simply shook my head. “So what do you want with me?”
He sat back and studied me. “I know of a Lancer ranch in the San Joaquin. Are you related to that family?”
All these questions and no answers; I could feel my temper rise. “Could be, but why are you asking?” They didn’t smell like any bad hombres, but I learned along the way to not give credit or information away unnecessarily.
“I know of Murdoch Lancer, that he has two sons. One of which I have met, briefly.”
I sat forward and glared. “You after Scott?”
He smiled. “No. At the time my assignment from the Pinkerton agency was to pass a message to Mr Scott Garrett Lancer from his father. I believe you are the other son, John Lancer, who the agency tracked down when you were trading as Johnny Madrid.”
I blinked. “You’re the Pink who found Scott? Is what he told me true? God damn! Has he set you on my trail?”
“No, you being here is just one of life’s strange coincidences. I don’t know what Mr Scott Lancer will have told you of our encounter. It was on a Boston street. He had been on an evening out.” His lips quirked some. “I did hear from agent Amos Burkman that his encounter with you was far more exciting.”
Well, that is one way to describe the firing squad and our scramble to get away. “If you ain’t after me, what are you Pinkertons here for?”
“Word reached the rail company there would be an attempted robbery of a valuable cargo. We are responsible for its safe delivery.”
I sniffed and looked over my shoulder at the other two standing at my back. “I ain’t a train robber.”
“Oh no! I don’t suspect you, Mr Lancer, but as my late father said, a poacher makes the best gamekeeper.” Mr Smith was smiling at me.
To my recollection, I hadn’t ever been called a poacher but I got the meaning okay. “Like I said, I ain’t a train robber and know nothing of any cargo, valuable or not.”
Mr Smith shook his head and raised his glass at me. “I know that, but I know you have experience in providing protection. You do have knowledge of how a robbery may be undertaken. I am hoping you will share that with me.”
Now ain’t that something to write home about, me helping the Pinkertons and meeting the agent who found Scott? I laughed thinking that would worry my brother, me getting the real story behind that. “Okay, first off, what and where is this valuable cargo?”
Mr Smith led the way out of his fancy carriage to the wagon at the back of the train. It was full of crates and luggage. Me, I travel light—usually saddlebags. This time my tia had insisted on a carpet bag with more than one change of clothes stashed in it. Smith pointed out two medium-sized crates.
“On the instructions of the American treasurer, we are transporting gold bars to a secret bank location.”
“Whoo! Gold bars!” I touched one of the crates. “That will take some moving. No chance in this swamp territory of a hold-up. ‘Cos this wagon is at the back of train I wouldn’t think of uncoupling it, nowhere for it to go.” I looked at Mr Smith and then at all the crates. “You sure your gold is actually in these crates?”
“They were sealed at the warehouse and have been under our watch since then.” Mr Smith looked at his two men who both nodded.
I looked up at the ceiling and took a deep breath. “It’s probably an inside job. The gold could have been switched at the warehouse and isn’t even on this train. Or, whoever is behind this robbery and wants the gold back east could wait until you get it transported for them. If I were you, I would open the crates and check out the contents.”
My instincts told me to trust Mr Smith but the other two, I didn’t know them, but knew gold fever could lead an honest man off the straight and narrow. I let my hand rest on my gun and stood with my back against the outside wall of the wagon.
The quiet one who had sat next to me moved forward. “Mr Smith, is this wise? If the seal is broken and the gold is there, any subsequent loss will be our responsibility.”
The only sound was that of the train rattling on the rails as four of us stared at the crates. Then Mr Smith cleared his throat. “Open them both.”
Crowbars were found and the first crate was prised open. Straw was taken out first to reveal rocks. Mr Smith gripped the crate edge, his knuckles white, his face turning from grey to green. I thought he might very well throw up his innards onto those rocks.
The second crate not to my surprise was the same. I watched their reactions and all three looked shocked, Mr Smith most of all. He was cursing in a quiet controlled kind of a way. The other two were throwing the rocks out as if the gold would be hiding underneath.
Smith found his voice. “It’s been switched. Mitchell, send word back to the warehouse. The gold may still be there.”
“Hold on. How are you going to send a wire from a moving train?” I was genuinely curious.
“We have homing pigeons, Mr Lancer. Sometimes the old ways are the best.”
I held my hand up. “Before you do that, I suggest you open up all these crates. If your gold robbers want it back east, they could have switched it into any of these other crates for them to collect at the other end. Leastways you’ll know for certain if the theft has already taken place.”
It was the quiet one called Mitchell who again raised objections. “Sir, all these crates—the owners will be demanding recompense from the train company. Are you sure we should cause this damage based on a hunch?” He looked across at me.
Smith wasn’t having any of it. “Open every damn one, including the passengers’ trunks.”
Luckily it wasn’t necessary to open every damn one. The third one to be opened was the largest one and there underneath the straw were gold bars, lots of them. In the silence I heard the unmistakable click of a gun hammer; instinct threw my body into a crouch as I drew my Colt.
The bullet meant for me whistled past my ear and embedded itself in the wagon wall I’d been leaning against. My bullet took the guard in his gun arm. “Hell, mister, that little old derringer of yours was never gonna cause too much damage, not at that distance.”
Mr Smith and Mitchell were looking from me to the guy now rolling on the floor clutching his arm to stop the blood oozing from his body. I took my bandana from my pocket and went to wrap it around his arm. “You ain’t going to die from this. Mind, whoever your partners are might be less thoughtful than me.” I used my Madrid smile on him to good effect.
Mr Smith had pulled himself together and he too bent down to the injured man. “Damn it, Redmond, you will tell me all you know. This could have ruined the Pinkertons’ reputation.”
I stood to look from the large crate to the two smaller ones. “I’ll help move the gold back to your crates. Guess the delivery address for this other crate will be a good lead for you?” I turned my head to read the label. “Not much of a clue: “ ‘mining equipment to be collected by Acme Engineering Company’.”
“That and what Mr Redmond will tell me will give the agency all the information it needs.” Smith glared at the wounded man.
I tell you, moving gold bars and rocks made clearing blocked watercourses and dragging stupid cows from mud holes seem easy. It was hard labour and the drink Mr Smith offered me when we were done wasn’t turned down.
I stretched my back and practically sank into one of his well-padded chairs.
“We owe you a reward, Mr Lancer, for your assistance.”
“Heck no, it made a boring train ride much more interesting.” I grinned at him, and he shook his head, reminding me of how Scott would have done the same. “Tell you what, Mr Smith, my reward could be you writing to my father telling him of this fracas… ‘cos I don’t think he would believe me.”
Mr Smith passed me a drink and went to sit behind his desk. “The Pinkertons would not want it to be common knowledge of this attempted theft, but Murdoch Lancer is a long-established client, so I see no harm informing him of your part in this fracas as you described it.”
I nodded, understanding about avoiding publicity. “There is something else, Mr Smith. Just between us, can you tell me all the details of you meeting my brother?”
At that, a genuine smile spread across his face and he came to sit next to me and topped up our glasses. “It was late evening outside an address on Chestnut Street in Boston…”
Murdoch turned the envelope addressed to him over and over.
“You cannot read it through the sealed envelope, Murdoch.” Scott raised an eyebrow.
“No, I seem to recognise the handwriting but cannot place it.”
“So…not from Senora Estella and not Johnny’s handwriting. It may be nothing to do with his grand adventure.”
Murdoch grunted. “Grand adventure indeed, we both know how he attracts trouble. And don’t start again lecturing me about discussing family history.”
Scott shrugged. “Just open it, Murdoch.”
Murdoch sat behind his desk and carefully used his letter opener. “Good grief. Get me a drink, Scott, and one for yourself. It seems our wandering boy has helped the Pinkertons foil a gold bullion robbery.”
Scott snatched the letter from Murdoch’s hand and read it, twice, then put his head in his hands. “It’s from the Pinkerton who found me in Boston.”
Murdoch paused at the doorway and frowned as Jelly Hoskins pulled the wagon up to the front of the hacienda in a cloud of dust.
“Jelly, I thought I’d asked for the supplies to be taken directly to the work crew?”
Jelly jumped down from the wagon. “Yes, well, yes you did.” He pulled at the suspenders holding his trousers up and jutted out his chin. “There was a crate for you at the stage office. Well, I reckoned you’d want it straight away, seeing as it looks like it’s come a fair way.”
Murdoch went to the back of the wagon with the old handyman. There was a wooden crate addressed to Mr M and Mr S Lancer.
Jelly pointed at the various stamps. “Not from Boston or them Scottish relatives of yours, not sure if’en it ain’t from Mexico?”
Murdoch ran a hand across the crate. “Thank you, Jelly.” He went to lift it.
“Here, I’ll help.”
Jelly’s help wasn’t needed but Murdoch smiled. “If you open the door for me, Jelly.”
The crate, although large, wasn’t too heavy and Murdoch placed it on the low table in front of the fireplace.
“I’ll fetch a crowbar to open it.” Jelly was halfway out the door.
“No, Jelly, it’s addressed to both Scott and myself. I will open it when he gets home.”
Jelly turned; even behind his whiskers Murdoch could see his disappointment.
“What I’d like you to do, Jelly, is take young Jose with you to deliver the supplies. You yourself have said how quickly he is picking up the skills of tacking up the wagon mules. Do you think it’s time to let the lad take the reins and you teach him how to drive?”
Jelly puffed his chest. “I’d say the boy is a good pupil. I’ll let him drive on the straight road up to the west pasture, that’ll be the best first lesson.”
“Excellent suggestion, Jelly, thank you,” Murdoch walked him out and firmly shut the door.
As much as Murdoch tried to concentrate on the ledgers his eyes kept drifting towards the crate. Scott arrived taking off his gloves and hanging up his hat and gun belt Murdoch found himself breathing a sigh of relief.
Scott smiled. “I’ve completed the surveying of our northern pastures. I have a list of the work and supplies needed before the winter rains arrive.”
“Good! Well done, Scott. Before you get cleaned up…we have had an unexpected delivery.” Murdoch stood over the crate and Scott joined him. They looked at each other and then down at the crate.
Murdoch rubbed a finger under his nose. “Jelly fetched it from town.”
“And it’s still not open?” Scott raised an eyebrow.
“No, I sent him off to give young Jose Garcia a lesson driving the wagon to the crew in the west pasture.”
Scott grinned at Murdoch. “A good tactic, sir.”
Murdoch went to pour out two glasses of scotch while Scott studied the labels and various transport stamps. He handed a glass to Scott. “I’ve got a crowbar. Shall we open it?”
Beneath a layer of wood shavings and packaging were six boxes. The three larger wooden ones were highly polished with intricately carved designs. Three smaller ones were decorated with seashells and sea glass pebbles.
The letter addressed to them both was in Johnny’s handwriting.
“I need a drink before I open this.” Murdoch sat in his chair and took a long drink.
Scott sipped at his. “Shall I read it first, Murdoch?”
“No, I’ll do it.”
Howdy, thought I’d best let you know I got here to Cuba on a train. It went through some mosquito-looking swamp country. Did you ever travel that way, Murdoch? Met an interesting fella name of Smith who had his own private carriage, he is a Pinkerton and knew of our family. I asked him to write to you, hope he has done.
At that point, Scott coughed and spluttered. Murdoch looked up to see a blush on Scott’s checks. “One day, Scott, you will tell me what happened when that Pinkerton agent met you in Boston.”
Murdoch continued to read aloud.
I’ve made a list of all these Santos de Ruiz and de Aguirre relatives in a journal Abuela gave me. When I get home perhaps Scott can lay them out in the proper way.
My Abuelo’s brother Bernardo Alejandro is another great storyteller. All about pirates and fighting the British. My Cuban tio’s and three of my cousins are in the shipping business and another two have married into a family that is in the cigar business. So I’ve seen how cigars are made, they are rolled by girls called torcedors, it takes nimble fingers. There should be three boxes of them unless they get thieved along the way.
Anyway, one box is for you two, one for Cipriano, Val and Jelly to share, be sure to tell Jelly I’ll check on the fair sharing when I get back. And one is for the boys in the bunkhouse.
I have a girl cousin, Sofia Maria Eleena, boy is she like Mama not only in looks but in spirit. I was warned by Tia Carlotta in San Blas her folks were looking for a husband.
“Oh, lord, Johnny and a pretty girl.” Murdoch shook his head.
Scoot grinned. “My brother can be carried away by a pretty face. What does he say?”
So I’ve been real polite and made it plain I’m not in the market for a wife. She is smart, wanting to travel and see something of the world, she sure is not ready for settling down. I’ve suggested to her Papa she could visit the de Aguirre family in San Blas, they have an unmarried son who is a ship’s captain.
Scott laughed. “That’s my brother. He always can be relied upon to come up with a plan.”
But she loves to ride and we have ridden along the beach and came across this fella who has a shack right there on the shoreline. He makes trinkets and such from what he finds on the beach. There should be three small boxes for Teresa, Mamacita and Tia Eleena. Not sure what use they are but females like pretty things don’t they? He’s an interesting fella who was from the African land and going to be sold as a slave but the war you were in Scott saved him. When I told him I had a brother in that war, he was really pleased to hear about you. He’s made you a good luck charm, but I’m going to hold onto it ‘till I can give it to you.
Tell Barranca I’m missing him.
Ps. You might be getting a letter from my cousin Enrico, he’s going to be a scholar when he’s full grown. He knows all of his Abuelo’s stories so I asked if he could write them down and send them here, they are just as good as any in those in the books you have.
Murdoch re-read it to himself then handed it to Scott. “After dinner, we shall smoke Cuban cigars and raise a toast to our wandering boy.”
“I miss him too, Murdoch, but he’s not just wandering, he is on a journey discovering his history and I don’t blame him.”
Murdoch ran his fingers over the boxes. “For someone who says he is not good at gift-giving, he has done well hasn’t he?”
“Yes, he has.”
Note I have chosen to have Johnny’s Great Aunt and family use the de Mendoza surname.
The port of Cadiz was eye-watering busy and to my mind more impressive than San Francisco. Probably ‘cos of all the old towers making it look like a picture I saw in a storybook book once.
I know word had been sent to my Abuela’s sister Senora Consuela de Mendoza of my plan to travel to Spain but wasn’t expecting to be met. It took me by surprise when I stepped off the gangplank to hear my name.
“Senor John Alejandro Lancer?” The man was probably old enough to be a grandfather but ramrod straight and dressed as a traditional Spanish gentleman, definitely not a sailor or dock worker.
I allowed myself a moment to read him gauging if he was dangerous. Ocean travel wasn’t my first choice, fact is it made me nervous. Same reason stage and rail travel makes me edgy, I don’t have any control. Still, I’d arrived as a stranger in many different places and Cadiz although bigger and busier no different, I’d keep a lookout and not let my guard down.
I called on Madrid. “Si.”
He bowed. “I am Sebastian Hernandez, the Segundo on the Estancia de Mendoza. Your Tia Donna Consuela has instructed me to greet you and escort you to your destination.”
I nodded back. “Gracia Senor. Is it far to Jerez de la Frontera?”
“It will be a full-day journey by carriage. With your permission, I have arranged overnight accommodation here in Cadiz in order for you to find, as the sailors say, your land legs.”
At that, I did smile ‘cos that long sea journey sure had put a sway in my swagger. “That sounds like a good plan Sebastian, lead the way.”
He did raise an eyebrow when I assured him my only luggage was the carpetbag I’d been given in San Blas. My saddlebag was folded up inside it with my colt and gunbelt wrapped in spare shirts. I wasn’t letting it out of my sight. The rule on the ship stated no passengers were allowed weapons. Yeah, well, me and rules have an understanding, I only follow them I agree with. My hideaway gun was secure in the pocket at the back of my jacket and of course, I had a boot knife. I hadn’t needed them but wasn’t about to change habits that keep me safe.
Sebastian took me for a walk through old narrow busy streets to a quiet hotel in a really old building. The place had this air of the old world and I thought I’d try and draw it in my journal thinking Scott would like it.
The man at the desk greeted Sebastian like an old friend. “Senor Hernandez it is an honour to have you and Senor Lancer as guests.”
I waited until we were in our rooms. “You related to this hotel, Sebastian?”
He shook his head. “Oh no Senor Lancer, but the de Mendoza family have always used this establishment when their guests or business associates visit Cadiz.”
“Please Sebastian call me Johnny, I keep looking for my father when I’m called Senor Lancer.”
He bowed, to hide a smile that I caught a glimpse of. “As you wish Senor Johnny. Donna Consuela, your Abuela’s sister has asked me to explain the family arrangements at the estancia.”
Whoa, my instincts told me I was about to be warned of possible problems. My relatives in both San Blas and Cuba had both told me to be sure to use my American name or Santos de Ruiz, as the de Aguirre family had not always been in favour with the Spanish nobility and ruling class.
“Is there trouble I should know about?” I guess Madrid made an appearance ‘cos old Sebastian took a step back and blinked.
“All I’ve been asked is to make you aware. Donna Consuela is a widow with her own apartment and small household at the estancia. Her only daughter Senora Inez-Maria is also a widow, since her husband’s death she has retired to the convent San Marcos. The Don of the estancia is Ferdinand Ramon Garcia-Diez he is the husband of Donna Consuela’s granddaughter Senora Isabella-Maria. They have one child a boy Antonio.”
As he listed the family members I watched his face and listened to his voice. Important thing was although he hid it well I recognised his dislike of Ferdinand. I shrugged. “I’m not here to cause any trouble, my only reason is to learn from my Abuela’s sister more about my Spanish history.”
“Yes, Donna Consuela has received letters from her sister in Mexico and has informed Don Senor Ferdinand of your reason to visit. If I could make a suggestion and not to cause offence, the wearing of a gun draws much attention.”
I sighed. “So you’re letting me know to watch out for Ferdinand, and wearing a gun is not a good idea.”
“Don Ferdinand has much pride, being the youngest son of a noble and well-connected family.”
“Okay, I’ll use my best manners.” I grinned and he nodded giving me a look that reminded me of Murdoch when he could see my half-hearted agreement to his tune calling about guns in the hacienda. Still, no rules will stop me from wearing my hideaway gun. “Can I ask how you knew of my arrival?”
“A telegram message was received from your family in Havana with details of the ship you had passage on.”
That sure did surprise me, heck I’ve been in places in Mexico and America that didn’t have telegraph offices never mind word getting across oceans. “Does that mean I can send word to my family in California?”
He nodded. “That can be arranged.”
I clapped my hands. “Dang ain’t that something.”
Donna Senora Consuela, my Abuela’s younger sister took my breath away. She was even more like my Mama than Abuela. I must have stood there like a young tonto until she held my hand. Then I bowed and kissed it. “Donna Tia Consuela, it is an honour to meet you. My Abuela told me of your shared childhood.”
She smiled and indicated we should sit in chairs facing each other by a fireplace that put the one at Lancer to shame. “Ah, Estella-Maria and I had a happy childhood. I missed her when we parted, I looked forward to her letters. Her marriage to Alejandro was a love match, she was blessed.”
Sebastian appeared and was offering a glass of sherry to us both. I took it but didn’t drink it. Wine and sherry ain’t my drinks of choice, though Murdoch and Scott have tried to get me to appreciate them.
She sipped hers and smiled. “This is a fine sherry from our own estate, we ship it to the new world and Great Britain.”
It would have been impolite not to taste it so I did, and it wasn’t too bad. I smiled back.
She nodded her approval at my manners. “I worried when her letters stopped arriving and no word reached me or her husband Alejandro’s family. They were so far away.” Her eyes closed and she shook her head. “I said prayers each day. Then a letter after all those years from my dear sister told me her story, and of you. There are letters waiting for you Juanito from her and your Papa.”
I must have looked surprised, dunno why ‘cos one thing I’ve learned so far is my Mama’s family care for each other and their history. That now includes me.
“Juanito, where are you?”
Tia Consuela’s voice interrupted my thoughts. “Erm, sorry.” I smiled at her. “Still all at sea.”
She laughed. “The letters are in your room. After you are refreshed please explore, I understand from my sister you are a fine horseman. You may be interested in our Andalusians but beware of the stallion. Don Ferdinand is proud of it, but it is wild and dangerous.”
Well, that got my attention. “Andalusians? Seen a couple of them in Mexico, or at least with the bloodlines.”
“Yes, some were taken to New Spain, Sebastian will be happy to show you our papers.” She rose from her seat and I did the same, obviously, our first meeting was over. “Don Ferdinand is away on a hunting trip for a few days but you will meet my Granddaughter Isabella-Maria and her son at our evening meal.”
There was the same tone in her voice and look in her eyes when she mentioned Ferdinand that Sebastian had used. Told myself to tread quiet around him.
When I was by myself in the room that was to be mine I turned two letters through my fingers. One from Mexico and one from Lancer. I sighed, missing people was a feeling I hadn’t had since I was a kid and lost Mama and Papi.
The one from Mexico was from my Abuela, she was not afraid to say she loved me and hoped my travels were answering my need to know my history. She did remind me to keep the journal up to date. That made me feel a little guilty, the journal was getting dog-eared. There were lists of Mama’s relatives, and maps, and sketches of people and places that had caught my attention. But, not so much of my thoughts, not like I guess Scott would have done. She told me her rancho was doing well, there had been a good crop of lemons and oranges. The family in San Blas arranged good prices for her at the port markets.
Interesting was her telling of Murdoch and Scott visiting, how she had told them of my aim to travel to Spain. Guess that’s how Murdoch knew where to write to me.
Worrying though was her commenting on how her history of finding a home at Saint Augustina had been repeated by my Tia Inez-Maria. Reading between those words I reckoned Abuela wanted me to find out the reason.
I picked up the other envelope and opened it. Inside there were two letters, I smiled as I could hear Murdoch insisting there was no need to pay postage twice over.
I read Scott’s letter first.
When you return home you and I need to talk about your lone-wolf approach to life. A brief note saying not to worry is bound to do just that.
Your Abuela is a charming lady who has told us so much of your Mama and that side of your family. I don’t blame you for your current travels to discover more.
The letter informing Murdoch you had assisted the Pinkertons in foiling a gold robbery has caused him no end of pride. However, I trust you will treat any details Mr Smith may have disclosed of my encounter with him to yourself, it was not my finest moment. I suggest the debt you owe me for covering all your missed chores will be sufficient to ensure your silence.
Telling you to stay out of trouble will not stop you from finding it, but please Johnny do come home in one piece.
Your brother Scott.
I grinned at the thought of teasing Scott then took a deep breath and blew it out before I opened Murdoch’s letter.
After meeting Senora Estella, your Abuela, my mother-in-law, I have some understanding of your desire to meet your Mama’s family and learn of their and your history.
I miss you Johnny, take care son. Don’t forget Lancer was and always will be your home.
Your father, Murdoch.
I re-read the letters, running my finger over the words finding a connection to my closest family. As I folded them carefully and put them in the journal it came to me just how important it was. My Abuela was right, my memories are just mine but this journal can be shared and never forgotten.
Senora Consuela had given me the okay to look around, so I took myself outside. It sure is in a pretty location with the mountains on the horizon, like a castle from a storybook with old stone walls and a couple of turrets providing good look-outs to the approach.
Instinct led me to the stable, beyond them corrals and a pasture. A small group of grey Andalusians were in the corral with a boy who was grooming one of them. He had that quiet way horses like, I watched from a distance so as not to cause a distraction.
Sebastian appeared at my side. “That is young Senor Antonio. If he is not at his lessons he can usually be found here.”
I smiled, recognising something of my own childhood. “He has a natural way, he should make a good horseman when he is a little older.”
“Aye, if he does not follow his father’s method of riding with aggression.”
That was the first outright criticism of the Don and I raised an eyebrow. “Yep, I’ve seen men who think they must ride like that. It will break a good horse’s spirit.”
Sebastian gave me a long look then nodded. “Come I will introduce you.”
I smiled at him. “To the boy or the horses?”
He put his head down to hide a smile. “Both Senor Johnny.”
We walked to the corral fence and Sebastian waved over to the boy. “Senor Antonio- Fernando come and greet your Tio, all the way from California in America.”
The boy had the good manners children born to high-born haciendos are taught. He bowed very formally to welcome me. I shook his hand. “I’m pleased to meet you, Antonio. I was admiring your skill in this corral, is the one you were grooming going to be your ride?”
He blinked at me for being so informal and looked at Sebastian, who put a hand on his shoulder. “I’ll get the grooms to make our rides ready.”
I pushed out my bottom lip. “I find a man should take care of his own horse, but I’m used to western saddles and my brother has told me of the different saddles back east and in Europe. I’ll be interested to see if your Spanish ones are what I’m used to.”
The boy got this serious look. “It will be an honour to show you our saddles and tack.”
“Good man, lead the way.” I grinned over his head at Sebastian. The boy wasn’t so highborn as to expect servants to do everything for him.
Got to admit it was the first time I’d ridden a full-blood Andalusian, mine was a fine well-schooled beast. They wouldn’t make good cow ponies: the saddles are Sunday best fancy, the sort that would turn eyes at the best fiestas. Young Antonio was a good rider, not just good as being taught the lessons but with natural skill and enjoyment. It pleased me to see that in him.
“Whooe Sebastian riding a good horse is a good deal better than sailing on a ship.” I grinned over at Sebastian and Antonio as we returned to the stables.
“It may well be Senor Johnny, but now it is time for you and Senor Antonio to make ready for the evening meal.”
“Come on sobrino Antonio we have our orders, and I know what it’s like to be frowned at when late for mealtimes.” Antonio gave me a big honest smile and I knew we would be friends
The meal was served in Tio Senora Consuela apartments. It was there I got to meet Antonio’s Mama my cousin, sometimes removed, Isabella-Maria. Only took a minute to see in her the same fear and pain I’d seen in my Mama before my Stepfather had given us a home. I used the manners Papi had taught me and bowed and kissed the back of her hand. Over the meal, I spoke low and quiet as I told them of my travels and home at Lancer. Antonio was full of questions as a boy his age should be, Tia Consuela smiled and asked after her sister and told Antonio some of her family history. All the while Isabella-Maria pushed food around kept her head down and said very little.
I caught my Tia watching Isabella and casting glances at Sebastian who I guess was serving as a butler, the food being brought up and left at the door. The whole set-up had my nerves a twitching.
Towards the end of the meal, Antonio spoke up. “Please Abuela Donna Consuela can we show Tio Johnny the sword room?”
I blinked in surprise and Tia Donna Consuela clapped her hands in delight. “An excellent suggestion Antonio. Come along Johnny and you too Isabella we shall all go.”
Tia led us to a round room in one of the towers lined with flags and woven rugs and hanging from racks swords, a lot of swords. Don’t get me wrong I’d seen swords before. The officers in the Mexican army used to set the kids to polishing them and all their medals, and now I remember Scott had one when he was all fancied up in his picture with Sheridan.
Sebastian walked about turning up the lighting and I walked about taking it all in.
Senora Consuela took down one and smiled at me. “My husband had a reputation as a grand Master of La Verdadera destreza, the true skill with a rapier. He taught many noble families the art.”
At that, she took this proud stand and raised the sword upwards to her face. “Antonio let us show your Tio how you have inherited your Great Grandfather’s fencing skills.”
I stood next to his mother as the boy took a smaller version of the rapier sword and took the same stance. Well of course I ain’t no expert but it all looked impressive, with the moves a bit like a dance and the sound of the swords clashing. It was easy to forget my Tia was an elderly lady and Antonio a boy no more than eight years old. I looked at his Mama, she was smiling and it lit up her face, the pride and love had wiped away all that fear and pain I’d seen earlier. “Is it safe for the boy? Those swords look sharp.”
She looked at me and my heart flipped, heart-shaped face, deep brown eyes, whoa Johnny she’s married don’t go there.
“They have safety tips so no harm can be done, and Grandmother takes great care to teach Antonio that to fence is a noble art.” She looked at me with a slight smile that lifted her lips and all I could think was it would be nice to kiss them. “And we de Mendoza women are as skilled as any man.”
Oh boy, I waved my hand towards the swords. “So you can do this fencing?”
“I was taught as a child. Since marriage, my husband does not think it a suitable skill for his wife, although he approves of us teaching Antonio.” That closed-down look was back.
The more I heard about Senor Don Ferdinand Ramon Garcia-Diez the more I disliked him.
“Isabella, come it is your turn to duel with your son.” Tia Consuela handed her rapier sword over and as the match between Isabella and her son progressed she quietly offered instructions to Antonio. Me I watched Isabella so proud and damn attractive as she moved her body to the rhythm of fencing.
As they finished Antonio bowed to his Mama. “Shall we now teach Tio Johnny?”
“Now hold on a minute I don’t know the first thing about swords, or those fancy moves I saw you making.”
I didn’t stand much of a chance, Tia Consuela, Antonio and Isabella had me surrounded.
Over the next few days, I fell into a routine, spending time at the stables with the horses ‘specially talking quiet to the stallion. It was a good horse that just needed that special gentle way I’d been taught so long ago. When Antonio was done with lessons Sebastian and I would ride out with him and then after the evening meal the sword fighting classes. Now those were a pure pleasure, turns out I had what Senora Consuela called natural dexterity, seems all the time I’d put in learning to handle a gun was coming in handy for another skill.
When Tia Consuela tried to explain to me each fencer knew the same moves, I gave her my best smile. “My brother Scott tries to tell me the same about chess, especially after I beat him with some move he wasn’t expecting.”
She laughed. “Then you shall have to challenge Isabella to a game of chess and watch out for an unexpected move.”
If learning how to be a Spanish sword fighter was a pleasure playing chess against Isabella was challenging to not only win a match but also to see her smile.
Our first match took me by surprise, her game was as unpredictable as mine. I grinned at her. “Tell me cousin Isabella who taught you?”
She looked up from the board. “As a child, my parents would allow me to first observe their playing and then I began lessons. Papa was proud of my, what he called, unique thought processes.”
That slight smile appeared and I found myself sharing a glimpse into my own childhood. “I too was taught by my Mama and Stepfather. Papi said it was to train my mind to think before I act.” I lowered my voice and leaned in towards her. “I was an unruly boy.”
She put her hand over her mouth to hide a laugh, then looked towards her maid who was acting as a chaperone. This was in addition to Senora Consuela and Sebastian being present, even though we are related it seems we are not supposed to be alone.
But to see her rare smile made me more determined to get to the reason for her Papa’s death and Mama’s retreat to a convent. Perhaps that would help raise the shadow that follows her around.
Sebastian found me one morning sitting in the shade by the corral with a pencil sketching in my journal. “You have captured the spirit in the stallion, it has found some peace but still has pride.”
I looked up at him. “Why thank you, Sebastian, pull up a chair and sit yourself down.” He looked kinda surprised. “Come on, I like to think we are friends, none of that Patron, servant between us.”
He put his head to one side and nodded, and I knew now was as good a time as ever to get to the truth of this family.
“I understand from the grooms it was Senora Isabella’s Papa who brought the Andalusian stallion as a colt here to start a breeding programme. What happened after his death that drove his wife, Isabella’s Mama to find refuge in a convent?”
He shook his head and made to get up, I put my hand on his arm and I’m not ashamed to say used my don’t argue with me Madrid voice. “No stay, tell me, Sebastian, why is Isabella so damn sad?”
“Yes, you should know before Senor Ferdinand Ramon returns.” He sighed and looked into the distance. “The marriage of Senora Isabella and Ferdinand was one of convenience and is unhappy. He is a gambler and drunkard, his family are highborn and has a great deal of influence so arrangements were made for him to marry into a respectable family. Isabella’s Papa, Senor Alberto Delgado was not of a mind to accept the arrangement.”
I sat there afraid I knew how this was going to play out. “Did Ferdinand kill Isabella’s Papa?”
“Not in person, one of his kinsmen provoked a duel in which he lost his life.”
“Duel! Dios Sebastian, he was called out. Was it a fair fight?”
Sebastian gave me a look, the Murdoch one. “Called out, I do not know of this term. It was a matter of defending his family honour, but Senor Delgado was not an expert with pistols,”
I sniffed. “So Ferdinand got one of his men to provoke the dance and with Alberto out of the way the marriage went ahead. Now he is the Don of this estate and will be gambling away Antionio’s inheritance.”
Sebastian cleared his throat. “There is more.”
“Tell me, Sebastian.”
“Antonio admires you and has told his tutor of your skill with the horses, especially the stallion. He has spoken of how his Mama and Abuela are enjoying your company. The tutor is in Don Ferdinand’s household and he will have sent word to him of your presence. There are two problems the first, is Ferdinand used the stallion as collateral to settle a debt. But with the stallion being wild and dangerous there has been an agreement change of ownership would not be registered until it had been tamed and was safe to use at stud.”
“Ferdinand was deliberately mistreating it to keep ownership.” I stood up and paced up and down to release some of the anger.
“Senor Ferdinand will be angry if the stallion goes. The second problem is your friendship with Senora Isabella.” He held his hand up to stop me from saying anything. “There are eyes and ears everywhere, comments are made on how your presence has brought some happiness to the sadness the Senora has lived with for so long. The boy meant no harm when he talks with the tutor, he is happy with the change even he has seen in her.”
I sighed. “I recognise in Isabella fear and pain but understand how important a lady’s reputation is.” I looked him in the eye. “I have only tried to be a friend, as you are to Senora Consuela.”
We exchanged a look, that didn’t need us to put into words our feelings for the two de Mendoza ladies.
The next day Senora Consuela announced she intended to visit the estancia bodega, Isabella, Antonio and I were to join her. “There are casks of our best sherry ready for transportation. It is important Antonio our reputation for producing the highest quality sherry is maintained. In the future, it will be for you to oversee this business.” She patted Antonio on his shoulder. “I know you will grow into a man who will accept the responsibility of managing all of our holdings in the proud tradition of your Great Grandfather.”
Antonio drew himself up. “Si Abuela I will.”
I raised an eyebrow at Sebastian who as always was close by. Senora Consuela was educating the boy as a de Mendoza. I couldn’t imagine what the Garcia-Diez family would think of that.
The man in charge at the sherry warehouse was obviously well known to Senora Consuela and Sebastian and very respectful. When I was introduced as a Californian and a relative he shook my hand with enthusiasm. Samples of the sherry were poured and offered, and everyone looked at me for my opinion.
I sipped the drink and licked my lips. “Scott and Murdoch have attempted to educate me about wine and sherry, but tequila will always be my first choice. I’ll admit to having a liking for the best Scotch Murdoch has told me he has imported from Scotland. This however is mighty fine. I was thinking it would be appreciated by my family back home if I could send them a small cask of this.”
I smiled at my Tia hoping she would take my request as a compliment.
“That is a wonderful suggestion and can easily be arranged, I could at the same time send one to my sister.” Come along Johnny you can walk with me before we take some lunch.”
I took her arm as she escorted me around the buildings exchanging greetings with the workforce. It struck me then how like my Abuela who had loyal people to support her on her rancho back in Hermosillo.
“You mentioned your liking of your father’s Scotch whiskey, do you know it may have been aged in one of our sherry barrels?” She tilted her head up towards me with a twinkle in her eye.
I frowned. “Are you teasing me, Tia?”
“No, no, for two hundred years Spanish sherry has been sent to Great Britain and the empty barrels are used by the Scottish in which to age their Scotch whiskey.”
“Hot dang, I never knew that! Do you think my father would know?”
She laughed. “Your Abuela wrote saying Murdoch Lancer emigrated from the highlands of Scotland. That is an area famous for its Scotch so I imagine he would know of this.”
We walked a little more and she indicated we should sit on a bench in the shade of a tree. “We need to talk Johnny about the danger of you remaining when Don Ferdinand returns.” She held my hand. “I know Sebastian has explained the circumstances of the death of my son-in-law and I would never forgive myself if any harm came to you. I have written to friends and acquaintances of your visit. How your charming new-world manners have brought smiles to this family. No matter your behaviour has been that of a relative and gentleman I’m afraid Ferdinand will be angry and jealous. There is an opportunity, Johnny, for you to leave before he returns.”
I blew out a breath and looked up at the clear blue sky, trouble will always find me. “Charming manners eh Tia, been told that a time or two by pretty ladies.” She laughed and patted my cheek. I took a breath. “I’m sure my Abuela has told you of my reputation?” I looked at her and she answered with a slight nod. “I promise I will not be the one to call out Ferdinand, but I have never run from a fight and will not start now.”
Every evening I cleaned my gun, a habit travelling had not changed. This evening I put on my gun belt tied it down practised my draw and called on Madrid to watch and listen.
Estancia de Mendoza was under a black cloud, holding its breath waiting for Don Ferdinand’s return. Wasn’t much different to the many border towns and villages I had travelled through in my Madrid days. Heck, even the stallion caught the mood and despite the grooms objecting I took it out of the stable and turned it loose in the pastures, telling them the horse would kick the walls down and injure itself if kept in its stall.
Isabella had retired to her rooms and didn’t leave even for meals. I sat in the shade by the corrals and waited. Didn’t have to wait long, it was quite a parade when Ferdinand Ramon Garcia-Diez did show up. Dressed all fancy on a high-stepping black horse one of those eye-catching Spanish saddles and escorted by a couple of companions, or perhaps bodyguards. His household staff and the tutor all came out bowing and waving, Isabella dressed in black with a veil hiding her face and Antonio stood stiff on the steps to the main building. I saw Donna Consuela at a window with Sebastian at her shoulder.
I stayed sat down, let the dance begin.
I knew he saw me but didn’t make a move toward me. He dismounted and went to Isabella, took her hand and kissed it, turned to Antonio who bowed and placed a hand on the boy’s head then escorted them into the building. At the doorway, he turned and looked at me then nodded to his men.
I smiled, yeah, I know you. You think everyone and everything is your property, just like some Mexican Dons I had crossed paths with.
One of the two men rode up to look down at me, I squinted up at him. “Was it you or the other lap dog who killed Senor Delgado?” No point in dragging this out and I’d made no promise about calling out whoever had killed Isabella’s Papa.
He glared at me. “I am no lap dog I am Hector Garcia a kinsman of Don Ferdinand Ramon Garcia-Diez. The death of Delgado was in a duel of honour. Something I do not believe a man such as you would understand.”
I stayed sat down rubbing my thumbs together then gave him a cold stare. “A man such as me? I think that is an insult, are you challenging me?”
He flung his glove on the ground. “Tomorrow at daybreak. I will defend the honour of my kinsman.”
I looked at the glove in the dust and replied with my well-practised cowboy drawl. “If your kinsman had any honour it would be him facing me in the morning.” I stood my hands on my hips and looked past him towards Garcia-Diez now standing by himself.
That evening Sebastian came to my room. “I shall be your second tomorrow.”
“Huh, you mean you’ll be watching my back?” He then explained the rules of the dance. Starting with choosing a weapon, then we stand with our backs together then walking away then turn and fire. I let out a snort. “I’ll be using my own gun, I’ll give him his chance. Don’t give me a speech Sebastian, about honour. It’s me that’s been called out, this is a dance to the death of one of us and I’ll face it on my own terms.”
He nodded. “I will have your back Johnny, I do not trust Ferdinand.”
I knew then he would try to take the opportunity to kill Ferdinand and I wasn’t going to let that happen, but I just shook his hand as he left.
The journal lay on the bed a blank page daring me to write something. I chewed the end of a pencil, dios nothing would be good enough. “It must be my fate to find myself in these situations. Mama said my curiosity would lead me into trouble.” So that’s what I wrote.
By daybreak I was dressed in my favourite red shirt, the conchos shinned, my gunbelt buckled tight and holster tied down. I pulled my hat low and stepped out, my spurs jingled in the quiet that had descended over the estancia.
Sebastian was waiting for me by the pasture gate. The gunfight or as Sebastian insisted on calling it, duel, was to be held in the middle of that field. I was surprised to see Donna Consuela was there, I raised my hat to her. I walked on to where Hector Garcia was standing with Ferdinand Garcia-Diez and two other men. I sniffed I’d had worse odds.
One of them opened a box containing two old-fashioned musket pistols. “Seen likes of these before, the army officer, Mexican officer, told me he’d taken them off a dead Frenchman.” I gave a hard look at Garcia. “I know how they work and how the triggers can be…” I paused “fixed. I will use this.” I took out my colt and held it out for them to see. I showed off a mite by twirling it before it went back into the holster. I could see doubt had crept into Hector’s eyes.
Ferdinand was too proud or stupid to recognise the danger. “This is unacceptable, the Californio upstart has no manners.”
Donna Consuela was by my side. “It is my sister’s grandson who has been challenged, a stranger and visitor to this land he has the right to use his own gun.”
“Tell you what Hector I’ll let you take the first shot.” I curled my lips at the dead man walking.
Old Hector was in a corner and so the dance began. I did the walking away with my back to him and the other men, all my instincts listening for the sound that would tell me a gun had been cocked. I turned and drew while Hector was still aiming his gun. I didn’t shoot I watched the colour drain from his face and the flicker in his eye and moved slightly sideways my shot came after his, as I had promised. His bullet took a shred off my shirt mine found its mark in his heart.
I heard more guns being cocked, my tuck and roll took them by surprise, not the actions of a gentleman at all. Still, I was aiming my gun at Ferdinand before he could take a shot with a gun that had appeared in his hand. My shot was followed by three others.
Mine was the kill shot, the others were one from Ferdinand which had hit the ground as he fell, one from Sebastian and one it turned out from Donna Consuela both of which would have hit Ferdinand if he hadn’t hit the dirt.
Those of us left standing stood and looked at each other. I did what a gunfighter does and checked on the bodies, kicking their guns away. I glared at the two of Ferdinand’s men still standing with my gun in my hand they stood still hands in plain sight.
Donna Consuela took charge. “The bodies of Don Ferdinand and his cousin are to be taken from here to his family. I will send word of their actions to the Garcia-Diez families and to all the noble families who are friends and allies of my family.” She stood in front of the two men. “And the debt owed by Ferdinand in his wager will be honoured, the stallion will be handed to its rightful owner.”
I raised an eyebrow at Sebastian who shook his head. “Donna Consuela is ensuring her family’s reputation for integrity is maintained, and at least for the foreseeable future, to avoid any vendettas to challenge perceived wrongs. Ferdinand was widely known as a rake and gambler bringing his family name into disrepute, his death will not be avenged.”
Sebastian oversaw the removal of the bodies, me I took myself off to the stables, to tell the grooms that the stallion was to be handed to its new owner. I looked at the two men. “I think it only right the stallion is given his chance to prove his worth, don’t you?” They glanced at each other and tried not to smile. “There are two mares in-season who I think he can be introduced to before he leaves?”
“Si Senor Lancer we understand, an excellent suggestion. A stallion needs to prove he can perform his duty.”
I shook their hands, their loyalty was to de Mendoza. Sebastian and I would have to suggest to the tutor and a few others in Isabella’s household that they should be in the escort taking Ferdinand back to his family.
It wasn’t until I was back in my room I allowed Madrid to fade into that dark place in my soul. I took time to clean my gun and reload it, wrapping it in the red shirt and it went back into my saddlebag along with the gunbelt. I changed into a clean white shirt and plain trousers. I wasn’t ashamed of the gunfight but if I was to talk to Isabella and Antonio I didn’t want the smell of blood and gunsmoke clinging to me.
As soon as I showed my face in Tia’s sitting room I was offered a drink. “Not sherry, Scotch whiskey.” She offered me a glass and indicated I should sit opposite her.
“My sister was right, she wrote telling me you had a reputation as a master of the gun. It served you and my family well Johnny.”
I sipped at the scotch, as I got older I stopped boasting about my skill as a gunfighter, I had a reputation that spoke for itself. I raised an eyebrow at her. “I noticed you and Sebastian both took a shot, I got to admit I wasn’t expecting that kind of backup.”
She nodded. “You know the phrase fight fire with fire? Sebastian and I were ensuring the odds were equal.”
Oh boy, I wouldn’t want to play poker against her, beneath that gentle exterior was one tough lady.
“My granddaughter and great-grandson are aware of the outcome of the duel, and the reason why Sebastian and I became involved. They will not be accompanying the bodies to the funeral at the Garcia-Diez estate.”
I raised my glass at her and we both drank a silent toast. Good riddance was a thought best not said out loud.
Isabella and Antonio appeared. Isabella wearing black mourning, Antonio wearing a worried look. Tia Consuela insisted we eat as a family, even though none of us seemed to have much appetite. “Tomorrow Sebastian will accompany me to the San Marcos convent, I will be bringing home my daughter Inez-Maria. We may be gone a week but I know the estancia will be safe in your hands Isabella with the help of Antonio and you Johnny.”
Well, that scuppered my intention of packing up and leaving in the morning. I looked at her and knew there would be no arguing her decision. Maybe it was for the best it would give me a chance to talk to Antonio man to man. I can still remember that age and not liking being treated as a child, the boy would have questions.
Isabella looked over at me, if there had been no sign of tears for Ferdinand there was a brightness in her eyes with the news her mother was returning. I smiled at her from the bad some good would come.
That evening I sat on the bench by the corrals watching the sunset when Antonio found me. “You okay boy?” I patted the space at my side. “Come and sit a spell and ask me anything you want.”
He bit his bottom lip and rubbed his hands together, I shook my head now weren’t those habits of mine when I was trying to get the words straight before they left my mouth? I waited.
He sighed and looked up at me. “Don Ferdinand, my father, said a Don had to rule with an iron fist, everyone except Abuela Consuela was afraid of him. My mother was so sad and would cry, I would hear her. Do I have to be like that now?” He rocked a little.
I know how to hide anger and talk soft. “Did he beat you, Antonio?”
“No, he would get the tutor to discipline me. To teach me lessons he said, to instil in me strength.” The boy looked into the distance towards the horses, there were tears in his eyes.
I looked up and blew out a breath. “There is a world of difference between strength and bullying. When I was about your age my Papi tried to set me on the right path. Telling me there were times when to defend his family, friends and himself it would be necessary to be tough and make hard decisions. But, I should always be true to myself, and try to be kind to those less fortunate or in need of help.”
I turned to him and made him face me. “You are your own man Antonio, at least you will be when you’ve grown some more. You have in you the skill with horses that has come from your Abuela Delgado who I know the grooms admired. In my world that says a lot about a man’s character. And Donna Consuela’s husband, your ancestor, he was a fine man wasn’t he? Admired by all those he taught, you have inherited some of his talent with a sword, and even I have learned that takes the right sort of discipline.” I put my arm around him and held him tight while he shed the last of his childhood tears.
The next morning as Donna Consuela and Sebastian departed Isabella and I exchanged a look over Antonio’s head. I coughed. “Well, I guess as we’re in charge we better have a plan.”
Isabella gave me a smile that made my stomach flip, keep your distance Johnny I told myself. “I suggest each morning Antionio and I work with the horses.”
Isabella nodded. “An excellent suggestion, after lunch Antonio I will take on the responsibility of your education until such a time a new tutor is engaged.”
Antonio shuffled his feet, his bottom lip pushed out. “Yes Mama, but can I still have fencing lessons?”
She smiled at him and bent down to kiss him on his cheek. “We shall have an agreement you will be on time and work hard at your lessons”
“Then I shall continue your and Tio Johnny’s fencing lessons.” She looked up at me and there was that look again, it was going to be difficult to keep any distance.
The plan worked just fine for a couple of days. I enjoyed seeing Antonio grow in confidence tending to the horses, listening to the advice of the grooms and the stories they told of his Abuela and what a fine horseman he was. On our rides he was curious about California and my family there. I explained, that unlike Estancia de Mendoza which had been in his family for generations Lancer had been built by my father who had travelled from Scotland to America. Next thing I know he has got his Mama teaching us both about Scotland, its history and studying maps. I hadn’t realised just how far north Inverness was and thought it must get mighty cold there in winter.
Thing was, between sitting close to Isabella as she showed me and Antonio maps and then the fencing…. She would take my shoulders and tell me to stand tall and proud, to not slouch. To hold the rapier just so, and her hand on mine would send a shock through my body and, Oh boy that sweet smile. I was trying so hard not to fall under her spell but it wasn’t working, I ain’t no innocent where gals are concerned but how I was feeling was different from most of my here today gone tomorrow encounters, and I could see in her that need and want. So I’d take a deep breath and call on all the control I had learned as Madrid.
On the third night, she came to my room.
She put her hand on my chest and kissed me, it was just as sweet as I had imagined it would be. I held her in my arms, my heart pounding. “Isabella, wait you must know I cannot stay, this is not my home. I do not want to make promises I cannot keep.” I looked down into her deep brown eyes wide and shining in the lamplight.
“I need to know what it is like between a man and woman who equally desire each other. I know you will not stay Johnny and I will not ask you to, but in my heart this feeling I have for you is true.”
I took her face in my hands and kissed her and she was right our desire for each other was that of equals.
She smiled at me as I took her as slowly and gently as I could manage, aware her previous experiences would have been without thought of her pleasure, or even violent. Then she closed her eyes and moaned and I kissed her as her body responded.
We both were aware we only had a few days of relative privacy and made the most of them. Not that Antonio missed out, Isabella joined us on our morning rides, riding side-saddle impressing her son with her ability. Later on, we would play chess, Isabella and I teaching him some sneaky moves.
Antonio looked up from the chessboard. “Will my Abuela Inez-Maria Delgado de Mendoza know how to play chess, she has been away for a long time?”
I raised an eyebrow, I was looking forward to meeting Senora Inez-Maria. Her history of leaving had echoes of my own Mama first leaving her family home at Hermosillo and then Lancer. Her finding refuge in the convent so like my Abuela’s story.
Isabella nodded. “We shall allow my Mama time to settle in. After all Antonio, she has never met you so you shall have to be on your best behaviour. But let me tell you when I was a child your age I loved her, and she and my Papa were the kindest of parents. After all, it was they who taught me this game of chess and it was Mama who taught me how to ride as a noble lady should.”
Antonio frowned as he thought about what he had been told. “Yes, Mama.”
Later that night I lay catching my breath with Isabella close by my side. “Isabella, I shall stay to meet your Mama, and I swear you will always have a piece of my heart but I must leave. If I stay much longer it will become harder on you and the boy and to be honest me.”
She turned and kissed my shoulder, her hair falling over my chest, then sat up to look at me. “I agree you would eventually want to return to your home in California. It is right you stay to become acquainted with my Mama, to hear her story. For her to meet you the man who avenged my Papa’s death.” She paused and put her hand on my lips. “It will be best if I find a new husband and father for Antonio.” I tried to say something. “Shush Johnny, it is necessary. I am too young to be a widow with a son who will inherit this estate. However, I am no longer an innocent child and I shall choose with care. It will be a man who is kind-hearted and respects me.”
Our lovemaking for the next few days was long and passionate knowing it would soon only be a memory.
The return of Senora Inez-Maria was a quiet affair. I allowed the family privacy but on the second day, she sent a message asking to meet me.
She was sitting in the same chair Tia Consuela usually occupied by a fire. Pale her hair scraped back, there was that same sadness I had seen in Isabella, I wasn’t sure what she would think of me.
I bowed slightly. “Senora, it is an honour to meet my Mama’s cousin.”
“Please sobrino Johnny come and sit with me. My Mama has told me of your journey here from the new world of how you found your Abuela and restored her to her home. And how you are responsible for doing the same for me.”
I shook my head, I hate it when I’m thought of as some kind of hero. “The gunfight, or duel, was not of my making, but I’ve never walked away from a fight and I hate bullies.”
She looked into the fire, her hands clutching at each other. “I ran away, I abandoned my daughter to that arranged marriage. When Alberto was killed I plotted on killing Ferdinand, I even tried to poison him, I failed and so to save the family reputation I took myself to the convent. I have spent nearly ten years praying for forgiveness, not for wishing Ferdinand dead, or my cowardice but for the fate of my daughter.”
Oh boy these de Mendoza women, they sure can spring surprises on a fella.
I knelt in front of her and took her hands. “Tia Inez I understand that for a woman there are not that many paths to choose, to stay and fight is not always possible, to find a place of safety is the only way. You now have the chance to travel a new path with your family, perhaps your prayer has been answered.”
Well, that made her laugh which was something. “You and I will let others believe that. But tell me Johnny your own Mama escaped not once but twice. I understand the reason for leaving her family home, but was there cruelty which drove her away from her husband?”
I thought not to speak of my memories and sighed. “I was still a baby so I don’t remember that time. My Mama only would say it was not safe for her and me, it was later when I was orphaned the story of being thrown out was beaten into me.” I smiled at her. “I now know that was a lie, my father Murdoch Lancer is a good man, he’s had to fight hard and lost a lot to build and keep his ranch. It has left him with high walls around his heart, not wanting to talk about Mama and the past. Not at all like my Mama’s family who I have found to be so open and honest in sharing their stories and history.”
She frowned. “Your father has a cold heart and does not speak of your late Mama, is that the reason you are on this quest to find her family?”
“I guess so. When I first met him I did think he had a cold heart. Heck, I wasn’t sure he even liked me, but now I know better, it’s not cold he just keeps it safe from being hurt. The thing is I understand better than he can imagine why some of the past is best forgotten or at least locked away. Just wish he was more willing to share the good memories from his past.”
I felt her small hands hold onto mine. “No one is perfect but I know you are a good man with a good heart you will surely bring warmth to his heart.”
Two days later I saddled up a borrowed horse, not one of the Andalusians, to ride to the bodega and catch a ride to Cadiz. I looked down on the three de Mendoza women, all three of them remarkable, I had tried to sketch their likenesses in my journal and had attempted a letter to my Abuela although I guess Senora Consuel’s letter will be a better read. I planned to send a wire to Murdoch and Scott from Cadiz.
Antonio came and gripped my leg. “Tio I will miss you.”
“Antonio I will always remember you. I know you are going to grow into a brave kind man who will look after these wonderful ladies you are so lucky to have in your life.”
I booked into the hotel in Cadiz and was greeted like an old friend. Another guest entered as I was asking for the wire to be sent to Lancer and as soon as he opened his mouth I heard that Scottish accent that Murdoch let slip out when he had had a drink or two. Alfonso, the guy behind the desk, immediately switched to speaking English. “Senor Captain McCloud, welcome.”
McCloud was short and stocky with an impressive beard a seaman’s cap and a loud cheerful voice. “And a good day to you Alfonso, have you a room for me until the ship sails?” He turned to me. “And a good day to you laddie.”
His good humour was infectious and both me and Alfonso smiled at each other and him.
Alfonso nodded. “Of course always for you. Let me introduce you to Senor John Lancer, he is a relative of Donna Consuela de Mendoza.”
I raised an eyebrow, not sure I wanted my business known to a stranger, even one Alfonso seemed to trust.
McCloud shook my hand with enthusiasm. “Pleased to make your acquaintance. Are you here to oversee the delivery of the de Mendoza sherry to my ship?”
I managed to extract my gun hand from his grip. “Well, not exactly Captain McCloud I have been visiting my relatives and managed to obtain a lift with the shipment here to the port.” I decided I liked the man. “Is that a Scottish accent you have there Captain?”
He clapped me on my shoulder, with a heavy workworn hand. “You know Scotland Mr Lancer?”
“My father emigrated from Inverness to California, his voice sometimes has that tone to it.”
Beneath the beard, I could see his smile. “I know of a friendly place for us to have a drink and watch pretty ladies stamp their feet and you and me can talk of Scotland and sherry.”
I found myself in a cantina where, as McCloud had said were pretty ladies who could dance in the traditional Spanish style. It took me back to when I was a kid, Papi playing a guitar and Mama twirling about stamping her feet and clapping her hands. The memory made me smile, that and the fact the bar had a bottle of best scotch stored away, especially for McCloud.
We were making good inroads into the bottle of smooth Scotch and I told him some about Lancer and why I was in Spain visiting the de Mendoza’s being as they are related to my Mama. Didn’t go into details, l liked him well enough but not enough to share my history. “Do you know of Inverness Captain?”
“Well I know of it, up in the highlands, it’s all cattle, sheep and the making of this fine scotch you and me are sipping. Have you got family there Johnny?”
I wasn’t going to admit to sneaking a look at the letters and reports in Murdoch’s desk. “I know Inverness is where my father set out from and sailed to Boston before making his way to California. Know he has a brother in Edinburgh that’s about all though.”
“Aye so he is one of Scotland’s explorers and adventurers, we are famous for it.” He raised his glass and drank a toast.
“Well, I guess it was an adventure for him, ‘though he can be tight-lipped about his past.” I clinked my glass against his.
“Aye laddie sounds like your Dada is what we call a dour Scotsman, not one to be as talkative as yours truly I don’t suppose.”
I grinned and nodded and as more scotch was drunk McCloud’s accent became more and more noticeable. He waved his arms about as he told stories of his childhood in a place called Glasgow and how he went from being a fisherman like his father to a seaman.
On our way back to the hotel he put his arm across my shoulder. “So laddie are you sailing back to the Americas on tomorrow’s tide or following the sherry barrels and chasing down your Scottish family?”
I chewed my bottom lip. “Are you sailing to Scotland Captain?”
“No Johnny, the cargo is going into London. To get to Scotland you could find a ship to take you down the coast, or if you had seen enough of the oceans there is a train that would take you to Edinburgh.”
I nodded, the thought of finding the Lancers in Edinburgh and perhaps getting from them some of Murdoch’s past was nagging at me.
The next morning before I set sail I sent another wire to California. Murdoch was too far away for me to hear him yelling orders to get back and fix some fence and leave the past alone.
The ship sailed into London up a river every space along the banks taken up with docks packed with ships and small boats. There wasn’t much sun shining through the smoke that hung over the city but I could see a castle I was told called the Tower of London. I knew if Scott was with me we would have stayed and he would have given me a history lesson about all the old buildings. What I know of cities is they are fine for the rich and dog-eat-dog for the poor.
I wanted to get to Scotland so Captain McCloud hailed me a cab giving me instructions about finding the right train platform, ‘cos he told me it’s a busy station with more than one platform. Busy, heck not seen crowds like it. It wasn’t just one train arriving and leaving there must have four or five platforms all with great steaming engines and carriages that folks were leaving or boarding.
I hadn’t much time to take in details of the train station in London as I had to run through the crowds and jump on board; so the station at Edinburgh, when I did get there, sure did make me stand and stare. And it had a roof, a glass one!! Now that would be something to write home about. I dug out my journal and pencil and found a place to sit and do a sketch, don’t think the boys back on the ranch would believe me even with a picture.
I knew the address of where I was headed but knew Edinburgh was a big city. I shrugged my shoulders found a station porter and in my most polite voice asked for directions, no point in aimless walking.
There was another castle, boy it was damn impressive overlooking the city. I stood there for a minute and stared at it and the steep hill I would have to walk up to get to an area called Lawnmarket.
My boots were not made for that uphill walk on cobblestones, by the time I reached my destination my toes were complaining.
The bookshop was down a little alleyway that opened onto a small square. Like most buildings I’d passed it had an age to it and carved into the stone above the door was the year 1622. There was a nicely painted wooden sign reading. “Lancer Booksellers”. New and used books bought and sold. Proprietors I Lancer and Sons.” The L was fancy, reminded me of Murdoch’s brand for the ranch.
I blew out a breath, wasn’t sure of the welcome I’d be getting but didn’t reckon on any physical damage from a bookstore owner. A bell rang as I opened the door to the sight of nothing but shelves of books everywhere. Signposts were pointing out medical and history books up a flight of stairs, to the right literature and the left travel and geography. Behind a long counter, a man with his back to me was up a set of ladders. Still, with his back to me, he shouted down. “I’ll be with you in a wee while.”
I grinned at the accent, not as rough as Captain McCloud’s but very like Murdoch’s when he was in one of his rare mellow moods. I sneaked a look up the stairs, yep more books. “Oh boy, Scott would love this place.”
The man had stepped off his ladders. “What’s that you said?”
I took off my hat and turned back to the counter. “Names Johnny and I’m hoping I’m talking to Mr Ian Lancer.” The man in front of me was tall not as weather-beaten or as well-built but the resemblance to Murdoch was unmistakable.
He beamed at me. “John Lancer, Murdoch’s youngest! It is you, we have been hoping you would find your way here.”
He was around the counter and shaking my hand, then grabbing me by my shoulders to hug me.
“Whoa, you were expecting me?”
“Why yes, your father sent a telegram saying you were heading to Scotland. We weren’t sure if it would be to Inverness or if you knew how to find us in Edinburgh.”
Even all these miles away Murdoch was keeping me on a short lease. No Johnny I told myself he was doing what a father should do keeping track of his travelling son. I wasn’t about to say I’d sneaked a read of the letters in Murdoch’s desk. “Murdoch told us he was from Inverness and I know he writes to you in Edinburgh, taken his post to town often enough.”
He laughed and ushered me out, putting a closed sign in the shop door window. “Come on lad and meet the family.”
It was only a short walk across the square to one of the tall narrow houses that were probably as old as the bookshop. Ian Lancer laughed. “Not quite living above the shop anymore but we like it.”
I stood for a minute looked up at the house and then at him. “That’s almost what Murdoch says about his ranch, well our ranch.”
“Well, laddie our father always said I thought along the same lines as my older brother.” He paused. “We’re both stubborn and determined to follow our dreams.”
As we went inside he was shouting out a greeting. “Margo, my dear we have a guest.” The room was crowded with furniture and a roaring fire was blazing. Lamps were lighting the room and heavy drapes at windows that were divided up into little squares. And if there weren’t enough books in his shop there was a bookcase, nowhere near as big as the one in the hacienda, spilling over with books.
A lady came through from a room at the back, the kitchen I was betting; she was smiling and wiping flour from her hands onto an apron wrapped around her waist. My Tia or Aunt Margo looked me up and down and then at her husband. “Is this who I think it is?”
“Howdy Ma’am, names Johnny Lancer, hope you don’t mind me turning up without an invite.”
She clapped her hands and laughed. “Oh, my Murdoch was right in writing you had polite manners.”
That took me by surprise. “He said that, you sure he didn’t mean Scott?”
“He has written telling us so much about you and your brother Scott. I suspect it has taken him by surprise having to become a father to two grown young men.”
I shook my head, surprise, oh boy that one word covers a whole lot of angry words and black silences.
Next thing is I’m being pushed down into the chair nearest the fire and offered a cup of tea and a glass of scotch.
“I expect it’s somewhat colder here than you are used to so make yourself cosy while a bath is run and we make a bed up for you. You don’t mind sharing with our youngest, your cousin Alex?”
Before I could even answer she was off out the room and up a flight of stairs.
“I wasn’t sure you would want me staying, I don’t want to be a nuisance and can find a boarding house.” I tried the tea which was at least hot and sweet.
“Boarding house, no Johnny you’re family and more than welcome. Alex still lives with us while he is studying at the university. Donald my eldest works in the shop with me, but also writes articles for the Evening Despatch newspaper, he and his wife Sarah live next door with their two wee bairns. I warn you all of us are so looking forward to hearing of your adventures.”
Later after a bath and digging a clean shirt out of my carpetbag I went down to find all these Lancers sitting around the kitchen table. I was introduced to Donald and his wife Elspeth and their two children, a boy Malcolm, about four years old and a baby girl Isla who was asleep in a crib. Then Alex who I was to be sharing a room with.
Donald was probably about Scott’s age and had the look of a scholar, glasses perched on his nose and ink-stained fingers. Alex a tall drink of water, he was the one who had inherited the Lancer height but had that open honest look of a boy who hadn’t seen much of the world.
I found myself sitting next to Elspeth; a pretty fair-haired lady who told me she and Donald had met when he had walked into her because his head was buried in a book instead of watching where he was going. Young Malcolm giggled. “My Dada says you can get lost in books, he tells me stories of all the Kings of Scotland called Malcolm.”
I looked down at him. “I’m very impressed you are named after Scottish kings and your baby sister has a pretty name that in Spanish means island”
His eyes lit up. “Does it, do you speak Spanish Uncle Johnny?”
“Oh yes sobrino”, that’s Spanish for nephew, I speak Spanish and have a few words in Latin and the Apache language.”
Well, the meal passed with me telling them about the ranch, the cattle and the wild horses. When I got to telling of the journeys I’d been on I could hardly say a dozen words before Alex was asking questions.
Uncle Ian held his hand up. “Alex lad please let Johnny tell us of his travels, you’ll have plenty of time to ask for details.”
I grinned at him. I saw he was a boy who would not be satisfied with just hearing or reading about the world, he wanted to travel and see for himself.
As my Tia Margo cleared away the used dishes Sarah took the baby and Malcolm back to their own house Tio Ian took me and his sons into the sitting room and poured out four glasses of scotch.
“Johnny I received a letter from your father in which he blames his inability to discuss his past or your mother as your reason for leaving California.”
I studied the drink in my hand and sighed. “Yes, I hadn’t been at Lancer long before I realised what I’d been told as a kid about me and Mama being thrown out was untrue. I had a lot of unanswered questions that Murdoch couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about. So I went looking for my Mama’s history. I found my Abuela, that is my Grandmother what she told me of her own and my Grandfather’s family made me curious and I set out to meet them.”
I took a drink. “To be honest after I had stayed with my Abuela’s family in Spain I had intended to go back to America but I met up with this Scottish sea captain and his ship was sailing here with a cargo of the De Mendoza sherry. Well, what can I say it was fate and my natural curiosity that brought me here.”
The three of them were quiet waiting for more. I shrugged. “Everyone I’ve met on my Mama’s side has been so willing to talk about family, even some bad stuff. It got me to wondering why Murdoch is so tight-lipped about his Scottish family.”
Uncle Ian topped up our glasses and glanced at me and his sons. “Alexander Angus Lancer your Grandfather is a man of firm views. He expected his children to be seen and not heard and to do as we were told at all times. He is a tenant on the Kirkhale estate a few miles outside of Inverness. As the eldest Murdoch was expected to work with him on the estate eventually to take on the tenancy of the cottage and our own patch of land. As the second son, I would not have a tenancy, father allowed me to stay on at school to get an education so I could make a life for myself.”
He paused and smiled at me. “Being a tenant was never going to be enough for Murdoch. He was clever, as good a scholar as I, and determined to be his own man.
Do not misunderstand our father was firm in his discipline with us boys not cruel, but his childhood experiences of the clearances and the hardship he had seen and heard of had hardened him. He thought his way would safeguard his family. Our mother was a strong-willed woman and a loving one who had his measure she could soften his hard edges. After her death, I’m afraid Father would descend into black moods and he expected our young sister your Aunt Fiona to take on the responsibility of keeping house. It was Fiona who so like our mother could see through the anger that bubbled between father and Murdoch over his desire to leave. She told Murdoch to go, that if he stayed he would turn bitter and eventually there would be arguments between him and father that would never be forgiven.”
I gulped down the scotch and coughed. I had thought me and Murdoch were so different all I had from him was his name and blue eyes but now knew all those angry words and silences between us were what he went through with his father.
Ian sipped some Scotch and continued. “Father was angry at his leaving, his eldest son not obeying him was a blow to his pride. Murdoch did write to both myself and him of his finding work on the ships and eventually of arriving in Boston and his plans to obtain land in California. Fiona told me Father would get her to read the letters. She has said despite Father’s stubborn pride as time has passed news of Murdoch becoming a landowner has brought a light to his eyes.”
“What kind of a welcome will I get when I get there?” I realised it was important I met this man, my Grandfather, the one with the Lancer stubborn that runs through Murdoch and I admit through me.
Uncle Ian shook his head. “Your Aunt Fiona will be thrilled, old Alexander…” he made a noise and shrugged. “I suspect he will be curious about you and news from California but his pride will stop him from showing emotion.”
Alex leaned forward. “Can I accompany Johnny it will be interesting to see any changes the new Laird has introduced?”
“Laird?” I didn’t know that word and I look at Alex for an explanation.
It was Ian who explained. “Laird is a name for the owner of land. The Kirkhale estate has been owned by the Earls of Kirkhale for hundreds of years. The old Earl passed away just over a year ago without any immediate heir, the title has gone to James Fraser, the son of his late cousin. Fiona has written telling us he had moved in, so not an absentee landlord. He has experience being a land owner as he has a farm in the lowlands of Kelso. She tells us he is determined to manage the estate and be a successful Laird. Fiona has also told us he is a widower with a twelve-year-old son.”
Ian looked at Alex. “I too am interested in how Father is dealing with the new Earl and how he is managing without Fiona keeping house for him.” He looked over at me to explain. “She moved into the big house as the old Earl grew frailer helping the housekeeper, and for the time. being has taken on the role as the boy’s governess as his previous one did not want to move to the north.”
That night I sat on the bed chewing the end of my pencil attempting to write to Murdoch and Scott. It don’t matter how often I hear in my head my Abuela telling me to simply write down what I’m thinking somehow the words are different on the paper. Anyway, I wrote about the train from London and how quickly it seemed the land changed as it went north. That was a surprise as I’m so used to riding for the best part of a day and the landscape not changing. I thought with Murdoch being so caring about his blades of grass to write and tell him how green the grass was, and there were sheep. Wrote how welcoming his brother Ian and family were. I drew a sketch of the bookshop knowing Scott would like that. Went on the say me and Alex were planning on going on up to Inverness to visit my Grandfather Lancer and Aunt Fiona. I re-read my letter and sighed probably made some spelling mistakes and could have said more.
Alex was busy doing school work, well not school he was at University which even I know is way beyond any of the schooling I’d been through. With his nose in a book a slight frown between his eyes, he looked just like Scott when he is studying those contracts that Murdoch wants his opinion on.
“Alex, can you give your eyes a rest for a minute and tell me what the clearances your father mentioned were?”
He rubbed his eyes. “The clearances were when estate landlords, mostly absentee ones, ordered the crofters and peasant workers to leave so they could turn the land over to sheep and make more money. Grandfather Lancer knew of the hardship those that had been moved out suffered when work dried up.”
It was my turn to blink, now didn’t greedy landlords sound all too familiar? “Did no one stand up to the landlords?”
“Not that I know of, most landlords paid the people affected to move to the coast or even to emigrate. The days of skirmishes and war against the English or between clans are in our past, not like I have read about in America.”
I wasn’t sure how much Murdoch would have told these folk of my past so didn’t tell Alex how those clearances sounded like the reason I got caught up in a revolution in Mexico.
The next day Uncle Ian sent me and Alex off to what he called sightseeing. “You cannot be coming to Edinburgh Johnny and not take a look at our castle and walk along the royal mile to the Palace.”
Alex talked my ear off with the history of the castle, oh boy was some of it bloodthirsty; and there was a canon set off so loud he said ships out at sea could set the time by it. We got to go in and see some royal treasure that was found by Sir Walter Scott, who is the same fella that Murdoch quotes from his books. I have to say I’ve never seen anything that old and still standing before and the view over the city was impressive. Then we walked along what Alex called the royal mile to a palace where the Queen of Great Britain stays when she visits.
Soon as we got back I made notes in the journal, one day I might surprise Murdoch by mentioning one of them facts.
Kirkhale Estate, Inverness
Another train journey this time me and Alex were seen off by all his family even baby Isla. Aunt Margo was a real mother hen, packing a basket of food for the journey.
She passed the basket to Alex and turned to me with a package. “Now Johnny it is coming up to winter and your father said someone described you as a cactus, used to heat and dangerously prickly. Here is a sheepskin jacket and thick socks, gloves and a scarf, the last thing I would want to hear is you being prickly because you are cold.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or be angry, me wearing a jacket made from a sheep. I’ll not be telling about that when I get home. I pushed out my bottom lip. “Yes well I have experienced cold at night in the desert and up mountains and it doesn’t sit too well with me. Thank you Aunt Margo it’s kind of you to go to the trouble.” I told myself when I got back I’d find out who called me a cactus and show them just how dangerous I can be.
The other passengers were a right mixed bunch and some of them were carrying shotguns but didn’t smell of trouble. Alex told me they were going to estates for shooting and fishing parties. More than a few of them were wearing the Scottish kilts like I’d seen in Edinburgh on the guards at the castle and palace.
To our surprise, we were met at the Inverness station by Aunt Fiona in a real fancy carriage.
“Alex, oh my, have you grown some more?” This smartly dressed attractive lady with a huge smile was reaching up to hug Alex and kiss him on his cheek. She stood back to look at me and I saw my own blue eyes looking back at me. “Johnny I’ve heard so much about you it is a pleasure to meet you.”
I found my manners, raised my hat and held out my hand to shake hers. “Ma’am it sure is nice to meet you.”
Alex looked over at the carriage. “We didn’t expect to be met like this.”
“James insisted you were met, that is the Earl. I need to warn you Johnny young Master Andrew is excited to be meeting a cowboy be prepared for questions.”
I noticed a slight blush on her cheeks, Alex didn’t notice, he was too busy admiring the carriage. James uh a good-looking lady like her and her patron an Earl. I was going to keep a close eye on him, seen more than one powerful landowner take advantage of women.
It was a fine black carriage with an emblem painted in gold on the doors and two handsome matching black horses in the traces. A man standing by them tipped his cap at us and took our luggage. Alex had a couple of cases because his folks had packed books and some new clothes for Grandfather Lancer in one. I had the carpet bag, my Aunt in San Blas had given me, with my gun wrapped up in a spare shirt, tucked in there. I was all set to say I’d hang on to it.
Alex leaned down to whisper in my ear. “The days of highwaymen or holdup bandits in these parts are long gone,” I grunted and muttered to myself how he was starting to remind me of Scott.
It was dark when we reached Kirkhale House. Well, it was called a house but even in the dark, I could see it was big, bigger even than the hacienda. There were stone eagles on columns guarded stone steps up to a huge front door. At the top of the steps was a man and a young boy both wearing kilts. As the carriage came to a halt he was there opening the door and holding out a hand to help Aunt Fiona out.
He held out his hand to shake mine and Alex’s. “Welcome gentlemen it’s a pleasure to meet Fiona’s nephews.”
We found ourselves in a well-lit room with a roaring fire, oil paintings I guessed were of ancient Earls and their families, heck there was a suit of armour standing in a corner. The Earl pulled a rope and somewhere a bell rang, and a servant appeared. Well, saved hollering across the room, and drinks were served. A good Scotch, one that Murdoch would approve of.
“Very nice. We didn’t expect to be staying here, thought we’d be bunking in with Grandfather Lancer, didn’t we Alex.” I did drawl in my Madrid voice.
I had to nudge him, he was a mite distracted by his surroundings. “Your Lordship, it is very generous of you to offer us accommodation, like Johnny said we had expected to stay with Grandfather.”
I looked at Alex and raised an eyebrow. ‘Lordship?’
The Earl smiled and beckoned the boy to join him. “This is my son Andrew and he would never forgive me if I didn’t invite a real American cowboy to stay.” He put a hand on Andrew’s shoulder. “Andrew you may say hello to Alex and Johnny then it is well past your bedtime.”
The boy held out his hand to shake hands. “Welcome to Kirkhale, I do hope you enjoy your stay.” He turned to Aunt Fiona. “Goodnight Madam, goodnight Papa.”
I put Madrid to one side and bent down to be face-to-face with him. “I’m looking forward to my stay, and tomorrow I tell you about being an American cowboy.” That solemn look on his face disappeared to be replaced by a genuine smile. Got a strong feeling this boy wasn’t afraid of his father, maybe a bit in awe of me though.
Over supper I saw how James Fraser and my Aunt Fiona cast glances at each other and little moments when their hands would touch, it was plain to me they felt the same way about each other.
I was awake early and it was still as dark as it had been when I arrived yesterday. I lay for a moment warm under blankets and looked up. I had slept in what is called a four-poster bed it had a roof and even had curtains I could have drawn around the bed, wasn’t sure I like being enclosed like that. I needed coffee. It was chilly the fire that had been set in my room had died down so I gave it a poke and got myself dressed quick.
The house was quiet, but I guessed there would be someone in the kitchen if I could find it. Yep as I moved downstairs the smell of the oat porridge Murdoch treated himself to most Sunday mornings led me to a kitchen. I have to be honest I hadn’t had a decent cup of coffee since landing in London or a meal with hot chillies. I stood in the doorway and cleared my throat to get the attention of the cook. “Excuse me Ma’am don’t suppose there is a cup of coffee to be had?”
The cook and her kitchen helpers all jumped, and the youngest dropped a pan. “Sorry didn’t mean to cause alarm.”
The older lady, the cook shook herself. “My word you do walk softly. I’m sorry sir you startled us, you are one of the Master’s guests, the American cowboy?”
“Yes Ma’am that’s me.” I smiled at her and her little gang of helpers.
“Coffee, you say, yes Sir I can make you a pot of coffee. If you go to the drawing room I’ll have it fetched to you.”
“Don’t go making a fuss on my account I can sit here if you don’t mind, it’s nice and warm and reminds me of the kitchen back home.” I knew I was turning on the charm but with luck could get a little gossip about the Earl and my Aunt, needed to be sure she wasn’t being taken advantage of.
“Name’s Johnny, I’m Alexander Lancer’s grandson come all the way from California America. Do you know him? I think I’m a little nervous about meeting him.”
“Everyone on the estate knows old Alexander, he has been here longer than most have been alive, knows every inch and is good with the stock. He kept the estate going when the old Earl became a recluse. A mite stubborn, when Miss Fiona came to live in the house he insisted he was more than capable of looking after himself at his cottage.”
She poured a cup of coffee for me and offered a jug of cream. I sipped it, not bad, not as good as Mamacita’s but I didn’t need cream to make it drinkable.
“Thank you Ma’am best I’ve tasted since I arrived.” I drank some more and poured out another cupful. I looked over the rim of the cup at her busy beating eggs in a bowl. “It was real friendly of the Earl to let me and my cousin Alex stay here.”
There was a look between the cook and the girls. “The new Earl has a kind manner about him. When he inherited the title he came to live here with his son young master Andrew and told all the staff he intended to stay and rebuild the estates’ fortunes.”
“There are money troubles?”
She stopped beating eggs. “Laddie there have been hard times for a lot of the highlands, but his Lordship has made a start, it helps he has kept staff and workers on, no evictions.”
I shrugged. “My father has a ranch in California he has fought hard at times to keep it. If it ain’t the weather it’s the price of beef or land grabbers but having a loyal workforce helps.”
She put a bowl of porridge in front of me and a jar of honey and sat facing me. “I remember Murdoch when he was a young man, all the girls had eyes for him.”
I coughed and spluttered around the spoon in my mouth. The girls were giggling at me.
She smiled at me. “Fiona and I have been friends since childhood we talk about our families. I know how pleased she was when Murdoch wrote telling her you and your brother had returned home. She was excited when word reached her you were travelling to Scotland, and the Master invited you to please her.”
I looked over my shoulder at the girls before turning back to her and lowered my voice. “I’ve not misread the signs then?”
“No Johnny you haven’t, the feeling is mutual but he is gentry and your Aunt.” The cook shook her head.
I nodded, remembering how some Don’s in border villages had treated women. “Thank you, sorry I don’t know your name?”
“It’s Marie but everyone calls me Cook. You’re welcome in my kitchen any time and just let me know what you’d like for breakfast tomorrow because I can see porridge isn’t your favourite”
“Thank you again Marie I don’t mind porridge but I’ll come down early tomorrow and show you how I can cook eggs.”
A bell rang, on a board with all the rooms listed. “His Lordship is ready for breakfast to be served, you’d best be getting upstairs Johnny.”
“It’s okay Marie I help carry the trays up.” I grinned at her. “Learned early on to keep on the good side of a cook.”
Aunt Fiona came along with Alex and me to visit my Scottish Abuela, Grandfather Lancer as Alex called him. Fiona had a small carriage waiting for her, not the grand one that had met us at the station, a plain work-a-day one. Me I’d visited the stables with James and picked out a young filly with a bit of mischief in her eye.
“Are you sure Johnny that one has a reputation for being unpredictable?” James stroked her nose. “I know Andrew likes her but I think a sensible gelding is better for him.”
“Your son has a good eye if this is his choice. With your permission, I’ll help Andrew school the bad manners out of her without losing her spirit.”
“Andrew will be thrilled if you could do that with him.”
James helped tack up the horse, the man might be land-owning gentry as the cook said but so far he was someone I could get along with.
The cottage where Murdoch was born and raised was old and low, before I even went through the door I was wondering how he managed with his height. Dios my nerves were jingling just like at that first meeting with Murdoch. I stayed half a step behind Fiona and Alex as we went in.
He rose from a rocker by the fire as we came in, grey hair, weather-beaten face a bit stooped over. Not surprising living all those years in a place even I had to duck my head down to get through the door. But oh boy I was looking at Murdoch but older.
“Da come and say hello to your grandson Johnny.” Aunt Fiona gently pushed me forward.
I held out my hand to shake his. “Names Johnny and I’m pleased to meet you, sir.”
He didn’t take my hand but put his hand on my face. “You have your Grandmothers eyes.”
I’ve got to be honest I nearly laughed ‘cos didn’t Murdoch say something like that to Scott on first seeing him?
He patted my cheek, “Aye, my Jeanie’s eyes, the Norse-man eyes.”
I must have looked confused.
“Vikings lad, Vikings invaders and warriors who sailed from the far north. You and Fiona have inherited their eyes. Your Da must have their invader blood running through him going off as he did to the Americas.”
He sat back down put a pipe in his mouth and rocked and looked me up and down through a cloud of smoke. It was my Aunt who broke the silence.
“I’ll make a pot of tea, sit down boys.”
I sat opposite Alex at a well-worn table, he raised his eyebrow at me and smiled. Oh boy, he looked more like Murdoch than Scott but he had Scott’s way about him. While Aunt Fiona moved some socks warming on a rail above the fire and busied herself making a pot of tea I looked around. The fire and black range took up nearly half a side to another side was a curtained-off area behind I guessed would be a bed, wooden stairs were going up to the roof space. The place was dark ‘cos the few windows were small and what with the table and chairs and dresser full of pots and plates it must have been crowded when Murdoch and all his family lived here.
Before I could sip the tea Grandfather cleared his throat. “I think a drop of Scotch is needed Fiona, the lad isn’t used to our weather.”
Never had so many folks concerned about me feeling the cold and even if I didn’t yet know Alexander Lancer I wasn’t going to say no to a splash of Scotch to spice the tea up.
Nothing was said as the four of us drank tea, there was the ticking of a clock and the fire sparking and outside the sounds of a farmyard. I looked at Alex and across to Fiona both quiet and watching old Alexander, seemed the rule was to wait for him to start any conversation.
“So young Alexander how are the family in Edinburgh?”
“They are well Grandfather, I have fetched some books and Mother has knitted you more socks and a jumper.” Alex opened a case and took out the gifts.
The old man stayed in his rocker and nodded. “She’s a good one that daughter-in-law of mine. And the bairns they are well?”
“Yes Grandfather they are well, the baby is thriving.”
He nodded. “Good, good, and your studies?”
Alex smiled. “My studies are going well. I have one more term before I graduate and look for a position as a teacher.”
He nodded again and turned his attention to me. “Put your coat on lad and I’ll show you the stock.”
I did as I was told, and followed him outside. There were chickens and a pig with a passel of little uns. Then into a barn that was used as a milking parlour.
“Do you know how to milk a cow, Johnny?”
“Yes, sir, and goats.”
“Goats never had them, got sheep up on the top hillside, good for mutton stew.”
I blinked, never thought of Murdoch and his love of his beeves having anything to do with sheep.
He walked on through the farmyard and waved at the fields fenced off and further on woods. “The estate supplies its own milk, cheese and butter. The bull calves are raised for meat. Your Da was good with them, could tell which would make a good breeding bull.”
“Still has, always looking to buy a bull that will improve the bloodlines make the herd more resistant to drought and put on weight.”
“Why are you here Johnny lad?” He turned to look me straight in the eye.
This was a man who wanted straight talking. “Curiosity. Murdoch…..”
He grunted. “You mean your Da.”
I shuffled some and looked down at my boots. “Yes sir. My father says the past is past, but saying it don’t make it so.”
“Wise words, laddie. Your Da a man of few words like me is he?”
“Mostly, unless he’s yelling orders or growling about me not following them.”
After some clever negotiating by Aunt Fiona Grandfather agreed to return to the big house with us to discuss with the Earl who should be set to work clearing a river. The deal meant Alex and I had helped him round up the cows just us on foot! A couple of young girls wrapped in shawls arrived to do the milking which me and Alex helped with. I listened as Alex and the girls who he knew from previous visits laughed at past childhood exploits.
Back at Kirkhale house I cleaned up and found Alex in his room. I bounced on the bed and watched as he finished dressing. “You and them pretty little gals seemed friendly?”
He looked at me through a reflection in a mirror. “My brother Donald and I would spend a few weeks each summer here, helping out with moving stock to the markets in Inverness. We know and are friends with everyone there.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You went on cattle drives?”
“Not like Uncle Murdoch has described in California, they sound much more exciting than walking cows or sheep down the drovers’ roads.”
“Walking, no horses or ponies?” I couldn’t imagine moving steers on foot to market.
“Well, a couple of men on horses and a cart. Life is very different here from what you are used to.”
I nodded, yeah different to Lancer but apart from the weather not so different to some villages I’d been through in Mexico. Kept that thought to myself.
“This life isn’t for me and Donald so there is no one for Grandfather to leave his home to except Aunt Fiona, and I’m not sure that is in her future.”
James Fraser was going to have three sets of eyes on him.
I could see Grandfather was uneasy sitting at the formal dining table, so I told a story of how I had copied how Scott acted at fancy laid-out tables, and which eating fork he used. Then I turned to Andrew and talked horses, telling him and the others of the Andalusians at the Estancia de Mendoza in Spain. I noticed Grandfather relaxed somewhat and he smiled across at me.
As soon as the meal finished Andrew disappeared then reappeared with a book in his hands. “Mr Lancer I have a book on horse breeds and Andalusians are there.”
“A book on horse breeds, well let me have a look at it, and I’d like it if you’d call me Johnny. There are three Mr Lancers in this room and I keep expecting my Pa to appear.”
He laughed as we put our heads together, I’m not one for books like Scott and Murdoch but this one was really interesting, full of facts and pictures of horse breeds. “Hey, Alex,” I shouted across the room to my cousin. “Will this book be in your Pa’s bookshop, cos I wouldn’t mind taking a copy back to Lancer?”
Alex looked over my shoulder at the book. “If it isn’t he could get it and send it to Lancer.”
I turned to Andrew. “This is a good book you’ll learn a lot from it, but tomorrow I’ll tell you about Barranca the best horse I’ve ever had. Heck, he herds ornery steers by himself and I just sit there looking good.” I ruffled his hair. “I ran out of time today but tomorrow as soon as you’ve done your chores or lessons we will set to teaching that pretty filly of yours some manners.”
Andrew let a whoop, not what the son of an Earl should be doing but his father just said his name with that tone Murdoch sometimes uses on me.
Aunt Fiona clapped her hands. “Andrew the sooner you are a’bed asleep the sooner the morrow will arrive, come along say goodnight to your Papa and your guests.”
The boy solemnly shook hands with all of us men saying goodnight in a proper polite way.
The mood in the room was nice and relaxed we all had a glass of fine scotch, seemed like a good time to ask James some questions.
“Your son is a good boy, you should be proud of him.” I look over at the Earl sitting in a chair by the fire, Grandfather opposite him, Alex came to sit with me on the sofa.
“I am, I have kept him close since his mother died when he was only four years old. My sister tells me I should now send him away to boarding school as all sons of landed gentry do. But we managed with a housekeeper and tutor at our home in Kelso. I never expected to inherit this estate, and one day pass it on to Andrew. It is important he lives here at least for the time being to understand the importance of his position and responsibility.”
I could see Grandfather liked what he had heard as his head slowly nodded.
James took a drink and looked at me to explain. “I never knew the previous Earl and would never have inherited if his two sons had not died without male heirs. This last year has been a challenge, but I find myself happy and Andrew thinks it is a great adventure.”
Happy; I was guessing it wasn’t the work of getting this estate back onto a healthy financial footing but the presence of a sensible attractive lady who obviously cared for his son that was making him happy. I waited to see if Grandfather would say anything but he stayed silent.
Alex had been listening carefully. “Your Lordship when the time is right I can recommend schools in Edinburgh that I and my brother attended. I would be pleased to tutor him for entrance to the University if that is the path you wish for him. There will be no need for Andrew to leave Scotland if that is what you decide.”
I raised an eyebrow at Grandfather wondering what he made of another Lancer becoming close to the Earl. He still stayed silent.
The next few days fell into a pattern, after breakfast I would help Andrew school the filly, who he had named Ruby. She was a sneaky thing, good as gold at lulling the rider into thinking all was well then any excuse, a stray leaf, a cow mooing and she’d be hopping and bucking just for the fun of it. Didn’t put Andrew off though he’d just laugh and hold on tight. I decided to teach the boy how to tuck and roll just in case he did get taken by surprise and go flying, we had fun making a mess of the straw in a barn.
After lunch, I would find my Grandfather and help him with clearing the river that he told me was good for salmon fishing.
“Have you been fishing with your Da on that ranch of his?”
Now that question did take me by surprise ‘cos the old man hadn’t so far asked about Murdoch. “Yes, sir, fishing ain’t something I’m that good at, better at hunting. Scott and Murdoch, now they are both real patient men where fishing is concerned.”
“The previous Earl and his sons would fish this river, the last few years it has been neglected.” He shook his head. “The loss of both sons was a blow he never recovered from.”
I chewed my bottom lip not sure what I could say. “James Fraser seems a good man, a bit overwhelmed by what he has inherited, but willing to give it his best shot. It helps he has you to guide him, in my experience every well-run ranch has a good Segundo.”
He frowned. “Your Da wrote that word said it meant second in command.”
“Well that’s you Grandfather, the estate and James Fraser and his son need you and all your experience and advice.” I smiled at him thinking how I’d seen Cipriano and Murdoch act with each other. Cip showing deference to the Patron in front of the workforce but in private a long-standing friend who Murdoch would take advice from.
I gave it another couple of days and waited until Grandfather and I were sat warming ourselves by his fire, we were now comfortable in our shared silences. I took out the pocket watch Murdoch had given me and rubbed my thumb over the cover. “Grandfather, do you know anything of this time-piece?”
I let him take it from my hand and he too rubbed the cover. “Aye, lad, it was gifted to me by the old Laird when Murdoch was born. His Lordship said time passed too quickly when we have children, and this was to remind me to take the time to appreciate them.”
He looked up at me. “I gave it to him on the day he left and told him what his Lordship had told me. Murdoch has passed this onto you?”
I had to blink and clear my throat. “Yes, sir, he just said it was old but a good timepiece.”
He handed it back to me. “He has looked after it well, you mind you do the same and one day you can pass it on to your firstborn son.”
It was at the end of the week Aunt Fiona made some excuse for Andrew not to rush out straight from breakfast to the stable. I frowned at her when she found me tacking up the filly. “Is there a problem Tia?”
She looked over her shoulder to make sure we were alone. “Yes, Johnny, I’m afraid there will be. Word has reached me that Factor McIntyre and his assistant are due to visit.
Another Scottish word I didn’t know. “Factor?”
She sighed. “Factors are the men who manage estates and collect rent on behalf of absentee landlords, there is a lot of ill-feeling towards them as they are the ones who impose the clearances of the crofters, to make way for sheep.”
“But this estate doesn’t have an absentee landlord. Why should one of these factors be coming here?”
“Factor McIntyre introduced himself to the previous Earl when it had become common knowledge his health was failing, offering to take on the management. The Earl resisted, but as soon as James moved in McIntyre was here offering his services and advice. He suggested it would be safer for James and his son if they remain in Kelso leaving him to manage this estate and deal with any uprising by the crofters and tenants.”
She walked up and down as I stood and petted the filly, and waited. I could tell from the tone in her voice she didn’t like this McIntyre.
“James was new to the position and how the estate had been managed and listened to his advice.”
I sniffed. “Increase rents, evict tenants, pay him a fee?”
Fiona nodded at my understanding. “When Da heard of the plans, he was so angry, he came here to the house and told James he was a fool who would destroy everything the previous generations at Kirkhale had worked for. Told James, McIntyre only did what benefited McIntyre.”
“The rent collector takes more than his fair share does he?” Oh boy all these miles from Mexico and all those poor villages I’d been through where the peons were squeezed so hard revolution was their only option and it was about to happen here and my Grandfather would lead it.
My Aunt sat herself down on a hay bale and ran a hand over her hair to push escaped strands behind her ear. “I apologised on behalf of Da and tried to explain the history of the clearances here in the highlands and how they had created fear and anger. I did suggest before he took any action he investigates how Factor McIntyre went about duties.”
“James took your advice, found out McIntyre would strip Kirkhale of its assets and decided to stay and not only that but to listen to Grandfather.” I went to sit with her. “Is McIntyre able to cause trouble, not only to the business on this estate but you?”
She frowned. “Me?”
“Well, Aunt Fiona you are an attractive woman.”
She realised what I was asking. “Oh no Johnny, McIntyre thinks of me as a poor crofter’s daughter, far below his station. In any case, I know how to defend myself against any advances he would make.”
I breathed a sigh, at least my Mama’s history wasn’t being repeated. I knew how to deal with land-grabbing bullies and that was what McIntyre was.
“Aunt, have you discussed this with Alex?”
“You are the first, from what Murdoch has written I knew you would understand, but I also have been warned of your quick temper and didn’t want a scene over the breakfast table.”
“So James doesn’t know of this visit yet either. I think you should send Andrew out here and we will ride out to Grandfather’s while you warn James and Alex of this visitor.”
My instincts told me the likes of McIntyre would hold off going after someone as important as the Earl who was a newcomer with no experience of the estate he had inherited and Alex would be a witness, an educated city man. If there was to be anyone in danger it would be Alexander Lancer, the one man on the estate liked and admired by all the other tenants and workers, the one most likely to stand against him.
As soon as we got to Grandfather’s I suggested he take Andrew fishing, show the boy the secret of fly fishing. I would stay behind and fix the barn roof.
While Andrew settled the horses in the stable Grandfather took my arm. “What are you up to laddie, the roof isn’t in need of fixing?”
I lowered my voice. “Factor McIntyre is expected, and I intend to be here to watch your back.”
He got that Lancer look the one that Murdoch uses when he is throwing out orders at me. “I can well look after myself.”
“Listen, old man, you’re the only Grandfather I have and I will be here to watch your back. I want you to keep a watch over young Andrew. I’ve come across land grabbers who have used kidnapping as a weapon.”
He gave me a long hard look but nodded. “I’ll take the lad to the pool we cleared, and I’m not so old.”
I was on the barn roof with a hammer and nails when a stranger rode up. I used my innocent face and voice. “Hello, there can I help?”
He was a burly bearded man too big for the pony he was riding, he looked up at me. “I’m here on the Factors business, where is Lancer?”
I guessed this rough yahoo was the Factor’s assistant. I rubbed my hand through my hair and tried to look goofy and sound Scottish, or at least not too American. “Gone fishing, that a‘way.” I waved my hammer in the general direction of the wooded area that led to the river. “If you wait on, till I’ve finished up here I’ll show you the way.”
“Get down here now boy and show me the way.”
That was the sort of order that brought the worse out of me. I lowered the pail with hammer and nails down, then swung down the rope I’d used to climb up onto the roof.
I headed down a muddy trail that I knew led, not to the pool but further upstream where there was what Grandfather called the salmon run, basically a small waterfall with rocks. When Grandfather had taken me there I’d almost landed in the water on my butt slipping down a short steep slope as I missed my footing on dead leaves that littered the edge. Grandfather had laughed and strong hands had grabbed me before I got wet.
A few yards before we got to that spot I turned to the man on the pony. “The track ain’t suitable for the pony from here.”
He dismounted and stomped in the thick mud towards me. “How much further?”
I pointed forward. “Just ahead.”
He drew a sharp knife from his sock. “You’d best be getting back and minding your own business.”
If I had any doubts about what was planned at that moment they disappeared. I backed away from him with my hands up.
I waited until he was almost at that edge, only took me a few long strides before my arm was around his neck, I kicked his legs from under him, twisted his head and let go. He slid on his back down into the water his head bounced on the rocks and blood swirled from the wound before being washed away over the next set of rocks. I waited wanting to be sure the body would stay in the shallow water caught up in the rocks and not move too much.
I patted the pony as I tied it loosely to a low branch. “Don’t worry pony I’ll be back for you tomorrow.”
By the time Grandfather and Andrew returned I was waiting at the cottage door, mud cleaned from my boots and trousers.
“Johnny, Johnny, look at the fish we have caught.”
Andrew ran up to me waving a brace of salmon. “Can we cook them on a campfire like cowboys do?”
“Whoa young’un, maybe another time, I think we need to get you and this catch back to the house before the rain sets in. I’m sure the cook will show you how to fillet the fish so when you do cook one on a campfire you know what to do.”
I sort of insisted Grandfather come with us, I wasn’t sure if there weren’t any other rough types out there. He agreed on the condition he didn’t have to meet the Factor.
It sure got dark early here and the house was all lit up when we got back. Before we had even got through the door Andrew was telling his father about his day fishing. “Mr Lancer showed me how to cast the fly and the fish would jump out of the water to catch it.” He jumped and waved the fish, can we have these for dinner?”
James laughed at his son’s enthusiasm. “Yes, my boy run along to the kitchen and see what Mrs Douglas can do with them.” He turned to Grandfather. “Thank you Mr Lancer for your patience with my son, I must warn you Factor McIntyre is here.”
Grandfather shuffled his feet. “He’s a good lad wanting to learn about the estate. I heard the Factor was expected so with your permission I’ll eat in the kitchen, best not tempt fate and say something that would be regretted.”
The first sight I got of McIntyre was at the dinner table, there he was looking like he belonged, a smug look on his face. I was all cleaned up and dressed as a haciendado, wearing my best bolero jacket the one Mamacita had made for me to replace the one that had bullet holes in it, telling me I needed to look like the Patron’s son. I smiled at McIntyre and sat opposite him, I was going to enjoy reading this man.
I could tell McIntyre wasn’t impressed with a child being sat with adults and even less so when he realised Aunt Fiona was sitting at the table as an equal. Alex sat next to him and rolled his eyes at me, dios he acted so like Scott it made me smile. Let the dance begin.
“Pleased to meet you, Mr McIntyre, the name’s John Alexander Lancer, visiting my Grandfather and family, sorry I wasn’t here when you arrived I was up on a roof.”
He stared at me, obviously didn’t know what to make of me, dressed so fine and talking about being on a roof.
“I understand you are from the Americas, your father an immigrate who has achieved a better life, than that of a crofter?”
I sniffed and let Madrid creep in. “Yep, except he chose to leave, he wasn’t forced out. Seems like my Grandfather and folk like him are content being tenants, so long as the landlord is fair.” I turned to the others, they were all looking stunned, especially Andrew, better put Madrid to one side, Johnny. I waved my fork at Andrew. “This is excellent fish, you did well Andrew.”
Andrew blushed. “Mr Lancer did most of the fishing but he said I had the right sort of patience to be a fisherman.”
The boy started to describe how he had gutted the fish when his father interrupted. “That is enough detail thank you, Andrew, not at the dinner table with a guest present.”
“Sorry Father, sorry Mr McIntyre.”
I winked at him and we exchanged a grin.
After dinner, Aunt Fiona and Andrew said their goodnights and left James, Alex and me alone in the sitting room with the Factor.
I sat back with a glass of good Scotch and waited. McIntyre was walking around the room looking at the portraits on the wall, mentally calculating the worth of the objects randomly scattered around on the heavy ancient furniture.
McIntyre finished his inventory and sat himself down and looked at me. “You didn’t go fishing with the Earl’s son and your Grandfather?”
“Nope, like I said I was on the roof, I don’t have the patience to be a fisherman. I’m better at herding cattle, breaking horses, clearing creeks and fixing roofs.”
McIntyre frowned at me. “My assistant, Connor Donaldson should have arrived, I don’t suppose you saw him from your rooftop perch?”
So that was the name of the man whose neck I broke. “Big man, beard, on a pony too small for his size. Such a man did come by asking for my Grandfather, I did offer to show him to the river, but he said for me to carry on with what I was doing, he would find him. Never thought anything more of it. Grandfather and Andrew haven’t said anything about this man so maybe he took a wrong turning and is lost.”
We all looked at each other. I learned to stretch the truth when I was a kid looking after myself and how to act the innocent, skills like that can be useful. Mind some folks in my life can see through that, luckily none of them was in the room.
James glared across at McIntyre, “You are not employed as my Factor; why have you your man on my land looking for Alexander Lancer?”
I’ll give him his due McIntyre tried to buffalo his way out. “I may not yet be your Factor, but you, your Lordship, are new to the highlands I feel it is my duty to look out for you. I know there is trouble brewing with the crofters and tenants.”
Alex was on his feet glaring at McIntyre. “What are you accusing my Grandfather of, what did your man intend?”
James had a face like thunder, “It is not the tenants on this estate that have threatened trouble, it is you, McIntyre, with your insinuations and veiled threats.”
I decided to calm things down, didn’t need or want Alex or James to get themselves into any unnecessary trouble with whatever authorities operated in these parts. “Whoa, now before this gets out of hand what say tomorrow at first light we set out to find this Connor Donaldson?” I knew what we would find but it needed witnesses and above all needed it to be clear my Grandfather had not been responsible.
It was quite a posse that set out in the damp and cold but on the bright side, the footprints at the scene of the crime would have been washed away in last night’s rain. I huddled down into the sheepskin jacket and pulled my hat low.
As we stood at the tree line “There are hoof prints here.” I pointed out the unmistakable signs leading through the woods. I let James take point followed by Grandfather then McIntyre, then me and Alex. The pony was still where I’d left him, poor thing cold and wet I went and whispered a soft apology in his ear.
McIntyre shouted. “Donaldson, where the devil are you?”
All we heard was the sound of the river around a bend in the track and water dripping from the trees.
McIntyre stomped through the mud towards the river shouting for his man.
Grandfather shouted. “Look out man, else you’ll end up in the river.”
It was James who reached out and grabbed McIntyre’s arm just as his feet began to slide over the edge. “Careful McIntyre look down there.”
Sure enough, everyone looked down from a safe distance at the body trapped on the rocks.
As nobody said anything I shrugged my jacket off and handed it to Alex. “Guess all the practice I’ve had of pulling beeves out of mud holes is going to come in handy. Someone fetch the pony I’ll use the rope on it to get down, you will need the pony to help haul him up.”
Grandfather put his hand on my arm. “Take care, John.”
“I will, you make sure the rope stays taught, I don’t want to join him.”
I used the rope to steady my descent, by the time I got to the bottom my boots were full of mud.
The body was heavy not only was he a big man the kilt and cloak he was wearing were soaked and weighing him down. I struggled to lift him enough to put the rope under his arms, as I did I saw the damage a rock had done to the back of his head. I shouted up. “Okay you can pull him up, looks like his head is bashed in.”
By the time I had been hauled up, I was very cold and wet.
Grandfather helped me to my feet and I shivered as he got me in that sheepskin jacket.
“Found this he must have had it in his hand when he fell.” I took Donaldson’s knife out of my boot and showed it to them.
James took it. “It wasn’t in his sock?”
I shook my head. “No, it was in his hand, why would it be in his sock?”
Alex showed me his sock. “Because cousin that is where a Scots man keeps his sgian dubh, or knife, as you called it.”
Yep all them Scots men had knives tucked into long socks. Damn, they mustn’t feel the cold dressed in kilts, me I was starting to get tired of the cold and damp, I needed to feel the Mexican heat, or at least the Californian sun.
By the time we got back to the house, I knew I was starting with a cold and couldn’t help but sneeze and cough. Of course that set Aunt Fiona off to fussing, insisting I get into a hot tub. Yeah, the Earl had a bathroom in the house now that would impress Scott when I put that in the letter I was halfway through writing. But oh boy it was good to soak in the hot steamy water and wash all that mud off.
Grandfather found me getting changed and offered a hot drink spiked with Scotch. “Your Aunt is concerned you have caught a chill.”
“Thank you I’ve got to admit being in that cold water has chilled me.” I sipped the drink and raised an eyebrow, it was more Scotch than tea.
“His lordship has sent for a doctor to examine the body.” Grandfather walked around the room, running his hand over the furniture. “He has had McIntyre detained until the death has been investigated by the Sheriff.”
“A sheriff hereabouts? I heard you called your law constables?”
“Aye lad our sheriffs are different from those your Da has told us about, they have a lot of power.” He paused and gave me the Murdoch Lancer look. “It wasn’t an accident was it?”
I put my head down and called on Madrid, I looked up. “I had no choice.” Not sure how he would react I waited my hands on my hips.
“I’ve spoken to his lordship, we are agreed it would appear that McIntyre was looking for me, his sgian dubh in his hand either to threaten or be used on me. His lordship is furious, if McIntyre had found me, what would have happened to his son.”
I nodded. “Yep, that’s how I read it. Guess it’s time I moved on, I don’t want to bring trouble to you”
Grandfather shook his head. “You’re not the one bringing trouble, you will need to stay a little longer. First to give your story.” He raised an eyebrow. “The one you have already told. Secondly, I believe a proposal of marriage has been discussed between his lordship and my daughter.”
I blinked and Johnny Lancer reappeared. “Marriage, have you given them your blessing?”
He again shook his head. “I learned late in my life I have stubborn determined children who follow their own path. My late wife, your Grandmother would never forgive me if I were to refuse Fiona her dreams and happiness.”
I reached out to take his arms and grinned at him. “You will be the father-in-law of royalty.”
I made him laugh. “Not quite laddie but landed nobility. He is a good man, Fiona is a good judge of character.”
That evening Grandfather, Alex and I ate in the kitchen, I was fed a hot spicy broth that the cook said would keep the worse of any chill at bay. James, his son and my Aunt dinned alone. McIntyre was locked in a room, told he was under guard until the sheriff had taken evidence of the death and the circumstances.
Two days later the sheriff arrived, the thought of describing this overdressed man with his chain of office to Val made me smile. He had the doctor’s report that the dead man had life-threatening injuries to his head and a broken neck sustained from the fall onto rocks.
I told the sheriff I was John Alexander Lancer a rancher from California here visiting family and gave evidence of Donaldson riding up and asking where Alexander Lancer was and how I said he was at the river, kept it at that, well it wasn’t a lie.
James gave his name and title and described how the next day we followed the trail and the body found. He then said out loud for the record how concerned he was that this man Connor Donaldson an assistant of Factor McIntyre was on his estate without his knowledge or approval. The sheriff then had McIntyre in front of him. Of course, the man denied he had ordered any action to be taken against Alexander Lancer and of course there was no evidence he was involved in the death, so he was sent on his way. That didn’t sit well with me but James explained he had written to other landlords of large estates with his suspicions that the Factor was not to be trusted.
James with his title could throw a lot of weight and just like Murdoch knew how to listen to people but then make sure decisions went his way. The death was recorded as an accident and the sheriff after being wined and dined went on his way. Later James told me there were plans to have an official enquiry into the clearances and the security of tenants. As much as sometimes I felt waiting for the law wasn’t the best idea this was not my land and I had to trust James to do right by my Grandfather and the other workers on his estate.
After a couple of days of being fussed over because of the coughing and sneezing at the evening meal, I announced it was time I made tracks to return home.
Aunt Fiona was not having it. “Oh no Johnny you must stay until the wedding.” She reached over to put her hand over James’s and smiled at him. “We have spoken of travelling to America after our wedding, we shall have to bring our plan forward.”
Young Andrew let out a cheer. “Johnny can show me how to be a vaquero.”
James laughed. “Perhaps he will when we visit his ranch. We would also like you Alex to join us as Andrews’s tutor, his education needs to be maintained as we will be away for a long time.”
Alex was grinning all over his face. “Yes, oh my, that would be marvellous. I’m sure I would be able to take a leave of absence from university.”
“Well my dear I think that has decided it, we need to set an early date and invite your brother and his family.” James smiled across at Fiona.
I held my hand up. “Wait on, I don’t want my need to get home to rush you into getting married.”
James raised a glass. “I love you Fiona Lancer and the sooner we are married the better.”
Andrew raised his glass of milk. “And the sooner I will have you as my Mama.”
Next thing a bottle of champagne was being opened and the cook and all the other servants were called in to join in the celebration.
I took James to one side. “Can I make a suggestion?”
“Yes, of course.”
“When you tell Grandfather about bringing forward the wedding, please make it clear it’s because of my plan to return home. I wouldn’t want him to misunderstand.”
James shook his head. “I think it may be too late to provide him with a new grandchild, but who knows what the future holds. I am going to ask him to move into the house as my estate manager. Would you come along with me, if he is reluctant he may listen to you suggesting it is a good idea. Fiona worries about him living by himself, not that he isn’t able, and the cottage will always be his.”
The next morning I rode out with James and hung about outside while a conversation between an Earl and my Grandfather took place. I thought back to when I had started out on a journey to find family never dreamed of this.
James came out looking relieved. “That went better than I thought it would. He wants to speak to you, I’ll set off back and see you later.”
“Grandfather?” I stepped into the dark overcrowded room and again tried to imagine Murdoch being here.
“I’ve had word of a wolf roaming close by, you’ll be good at the hunting.”
It wasn’t a question. “You have wolves hereabouts?”
“There is a wounded dangerous creature out there and the sooner it is dealt with the better.”
I knew that tone in a man’s voice heard it in range wars often enough. “You want me to deal with this?”
“No laddie I want you to watch my back, while I do what is necessary to keep the Earl and family safe.”
I sighed as he handed me a hunting rifle. “I guess you are saying McIntyre is out there somewhere wanting revenge for the death of Connor Donaldson?”
He shook his head. “No Johnny, McIntyre doesn’t care about that man or his death. The Earl has made an enemy in McIntyre by raising his suspicions about him and why he was on the estate. That and his campaign to have an enquiry into the manner of the clearances has ruined McIntyre’s reputation and future.”
“So, James is his target?” I sniffed, protecting my future uncle was as good a reason as any for hiring out. “There’s a lot of land out there, have you any idea where we start?”
“Aye, he’s been seen in the glen.”
I knew that word, Alex had told me it was Scottish for valley, stored that away to use on Murdoch.
We left the horses tied in a safe spot and I followed Grandfather along a narrow track. He held a hand up to halt our progress and raised his rifle, I looked over his shoulder. Below us in the valley was a stag with a full set of antlers and his small herd.
He took one shot and a deer went down, the stag ran with the herd following.
“Hell old man now McIntyre will know someone is here.” I was scanning the tree line and valley for movement.
“Yes, we need to draw him out, and I am your Grandfather, not an old man. I shall go down to the kill and you will cover me.”
Oh, boy was he good at dishing out orders. “No I’ll go down, I can move quicker than you. You cover me.”
I ran down changing directions to take what cover was available. Two shots rang out and I fell flat bringing my rifle up. A body tumbled down, I turned to see Grandfather standing tall his rifle still aimed at the opposite valley side. Damn that old man was fearless.
I got to the body of McIntyre first and poked it with my rifle, yep dead, a bullet hole in the middle of his chest. Grandfather joined me his face blank.
“Best fetch the horses, Johnny, we will get the deer back to the big house. I’ll move him.” He kicked McIntyre’s body.
I saw myself when I’m Madrid in him. Heck, I saw where Murdoch had inherited the ‘Lancer looking after its own’ attitude.
The cook was delighted with our delivery of venison.
Letters had arrived, one addressed to Murdoch and one in Johnny’s handwriting for me. Murdoch poured two glasses of Scotch. “Here we go Sir his next adventure.” I read it to myself first then out loud to Murdoch and Teresa. “Tomorrow I’ll find Jelly and Cipriano and read it to them”.
Scott, Well the Lancers from Edinburgh arrived for the wedding and suddenly the house was noisy with Andrew taking young Malcolm on games of hide and seek in the many rooms and at times the baby crying and being fussed over.
Have you ever heard bagpipes, oh boy Scott what a din. Two men were playing these contraptions at the wedding, fair hurt my ears. Then there was this dancing, lots of twirling around, these Scots sure to know how to throw a fiesta. And they dance over swords laying on the ground, not seen anything like before.
Everyone was pleased to hear your wire read out at the wedding feast, pity you and Murdoch weren’t here, but I’m sure looking forward to seeing you when we get to Boston.
Your brother Johnny
Say howdy to Barranca and tell him I’ll be home soon.
Murdoch laughed. “As usual brief, he doesn’t say Fiona convinced him to wear a kilt?”
I laughed. “No, I do hope there was a photographer there to record the occasion.”
“Yes, Fiona says he agreed on condition he wore it only for the one photograph and he was not expected to dance.”
We both shook our heads and raised our glasses. “That’s our boy.”
“Fiona says they should be in Boston by the end of next month.”
Boston harbour came into view through the rain, mist and smoke. Busy like all the other ports I’d seen, and I told myself the last one I was ever going to sail in or out of. But Murdoch and Scott would be waiting for me, I’d suffer a city and Harlan Garrett for sight of them.
I glanced over to Tia Fiona, I knew she was nervous about the reception she would receive from Boston society.
She had found me in a quiet moment worry in her eyes. “I’m only a crofter’s daughter, turned governess how will I fit into Boston society? Murdoch had said little of the reception he had experienced when he first landed here, but from what he did write he experienced snobbery and distrust.”
“Yeah, at our first meeting he said Scott’s Mama was told she was daft to marry him. Murdoch sounded real bitter about that. And Harlan Garrett sure can look down his long nose at the likes of me.” I took her arms and smiled at her. “But heck Tia you are Lady Kirkhale the wife of the Earl of Kirkhale, a man who married you for love.”
I looked around and whispered in her ear. “I’ll have your back. Us Lancers look after their own.”
James being such an important passenger we were allowed to get off, disembark as I had learned from my previous sailing, before most everyone else.
I worried I hadn’t spotted Murdoch and my fingers itched to have hold of my colt. I stood and scanned the crowds on the dockside looking for Murdoch standing head and shoulders above most everyone but didn’t see him
Then I spotted Scott pushing his way through the crowds.
“Scott.” I rushed towards him. “Where’s Murdoch?”
“Hello welcome back brother to you.” Scott held my arms and looked me up and down then damn him he hugged me in the middle of that crowd. “Murdoch hasn’t been able to travel.” He gave me a little shake. “He’s fine, and so is the ranch. I’ll tell you all about it when we are out of here and in the hotel.”
My whole body was tense. “He’s fine?”
“Yes Johnny and I have a letter for you from him so try to be patient. Now introduce me to our shared Lancer family.”
I blinked and took a breath to calm my jangling nerves and did as I was told.
Tia Fiona looked as concerned as me but Scott must have reassured her in his polite I’m in charge way ‘cos she nodded and smiled.
The hotel we were all to stay at was grand and apparently famous. I tried not to groan when Scott was telling Alex about that Emmerson fella and his friends using the place for meetings.
I had a room to myself along the corridor which James had taken over and I dragged Scott in. “Well tell me, everything, brother.” It felt good saying ‘brother’ again. Truth be told I’d missed him something fierce.
Scott stood in front of me. “Sit, and listen. That bullet that Pardee put in Murdoch moved.”
I leapt up from the chair I was perched on. “When, how?”
“Calm down, he was blacksmithing when his back gave out, as it does, but he said it felt different and for Sam to come. Now I’ll admit Teresa and I were concerned, but when Sam explained it was now safe to operate to remove the bullet, even Jelly stopped being so damn pessimistic.”
My heart was beating so hard it’s a wonder Scott couldn’t hear it. “Murdoch had this operation?”
Scott nodded. “Sam had a colleague who is a surgeon in San Francisco come and do the procedure.”
Before I could grill him on the details Scott held up a hand. “It was successful, but he needed bed rest to recuperate. I now know where you get your inability to do as you are told. I got Val to threaten to put him in leg irons if he didn’t follow Sam’s orders.”
“That the reason he’s not here?”
“Yes, his recovery has gone well but a long train journey followed by socialising would be a mistake.”
I sniffed. “Being polite to Harlan would be enough to set his back off. Sorry Scott, but hey if Murdoch’s back isn’t giving him gip he might be a bit more mellow and less liable to yell orders at me.”
My brother shook his head at me. “That is just what Jelly said.”
I gave some thought to what Scott had told me and worked out just how soon I could get on a train west. “I reckon with your polite Boston manners you should take charge of escorting these Lancers’ ‘round town. I’ll stay for the big shindig James has arranged for tomorrow but then I’ll head on home.”
“Oh no you are not running away from Boston, these people are family and we will be here to support them.”
The conversation I had with Tia Fiona came back to me to make me feel guilty.
“Okay, I’ve told Tia Fiona not to worry about being looked down on by Boston society and that I’d have her back. Might need your help with that, but we ain’t staying any longer than necessary.”
Scott reached out and put his hand around the back of my neck. “Now that has been agreed I need to ask when I get to see you in a kilt?”
I did the same back. “After you show me the scene of your meeting the Pinkerton.”
We tussled some, laughing, dios I had missed him.
The next day we went sightseeing. I don’t know who was more excited Alex or Andrew. Alex especially being back on solid ground, my cousin would not make a sailor. All those places Scott had spoken about became real. The Common was pretty enough for a city park, lots of people and some out riding. I didn’t think Barranca would be too impressed though, not enough open space for stretching his legs. Alex and Scott gave Andrew a walking history lesson about America fighting the British.
Andrew ‘specially enjoyed seeing the old sailing ship that the tea party happened on. I nudged Alex. “Would have been rough sailing on that little old thing.” He turned a little green at the thought.
Scott hailed the carriage that was taking us about and put his hand on Andrew’s shoulder. “Tomorrow we shall visit Harvard, the university I attended, but I think we should return to the hotel and prepare for the meal and company.”
“Oh no, Scott we need to see the Garrett house and all them fancy houses you visited. Don’t we Andrew?” I grinned at my brother. “We need to see if the fancy houses up on Beacon Hill compare to Kirkhale House don’t we?”
That’s when I got to see old Harlan Garrett’s mansion, old red brick, tall, smelt of money, gates wide enough for a carriage to pull in. “Very nice Scott can just imagine you strolling out and about in a fancy suit and top hat about to meet the pretty ladies.”
He was trying hard not to blush, he gripped my arm with more force than necessary. “Shall we stroll about I’ll point out some of the houses where notable people have lived.”
“Them, with balconies sure must have good views.” I raised an eyebrow at him and whispered. “A deal is a deal brother.”
“It certainly is Johnny.” He stopped outside another typical Beacon Hill house with a balcony that a man could leap from onto the sidewalk if he so needed to.
“Uncle Scott, are all the streets named after trees?” Andrew was peering through gates and over walls.
“Well noticed Andrew, these Boston houses were all built around the same time and yes the streets are named after trees. I’m not your Uncle, we are cousins, your Mama and my father are brother and sister.”
The boy looked at me. “Sobrino?”
“Yes, Andrew just like you and me.”
It was Tia Fiona who reminded us it was time to return to the hotel. I took a good long look at the house the Pinkerton had told me about and smiled.
I waited for the knock on the door knowing it would be Scott acting big brother to get me down to the grand dinner and function James and Fiona had laid on.
“Yeah come in Scott.”
His reaction was even better than I had hoped for. “Good grief Johnny, a kilt!!! You are wearing a kilt.”
“Yep, full dress outfit, the one I wore at the wedding. If I’m going to stay here and watch out for James and Fiona I’m going full out clan Fraser of Lovat, that’s the clan us Lancers are in.” I strutted up and down some and the kilt swirled. “The clan has a fearsome reputation, wouldn’t do for me to skedaddle back to California when my clan chief needs backup.”
Scott was open-mouthed and blinking like an owl.
I walked up to him. “Did you know part of this get-up is a dagger called a see an do* that you keep in your sock, look?” I pointed to the carved handle peeking out. “Handier than in a boot.”
He found his voice. “I thought the only occasion was going to be the wedding, and then only for one photograph?”
“Yeah, well, I knew I needed a bargaining chip to get you to show me the scene of your…” I frowned as I searched for the right word. “Escape.” I adjusted the jacket. “Pity Murdoch ain’t here though.”
Scott had recovered. “Very clever John, I’ll get you into this outfit back home one way or the other.”
I shrugged and waved my hand down myself. “This Scott is me as John Alexander Lancer a member of the Earl of Kirkhale’s family. One thing I learned when I met our shared Grandfather is I might always think of myself as mostly Mexican ‘cos of my Mama and childhood, but deep inside is the Lancer spirit.”
The evening went as well as any organised fandango can. All the Boston high society there bitching and gossiping and making nice to an Earl. I let Scott do what he is good at with introductions and polite talk. I did what I’m good at staying quiet and watching over Tia Fiona, James and Andrew. I knew eventually Harlan would make his presence felt.
Scott escorted his Grandfather and an elegant older lady towards us. “Your Lordship let me introduce Harlan Garrett, my Grandfather, and Margaret Garrett-Adamson my Great Aunt.”
James was the perfect gentleman. “Mr Garrett, it is a pleasure to meet you and your sister. We are after all now distantly related with my wife being the aunt of your grandson.”
Oh boy, it looked like he had been force-fed a lemon, I wanted to smirk but kept my face blank. Scott, had to clear his throat to swallow a laugh. The moment was rescued by Mrs Adamson. “I think it fascinating how families are connected through marriage and to trace histories.”
Scott stepped in. “You will have to talk to Johnny, he has been on a journey that has taken him from Mexico to Cuba, Spain and Scotland, his letters home have been….” He smiled. “Interesting.”
Harlan looked me up and down. “It looks as if you have left being Johnny Madrid and your mother’s heritage behind.”
“No Mr Garrett I’m proud to be half Scottish and half Mexican. Still me no matter what I wear.” I gave him my Madrid smile, he got the message.
There was an uncomfortable silence, and then a reporter and photographer from the Boston Globe showed up.
Poor old Harlan there he was being wrangled into having his picture taken with me next to him, for all of Boston to see. James was so patient with the reporter explaining about his title and land and how old it all was, and the correct way to address him and Fiona was Lord and Lady no less. He introduced me and Scott telling the newspaperman how I’d been a guest at his wedding. Went on to tell how his honeymoon trip was going on to California to visit his brother-in-law Murdoch Lancer. I don’t normally want my name or face in any newspaper but I knew I was going to buy tomorrow’s copy.
The next morning I was sat on my bed busy writing a letter to Abuela Estella with the newspapers spread out on the floor when Scott knocked and put his head around the door. “Are you ready for breakfast?” He stepped in to take a good look at what I was up to.
“Just finishing off a letter to Abuela, I’m sending her a copy of the picture and article.”
Scott nodded. “I’ve bought a copy to take back for Murdoch, he will enjoy seeing both you and Alex wearing kilts alongside James and his son. I hope you’re putting a copy in your journal.”
“You know about my journal?” I frowned wondering how he knew I had one.
Scott sat on the bed next to me and reached for it. I grabbed it back.
“Our Abuela Estella told us she had given you one with instructions to keep it up to date.”
“She’s quite a special lady ain’t she?”
Scott nodded and told me more of how he and Murdoch had chased after me to Mexico to the Rancho Ruiz. “She is a wonderful lady and has insisted she is my Abuela as well as yours. She and Murdoch correspond, exchanging the news you do manage to write to us.”
“Whoa, what do you mean exchanging news?”
“As interesting as your letters to me and Murdoch are it is obvious there is more. Your Mexican and Spanish Aunts have written to Abuela Estella of your visits to them and she then writes to us.”
I muttered under my breath. “Gossiping females.” Then I worried about what news had left Spain and chewed my lip.
“Don’t look so worried Johnny, you have made a good impression on your mother’s family. The news from Spain intrigued me.”
My stomach flipped did Murdoch know I had turned to Madrid and killed a man?
Scott gave me a serious look. “Your great aunt has said you have a natural skill as a swordsman and that her late husband would have taken you on as a student. In fact, Harvard has a fencing club that I was a member of and I was hoping you and I could have a bout.”
I let out a breath, another black Madrid memory that was stored away.
I pushed myself off the bed. “James is good with a sword, there is a collection at Kirkhale House, we went a few rounds. He said the same as Senora Consuela, I have a style that doesn’t follow the rules. Come on my stomach is calling and I want the man on reception to get this letter in the post.”
I hustled him out of my room telling myself he hadn’t read my worry, wouldn’t be surprised though if sometime in the future he tries to get more out of me about Spain.
The plan for the day was Scott was going to take James, Alex, me and Andrew to Harvard. I hadn’t been too fussed about going to a university but it was an important part of Scott’s life and I’d get to see something of what he was like before Lancer. Might even get to best him in a sword fight.
Tia Fiona had been invited to Mrs Margaret Garrett-Adamson for a tea party and probably get questioned about how she had managed to marry an Earl. She had laughed when I said I would go with her, telling me she had taken the measure of these society ladies.
Alex was in his element at Harvard comparing the buildings and learning with his experience at Edinburgh University and Scott was just delighted to show off where he lived and studied. It was all so different from the mission schools where I mostly remember having my knuckles and backside rapped for not concentrating or simply being a mestizo orphan. I’ve got to be honest I ain’t sure I would have enjoyed this kinda life. As a kid I liked being out in the fresh air and learning by watching and listening.
Scott went off and arranged for us to use the hall where I knew he was keen to show off his fencing skills. A large room with portraits on the wall and a collection of rapiers displayed in cabinets, not unlike the rooms in Spain and Scotland.
Scott unlocked a cabinet and selected one and swirled it around. “Of course, I’ve not practised since I moved to Lancer, so I may be a little rusty.”
I sniffed as I read a board that listed past winners of tournaments. “Your name’s here Scott, a skill that’s good enough for you to be listed as winning a competition will still be there. You best go up against James first he’ll give you a proper game, I’ve only had a few lessons.”
James was about to open his mouth but I nudged him and winked, I might not be good enough to beat Scott but I was determined to give him a surprise.
I sat between Alex and Andrew and watched Scotts’ moves. I kept my voice low and spoke to Andrew. “You know your clan motto?”
Andrew nodded. “Je suis prest. It’s French.”
“I know, and means I am ready. A man can learn a lot by watching and listening before he acts. I learned that lesson a long time ago the hard way. Forgotten it more than once as well.” I shook my head at the foolish scrapes I had gotten into by not following my own advice.
Alex looked over Andrew’s head. “I didn’t know you spoke French Johnny?”
“I know a few words, but that’s a story for another time.” I grinned at him, stories about the Mexican army clashing with the French invaders were not for Andrew’s ears.
Scott and James were well-matched, they both knew all the right moves and the polite way of fighting in a bout. Then it was my turn. “I’m ready.”
I grinned at Scott as I twirled the rapier and got its weight, then took that ready stance. “On guard brother.”
I just can’t help being a bit sneaky and took him by surprise a couple of times. I could hear Andrew cheering me on as the blades clashed and I danced about. Of course, I let him win.
Scott took us into Mrs Adamson’s house and all these Boston women in fancy hats clucked and twittered around us, Fiona looked relieved to be rescued. I stood back as Scott and James charmed these ladies with small talk, me and Andrew were eyeing the cakes that were sitting on flimsy-looking little tables. Eventually, it was polite for us to leave with Scott going on to Harlan’s for a private meal and evening.
I put my hand on his arm. “If you ain’t back in your hotel room by midnight I’ll be coming looking for you.”
He shook his head. “There is nothing to worry about Johnny, I will not be letting Grandfather talk me into staying in Boston.”
“Okay, but no sneaking off to any young ladies’ rooms either.” I punched his arm as I turned to get into our carriage and he turned to walk through Beacon Hill. I could hear him laugh as he raised his bowler hat and waved it in the air.
I stayed awake until I heard his footsteps in the corridor and his bedroom door opening.
Alex was keen to visit bookshops he had heard about so he could tell his father about them. James had set up some business meetings but Fiona was interested to be out and about with us. Now I do find bookshops interesting and it was fun to see Alex and Scott so enthusiastic about the books they came across on the shelves, but after a while, I was getting a bit antsy and could see Andrew was the same.
“Hey Scott, I was thinking me and Andrew could hire a couple of horses and go for a ride around that common.”
Andrew took Tia Fiona’s hand. “Please Mama can I do that?”
Her face had lit up, being called Mama sure tugged at her. Scott seemed a little unsure. “Do you remember where I pointed out the stables?”
“Scott I have the best sense of direction of anyone, of course, I can find the stables. I promise we will choose sensible mounts and no galloping.” I turned to Andrew. “Sensible mounts and no galloping we promise don’t we?”
“Yes, yes we promise.”
We were halfway to the stables when I realised my antsy feeling wasn’t only caused by dusty bookshops, we were being followed. See that’s the reason I ain’t keen on busy places not as easy to spot the culprit. I didn’t want to worry Andrew so we walked through the crowds towards the stable and I kept my eyes peeled. I was pretty sure it was just two tough-looking types who were following us, no one stepping out in front of us or carriages suddenly pulling up.
As we rounded a corner I upped our speed and pushed Andrew into an alley and into the shadows.
“Andrew listen and do as I say. There are two men following us, one has the look of a dock worker wearing a cap, the other wearing a long black coat. I’m going to lead them to the stables, you wait until you see them past this alley then you get back to that bookshop. If you get lost do you know the name of the shop to ask for directions?
His eyes were wide but I knew he was a brave boy. “Two men looking like the dock workers, one has a long black coat. You are going to lead them to the stables. The bookshop is called Bartles, I think I can find it, I’ll run and get Scott and Alex. Johnny, should I stop and tell a constable?”
What a sensible boy. “No just get to Scott and Alex they will know what to do. Wait here until they have passed then scoot without looking back.”
I got out of that alley and made sure those two saw me turn a corner that led to the stable.
They were on me as soon as I was through the door, pushing me to my knees. I was doing okay against them until I got hit on the back of my head then everything spun as I hit the ground, I vaguely heard the liveryman shouting then another thud as a body hit the ground. The two were arguing about what to do with me, seems they hadn’t expected me to put up a fight. I kept still and played possum as I was dragged and my hands tied behind a post, I squinted through my eyelashes.
Cap. “I didn’t expect him to put up such a fight. We were supposed to get him to the man, what are we going to do now?”
Long Coat “He’s out for the count and the boy is nowhere to be found, you fetch the man here, we can’t be carrying this one around. I’ll put the closed sign up and lock the door, don’t be long.”
Cap grunted and left, well now I only had one to deal with until Scott came to my rescue.
I groaned and lifted my head to look at long coat he was holding a handgun. So far all I had were bruises and a sore head seemed I was needed alive, and with luck, Andrew had found his way to Scott and Alex.
I licked my lips and rubbed the rope against the rough wood of the post. “Hey, I don’t know you, what’s going on?”
“What’s going on is a man wants you.”
“That man go by the name Harlan Garrett?”
Long Coat shook his head. I couldn’t think of anyone else in Boston who I’d made an enemy of. I knew being in the newspapers would draw attention, maybe the wrong sort, the sort I’d had in my past.
My hope that Scott would arrive before Cap man returned was dashed when there was a knock on the door and a rough voice asked to be let in.
I blinked at the third man, a city man, who had a sick look about him. “You the one who’s going to tell me what’s going on?”
He looked at me and turned to the two men. “This is the wrong one you fools.” He shook his head and glared. “Keep watch.”
Long coat snarled. “He’s the Lancer in the newspaper picture.”
I sniffed. “So it was Scott you are after,” I shouted after the two thugs. “I hope you boys have got paid for this upfront, ‘cos my brother knows where I was heading and will come looking for me. I’ll tell you something else that young boy I was with is practically British royalty and the law in this city won’t take kindly to threats to his safety.”
Like all two-bit hired muscle they knew when to back off, the look that passed between them told me they wouldn’t be keeping watch they would be making tracks.
It was just me and the stranger, who was pacing up and down with a derringer clutched in his hand. I raised my voice to get his attention. “Hey mister, if I’m going to die I want to know what I’m dying for.”
“Scott Garrett brought you past my house, laughing.”
“Scott goes by Lancer, and he was showing us around Beacon Hill, where he used to live. Who are you mister?”
“I am Bernard Morrison, it was all arranged I would have been his father-in-law, my daughter ensured of her place in Boston society, and my business secured by Garrett investment. But he has no honour, Barbara’s reputation was ruined by his abandoning her and running off to the west.”
Whoa, he was talking about that night the Pinkerton agent found him. “You mean you set Scott up to be found with your daughter followed by a shotgun wedding? So what is your plan, you going to kill him and me? Won’t change the past or put any wrong right and you’ll hang, what will that do to your daughter and her reputation?”
He waved the gun in my face. “Barbara is my only child and had to leave, she is now in England with some common upstart mill owner when her rightful place is here. We Morrison’s are one of the oldest of the Boston families, the insult must be avenged”
The ropes were starting to fray and I played for time. “So, you want to take your revenge out on Scott.”
His laugh was that of a man who had lost his reason. “And Harlan Garrett, who turned his back on me and his promises to invest in my business.”
All the time I had rubbed at the ropes and listened for the rescue I knew Scott would have planned. A scuffling sound in the hayloft and stray wisps of hay and dust falling reached my ears.
There was a hammering on the door, I recognised Alex’s voice. “Open up the constables have surrounded the building.”
I read the desperation in Morrison’s eyes. Dios I knew I had to move. I’m known as being sudden for a reason ‘cos as he raised his gun I pushed forward to get to him. The gunshot was deafening and blood splattered my face.
My hearing and head were ringing but I felt the vibration of the door being broken down. Scott was in front of me his mouth moving but I couldn’t make out what he was saying.
A wet cloth was wiping the blood from my face, I could have been underwater what with that and the far-away voices. I pulled the cloth away and looked up. “Are you okay Scott, Morrison did I get to him in time?”
“I’m fine, Morrison is dead by his own hand?”
I tried to look around him at the body. “He killed himself? I tried to get to him, I thought he was aiming at you.” I shook my head. “Did you hear any of what he was saying?”
“Some, you will need to tell the local police.”
Hell, I know about guilt and could see Scott was about to go down that road. “He was a sick man Scott, not thinking straight.”
Alex and a city lawman were there behind Scott so I struggled to my feet, I wasn’t about to talk to the law laying on the ground.
So I told the lawman I’d been attacked by two men and the dead man hadn’t made much sense to me, talking about revenge against Harlan Garrett.
The constable nodded. “It’s common knowledge Morrison has financial problems.” He studied the body, “It does look as if the death is self-inflicted.”
Scott shook the man’s hand. “Thank you, officer. I will get my brother back to our hotel and have a doctor look at his wounds.”
I waited until he had left with the liveryman and turned to Alex. “Is Andrew okay?”
“Yes he found us as we were leaving the bookshop, he is anxious to see you.”
“Nope, not here don’t want him to see this” I pointed at the blood. “Tell him and Fiona I’ll see them back at the hotel.”
I staggered to a water tub and ducked my head in to wash the blood from my face and hair. My jacket would need a proper clean but I pulled my shirt off and dunked that in the water. I shivered as I put it back on and Scott put his jacket around my shoulders.
Back at the hotel, Tia Fiona insisted I let the doctor look me over, I insisted I was fine and that I had a hard head and had much worse. Oh, boy just like Murdoch, fussing must run in the family. No sooner had the doctor gone than Andrew was in the room looking worried.
I ruffled his hair and bent down to look him in the eye. “Hey Andrew I heard you made good time to get to the bookshop, you did a good job.”
“I remembered what you told me Johnny and described the two men.”
“You did well kid, thank you.”
Tia Fiona smiled at me as she and James got him out of the room. Then Harlan showed up.
We eyed each other up, I kept quiet, Scott cleared his throat, but old Harlan held his hand up. “After the war Scotty you were a changed young man, drinking, keeping unsuitable company, your engagement to Julie didn’t survive. Morrison had approached me at the club mentioning how you had escorted his daughter to several functions, I admit I was relieved to think you may have decided to settle down.”
I looked from Harlan to Scott. “Were you involved with setting Scott up to get married, hoping that would keep him in Boston?”
Harlan shook his head. “I was aware Morrison needed Garrett investment in his family business that would come after the marriage but was unaware of how desperate he was to make it happen. It was Barbara herself who came to me after you left for California and confessed she had lured you to her bedroom. It was me who paid for her passage to England to escape the scandal. I will not be made to feel guilt over Bernard Morrison committing suicide and neither should you Scott, he had gambled away his family fortune and used his daughter to snare you.”
I kept my mouth shut, Harlan Garrett was a ruthless businessman and as trustworthy as a rattlesnake to boot, but he is Scott’s Grandfather and his family. He took me by surprise by shaking my hand.
“Thank you John for your discretion.”
He shook Scott’s hand as he left.
I raised an eyebrow at Scott. “Discretion? Heck, I was just trying to keep your name out of it.
Scott had that guilty look come over him, I nudged him. “I could tell a few tales of my own about escaping from pretty gals and angry Pa’s.”
He shook his head at me. “You Johnny Lancer are incorrigible.”
“Now there’s a word if I could spell it would go in my journal.”
I made him laugh and relaxed. “Now can we leave?”
“The doctor said for you to take it easy. You have a concussion from that blow to your head and using it as a battering ram against a gun.”
“Hey, all I’ll be doing is sitting on a train, come on Scott I need to go home.”
“So do I so do I.”
Boston to Chicago
Scott was in his element planning our train rides across the country. If it was just me I’d head out on the first train going west, but heck there was quite a gang of us and an eye-watering amount of baggage. I was happy to leave him to that organising, me I’d managed all my travelling with the same carpetbag Tia Carlotta had given me in San Blas.
Still and all James, Alex and Andrew were enjoying pouring over maps and timetables and where best to stay. I was set to escort Tia Fiona to lunch at Scott’s Aunt Margaret’s, I’d been ‘specially invited, guess she wanted the gossip about Scott and his new life.
Sure enough, Mrs Garrett-Adamson soon had me cornered on a flimsy chair that had me worried I’d break it into little pieces if I shifted my butt too often. I was missing the solid Spanish furniture at Lancer, a man could rest easy there. To my surprise it wasn’t Scott she was interested in but me, wanting to know all about my travels.
“Tell me, Johnny, what set you off to go travelling, I understood from Scott’s letters you had settled at the ranch?”
I sniffed and gave some thought to what to tell her. “Well, Ma’am it was you who put the idea in my head.”
She sat forward. “Me, how did I do that?”
“It was a family history chart you sent to Scott of all his relatives. Made me wonder about mine and if I could meet any of them.” I smiled at her. “My Abuela, that’s Grandmother is a special lady, told me all about my Mexican and Spanish families and where to find them. And I’m real glad I did, I’ve learned a lot about my family heritage and it’s filled up some empty places in my heart.”
She patted my arm, “As the saying goes, to know where to go you need to know where you came from.” As she smiled at me and I smiled back, deciding right then and there this Boston Garrett was okay.
“Some truth in that Ma’am. I now have some idea of where I’m from and I’m sure going back to Lancer.”
She waved at a servant and asked for a glass of sherry for herself and a Scotch for me. “Senora Consuela de Mendoza your Great Aunt you spoke of her the other evening, the one with the sherry business?”
“Yes, Ma’am, if you like sherry I can write to her and arrange for some to be sent to you.”
She patted my hand. “Now wouldn’t that be something to tell my society friends, I have extended family supplying my sherry!”
I grinned at the thought of me and mine being this grand Boston lady’s family. “On my late Grandfathers side, there is family in Cuba who have a very successful cigar business. Mighty fine cigars they are as well.” I leaned forward and lowered my voice. “Maybe your society friends’ husbands will be impressed with them?”
“Johnny Lancer you have a gift for selling an idea.”
“Been told a time or two I have a smart mouth.”
“Poof! You have charm and a nice smile, which I suspect has got you into as much trouble as it has got you out off. You are not at all like Harlan described you.”
I laughed. “Yeah well, he saw another side to me.”
She sighed. “We Garrett’s are not Boston old money, Harlan worked hard to build his business and earn his reputation. Money talks, sometimes louder than breeding.”
I shrugged not wanting to be impolite about her brother. “He succeeded, house on Beacon Hill, member of the right clubs.”
“Yes, and he married well. Scott’s Grandmother was well-connected, don’t misunderstand, she was a lovely woman and it was a happy marriage that brought the best out of him. Harlan would probably be a little less ruthless if she had lived.”
Her comments made me think maybe Murdoch would be less stone-faced about the past if he hadn’t lost two wives the way he had.
“Oh look here is Scott and the Scottish family.” Margaret waved across the room.
James, Andrew and Alex went to join Fiona while Scott came to join us and kissed his Aunt on the cheek. “Has my brother behaved himself?”
“He has been a perfect gentleman, we have even discussed possible business opportunities.” She smiled at me as Scott raised an eyebrow.
“All perfectly legal brother, me and Aunt Margaret are planning to import sherry and cigars.”
Scott shook his head, “Incorrigible.”
“Indeed.” I grinned.
She rose and I breathed a sigh of relief as I got to my feet. Her voice became serious. “We need to talk, let us go to the library.”
The library was just that, full of books lit with some lamps. Margaret went to a desk and took out a letter which she handed to Scott. “I assume you will be going through Chicago. I would like you to take this to my son Edwin, your Uncle. I must warn you though Scott he is a changed man, the death of his son Charles affected him badly, and his heart nearly gave out. Like you, he has made a new life west of Boston. He is in charge of the Adamson Investment and Engineering business in Chicago which opened two years ago. By all accounts, the business is doing well, but I worry about his health so would like you to write to me of how you find him.”
Scott put his arm around his Aunt. “Of course, I will call on him. I hadn’t realised he was in Chicago. Lancer sends cattle to the stockyards there, I could have arranged to visit him before now.”
I sniffed thinking Murdoch would have had something to say about Scott having time off to visit a Boston relative.
I didn’t say that out loud but instead asked him. “Charles?”
My brother shook his head and got that sad far-away look that comes over him sometimes. “My cousin Charles and I signed up for the war together, he was one of those who didn’t survive.”
One advantage to being related to Harlan Garrett and all his enterprises was getting to travelling first class, not one but three carriages one a sitting room and two for sleeping in. I was going to share with Scott and Alex, the other for James, Margaret and Andrew. Heck, we even had a man acting as a butler.
I bounced on the bottom bunk bed, Scott was going on the top one. I didn’t mind cos I had a small bet with myself that he’d be hitting his head on the roof each time he got in or out of it. I heard a small thud as his head did hit the roof as he climbed down to sit next to me and I tried to hide a smirk.
I felt a nudge in my ribs “You can take that smile off your face John Lancer, It’ll be your turn on that top bunk in a couple of days.”
“Yep, and I’m not a tall drink of water like you so my head will be safe.” He tried to ruffle my hair like I was a little kid but I patted him away. “Now Scott tell me about this Uncle of yours in Chicago.”
He sighed. “As a child Grandfather’s house was very quiet, he would be out at the office or in his study. I spent a lot of time at Uncle Edwin’s with his two sons Charles who was a year older than me and Robert who is four years younger. Even as a child Charles was determined to lead us into adventures, he was very charismatic and at times reckless but could talk his way out of any trouble that resulted.”
I waited knowing Scott would be deciding which memories to share with me.
“Charles and I signed up to join the cavalry. Grandfather was furious with me and Uncle Edwin, calling him a dreamer more interested in his mechanical inventions. Grandfather wanted me at least to take a desk job, Uncle Edwin though was proud of Charles wanting to fight and told Grandfather volunteering to fight for the union was noble and patriotic.”
Scott ran a hand through his hair and shook his head.
I sucked in a breath. “Don’t tell me he led a reckless charge and got himself and others killed, and you ended up a prisoner of war?”
He frowned at me. “How did you know that?”
“Dios Scott I’ve been there myself.” I hugged myself keeping the pain of that failed revolution inside.
“Uncle Edwin took the news of his eldest son’s death badly. When I first returned I wanted to see him but was told his heart was damaged and his wife Aunt Clara and Robert had moved him to their summer home in Newport to recover. Later Robert wrote to tell me it was his spirit that had broken and he was receiving medical treatment for the change it had brought to his personality.”
I looked up at the carriage roof. “Sometimes it’s easier to deal with bullet wounds and broken bones than that kind of injury.”
Scott patted my arm. I knew he understood.
“I’ll come with you to visit him.”
“No, Johnny I think I should see him myself in private, tell him Charles was well regarded by the men, how he inspired them.”
I shrugged, wasn’t sure if that was such a good idea, but maybe it would lay some of those war ghosts that haunt Scott to rest.
Before we pulled into Chicago I had a serious talk with the Scottish relatives. “Now when Scott here first arrived at Lancer me and Teresa had to have a serious talk with him about how his city way of dressing just wasn’t the style out west. Didn’t we Scott?”
Scott nodded. “Teresa took me to Senor Baldermero’s store in Morro Coyo, it was quite an introduction to the area, but I got a good hat and sensible work clothes.”
“So men, before we go visit the stock markets me and Scott are going to take you shopping ‘cos kilts just ain’t the fashion in these parts.”
Young Andrew was excited. “Can I have a cowboy hat like yours’ Johnny, and trousers with studs?”
“Well, Andrew you’ll need a good hat when you get to Lancer to keep the sun off your head, not sure about pants like mine. I’ll take you to Senor Baldermeros and maybe get you a shirt that has more style than those Scott and your Uncle Murdoch usually prefer.”
“And can we ride in the stagecoach like you did when you first met each other?”
Scott blinked. “Johnny told you that story of hitching a free ride, did he? Which version of how he had lost his horse did he tell you, he has told at least five versions you know?”
I let out a yelp. “Hey the true version, it was an old horse that had gone lame so I left him with some nice people. I went back to check on him after I’d settled in.” I grinned at Scott he grinned back some stories about broken-down crowbait horses and land pirates weren’t for Andrew to hear about, at least not yet. Probably when we get to Lancer the ranch kids will share stories with him. “Stagecoach rides ain’t too comfortable. I think the plan is to take the train to a place called Cross Creek where we will be met with wagons from Lancer.”
Andrew looked real disappointed.
“Hey Andrew you and me will get a ride on stagecoach don’t you worry none.” I got it in mind to suggest a short stagecoach ride out of Morro Coyo do some fishing, maybe catch a couple of rabbits and camp out for a couple of days then catch the stagecoach back. The boy would like that and the weather in the San Joaquin sure was better suited to that plan than the cold and damp back in Inverness.
There was a wire waiting for me and Scott from Murdoch at the hotel telling us he had sent word to his cattlemen contacts at the stockyard who would be expecting us and for us to not let Lancer down while we were in the city.
Scott shook his head. “Does he think we are children not to be trusted?”
I liked the idea of him treating us like children in a strange city. “Well we are his children and even all these miles away he’s still dishing out his orders. I for one will follow them.”
He made a snorting sound. “Well in that case I had better act the big brother and watch your back every step of the way.”
We were still laughing when we met James, Alex and Andrew to find them suitable clothes.
The stockyard was an eye-opener that’s for sure. I’ve been on cattle drives ever since I was a kid and a couple at Lancer, they ended at noisy busy railheads, but Chicago was so much bigger than anything I’d seen. We met up with a couple of the cattlemen who knew Murdoch and they were more than pleased to show us around. The record-keeping of numbers and breed lines opened my eyes to why Murdoch was so keen to keep buying new bulls. I could see James was keeping notes and guessed he would be talking to Grandfather Lancer back in Inverness about the stock there.
Me and Scott ended up being in the company of Matt Carter. He kept looking at me in a way that made me nervous. Luckily Scott has this way with folks and asked him outright how he knew Murdoch.
“Well, boys, me and your father have known each other since before Johnny here was born. Came across each other at an auction trying to outbid each other for a bull. I tell you, Murdoch can spot a good bull better than any man I have ever met.”
I nodded. “That’s just what Grandfather Lancer back in Scotland said. Even as a boy Murdoch knew which bull calf was the one to keep?”
Mr Carter looked at me. “You have met Murdoch’s Pa? Have you seen those highland coos he used to talk about? After a few drinks, your Pa’s accent would be strong and I was never sure if he was joking.”
I had to laugh. “Oh yes, I’ve seen those highland cattle that they call coos. Shorter in height than the beeves we have on Lancer, way long orange coats, and horns. Yep saw plenty of them.” I saw him looking closely at me and it made me nervous. “Have we met before Mr Carter?”
Mr Carter shook his head. “I used to have a spread in west Texas, your Pa asked me to look out for you and your Mama when she left to return to her own folk.” He could see the anger on my face. “Now don’t take on, I had myself a Mexican wife, lost her and our son to the cholera near on ten years ago. Damn near broke me, sold out to the King outfit and came here. I started out as an auctioneer and have kept in touch with your Pa all this time. Never been happier when I heard you and Scott here had come home.”
I relaxed some, his name and face weren’t familiar to me. I’d travelled through west Texas and knew of the King outfit, but ten years ago I was on the Mexican side of the border fighting the French.
Scott got him to tell a few stories of how Murdoch and he went against each other at auctions and I have to admit it was fun to hear, better than any stories of lost wives and children.
“It’s been a pleasure to meet you Mr Carter but I need to get back to our hotel and change before I go to meet my Uncle.” Scott shook hands with him.
“Do you know where you are going, Scott? The city is still in an uproar in places with all the rebuilding after the fire.”
Scott smiled. “I am told his office is on Clark Street I think taking a carriage would be best.” Scott shouted across the room to Alex. “Alex, you’re in charge of keeping Johnny out of trouble.”
“Hey, it’s not just me that attracts trouble.”
Scott was laughing as he walked out waving his hand at me.
When I turned back to Mr Carter he was frowning. “I know there is Garrett investment in the railway but as far as I was aware I don’t know of any Garrett business offices in the city.
“This Uncle isn’t a Garrett he’s from Scott’s Great Aunt Mrs Garrett-Adamson’s side of the family, name of Edwin Adamson, he runs a business called Adamson Investment and Engineering.” I looked closely at Carter that worry instinct of mine was whispering to me. “Do you know him?”
“He’s not a cattleman so am not acquainted with him personally. I do know of the Acme Engineering Company which is in partnership with that business.”
It was obvious Carter was reluctant to go into details, but that whisper was now shouting, I leaned forward. “Tell me all of it?”
Carter sighed. “You must understand Chicago is a city so busy rebuilding and determined to challenge New York that corners are cut. Business risks are taken and where the investment money comes from is not always investigated. I know Acme Engineering have undercut competitors to supply equipment and a workforce for the expansion of the railways supplying the stockyards. There were rumours of poor works on rebuilding fire-damaged buildings in the Monroe Street area but only rumours nothing else.”
I sat back and chewed my bottom lip trying to recall a memory. It came to me and I stood and shook Mr Carter’s hand. “Been a pleasure talking to you. I need to find Scott.”
I took Alex by his arm and walked him to a quiet corner. “Alex I need you to find the Pinkerton office which I know is somewhere here in Chicago. Introduce yourself and ask for Mr Smith, he told me once, he was based in this city. Tell him Johnny and Scott Lancer are at the Acme Engineering offices on Clark Street, he’ll know what it’s about.” I could see he was full of questions. “I’ll explain later but I think Scott may be walking into trouble and I’m going there to watch his back.”
Alex was blinking. “What if Mr Smith isn’t there?”
“Just tell whichever agent is in, the Pinkertons know us Lancers and will know what to do. And don’t tell James and Andrew I don’t want them getting involved in any fracas.” I was out of there before he could ask any more questions, looking for a carriage to take me to Clark Street.
I had it stop at the end of the street and scouted out the area around the tall brick building where an impressively large glass window on the fourth floor was painted telling the world it was the offices of Acme & Adamson Investment and Engineering. There was a large man at the door, who was not so much a doorman as security. Around the back was a small warehouse, I spotted a couple of workmen opening crates. Knowing how long it would take Scott to clean up I crossed over to the shadows of an alley opposite the entrance, leaning against a wall watching for any comings and goings and waited.
Didn’t have to wait too long, a carriage pulled up I scooted across the road and jumped in the door away from the building, Oh boy did I surprise Scott.
“What the devil!” His eyebrows had shot up into the city bowler hat he was wearing.
“Just play along Scott, Mr Carter told me something that caused me to worry.” I had my hand on his arm, and I hoped he would trust my instincts.
“Okay, what exactly is this something that worries you?”
“Your Uncle is in partnership with Acme Engineering, and there are two things, one there are rumours about their business practices.” I held my hand up with two fingers. “And two it was an Acme Engineering Company that was involved in the gold robbery on the Panama train.”
We were still sitting in the carriage so while he was taking that information in I pushed him to get out. “I ain’t saying your relative is a gold robber but I’m wondering if it’s these partners of his?”
We both stepped out and he looked up at the building, I looked at the big man standing guard at the doorway.
Scott spoke quietly. “I cannot believe my Uncle is involved in any underhand or illegal activities. I remember he disapproved of some of Grandfather’s ruthless business methods.”
“Come on Scott, let’s watch each other’s back. Besides the man here at the door who I don’t like the cut of, there are at least two others in a warehouse around the back. I don’t know the setup inside, just play along.”
I’ve done more foolish things than can be counted and sometimes I just act the fool. I went right up to the doorman and grinned. “Howdy, I tell you I ain’t never seen so many tall brick buildings in my life. Can’t believe it can you Scott? I didn’t wait for a reply, I kept on shaking his hand. “Scott here is here to visit his Uncle Edwin Adamson. Guess his office is up there where the fancy painted window is?” All the while I was walking around him and Scott was making his way past him.
The big guy didn’t stand a chance against the Lancer brothers, ‘cos my smart brother played along.
Scott tugged on my arm. “You’ll have to excuse my young brother he is finding the city a bit overwhelming. All he’s used to is pushing cows and fixing fences back on the ranch. Now I take it my Uncle Edwin is up these stairs?”
He didn’t wait for a reply either as we took the stairs two at a time, as soon as we turned a corner we started laughing.
I kept glancing behind but there was no sound of the big guy following us, I bet he was getting the two in the warehouse. I bumped into Scott who had come to a sudden stop. “Hey, Scott this it?”
“This Johnny is the reception area for Uncle Edwin’s office.”
I looked around him, behind an impressive desk was a woman old enough to be our mother with that hard edge, I’d seen in some women along the border. Didn’t get a good feeling and instinctively felt for my hideaway gun, and pushed the door shut with my heel. There was a key so with my hands still behind my back I locked the door. If the big guy did try to follow us I would at least have a few minutes.
Scott stepped forward. “Good day, I’m Scott Garrett Lancer and I have an appointment to see Mr Adamson.”
She stayed sat down and gave us both a hard look. “Mr Edwin Adamson is not available, he is in a meeting.”
I edge to her desk and ran my fingers up and down the shiny surface and grinned at her as I inched around the desk towards the door to the office. Scott meanwhile had gone all Boston gentleman.
“Madam, we are not here for a business meeting. Mr Adamson is my relative and is aware of my intention to visit him and pass on news from his mother in Boston.”
There was a flash of alarm on her face and as she made to stand to block the door, I got there first. “Ma’am, it’s okay we’ll introduce ourselves.”
I flung the door open. “Scott I just knew that big window would be something to see close up.” I was grinning like a tonto and Scott quickly followed me.
There were two desks, one facing us the man behind it with his back to the window. The other to one side, the man behind that had pushed back as soon as we stepped in. My instincts told me the older one with his back to the window was Edwin Adamson, the other one was younger and I caught that glint in his eye, I guessed any danger would come from him.
I moved to the side of the front desk and made to look out of the window. “Long way down, but I gotta say the view from the window in our hacienda is prettier.” I turned back and flashed my innocent goofy smile at the two men.
Scott had nodded a greeting to the man at the side before stepping up to put out his hand smiling at the older one. “Uncle Edwin, it has been too long, I hope I find you well?”
There was a look of alarm followed by a frown. “Garrett, what are you doing here? I thought I had made it clear to Harlan that I never wanted to see you again. If you hadn’t egged Charles on into fighting in that war I would still have a son, it isn’t right you returned and he didn’t.”
Scott had no time to reply before Adamson was on his feet pointing at the door.
“Leave and take your half-breed brother with you.”
I could see Scott stiffen his spine about to go into his lieutenant Lancer act. I also saw Adamson glance towards the man at the side desk and all my instincts made me reach for my gun. The gunshot took Scott in his back and he fell forward onto the desk.
I threw myself on the ground shouting at Adamson to hide behind his desk and shot at the shooter, the woman in the doorway. My second shot took the man at the side desk in his shoulder. As much as I needed to check on Scott my gunfighter trade taught me to be sure the opponents were dead or out of the game. The woman was dead I took her gun and scooted to the man who had fallen back blood oozing from a shoulder wound he was conscious and about to shout so I knocked him out.
All the while I was aware the big man from downstairs would have heard the noise and would be on his way upstairs, probably with backup.
I checked on Scott who was out cold, blood soaking through his coat and spreading across his back. I hauled him off the desk and dragged him to the only place with cover, the wall behind the door.
I left the woman’s body where she lay, at least they would have to get over her to get into the room.
I lay over Scott and again shouted to Adamson. “Stay down Adamson I know help is on its way.” I knew that ‘cos I’d seen Alex with a group of smartly dressed men down on the street, Pinkertons I guess.
I heard men charging up the stairs I raised my gun waiting. The reception door was broken down and then there was a blast from a shotgun. It went over Adamson’s desk and took out the window.
I stayed low over Scott giving him cover and raised my gun to take out anyone who came into view. “You men out there need to know the woman is dead and the man’s out of the game. You have two choices, one you live or two you die. Men are coming through the front door as we speak. You’re trapped. So give up.”
There is always one who thinks he can beat the odds. I saw his shadow and as soon as his head came into view I pulled the trigger.
I heard shouting, then I heard Alex above the other voices. “Johnny, Scott, the Pinkertons have these bandits under arrest, is it safe for us to enter?”
I let out a breath. “Yeah, come on in.” I stayed where I was and kept my gun at the ready, lessons learned the hard way had taught me to only trust my own instincts in these situations.
It was okay, Alex led the way in followed by Mr Smith the Pinkerton agent.
“Scott has been shot and probably has a concussion from hitting his head. Mr Adamson is behind the desk, just shook up some. Fella over there has a gunshot wound and a headache.” I put my gun and Madrid away and turned to my brother who was groaning. “Stay put Scott help is here.”
There was Scott sitting in a hospital bed looking like he’d been trampled in a stampede. I gently touched his face. “Boy Scott that’s an impressive black eye you have there.” My good-looking fair-skinned brother’s face was black and blue, his right arm in a sling.
His hand came up to touch mine. “How are you, I don’t remember anything after being angry with my Uncle.”
I sat on the bed facing him. “Sorry, Scott I missed the woman being the one who would be the first to act.”
“It’s not you who should be sorry for anything Johnny. What my Uncle said was unforgivable.”
“Hey Scott, don’t you know he was saying all that to get us so wound up we would leave before any trouble? Murdoch tried that on me one time, didn’t understand why until later. Anyways Uncle Edwin is outside wanting to see you and explain.”
Even beneath the bruises, I could see he was angry.
I patted his leg. “Give him a chance Scott.”
I let Mr Adamson in, the man had aged. He stood at the foot of the bed I had already heard his story. I put my hand on his shoulder. “Go ahead Mr Adamson tell your story.”
“First I need to apologise for what I said. I was desperate for you to leave before the Dailey’s could cause you any harm.” He shook his head. “I didn’t mean any of it.” He looked over his should at me then back at Scott. “ I know what my son was like, all his life he had lived for adventure and it was he who would have talked you into signing up to fight on the front lines. His death broke my heart. I needed something, a fresh start. As you know I am an engineer so thought to go to San Francisco and study the cable cars but then there were so many opportunities to help rebuild Chicago after the fire so I came here.”
He had to pause. “I had an idea for a form of cable car transport that could replace the horse-drawn public transport and Jacob Dailey approached me with an offer to become my partner and fund the production. I was a fool not to make sure he was honest. I was so absorbed in designing my version of a cable car I didn’t realise until it was too late that when the funding he had expected never arrived the business would turn to dubious underhand practices and cost-cutting. I tried to leave but they threatened me. Mrs Dailey was more dangerous than her son, threatening to visit my wife and younger son. Even her Jacob was afraid of her and her quick temper.”
Scott was silent for a minute. “I understand about the need for a fresh start, the war changed those of us who survived and the families of those who lost sons. Please Uncle Edwin do not think my signing up to fight was all down to Charles talking me into it, I was like him young and idealistic. It may be small consolation but he was admired by the men under his command and I miss my childhood friend. As for being a businessman, your talent has always been that of an engineer looking to the future.”
Adamson had tears in his eyes as he took Scott’s good left hand. “Thank you, Scott. I am going back to my wife and Robert in Newport. I will let better-placed engineers take my ideas and perhaps incorporate them in the future of this city.”
He shook my hand. “I have given a statement to the Pinkertons, your actions saved mine and Scott’s life, thank you, Johnny.”
When the door had closed I turned back to Scott I knew he would have questions. “I shot three people Scott, two are dead.” I looked down at my boots I don’t hide my days of being Madrid, just don’t much like my family seeing me like that. I’d worried what Alex made of it, but he’d impressed me by saying Grandfather Lancer had warned him there was some truth in the stories of gunplay in America.
“Are you okay Johnny, are the law out there?” Scott was struggling to lever himself out of the bed.
“Whoa Scott, no, seems like the Pinkerton’s have me down as being an irregular agent of theirs.” I grinned. “That Mr Smith of yours had tracked down the Acme Engineering who were behind planning the gold robbery on that Panama train, to the Dailey’s here in Chicago. When Alex showed up he took no time at all to get his men together to come to our rescue.”
“So no bringing the Lancer name into disrepute.” Scott fell back against his pillows.
“You thinking of Murdoch’s order?” I sat back down on the bed. “Don’t worry he might get another letter from Mr Smith telling how we helped solve a crime.”
Scott sighed. “Incorrigible.”
I laughed. “I looked that word up I know what it means Scott.” I took the leather throng from around my neck and looked at the charm threaded on it. “This is yours, perhaps if I’d given it to you in Boston you wouldn’t be lying in this bed with a hole in your back and your face such a mess.”
Scott took the charm. “No, if you had handed it over it might be you in this bed. Don’t go blaming yourself, you have travelled thousands of miles and remained in one piece. The troubles in Boston and now here are from my past.”
“Yeah, well I promised that old man on the beach in Cuba so you put it around your neck I don’t want to rescue you from any more of your past sneaking up to nudge us.”
Scott is almost as bad as me for not wanting to be tied to a bed. He was lucky. His back wound was caused by a bullet from a derringer that had not gone deep enough to break his shoulder bone. The sling he was wearing was only to keep Aunt Fiona happy. His face though was still a mess with bruises fading from black and blue to an ugly green, I tried to cheer him up by telling him at least his nose hadn’t been broken.
As soon as he was out of the hospital he was talking about keeping to the travel plan and going on to San Francisco.
James took one look at him and announced. “If we are to travel I think it best we travel to Cross Creek and get to Lancer before any more incidents befall our group. I know we were planning on staying in San Francisco but we can visit that city on our return journey.”
I clapped my hands. “Good idea, wouldn’t want any more of Scott’s past sneaking up to nudge him some more do we?” I nudged him in his ribs just because I could and laughed.
Scott tried to say he was fine and there was no need to cancel our plans to visit San Francisco.
Aunt Fiona was having none of it. “Scott, you are not fine. You have had an operation to remove a bullet and probably have a concussion from the blow to your head. In any case, I have sent a telegram to Murdoch telling him to expect us earlier.”
I had teased Scott that I could have dug the bullet out with my boot knife he didn’t need a fancy doctor in a city hospital. I hadn’t said that to Aunt Fiona though.
I raised my eyebrows at Andrew who was trying not to laugh at Scott being treated like a naughty boy. “I’m with your Pa the sooner I get myself home the better.”
Scott nodded at James. “Very well, I concede to the majority, but I will come with you when you do get a chance to visit San Francisco. I was looking forward to showing you the fine theatres and restaurants.”
Scott found me later. “Do you have a feeling more trouble is waiting for us?”
I smiled at him. “No Scott, just tired of traveling. I’m looking forward to Mamacita cooking up some Mexican food for me, even Murdoch ordering me to go clear a blocked creek.”
He put his good arm around my shoulder. “You’ve been missed, so be prepared for a hero’s welcome. Everyone will want to hear all your stories, especially those you have not written to us about.”
“I ain’t no hero.”
“It was brave of you to set off to discover your heritage. Who knows what you would have found.”
“Found some good people, learned some of what makes me the person I am.” I studied my boots and sniffed. “Will Murdoch be pleased his prodigal son is returning or tear me off a strip for leaving?”
“You didn’t leave, you went looking for those blank pages of your past. Murdoch has missed you. He has realised his “the past is the past” excuse for not talking about our mothers and their families, or even his own family, pushed you into finding out about your extended family yourself.”
I shook my head, some of my past is dangerous and I hadn’t really spoken of it with the Scottish relatives. “Scott, can you explain to these folk about wearing guns? I ain’t getting off this train without mine on my hip.”
“I’ll do that and I’ll be wearing mine as well.” He grinned at me. “I think Andrew and Alex will be disappointed if we don’t dress and act like the Californian ranchers we are.”
As we approached Cross Creek you could taste the excitement in the air. Andrew was practically bouncing in his seat asking every five minutes how much further it was, and Alex wasn’t much better. Even Aunt Fiona was fidgeting pulling her gloves on and off.
I stood and clapped my hands. “Okay everyone when we reach Cross Creek I would like to be first off to meet Murdoch. Just give me a couple of minutes before you all pile off for the big family reunion.”
Fiona nodded. “I think that only fair, you should have a few private minutes with your father before we Scots forget our manners.” She looked across at Andrew and Alex with that look only a strict Mama can summon when they expect good behaviour.
I was off that train before it fully stopped and Murdoch was striding down the platform towards me. I grinned, he was smiling at me. “Howdy Murdoch.”
“Johnny, son, welcome home. I have missed you.”
He put one of those big hands of his on the back of my neck and squeezed gently. For a man who doesn’t show much in the way of affection, it meant a lot. “I’ve missed you and all those blades of grass on Lancer.”
For that, he shook me a little. “Always a cheeky boy, but thank you Johnny for fetching my sister and nephew home with you.”
I stepped back a pace and shrugged. “Need to warn you not to make a fuss about the state I’m returning your other son in.”
He frowned. “Trouble in Chicago? I had a wire from the Pinkertons saying a full report would be posted to me.”
“Yeah well Scott will tell you he is fine, and he will be. And now the bruises are fading he’s getting his good looks back. Mind, you’ll want Sam to check his back, he had a little gunshot wound. But first, you have a gang of Scots who cannot wait to meet you.”
Murdoch didn’t have time to ask for details before he was surrounded. My Lancer kin may not be as showy with their feelings as my Mexican and Spanish family but heck Aunt Fiona got a little weepy. Murdoch had to keep clearing his throat and rubbing his hand over his eyes. Then he warmly shook James by the hand and solemnly bent down to say hello to Andrew, for a big man he does have a gentle way with kids. As he hugged Alex I looked at Scott who was now standing at my side.
“Alex sure looks more like Murdoch than you and me don’t he?”
Scott put his head to one side to look at our Father and cousin. “Well, Alex has the height and I guess Murdoch’s hair was once that colour, before his worrying about blades of grass turned it grey. Perhaps one day Alex might have that world-weary look our Father has perfected. You though have blue eyes that are the same as our Aunt Fiona’s.”
I nodded. “Our Grandfather Alexander told me the blue eyes are inherited from our Viking heritage.”
“That explains a lot, a mixture of Viking and Lancer no wonder we attract trouble and face it head-on.”
I laughed and pushed him forward. “I’ve told Murdoch you’ll say you are fine after that trouble you didn’t face head-on.”
I watched as Murdoch put his big gentle hands on Scott’s arms and pulled him into his chest, taking care of his back.
The boys from the bunkhouse were there whooping and hollering welcoming us home. Andrew whooped and hollered back waving the cowboy hat he had picked out in Chicago. For a young boy who, one day, would be a Scottish lord he sure had the makings of a cowboy.
I was smothered by Mamacita and Teresa and I returned their hugs and kisses, cos truth be told I had missed them. “Look I’m here I’m fine, it’s Scott who found trouble and needs fussing over.” Poor Scott was being hustled inside, his shirt halfway off his back before he could object.
Then it was Jelly’s turn, he pulled on his whiskers, then his suspenders and sniffed. “I hope you have got that wanderlust outta yourself cos that horse of yours has missed you something terrible.”
“Sorry Jelly. Is Barranca alright? I know I’ve been away a mite longer than I planned.” I looked over towards a corral where I could see my palomino pacing up and down. “Come on tell me how he’s been for you?”
Jelly had to put on a turn of speed to keep up with me. “Well, Scott rode him some before he took off to Boston. I turned him out in the home pasture told him Scott would be bringing you home and put him up in the corral ready for you today. He’s fair missed you.”
“And I’ve missed him, thank you Jelly for looking after him for me.” I rubbed Barranca’s nose and whispered in Spanish apologising for being away for so long. I couldn’t resist climbing through the rails to tug on his mane and hop up to ride bareback around the corral. He bucked and skipped some but we both enjoyed ourselves.
The evening meal was a feast. Maria and Teresa had outdone themselves with a mixture of Anglo and Mexican food. I swear the table was groaning. Murdoch presided over it all with the biggest smile I have ever seen on him as Fiona and James told him all about the Kirkhale estate and his family. I noticed Alex only had eyes for Teresa and I gave Scott a look and rolled my eyes, he shook his head.
“Cousin Johnny.” Andrew got my attention. “I have made a plan.”
“Plan?” I put my fork down at looked at him.
“Yes, if I am to do everything I wish to, I need to have a plan. First, can we choose a pony tomorrow?”
I blinked. “I like a man who has a plan. Of course, we can have a look at the stock tomorrow and you can pick out a pony. Can I ask what else is in your plan?”
“I want to help round up cattle like a cowboy. I want to go on a stagecoach and I want to visit Senor Baldermero’s store.”
I patted him on his shoulder. “Good plan Andrew, I see no reason we cannot do all that and some more.” I lowered my voice. “I heard there is going to be a fiesta tomorrow, that’s a party with music and dancing and lots of food. You’ll get to meet all our friends and neighbours. It’s supposed to be a surprise for me so don’t let on.” His face lit up and he nodded.
After the meal, I sat on the floor and played chequers with Andrew and listened as Scott asked questions about Murdoch’s childhood. Murdoch’s Scottish accent got stronger and stronger as he told us of his misadventures and trials of being the eldest of three. It got quite lively with aunt Fiona adding in her stories.
I have a good memory and tales of Murdoch oversleeping after trying Scotch for the first time. Or getting stuck in the mud of the river going after a dumb cow and having to be pulled out were stored away to go into that journal of mine. I grinned at Scott knowing he was enjoying seeing a different side to our father.
There was a lull in the conversation when Teresa piped up. “Come on Johnny tell us something of your travels, your letters were so brief.”
I sniffed and rubbed a hand through my hair. “Okay, what do you want to know?”
Well, these different voices started in at me. Mexico, Cuba, and Spain. I did think about telling about the Panama train but Scott’s past had caused him enough grief. We had heard lots about Scotland and there was no way I was going to be drawn on the details of what I got up to in Spain. Teresa saved the day. “Tell us about the pretty boxes you sent from Cuba.”
“Okay Cuba, it was hot and Havana the capital city has very colourful buildings. I was told they have fierce storms called hurricanes, didn’t have any of them when I was there. It has some pretty beaches and my cousin took me riding along them. It was on one of those rides we came across this man who collected wood and shells and such that the ocean washed up and he makes trinkets and carves the wood. He was going to be sold as a slave to pick cotton but the war Scott fought in saved him from that. Told me some of what his homeland was like and how terrible the sea journey was. Now he’s happily settled making those trinket boxes and he works at carving the designs in the boxes the cigars are stored in. I watched him do one and he took pride in the work.”
Murdoch nodded at me. “We received your gifts and I admired the workmanship of the boxes as much as I enjoyed the cigars. They were shared out as you wanted and Jelly told me he was saving two to share with you when you got home.”
Teresa bent down from her chair and kissed me on my cheek. “Maria cried when she saw her trinket box. She stores her rosary in it and I know said a prayer every night for you to stay safe.”
Heck, I got uncomfortable with the affection I got up to stretch my legs. “Tomorrow I’ll tell you about the Andalusian horses in Spain, but it’s been a long day and Andrew here is fighting not to fall asleep and Scott there ain’t far behind him.”
Murdoch clapped his hands. “You’re right, the days start early here. We have all the time we need to hear Johnny’s stories.”
It was late and dark when Murdoch found me on the porch rocking back on my favourite chair watching the stars sail across the night sky.
He sat down next to me. “I’ve spoken to Scott and heard how trouble found you in Boston and Chicago.”
I looked at him and smiled. “As much as I’ve enjoyed meeting long-lost family I’ve missed this.” I waved my hand across the dark land and sky. “The space and quiet and you.”
He reached over and patted my knee. “I worried about you Johnny, I know you can look after yourself but also know how trouble does find you.”
I let out a breath, he wasn’t going to be distracted. “Well the trouble in Boston and Chicago was Scott’s and I was there watching his back. I hadn’t realised the bullet that took him would come from the woman. Guess my reactions have slowed a little, I will have to find the time to practice some.”
Murdoch didn’t object which was a relief. “James has told me there was trouble involving the factor.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, but James is a good man. He is earning a lot of respect, not being an absent landlord, and taking time to get to know the land and the people who work it. He let the law deal with the trouble that McIntyre tried to stir up.” The factors death was another memory not to be shared.
“I understand there was a death?”
I called on Madrid to keep the memory of the other death buried deep. “I guess trouble does dog me. There was a man who ended up dead having gone down into the river, I helped pull his body out. Heck Murdoch the weather was cold and wet and the ground damn dangerous, things like that happen.” I didn’t wait for him to reply or ask for details. “Got to say the Sheriff who investigated was something to see. I did a sketch of him to show Val. Don’t think he’ll believe me even if I get Alex and James to back me up.”
“No, Val is not at all like the Sheriff’s that operate in Scotland.” Murdoch laughed.
A comfortable silence settled between us. I gave it a minute then took out my pocket watch and rubbed my thumb over the front. “Grandfather Alexander told me how this watch was given as a gift for the firstborn son to pass on to his firstborn son.” I looked at Murdoch who was now looking at me.
“You want to know why I gave it to you and not to Scott.”
Boy, he is getting better at reading me. “Did wonder.”
“Scott has a pocket watch that has come to him from his Grandmother’s family. Catherine was an only child, and so it passed to her son. It is only fair you inherit this old timepiece and one day pass it on to one of your sons, telling them of its origins.”
“You hankering after grandchildren Murdoch?”
“Not just yet, but in the fullness of time.”
I looked up at the starry night sky and bit my lip, now seemed a good time. “Talking of time I was thinking you and Scott should go back with Aunt Fiona to Scotland. Your Pa is a tough ole hombre but, well, time doesn’t stand still even for the likes of him. I think it would be good for Scott to visit. Heck, he will love your brother’s bookshop and that castle on top of a volcano.”
Murdoch rubbed one of those big hands of his over his face and through his hair. “I left on bad terms, my father was disappointed in me for not staying and carrying on the tenancy. We are too alike in our stubbornness.”
“Aww Murdoch, he came round long ago to the fact his children have the Lancer stubborn. He is proud of all three of you.”
Murdoch gave me a long look, not that I’d messed up look, or the disappointed look but a kinda gentle one that took all those deep lines out of his face. “Fiona told me you brought out the best of him.”
“I didn’t do anything ‘cept keep quiet and show him the respect I reckon he was due. I didn’t push, just let him talk when he wanted, told me about your Ma and family and the land. He loves it and is going to make sure James understands how to look after it. I tell you Murdoch meeting him made me understand where the Lancer looking after its own came from. I might mostly look like my Mama’s side but I reckon whatever stubborn kept me alive this long came from him.”
He reached over and patted my knee again. “Thank you, Johnny.”
“Does that mean you will go visit him? I’m done with traveling you can trust me and Cip and Jelly to look after this.” I waved my hand out towards the dark that hid our land. “I don’t plan on going any further than Green River.”
“If Scott and I do travel to Scotland you will have to travel further than that as a Lancer owner to fight our corner at the Cattlemen meetings.”
I sniffed and tugged my ear, “I could persuade them to hold the meetings here.”
“Always with a plan, that’s my boy.”
“Yeah well having a plan sometimes work.” I grinned and stood up to stretch my back. “Guess time has crept on and as you remind me the days start early around here.”
“What are your plans for tomorrow?”
“Going to match Andrew up with a good pony and take him out for a ride. Show him some cowboys at work.” I reached down and spoke quietly in his ear. “Don’t worry I can act surprised at the fiesta that’s planned.”
I skipped a few steps backwards to avoid his hand coming out to swat me.
There I was acting all surprised at the effort Mamacita and her army of helpers had put into decorating the courtyard when I was genuinely taken by surprise.
“Abuela!” I took her in my arms and kissed her on both cheeks. “When did you arrive here? Is everything okay back in Hermosillo?”
Before I could ask any more questions she put a finger over my lips. “Shush Johnny. All is fine at my rancho, when your Papa sent word you were returning home we wished to be here to greet you.”
“We?” I looked around and there smiling at me was my cousin Sofia from Cuba. I’m not often lost for words so all I could do was take my pretty cousin in my arms and swing her around.
She laughed. “Stop, stop Johnny I will be dizzy. My Papa was so impressed when you told us of your travelling by the Panama train he agreed to allow me to use the service to visit our relatives.” She looked around. “I have a chaperone hiding somewhere in the shadows who will not approve of our behaviour.”
“Oh boy, so you’ve been to San Blas and then on to Rancho Ruiz?”
She laughed. “Si and by chance was there when Senor Cipriano arrived to escort your Abuela Estella here.”
Abuela put her hand on Sofia’s arm to calm her down and looked up at me. “We have been made most welcome at Senora Conway’s arriving only just in time for your earlier than expected return home.”
I looked at Murdoch. “But you should be staying here, I could share with Scott and you can have my room, and Sofia could share with Teresa.”
Murdoch laughed. “Son even with our Scottish family staying there are more than enough rooms for everyone in the Hacienda. It warms my heart to see them being put to good use I know you do not care much for surprises but we thought this surprise would make your welcome home party even more special.”
He was right, my lonesome childhood and years as a gunfighter had warned me off surprises. They usually meant trouble but this evened up the score against some of those bad surprises.
Then Scott was there introducing himself to Sofia. Kissing her hand and using all his best Boston manners.
I took Sofia’s other hand. “You’ll have to excuse my brother’s bruised face and less than elegant movements.” I leaned in and tried not to smile. “He has been slightly injured bravely defending his Garrett family honour.”
Sofia let out a little gasp. “Oh, Scott, you must tell me of this.”
Scott’s had the look of a man with a winning hand as he led Sofia away.
I raised an eyebrow at my Abuela and whispered to her. “I think that chaperone is going to have her work cut out.”
As most everyone knows I ain’t one for my fun being organised, but this party was filled with family and people I knew so I relaxed and danced with my Abuela and cousin and Maria and Teresa.
I escaped the noise and socialising to find Jelly standing in the shadows, his feet tapping to the rhythm of the band. “Hey Jelly, why ain’t you out there showing them how it should be done?”
He shuffled and huffed some. “Some fine-mannered folks out there.”
I took him off to a quiet corner on the veranda and sat him down. “I understand you have saved a couple of cigars for you and me. Come on Jelly tell me how you’ve managed without me to chase about and keep in line.”
He growled at me. “You addle-headed whippersnapper. Place was quiet and trouble-free. ‘Course I had to step up and organise the men to do the work you should have been here a-doing.”
I nodded. “Sorry I was gone longer than I planned.”
We got our cigars going nicely and watched the dancing. Murdoch was taking his sister around the dance floor and James was dancing with my Abuela. I had to smile at Teresa trying to avoid Alex stepping on her feet in his enthusiasm to have her in his arms. And Scott and Sofia, they sure made a good-looking couple.
Jelly sniffed. “Scott sure is taken with your Cuban cousin, ain’t rightly sure she has the makings of a rancher’s wife.”
“Aww Jelly it’s a foolish man who gets between a man and the woman who has taken his heart.”
We sat quiet and watched the dancing some more. I know Jelly, underneath all that bluster he is fond of us Lancer’s and thinks of us as his family. He probably was feeling left out with all these blood relatives filling up the place.
I waved my cigar towards the dance floor. “You’re right they are fine-mannered folk but you’ll see they are good folk Jelly. Tell you what why don’t you go find that chaperone lady of Sofia’s and show her some real cowboy dancing.”
His natural confidence didn’t need much encouraging ‘cos he pulled his shoulders back and nodded. “Reckon these best boots of mine have some dancing in them.” He strutted off pulling at his suspenders.
I guessed that would give Scott and Sofia another hour, not that Murdoch wouldn’t be keeping an eye on them.
Before the first week was out I took Andrew on a short stage coach ride and we jumped off at a spot I knew had good camping not too far off the track. I showed him how to check for snakes and spiders and how to build a good campfire. Like all boys he was impressed at the rabbit trap I let him help me build and even more so when we caught rabbits and cooked them over the fire. Scott and Alex rode over the next day leading Barranca and the pinto pony Andrew had taken a shine to.
“Look at that Andrew, Scott has brought along proper fishing rods, no making do with a stripped-down pole and string like I’d use. Probably explains why I never have been successful at fishing.”
Scott slapped me on the back. “That and your lack of the patience fishing requires.”
I left the three of them to the fishing while I took on camp chores and spent time grooming Barranca and the other horses. That evening we oversaw Andrew cooking the fish. I had made some tortillas and those with the salsa I had fetched made it a good meal.
We all settled down with coffee Scott, sat next to me against a log his shoulder against mine giving me unspoken support for the conversation that I knew was overdue.
I sighed, no use dragging this out. “Need to tell you about me trading as Johnny Madrid. I know Andrew will have heard stories from the kids on the ranch.”
Andrew sat forward. “The boys on the ranch have told me you are the fastest gunfighter ever and even if gringos think of you as a hired gunman the Mexicans know you are a hero.”
“Whoa there Andrew, I ain’t no hero, and I ain’t going to lie I did hire out my gun and I am fast. You got to understand my Mama and me left Lancer when I was still a baby. Then when I was ten she died and I thought I was an orphan. It ain’t too nice living like a stray so learned early on how to look after myself and had a talent with a gun.” I took my gun from my holster and twirled it around my finder. “I’ll show you some target practice tomorrow, but another lesson I learned is trading as a hired-gun is a dangerous life. I got lucky, Murdoch tracking me down and fetched me home before I fell to a faster gun.”
I paused and looked down at my thumbs rubbing them together waiting for the questions I knew would be coming.
Alex cleared his throat. “There are stories about Johnny Madrid in the magazines. You are not at all like the man written about.”
It was Scott who replied. “You need to understand Alex most of the dime magazines are written by people back east who have never been west. The stories of Johnny Madrid the dangerous pistollero are a fiction. My brother, your cousin is good with a gun it kept him alive when he was in dangerous places, but he is a good man and now a respected partner in Lancer.”
I almost spoke out to say I could still be dangerous but decided it best not to.
Andrew looked at us both. “Can I ask another question? Why do you call your father by his given name and not Papa?”
I had to laugh of all the questions a kid would ask about my life as Madrid, Andrew asked that. It was Scott who replied first.
“We were grown men when we both returned to Lancer, it didn’t seem appropriate.”
I chanced a sideways glance at Scott ‘cos ain’t that almost what he did say at that first meeting with our old man. “I used to call him ol’e man just to annoy him, but now I sneak in the occasional Pa.” I grinned.
“Yes to distract him from any trouble you have got yourself into.” Scott pushed against my shoulder.
“Okay, maybe, but I do call him my father when I speak about him to other people.”
Scott nodded. “That is true, we both do that.”
Andrew was watching us and smiled at our antics. “Can I ask another question, please? Does my father know about you being a gunfighter?”
I sighed. “Yes Andrew, and so does my Aunt Fiona, your step Mama.”
He nodded. “And Abuela Estella and cousin Sofia do they know?”
“Yes, they know.”
Alex looked over at me. “So I imagine my parents and Grandfather Lancer know?”
“Yep, Murdoch wrote to Aunt Fiona and Uncle Ian telling them, and of course, Grandfather Lancer knows.”
Andrew clapped his hands. “Good I wouldn’t want to keep this a secret from my Papa and Mama.”
Alex smiled at Andrew “Knowing about Johnny’s past, just like Scott’s past as a soldier in the American war shouldn’t be a secret in families. Their pasts have helped to make them the people they are today. Just like this grand journey we are on will, one day, be part of our pasts.”
The last night before all our guests left Mamacita and Teresa put on a real find spread with the best plates and silverware. Murdoch broke out his best champagne and there was sherry that had arrived from Spain. Later on, as night was falling I found him by himself on the veranda, I knew he would be soaking in every detail of the land he loved before going away.
“Can’t see too many of your blades of grass in this light Murdoch.” I went to stand next to him.
“Just breathing it in Johnny.” He turned to look at me. “Let’s sit and smoke one of those Cuban cigars you sent us.”
We sat and listened to the hubbub in the big room and enjoyed our cigars.
Murdoch leaned back, “Are you now content, son, to have found your family ties?”
I grinned. “Yep, struck gold, could have found outlaws and pole-cat-eating varmints. They’re strong ties, guess they held me together during the bad times.”
He looked across at me. “Maybe they did and I’m grateful for that.”
I sniffed and tried not to get sad thinking about other people in my life who helped keep me tied together. Mama, my Stepfather, Val and a few others who had time for a stray boy.
My mood changed when I tilted my head back hearing Sofia laugh at something Scott had said. “Are you okay with Scott’s current romantic interest?”
Murdoch shook his head and blew out a puff of cigar smoke. “As a wonderful writer said, ‘love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs.”
I blinked, I could hear the truth and sadness in his words and guessed he was thinking about his two wives. But this wasn’t the time for him to slip into one of those dour Scottish moods of his. So I leaned over and asked. “Those words from that Emerson fella?”
“No son, William Shakespeare.”
“That the fella who wrote about witches and Scottish warlords?” I could see I’d surprised him and smiled. “Don’t like to let on but some of the stuff Scott tries to educate me on does stick in here.” I tapped my head.
“Yes, that fella.” He shook his head. “In any case, I know better than either of you boys about marrying for love.”
He stood up. “Come on Johnny time we re-joined the family.”
It had been a real good visit but now everyone was packed up and ready to leave. Abuela was going to be escorted back to her rancho by Cipriano’s eldest son Enrico. Before she left she found me in the barn.
“Johnny, now tell me, did you find what you were seeking?”
I sat down on a hay bale and patted the space next to me for her to sit. “Oh yes, Abuela and so much more. Murdoch is right about the past being past, but I found it makes a person who they are, good and bad, can’t ignore that. Found you and through you all those missing pages of my past.”
She smiled. “Pages, is that what you call what you were searching for? Speaking of which I do hope you have been filling in the pages of the journal I gave you.”
“It ain’t very tidy, I never was much of a scholar.”
“Oh Juanito I’m sure it’s written from the heart and that will be all that matters to those you choose to share it with.”
I thought of Isabella-Maria and the words I have locked in my heart and not written down. My fingers tapped at my leg.
Abuela hand stilled my hand.” I have received a letter from Spain.”
My mouth went dry. What news had reached her?
“My sister tells me you put right a wrong. Your actions saved Isabella-Maria from a cruel and unhappy marriage.”
“I killed a man Abuela.”
“You rescued and restored my sister’s family. Just think Johnny of the lessons Antonio would have learned from Ferdinand-Ramon, of the man the boy would have grown up to be.”
I nodded at that truth, seen that happen.
She gripped my hand harder. “Isabella-Maria has remarried, to the man who rightfully owns the stallion. According to Antonio, he has a kind and gentle way with the horses which is always a good reflection of the man.”
My heart lurched, and I licked my lips. “She is happy?”
“Consuela tells me Isabella-Maria and her new husband are content, he apparently is devoted to her and Antonio.” She paused and looked closely at me. “A child is expected.”
Dios, what could I say. All I could do was nod like a tonto, and blink away the tears that prickled my eyes.
She kissed my cheek. “You are a good man my nieto. One day you will have children of your own to read your journal to.”
I had to smile. I knew what she really meant was hurry up and find a gal who would take me on as a husband. Knew that ‘cos Sofia told me she walked in on Abuela, Aunt Fiona and Mamacita discussing the Lancer boys and the need for us to find ourselves, wives. Now ain’t that just like women all over? Mind I’ll have always left some of my heart in Spain with Isabella-Maria but that ain’t going to be shared with anyone and sure ain’t going down in writing.
I kissed her and wished her adios, I would be visiting her even if it is further than Green River.
After I had helped her into her carriage Andrew came and stood next to me. “Your Abuela is a very kind lady, I’m so very pleased to have met her. She has been teaching me your Mexican language, using the stories about pirates your cousin in Cuba has written.”
“Hey, you do know those stories came from a man who, well, exaggerates?” I pushed his cowboy hat to hang down his back and ruffled his hair. “You’ve grown some, you do know your hat and shirts from Senor Baldermero’s ain’t the style back in Inverness. In any case, you’ll soon have grown out of them.”
He smoothed down the white shirt with embroidery. “I shall keep them in a box forever along with the deputy badge Sherriff Crawford gave me and the notebook I have written down all of the stories Mr Jelly told me.”
“Yeah about those stores Jelly has told you and Alex.” I grinned.
Andrew grinned back. “He exaggerates?”
“Yep. But you’ll have true tales to tell of stagecoach rides and camping. Of helping move cattle and watching me chase and gentle wild horses.”
It was going to be like a wagon train leaving Lancer for Cross Creek, not only James and Aunt Fiona, Andrew and Alex, but Murdoch and Scott. And going back to the east coast with them Sofia and Teresa. It was Aunt Fiona’s idea that Teresa should join them in travelling east saying she needed to see something of the world outside of the San Joaquin valley before she settled down. Seems like letters had been sent and she and Sofia were going to stay with Scott’s Aunt Margaret and get introduced to Boston society.
I took Scott to one side. “Now Scott I want you to promise there will be no repeats of your past nudging anyone in this party. I expect you to visit our Lancer family in Scotland and return here without any trouble.”
He raised his eyebrows and looked over my shoulder. “Where is my wayward brother and what have you done with him?”
I laughed and put my arm across his shoulders. “Got to start acting like the Patron with you and Murdoch gone.” I lowered my voice. “They say absence makes a heart grow fonder, perhaps Sofia will wait for you.”
He sighed and looked over at her. “If she does I will be a lucky man.”
There were lots of kisses and handshakes and the horses were getting impatient to be on the move. Murdoch had left lots of notes about the what where and when of the ranch. I could see he was nervous, not just about leaving me in charge but what to expect when he met his Pa.
I held onto his hand after we had shaken. “I promise I’ll look after every blade of grass until you come home.”
He let go of my hand and hugged me close. “I’m sure you will son. It is your inheritance and I know you love it as much as I do.”
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19 thoughts on “Family Ties by Olley”
This is a wonderful story! I have enjoyed every word! Like watching Johnny finding his extended families and himself! Will definitely be reading it again. Will there be a story of Murdoch’s and Scott’s adventure?
Thank you Mary for your lovely comments. I enjoyed taking Johnny on this journey. One day perhaps Murdoch and Scott will have an interesting trip.
Goodness that was an epic journey for Johnny. What an excellent imagining of Johnny’s extended family.
Thank you for writing it
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Jkm. It was an epic journey for Johnny. I like to think the characteristics he inherited from his grandparents and relatives gave him the moral strength to survive trading as Madrid. Meeting his extended family he now knows where he has come from and his future is at Lancer.
What an epic story. Brilliant. I couldn’t put it down. Thank you. More please.
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Fantastic story. Epic in nature and kept me enthralled the entire time.
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Shouldagotadog. I’m pleased to hear it kept you enthralled. It is a longish read.
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I really enjoyed this story. The depth and details were amazing and we appreciate the time put into it. Would love to read about Murdoch and Scott’s adventures one day. Thank you.
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Family Ties is a great, well written adventure. All of the characters truly make Lancer the family it is. Thank you for writing and sharing this story with us.
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Val W. Thank you for letting me know you enjoyed Johnny’s “grand tour” of course trouble sometimes finds him.
A “Grand Tour” Johnny Madrid Lancer style with new family characters and the inevitable fracas when Johnny is involved. I loved it!
Thank you for sharing.( I love long stories – usually I don’t want them to end).
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this was a wonderful grad adventure. I loved taking it with Johnny.
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Charlene it was an adventure writing it and I had fun taking Johnny to a few places I have visited.
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Wonderful, when you posted by chapter I was eager for the next installment. Now when I want to reread it I don’t have to wait. Great job writing a maternal and paternal family for Johnny.
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Elin. Thank you for letting me know you have enjoyed reading about Johnny finding his extended family.
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What a delightful journey you took us on. Loved all the extended family and just enough trouble with both Johnny and Scott to add some good suspense. Lots of fun. Thanks for taking me along on your imaginative trip.
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Johnny found the truth in the old phrase “ to know where to go you need to know where you came from”.
An amazing journey! Loved it!
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