At What Cost A Dream by Buckskin

Word count 25,284

Usual disclaimers. Still wish they were mine… Thanks to Cat for the beta
Thanks to Terri Derr for the veterinary advice



Murdoch Lancer read the telegram with mixed emotions. David McClain was running for office. The office of Governor for the state of California had been in serious trouble, a virtual powder keg ready to explode, threatening to tear the state apart. Recent political allies were now at each other’s throats, damning the other for the tumultuous state of affairs, not willing to compromise, not willing to give an inch for the good of California. Murdoch wondered where it would all end.

But the issue that had him stumped was why David McClain wanted to become involved. The man had his family’s holdings; the name alone sent terror through potential adversaries. Who in their right mind would want to run against the man? Murdoch thought, then realized he just answered his own question. No one. If David McClain ran, he would win. He would unseat Steve Bronson, Murdoch’s friend, and the fate of all Californians could be at risk. Murdoch would do all he could to back Bronson.

And, now, McClain was on his way to Lancer, drumming up support, although he probably wouldn’t get it. Murdoch had heard things about the man that went against everything Murdoch stood for, but he would listen to what McClain had to say. He owed it to himself to hear the man out, but secretly Murdoch thought he would like nothing more than to throw the man out on his pompous, arrogant ass. He could not jump to conclusions, but Murdoch Lancer knew he needed a plan, and he wanted to have options. He wanted to make the best decision. He would need help from the other larger ranches not only in the San Joaquin but the entire state.

Murdoch began to compile the list of names and would consult Scott regarding the letter that he would send to these ranchers should the need arise. Was he getting ahead of himself? No, just preparing… Just in case.

“As long as we are all here, I need to tell you three something.” Immediately, three sets of eyes turned to him, and Murdoch had their undivided attention. “It seems as if we will be having guests for a few days, and I would like you all to be gracious hosts and hostess.”

Teresa’s smile grew, and a happy sparkle lit up her eyes. Scott, although not grinning, waited patiently, anticipating good news. Of the three, only Johnny seemed apprehensive. That boy has a sixth sense when it comes to these things, Murdoch thought.

“Who’s coming, Murdoch? And when?” Teresa asked, anxious for company and the opportunity to socialize with perhaps another woman.

Murdoch looked into their faces for a moment, not knowing why he was hesitating to speak. It was best to get it said. “The day after tomorrow, David McClain and his wife will be here hoping to gain support for his run for governor and though, from what little I’ve heard so far, I’m not of the notion to vote for him, I think it only fair to listen to what he has to say. I suspect that he will be looking for some of the larger ranches in California to back him.”

Scott’s eyes sought out his brother’s, but Johnny’s attention was fixed on a spot past Murdoch’s shoulder in contemplation. Scott knew the wheels were turning; Johnny knew that support from ‘the larger ranches’ meant that, more than likely, the poor farmers, especially those of Mexican heritage, would suffer the most. It did not matter that their families had been there for generations. Johnny held deep sympathy for his mother’s people, his people, who had lived there all their lives, and they would be the unfortunate victims to feel the change… the progress.

“I read in the San Francisco papers that he is not letting much stand in his way, sir. I think we need to be careful,” Scott responded, and now, as he looked across to his brother, he saw he had Johnny’s full attention. “If you don’t mind, I’m going to contact Cody Justice and see what he knows. Cody will be impartial and send us only the facts.”

With that said, Murdoch turned to Johnny, noting that the younger Lancer still had not said a word. “Johnny, what do you think?” Murdoch knew direct questioning was the best way to get an answer. And he was right.

Johnny shrugged and watched the tequila swirl in his glass. “Well, I ain’t met too many politicians that didn’t have his hands in folk’s pockets. Kinda like the Rurales. But no point in workin’ ourselves in a pucker over it till we know what he’s plannin’ ta do.” Although Johnny had a point, there was foreboding in his words, and his gut began to twist.

Teresa sat bewildered as she listened to their conversation. What was happening? She suddenly felt as if she rathered this company did not arrive at all.

What should have been an enjoyable evening was spent discussing the facts they knew to be true. And there were not many. Until they could hear from Cody, they were very much in the dark.

Johnny watched as Scott sat with his paper and pencil, diligently taking notes and writing questions. The only question Johnny had on his mind would be to ask McClain his intentions toward the people of this land. Would he stand behind them? Or would he turn his back as so many others had done, rape the land of whatever it offered to make a profit and leave it unfit and useless. The memories came flooding back; how many villages had he ridden through after the Rurales had been there, they burned the shacks, pillaged, raped women and girls, and murdered… everyone? Even the small ones.

Well, this ain’t Mexico… But what was the difference? There were crooked Rurales and some that were honest, just like politicians here. Johnny tossed back the tequila and drained the glass. He stood with a sigh and bid them goodnight.

There was nothing to do but wait for Scott to get back. Johnny knew he needed to keep himself busy, after all, there still was work to do, but he kept an eye on the road in the event his brother should return early. This feeling was foreign, and it was not like him to be anxious.

Whoever thought Johnny Madrid would be worried about something like this? It had been his belief to not worry about things that weren’t in your control, but there was a niggling in the back of his mind that things somehow were not right. Hopefully, Cody Justice would shed some light on the matter. Johnny had met Cody twice since the young attorney came to California and had been impressed with his practical and level-headed ways. Cody was an honorable man, and if Scott felt confident in him to relay sound, reliable information, well, then Johnny figured he could, too.

The afternoon had been long and hot. Johnny looked forward to the soak that awaited him in the bathhouse, easing the stiff and sore muscles of the day’s work and leave him feeling refreshed to start again tomorrow. It could be the last chance to relax before Lancer would be host to the company that might not be so welcome. No sense in getting ahead of himself, but something still was not settling right.

As he brushed Barranca into a bright and brilliant shine, Johnny began to corral the tension that had persisted in following him all day. There was nothing like spending time with the amigo that not only saved your life a time or two but was capable of calming unsettling thoughts. And that’s what caring for Barranca did for Johnny. He talked in soft, smooth tones that the horse seemed to understand and, indeed, responded to instantly.

The hoofbeats interrupted his musings, and Johnny turned as Scott entered the yard.

“Johnny, I thought I would be home before this!” Scott greeted his brother as he entered the barn.

Johnny looked up, not sure if he wanted now to know if Scott had turned up anything regarding McClain or not. He gave his brother a brief smile and nodded his head, then quickly finished grooming his horse.

“Scott,” Johnny responded softly. “Ya hear anything from Cody?”

“Yes, I did. It took most of the day. He was in court but took the time to get back to me.”

Johnny couldn’t tell if this would be good or bad. If Cody ‘took the time’ out of a day in court, it might not be good. Scott saw the darkness settle in his brother’s eyes.

“It was a brief message, but he alluded to the fact that McClain seems to be telling people what they want to hear, not necessarily what is actually true. I’ve already talked to Murdoch about it, but I have a feeling that Mr. McClain’s visit here will be a short one!”

Scott tried to smile in sympathy, knowing how his brother felt. Johnny’s bond was deep when it came to issues regarding these people. He had seen the ugliness; the unconscionable things happen to the poor people of Mexico; he’d done his best to help them, resulting in his capture and being seconds away from his own death, courtesy of the Rurales’ firing squad. Johnny had almost sacrificed himself for the cause. And Scott fully understood how much harm could come to the people here should McCain win the governor’s race.

“Cody will be sending more information as soon as he has some time to get it all together. Until then, all we can do is wait. I’m sorry it wasn’t better news, Johnny.”

Johnny sighed but offered Scott a brief smile. “Well, at least it ain’t anything much different’n what we already know about the man. Coulda been worse, I guess.”

Scott was impressed that his reckless younger brother reined in any temper, had maintained a degree of patience regarding this issue. And, he supposed, that along with Johnny’s abilities to roll with whatever circumstances threw his way and adjust to them, he was also coming to terms that there were now rules in his new life. The regimented life at Lancer held not only structure in everyday life, but things were changing… everywhere, and those changes were not limited to cattle, horses, grazing, and water. They now entailed the changing political climate. And that was damned scary.

“Hey, brother, you smell worse than Barranca! Why don’t you go straight to the bathhouse, and I’ll bring you clean clothes,” Scott offered with a slap to Johnny’s back that launched a cloud of dust into the air.

“Thanks, Boston… I think. Been thinkin’ about that bath all afternoon, but I gotta check Echo first. Her time’s close an’ I wanna be there when that foal comes.” Johnny gave his brother a grin and left the barn.

“That was delicious, Maria! Gracias!” Murdoch declared, complimenting Maria with a wide smile on his face as she cleared the meal to serve dessert.

“De nada, Señor. Fue un placer.” (It was a pleasure) Her wide grin of appreciation split her face as the white teeth contrasted against the rich brown of her skin.

Johnny could not help but ask the all-important question on his mind. “What’s for dessert, Mamacita?”

Maria gave Johnny a wink before she spoke. “Pastel de chocolate, Juanito!” (Chocolate cake) And before she could take his dinner plate, he rose to his feet, wrapped her in a bear hug, and kissed her on the cheek with a loud smack.

“You boys may want to turn in early tonight. I have a feeling that after the Senator and Mrs. McClain arrives, that quiet relaxation may be a bit elusive around here.” Murdoch said with a smirk. Johnny looked to his brother and hoped Scott would ‘translate’ for him, and Boston was ready for it.

“Scarce,” Scott offered with a grin, and Johnny shrugged. The situation was not boding well.

“So ya think McClain’s gonna cause a ruckus while he’s here?” Johnny asked as he sipped his tequila.

Murdoch rose from his chair on the way to the sideboard for a refill of Scotch. “I’m sure he will try. I intend to keep it to a minimum at Lancer. But I am willing to bet that he will do his best to stir things up once he gets to Green River. If he starts telling folks what they want to hear, they will listen to him all the way to the Governor’s seat. However, while they are here at the ranch, we will treat them with all the courtesies of any other guests. With that said, I would like for one of you boys to pick them up when their stage comes in.” He watched the reactions as their eyes met. Scott gave his brother a nod.

“I’ll go. I would like the opportunity to ask the Senator a few questions without an audience around that he feels he needs to appease. He will have bodyguards, I assume?”  

With a glance at Murdoch, who confirmed the question, Scott smiled.

“Yes, well, maybe I will take the carriage, and the three of us can ride alone. I’ll have Cip and a few others along if we can’t find any suitable transportation for his security.”

“Thanks, Scott. I owe ya one!” Johnny tossed back the remainder of his drink, then pushed himself to his feet. “Gonna check on the mare then head ta bed. ‘Night.” And without waiting for any reply, he left by way of the back kitchen door.

Scott turned to his father. “He’s worried about what’s going to happen around here if McClain’s run for the governorship is successful.”

Murdoch could only sigh and nod in agreement. “Yes, so am I,” he said quietly.

Teresa sat thinking she was now certain the visit was not going to be a welcome one.

The night was clear and peaceful. Johnny stood watching the mare, heavy and close to foaling. They would not have long to wait. She came to the fence and nudged Johnny’s hand. He began to talk in his soft Spanish murmurings as the ear scratches seemed to lull her into a trance, and she leaned into his gentle touch. Her distended belly worried him, and he sincerely hoped she wasn’t carrying twins. It was a risky delivery for both foals and the mare. Often problems accompanied twin foals, and sometimes they didn’t live, and if they did, they were usually smaller, sometimes sickly, and often never caught up in growth. Johnny could only hope the birth would be a normal delivery, but he would be prepared if it wasn’t. She had foaled without issues before, and he hoped this one would be without any trouble, too. Gonna hafta wait an’ see…

The stage was late, just over an hour but late, giving Scott time enough to inquire about mounts or a carriage for the security.

Jake Jackson, at the Green River Livery, shrugged. “Sorry, Scott, got nuthin’ for ya. Ever’thin’s gone. Short on horses anyway after they got stole last week…” The security would have to wait until tomorrow. And that made Scott smile. The Senator and Mrs. McClain would have sufficient protection with the Lancer men riding along with them.

He didn’t have too long of a wait. Soon, the Concord stage rumbled into town in a billow of dust amid the shouts and commands of Sonny Briggs. As long as Scott had been at Lancer, Sonny Briggs had been the stage driver, and he was the best in the business.

“Hey, Sonny! You’re late! What happened, nothing too serious, I hope?” Scott called from the boardwalk.

“Nope, nuthin’ bad, just took a while ta fix is all. One a the rein turrets come loose!” Sonny scrambled down from the box as he pulled the door open to assist his passengers. “Alright, folks, last stop…”

As the door opened, Scott caught his first glimpse of Senator David McClain. He was a stout man with dark oiled hair and a black handlebar mustache beneath a nose that looked to have been broken a time or two. The man stepped from the cramped coach and stretched his back, then, as if an afterthought, he turned and reached up to help his wife step down into the street.

“There you are, my dear! Now, where is our carriage? Leech! You and Cummings find our carriage!”

The woman was obviously upset. Her face pinched in a scowl, mouth set in a thin line as she held herself rigid as if cloaked in aversion. She was not happy as she tried to wipe away the dust that had settled onto her dress. The blond hair piled high in an intricate coiffure and covered with a veil attached to her hat, also coated in dirt.

“David, you don’t mean that we will be staying here!” Disbelief flooded her face as she pressed a delicate lace handkerchief to her mouth. It was then that Scott stepped forward.

“Senator, Mrs. McClain! I trust you had a pleasant trip.” Not waiting for a response, he continued, “I’m Scott Lancer. My father is expecting you. This way, please.” He saw the two security guards follow along and thought them to be ill-prepared for the job. He was glad they would have Cip and the rest of the men should the need arise.

The Lancer carriage was around the corner. Leech and Cummings loaded the luggage and secured it as Scott helped Mrs. McClain onto the seat. It was then the Senator looked to Scott for an explanation.

“Mr. Lancer, where will my security ride?”

Mrs. McClain appeared panicked at the question. “Oh, David!  We can’t possibly leave them here! What are we going to do?”

“Are you expecting any trouble, sir?” Scott asked the Senator.

The man frowned. “No, but I require protection regardless!”

Scott looked to the guards. Where he did see evidence of hidden pistols, there were no rifles. “I have men to watch for trouble, and they are armed with rifles and have good mounts. We’ll be fine. In the morning, we can send a wagon to bring your security to the ranch. You will be perfectly safe there.”

McClain was not a happy man. “Mr. Lancer, I must insist! My security must be with me!”

“Senator, you just said you were not expecting trouble. Come to Lancer with me and have a good meal and rest in quiet comfort or you can stay here in town. Your choice.”

The ride to Lancer could not go by fast enough. However, Scott did want time alone with the Senator to hear directly from the man himself what he would be proposing for the state, so he began the questions.

“Senator, what are the issues you feel strongly about for California?” Scott asked.

“Growth! Industry to make the state prosperous! Companies are moving in to produce everything! Shipping ports all up and down the coast! Why, it will be lucrative beyond anything you’ve ever seen before, Scott. And it’s not a dream, it is reality!”

If Scott didn’t know better, he would have sworn the senator’s eyes began to glaze over. Scott shrugged. “What about the people here? Some of these families go back for generations. It was Mexico before it became California. What will happen to them?”

“The factories will need employees. There will be work for them to do, Scott! Oh, there will be so much opportunity! And, there will be work for them in our houses as cooks, housekeeping staff, gardeners, stable hands. Why, the opportunities are endless! But if they don’t want that, they can always go back to Mexico.” The Senator seemed to think this was an acceptable solution and clearly did not see the issues there.

“David! There’s a … a Mexican behind us! Do something!” Lucinda McClain was aghast.

Scott turned to see Mrs. McClain watching the road at their back, her hand in a white-knuckled death grip on the back of the seat, and her dainty white handkerchief was clutched again to her lips. Her light gray eyes were wide and fearful. The Senator reached inside his vest pocket and pulled out a derringer.

“I wouldn’t do that, Senator,” Scott said calmly.

McClain began to panic and turned to face Scott. “What do you mean, ‘I shouldn’t do that’? There’s a heathen following us! What do you expect me to do?”

Scott leveled a glare at the man. “That heathen is seeing to your safety, and there are several more on either side of us! Not to mention, he is one of the finest men I know!” No, Johnny is not going to be happy at all… And Scott began to wonder just how long the McClains would be staying at Lancer.

“Senator! Mrs. McClain, welcome to Lancer!” Murdoch greeted them with a genuine smile and an outstretched hand.

McClain handed his wife out of the carriage and stood beside her. “Thank you, Mr. Lancer! I’d like to introduce my wife, Lucinda.”

“I am pleased to meet you, Mrs. McClain! Please, come in. I am sure you would like to freshen up. Dinner will be in an hour.” Murdoch steered them into the hacienda as Scott took the buggy to the barn.

“Jelly! Have you seen Johnny yet?” Scott asked the old handyman as he got to the barn.

“No, he ain’t come in yet. Somethin’ wrong?”

“Not exactly, but I need to warn him before he goes into the house. Our ‘guests’ have arrived.”

Johnny left the bathhouse, not at all anxious to get inside. He assumed that the McClain’s had arrived, and he dreaded the fact he would be walking on eggshells while they were here, and only out of respect for Murdoch. Alright, Lancer, step aside an’ let Madrid come for a ‘visit’. Johnny grinned to himself at the notion but thought better of it; he did not want to embarrass Murdoch in front of his guests.

He entered the kitchen to find Maria rushing around muttering in rapid Spanish, her demeanor of an angered grizzly bear. Johnny stopped in his tracks; never had he seen her in this state before. It was not like her, not like her at all.

“Mamacita! What is it? What’s wrong?” Johnny stepped back, not wanting to get in the way of the large wooden spoon she wielded, having been the recipient of a corrective whack on many occasions. Teresa slipped into the kitchen as Johnny looked to her for an explanation.

“Johnny, you’re home…” she said quietly.

“Hey, nice ta see you, too! What’s the matter? What’s goin’ on?” Johnny offered her the beginnings of a smile.

“Oh, it’s Mrs. McClain! She insulted Maria’s ability to cook for her. Johnny, the woman is awful!” Teresa railed in a quiet voice.

Johnny could only shrug. C’mon, Madrid!

Lucinda McClain continued to pace. Her remark regarding Maria’s cooking hung in the air and set the stage for a very tense evening. She looked to the doorway to see a questionable young man standing in the kitchen, and then she watched, speechless, as he came to stand at a chair with Teresa beside him as Maria signaled to Murdoch that dinner was ready.

“Senator, Mrs. McClain, please, dinner is ready,” Murdoch graciously announced, leaving David to escort his wife instead of Murdoch doing the ‘honor’.

Lucinda gasped and stared at Johnny in disbelief that he would be in the dining room. And to her horror, he sat down to eat with them. Johnny caught the look, and he felt a calm wash over him as Madrid settled into place.

“Johnny, glad you made it in time for dinner. Senator, Mrs. McClain, I would like for you to meet my son, Johnny. Johnny, this is Senator McClain and Mrs. McClain.”

“Senator, Ma’am.” Johnny met their eyes. The Senator seemed not to notice anything, but Johnny read loud and clear what was in her mind, and he held her gray-eyed glare captive. She was shocked at his audacity, and then he smiled, sending her off balance. Scott witnessed the exchange, but he was the only one.

Mrs. McClain sat stiffly in her chair, appearing uncomfortable as they passed the food. She put little on her plate, but no one noticed except for Teresa and Johnny… and Maria.

“Ma’am,” Johnny began, and Lucinda McClain jumped as if stuck with a hot poker. She looked at Johnny but did not speak. And he smiled. He had learned long ago that if someone was going out of their way to avoid talking to you, you should make them talk. It would either break the ice and bring the issue into the open or force their hand and make them reveal some sort of clue as to what they are about.

“You’re gonna need ta eat more’n that. Our Maria’s a good cook, best in the San Joaquin. Ya oughta at least try it.” Her glare continued, and Johnny smirked, rewarding him with a stare sharp enough to pierce his heart.

 “Hey, Johnny! Johnny!” Jelly interrupted as he bolted through the kitchen door and into the dining room. “Oh, ‘scuse me, folks! Johnny, it’s time!”

Johnny jumped from his chair. “Sorry, Murdoch, gotta go!” And without asking to be excused or even waiting for a response from Murdoch, Johnny was gone.

Teresa caught Scott’s eye, and the two of them shared a silent chuckle as Mrs. McClain sat dumbfounded at the complete lack of manners from the young man.

“Murdoch, is everything alright?” David sat wide-eyed and wondered what was happening.

“Yes, it’s alright, David. A mare of Scott and Johnny’s is foaling, and there may be a problem. Johnny needs to be there,” Murdoch explained. It was clear to the Senator but wasn’t clear to his wife.

She sniffed into her handkerchief. It certainly was not a proper dinner conversation.

“Do you think he needs help, Murdoch? I can go after I finish eating…” Teresa volunteered.

At this, Lucinda gasped. “Why, I have to object, Mr. Lancer! That is certainly not the place for a young lady!”

“Why is that, Mrs. McClain? I’ve done it many times before! I help when I can… with all sorts of things around the ranch!” Teresa asked directly of the woman as her defenses began to rise.

“Teresa, dear, Mr. Lancer will decide…”

“Decide what?” Teresa was confused. Why did Murdoch have anything to decide?

“Dear, you need a chaperone! A young lady has no business out in a dirty barn with a man and not have a proper chaperone!”

“I don’t need a chaperone! I have Johnny!” Teresa exclaimed.

“Precisely! It is completely inappropriate!” Mrs. McClain snipped as she lifted her chin to affirm her opinion.

Murdoch cleared his throat. “Mrs. McClain, Teresa has stepped up to help in every way she can around this ranch. It certainly isn’t something that you may find acceptable, but out here, it’s the way of things. She has helped in not only birthing cattle and horses, but she also attends us when sick or injured. Teresa is a strong young woman and has contributed to every aspect in the running of this ranch.”

Murdoch stopped to look at his ward, and he laid his work-roughened paw over her small hand, “And we are lucky and appreciative that she does!” With the last of his statement, Murdoch gently squeezed her hand, and she smiled at him, thankful for his support.

But he held off speaking up for Johnny; he would give his son the opportunity of speaking for himself and be there to back him. The visit was not boding well; Murdoch had hoped that these issues would not be a problem. Now it looked as though he would have to re-evaluate the situation. He would let no one get away with making disparaging remarks about either son. He would be making things very clear and very soon.

Maria cleared the table as Teresa assisted with the chore. As the Lancer cook took the last of the dishes into the kitchen, she spoke loud enough to be heard in the great room.

“Teresa, chica, here is food for Johnny, take it to him, por favor!” Her light and happy tones related volumes to those in the room having their after-dinner drinks. Murdoch and Scott could only chuckle.

For the rest of the evening, Lucinda McClain sat and said nothing. The fact that a horse was more important than associating with genteel, upper-class polite society was appalling. And the fact that a young girl was subjected to Lord knew what in the household of men was sinful!

She stood abruptly, drawing looks from the three men in the great room.

“Excuse me, please. I am tired; it’s been a very long day.”

Murdoch, Scott, and David stood as she left.

“I will be up shortly, dear,” David announced as the woman ascended the stairs to their room.

“I am sorry about earlier, Murdoch! This trip has been very hard on her, and she is exhausted,” McClain apologized.

“No need to apologize, David. I’m sure that everything will be fine tomorrow,” Murdoch replied, but he had his doubts.

The mare circled the large stall and then lay down. Before long, she was up again and circling. The discharge had dampened her tail, and it wrapped around her legs in tangles as she walked, head low and breathing hard and shallow.

“What’d ya think, Johnny? This’s been going on a long time. She gonna need help?” Jelly’s worried eyes locked onto Johnny’s as the younger man studied the signs.

“Dunno yet, Jelly. Figure we got a little time before we hafta do anything. We’ll see how she does…” Echo again laid in the straw. Johnny could see the contractions that strained through her belly. He began the soft words, words that soothed; they were mesmerizing, comforting. She was concentrating on her foal, and the murmurings were there if they could help her in any way.

Johnny suddenly became tense and stopped the ramblings as the mare thrashed her forelegs to gain purchase against the floor. “Jelly, get that oil over here, wouldya?”

Jelly retrieved a bottle while Johnny stripped out of his shirt and poured the oil over Johnny’s hand and arm.

“She’s in trouble, get her tail outta the way,” Johnny gave the orders and positioned himself to help in the delivery.

With even pressure, he reached into the birth canal, the mare’s contractions intense as they squeezed Johnny’s arm with enough force to know he would be feeling the discomfort for days to come. He winced in pain but did not give up.

“C’mon, little one, c’mon out here an’ let’s get a look at ya! You’re doin’ good, Echo, good girl…” He stopped as another contraction seized hold of his arm and expected it to be bruised by the time this was over. “Damn!” he muttered as the search continued. Finally, he touched a small hoof, and he smiled.

“Jelly, I got a hoof… wait… Mierda! Can’t find the other one… it’s bent back… How’s she doin’, Jelly?” Johnny panted out.

“Ya better hurry, Johnny, don’t think ya got much more time!” If there was trouble, the time for a successful delivery was short, the foal would die, and there was a good chance the mare’s life would be in jeopardy. However, Johnny was determined that both would come through; he wouldn’t give up.

He touched the foal’s broad chest, then moved to the left and found the foreleg that was, indeed, bent back. Johnny needed to reach another few inches, then there would be enough leg to wrap his fingers around and ease that leg forward as gently and quickly as he could.

“This’s a big foal! No wonder she’s havin’ trouble… almost got it… ahhhhh,” he groaned as the leg extended, and the contractions moved the foal to the beginnings of its life. Soon two small hooves could be seen, but Johnny kept his grip ready to pull the foal to freedom.

“She’s havin’ a rough time, but think it’s gonna be alright now,” Johnny said. “Alright, little one, stop bein’ so shy, c’mon outta there and say hello…” and Johnny began to pull.

Echo lay in the straw, panting heavily. Johnny cleaned the nostrils of the colt to ensure it was drawing enough air. Echo then sat up and shook her head. She gazed at her wet baby and shook her head again. Then with a snort, she got her hooves under her and was on her feet, nuzzling her large baby boy.

Johnny looked to Jelly; both wore silly grins the size of Texas.

“Here, boy, ya better wash up!” The bewhiskered old man handed Johnny a bucket of water, soap, and a towel.

“Hey, Jelly! We did it! Would ya look at the colt? Sure is a big fella! Thanks, Jelly!” And Johnny began to wash the gore off his arm and hand. He quickly replaced the hearty scrub with a more gentle touch. Yes, he would be favoring that hand and arm for a few days and couldn’t let it be known. Madrid with a hand that was incapacitated would be sure to attract trouble.

Johnny was late getting to breakfast. As he strolled into the kitchen, Scott was at the table with his coffee. He sat and offered his older brother a big smile.

“Hey, Boston! You go out ta the barn yet?” Johnny’s eyes were bright and cheerful as he thought about their new addition.

Scott, obviously with his mind elsewhere, suddenly snapped out of his thoughts and returned Johnny’s infectious grin. “No, I haven’t. Did everything go alright last night?” Scott asked, now curious.

“Me an’ Jelly had ta help a little, but everything’s fine. Prettiest little colt ya ever did see! Well, he ain’t so little! Black with three white stockings an’ a sweet blaze down his face. C’mon, let’s go…”

Scott hesitated then said, “Murdoch wants to see you first. He’s at his desk. Then we’ll go out to the barn. I’ll wait for you. And after I see our colt, I need to get into town and pick up the two security men that were left behind yesterday.”

Johnny tried to read if something was hidden in his brother’s face but didn’t find anything.

“Anything I need ta know before I get in there?” Johnny asked cautiously. That little niggling feeling was beginning to make itself known again.

Scott smiled, knowing that Johnny could handle just about any situation that arose but felt a bit of warning was necessary. “Apparently, Mrs. McClain is upset. After you left the table, she spoke up in protest over Teresa going to help you with the foal.”

Johnny reined in his anger. Well, Madrid needs to put in an appearance, is all… Then he smiled wickedly. Madrid had never let him down before, and he sauntered into the great room with just the right amount of audacity as he massaged his arm. The help provided by Johnny with the birth caused significant discomfort, but to Johnny, it had been well worth the effort. With Scott on his heels, the Lancer brothers joined their father in the great room.

“Mornin’ Murdoch! Senator,” Johnny greeted them, then turned to Lucinda. “Ma’am, hope ya slept well,” he said in his most deceptive velvet tones.

Mrs. McClain said nothing but nodded her head as her eyes remained cold and hard.

“Johnny, what’s wrong with your arm? Are you injured?” Murdoch questioned, suddenly concerned.

Senator McClain leaned forward, taking an interest in the conversation. “Johnny, what happened?”

“No, I’m fine. It was a big foal, an’ I had ta help out some, is all. Thought the contractions were gonna break my arm! Hey, Murdoch, ya need ta get out ta the barn an’ see that colt, boy, he’s a beauty! He’s big an’ think he’ll make a good stud…”

A gasp interrupted the conversation as Mrs. McClain clasped her handkerchief to her mouth, and a blush rose to her cheeks.

David came to her side. “Dear, are you alright?” he questioned as she turned wide, disapproving eyes to him.

“This is hardly polite conversation for mixed company, especially in front of guests!” She turned her stare back to Johnny, hoping he would go away. But he did not.

Murdoch held his silence, wanting to see where his son would take this exchange. He knew that Johnny would keep the conversation contained, for a while anyway, and turn it to his advantage, but Murdoch also knew that his son needed to keep his temper under control.

Johnny turned his attention on Mrs. McClain with his most dazzling and deceptive smile,  and Murdoch and Scott both knew that Johnny was warming to the ‘dance’. Observing Johnny had, indeed, held his temper in check, Murdoch was beginning to enjoy the test of wills. He did not doubt the outcome.

“Well, Ma’am,” Johnny began in his warm, velvety tones, “this is a horse an’ cattle ranch, an’ ya can’t raise neither of them without breedin’ them. Don’t know why it’s so upsettin’ ta you; it’s the most natural thing in the world. Birth is as common as death. Can’t have one without the other.”

Lucinda was more upset with each word the disrespectful boy spoke. Make him stop!

But Johnny kept talking, knowing every word was making her cringe. “Hey, after all, birth is how all of us got here. Why don’t you come on out ta the barn an’ see the little fella? He sure is a cutie now that his mama has him all licked clean an’ dry…”

Lucinda quickly rose from her chair and left the great room; she swiftly made her way up the stairs and to their room, where she shut the door with more force than was required to get the job done.

The four men in the great room stood looking at the empty stairway, three of them barely able to contain their laughter. However, Johnny hid his well behind a mask of ‘what happened?’. He turned wide eyes on the Senator and played his innocence to the hilt.

“What was that all about?” Johnny asked as if he had no clue.

David shrugged. “I am afraid that Lucinda cannot tolerate any references regarding… medical situations, of humans or animals. Why, the sight of blood makes her faint, not simply woozy but literally faint. I think that this was possibly a mistake to bring her here. I apologize, Murdoch. I need to make sure she is alright now.” And with that, David McClain left the room, nodding to Scott and Murdoch but ignored Johnny.

Johnny watched as Murdoch settled into his chair behind his desk. The sigh that escaped his father suggested a troubled mind.

“Murdoch… you alright?” Johnny asked.

“Yes, son, I was thinking that the Senator will be taking the state in a direction detrimental to most of us. Everyone has the right to their own opinion, but the things he will try to implement will be very harmful to many of our people.”

Murdoch said no more but turned to face his younger son. Johnny listened to everything his father had said, and more than that, he read the words that Murdoch had not put to voice. The Mexicans would pay dearly, and it would not matter that these folks had been here for hundreds of years; after all, this had been Mexico not too long ago.

Lucinda slammed the door. How dare that half-breed talk as he did in her presence! He should be horse-whipped! She lay upon the bed with her arm covering her face. She needed to think. Would this person create a problem for David in his run for office? Would he talk friends and neighbors out of voting for David? She wanted, needed David to win this election. Her aspirations set even higher; she had every intention of pushing her husband toward the White House.

Johnny leaned on the top rail of the corral and rested his chin on his crossed arms as he watched the colt nurse at his mother’s side. It was handsome, with a deep chest, and had long, muscular legs. His coat glistened in the sun, and his eyes were large and bright. Johnny smiled, proud of the mare and the colt she produced. The sore arm he was nursing had been worth it. He didn’t turn when Scott joined him at the rail. Scott, too, admired the new colt, impressed with the sturdy yet regal confirmation of one so young.

“He’s gonna be a head-turner, Scott. Gonna sire some good, sound stock.” Johnny said and watched as mama Echo made her way to him for an ear scratch. “Yeah, ya did good, Echo, that’s a fine baby ya got, there!” Johnny crooned as the mare leaned into his hands.

Scott watched his brother reinforce the connection with the mare, and once again, he marveled at Johnny’s ability to communicate with the magnificent animal. Scott was looking forward to observing his little brother train the colt. It would be something exceptional, and he would be honored to be a part of the process.

“Oh, David! I don’t like it here! When can we leave?” Lucinda whined as she heard her husband come into the room.

David went to her side as she reclined on the bed. He placed a hand on her shoulder to calm her distress. “I think I need more time to work on Murdoch. I am sorry, Lucinda. He is a powerful man in this valley, and his endorsement would advance my agenda to incredible levels. Please be more patient, my dear. Just a bit longer.”

The day dragged on pitifully, and Lucinda, again, paced the great room. The tick of the large grandfather clock was getting on her nerves. She was ready to scream. Her temper was beginning to run away with thoughts regarding David’s run for the governor’s seat. How could she further his efforts? The only bit of good news was that their security team had arrived from town. At least she felt safer.

Lucinda McClain’s concentration was interrupted when Teresa came into the room.

“Mrs. McClain, we have a wonderful garden here. Would you care to sit outside for a while? It’s beautiful…” her words were cut short with the woman’s reply.

“No, I would not like to go outside! There are probably snakes in your garden!” Lucinda sneered. Oh, she wished that David would not have come here! Where was he? It shouldn’t take this long for Lancer to show him the ranch.

Teresa felt the sharp words but quickly pushed them from her mind, not allowing them to bite too deep. It was a lesson she was learning from Johnny. Well, snakes in the garden could be arranged… she thought as she turned away and a smile began to twitch on her face.

As Murdoch took his seat at the dinner table, he satisfied himself with the thought that he’d given a fair assessment to Senator David McClain. Murdoch had listened carefully to the words David had said about his ideas and avenues of leading the state of California. Prosperity would surely abound for everyone! the man proclaimed. It had been a very long afternoon in the company of the Senator, and Murdoch wondered if the dinner conversation would confirm what he had been reasonably sure of. He noticed that the security stood close, out of the way, but close.

Murdoch knew McClain did not have everyone’s best interest in mind, and he vowed the man would not have his support. He would make it his personal business to be sure the ranchers in the San Joaquin found out what the man was trying to accomplish.

They all took their seats, then Murdoch cleared his throat and bowed his head, and the others followed his example.

“Dear Lord, we thank you for this bounty before us; we thank you for the land and the people here that have worked diligently and dedicated their loyalty to ensure our success. And for all that we have, we are thankful that your blessings have been bestowed upon us, this ranch, its people, and this family. Amen.” With a soft chorus of ‘amen’s’ from the Lancer family, David and Lucinda remained silent.

Johnny raised his head to catch his father’s eye and nodded in warm appreciation for the words his father had spoken, and Murdoch smiled.

The light in his son’s eyes said volumes, and the ol’ man’s heart swelled with pride and love. They would all fight for California and its people; it was the Lancer creed.

They passed the bowls of food quietly at first; the only sounds that of the serving spoons and forks gently clinking against the delicate china that signaled the delicious meal was moving around the table. Johnny snuck a glance at the McClain’s through lowered lashes and noted the Senator’s disappointment and the pinched glare from Mrs. McClain.

Johnny was the first to break the awkward silence. “Murdoch, me an’ Cipriano an’ the boys got those cattle moved taday. There’s a lotta good feed in that pasture that’ll last a while.”

“Good, that’s good news, son. We’ll let them graze for a time and fatten them up. Keep an eye on them, though. We don’t want any unwanted ‘visitors’ coming down out of the mountains,” Murdoch said, pleased at the progress they had made.

David McClain looked puzzled as he chewed the tender beef. “Murdoch, what do you mean when you say ‘visitors’?”

“Mountain lions and wolves mostly. They’ll pick off the calves and take full-grown cattle if there are enough of them. The big cats are solitary animals, but the wolves hunt in packs. Either way, they could have a drastic effect on the herd.”

As the two men spoke, Johnny watched Lucinda as she picked at her food. The woman sat stiffly and clutched her knife and fork in a white-knuckled grip. Johnny expected to hear the utensils snap in two and drop onto her plate. Then he turned his attention to the conversation between his father and the Senator.

“That sounds too risky, Murdoch. You should be thinking about other means of income. Production, man! Come with me, and I will make you rich, investing in things that are not so vulnerable. Progress is coming, and you could get in on the ground floor!” The enthusiasm shined brightly in his eyes but was not convincing Murdoch to share his opinion.

“I think I’ll stick to ranching, it’s what I know, and after I’m gone, Scott and Johnny will ‘call the tune’ here,” Murdoch said honestly, his tone one that signaled ‘and that is final’. But, the gracious host that he was, Murdoch finished with a smile.

“But, listen to reason, Murdoch! You could make triple the money you make here! Just come with me!”

“Senator,” Johnny spoke softly, his tone direct but controlled and hinted of opposition. “Ya ever sat ’round a fire at night, watchin’ the sparks drift inta the sky, or listen ta coyotes howl in the distance? Ya ever stop ta see a foal’s first steps after it’s born? Taste the water from a snowmelt stream? Ya ever done any a that?”

The Senator’s forehead creased as he puzzled over the strange inquiry. What does this have to do with anything? David thought. He couldn’t make a connection. “No.”

“Didn’t think so,” Johnny’s penetrating stare held David, and the Senator began to feel uneasy.

“Why do you ask those questions, Johnny? They make no difference here.”

“Yeah, they do. Ya got no idea what you’re askin’ us ta give up.” Again, the words delivered in a relaxed tone, but this last statement held a chill about it. “Alla them things I mentioned, well, ya can’t put a price on them… ya can’t buy them, no matter how much money you have.”

“Johnny’s right, Senator. It’s our way of life. We work very hard to maintain this ranch and raise quality, sound stock. The contracts we have with the Army for cattle and horses have been quite lucrative, not to mention the diversity of other business ventures. And I can attest to the serenity of a warm fire, the music of a lonely howl, the joy of first steps, and a sweet, cold drink to wash away the dust. With all due respect, sir, we will never give this up.” Scott looked to Murdoch and Johnny with a smile.

Glad the meal was over, Johnny leaned on the adobe wall to watch the night-time display. It never failed to ease away the tension and soothe a troubled mind. It was clear to Johnny that Senator McClain had no clue what he was asking the Lancers to do, no clue what he was asking them to give up, but worst of all was the fact that the man didn’t care.

All Johnny could hope for was that the man wouldn’t be able to talk others into following him. Hotheads looking for an easy way out, Driscol and Santee came to mind, would no doubt allow themselves to be led by the nose if they thought they could turn a dime.

Johnny heard the door open but did not turn to see who was joining him. There was a brief exchange of low mumbled words as Mrs. McClain conversed with her bodyguard, and he moved off into the shadows. A light breeze danced over the patio and picked up the woman’s scent. Smelled better perfume in a whorehouse, Johnny thought with a smile that tugged at the corners of his mouth; then, he let the gesture slip away, knowing that he would need to control not only his words but his emotions over the next few minutes.

Taking a sip of tequila from the glass he held, a thought sparked in his brain. Maybe a visit from Madrid would be good right about now… It worked before.

“Well, Mr. Lancer, I don’t see any sparks from a fire tonight and don’t hear any lonely coyotes,” Lucinda smirked, thinking herself clever enough to put this heathen in his rightful place. She watched his profile in the moonlight. He had not given her the courtesy of acknowledging her presence when she spoke, and instantly she felt her temper rise. Perhaps it is time he learned with whom he is dealing, but then, he is only a half-breed. What would he know about associating with polite society?

“I don’t suppose it means anything to you that you sadly lack in manners? A gentleman would certainly not let a lady stand here without offering her a seat,” Lucinda snipped, and she mistook Johnny’s continued silence for ignorance. She huffed, confident she would confirm these thoughts.

“I see I was right in my assumptions. There is a certain… lower class that simply is not fit to socialize with the rest of us. You, Mr. Lancer, wear that description well.” Urged on by his silence, Lucinda forged ahead. “I should have expected no less from you. It is quite apparent you know nothing of respect…”

Johnny then turned to her with cold eyes, and though his words were soft, they froze her to her core. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with my manners, Ma’am. My mama taught me well. Ya wanna siddown, there’s a chair. Go sit,” Johnny pointed to a nearby seat at a small table. “I may be half Mexican an’ maybe ta you that don’t mean anything, but I’m gonna tell ya that I’m proud of my heritage. I’ve known a lot of really fine, honest an’ hard workin’ Mexican folks. An’ not one a them got ta where they are by stealin’ from others. They worked hard for what they had. Far as my respect for ya, ya get my respect when ya earn it. That ain’t anything I give just cuz someone thinks she should have it.”

Johnny walked to the house but stopped and turned to face her once more. “Oh, yeah, you might wanna be careful, there’s snakes out here,” he said softly, smirking the last and grateful for the tip he’d received from Teresa. He turned away, issued a mock salute to the bodyguard in the shadows, and left her at the wall in the darkening night.

“David, I want to leave in the morning! I will not stay under this roof another night with that… that peon! I am beginning to wonder, David, if the association with Mr. Lancer wouldn’t be more harmful than good. After all, dear, a man who would have a Mexican as a wife… well, it’s simply not right! I think we need to surround ourselves with voters who will see that your promises will far better serve the welfare of this state! Let’s move into town tomorrow, David,” Lucinda said as she turned and bestowed a sweet smile on her husband.

“Lucinda, I haven’t met with the other ranchers yet! Murdoch was driving me all over this ranch today, and I was getting a feel for the land. Why, it’s perfect for our development plans, dear! Perfect!”

“We’ll campaign in town, and they will come to you, dear, and they will see that Murdoch Lancer is a man who is putting his agenda first and not caring about his neighbors. You leave it to me, David. I will take care of everything. Where are Mr. Leech and Mr. Cummings? I will need to speak to them and let them know we will be going into town to stay.” Lucinda left their room as David McClain stood alone. Then he let the wicked smile crawl across his face. Lucinda always found a way.

Mrs. McClain knocked softly on the door. It was pulled open, and the two burly bodyguards bade her enter.

It had been a sudden departure. Murdoch and the entire household were not sorry to see the guests leave. They were concerned, however, how much trouble the Senator would cause in town.

The bundle of papers arrived from Cody Justice. Scott immediately took them and sat at Murdock’s desk to read. As the hours ticked by, Scott became more upset by the things he discovered. He started a list of questions, worded them carefully, and quickly had several pages written after examining all the articles Cody included at Scott’s request.

As the Lancer family began their dinner, Scott filled them in with the details. “Well, our assumptions were correct regarding the Senator. The articles from the San Francisco and Sacramento newspapers confirmed our suspicions. McClain has made promises he can’t possibly keep, not to mention the deceptive nature of his campaigning, and blatant lies have caused discord wherever he goes. I want to be there in Green River when he speaks. And I think that Val should be there. He should know if things have the potential to go wrong.”

Murdoch nodded his head in agreement. “Yes, I think you’re right, Scott. Why don’t you two ride into town tomorrow and have a talk with Val?”

Scott and Johnny nodded. “There’s something else.” Scott looked from Murdoch to his brother before he spoke. “It hasn’t been proven, but there are reports of two men who were staunchly opposed to Senator McClain… they’re missing.”

Johnny was the first to recover. “Missin’, huh?” Ain’t surprised…

Scott issued a grim nod.

“What’s Cody got ta say about that, Scott?” Johnny asked.

“There is no proof and no witnesses, but it was very suspicious, not to mention coincidental. The disappearances happened after a confrontation at one of the senator’s campaign speeches.” Scott then gave them his list of questions he would be asking the Senator with the townspeople to hear.

“That ain’t gonna make any difference ta ranchers like Driscol an’ Santee. They’re barely hangin’ on. Once McClain tells ’em they can get top dollar for their land, the first thing outta their mouths is gonna be ‘where do I sign?’ They ain’t gonna be listenin’ ta reason… not ta mention logic,” Johnny said as he pushed his plate away. Sure could use a drink… “Hey, Boston, what’d ya say we don’t wait till tamorrow, let’s take us a little trip inta town now.”

Scott could only grin. His younger brother looked so devilish, and he suspected Johnny might have an agenda of his own. The Lancer brothers retrieved their sidearms from the coat tree in the front hall.

“Don’t wait up, Murdoch!” Johnny called over his shoulder as he pulled his bolero jacket around his lean frame, and the two were on their way to the barn.

“What are you thinking, brother? You seem unusually quiet,” Scott asked as he watched and waited for Johnny to voice the thoughts in his head.

“Oh, I’m thinkin’ there’s gonna be trouble an’ until it happens, we ain’t gonna know what ta do about it. Just hope that we’re there ta keep a lid on things. Think a visit ta Val is the first move.”

Green River was noisy. It seemed to have more than the usual amount of people in town. Folks were standing on the boardwalks in groups talking with enthusiasm, animated gestures of hands and arms flailing about them in excited conversation. Both brothers saw placards about town nailed on every available post and storefront boasting of the Senator’s promises. A rally to be held in town on Saturday encouraged everyone to attend and hear the great news, times are changing, and profitable opportunities are coming!

“You bring alla them papers from Cody with ya, Scott?” Johnny asked as they tied their mounts in front of the sheriff’s office.

“Yes, I did, little brother. I think Val will find it very interesting reading.”

Scott and Johnny entered the office to find Val sitting at his desk, muttering obscenities as he sifted through a stack of papers. He looked up briefly then continued rustling through the documents.

“Keep yer hands offa my coffee,” Val groused when he spied Johnny.

Johnny feigned hurt feelings then chuckled. “Hey, Val, whatcha doin’?”

“What’s it look like ‘m doin’, ya idiot? ‘M workin’.

Scott huffed. “Well, Sheriff, we brought you more,” he announced as he deposited the packet of Cody’s communications on Val’s cluttered desk.

Val stared at the addition to the overflowing mess of ‘oh, yes, I really want to strike a match an’ watch alla this burn’, to focus the glare onto the Lancer brothers. This is trouble; I know this is trouble…  “What’s that?”

“These are articles regarding Senator McClain. Cody Justice sent them to me, and I think you will find them interesting reading, Val. We felt that you should know what the Senator is promoting and the potential for trouble. Every one of these writings can be verified. You know Cody and know what kind of man he is. He wouldn’t have sent these to us if there were any question of validity.” Scott stood and watched as Val picked up the packet.

He looked up as Johnny and Scott moved to the door. His gruff demeanor subdued, and words of warning and concern now took its place. “You two be careful tanight,” and with their nod of acknowledgment, Val reached inside the packet as a chill crawled down his spine.

Smoke hung thick in the air of the crowded saloon. Parts of conversations drifted to their ears as they found a suitable table on the back wall. As Scott went for beers, Johnny watched and listened to those close enough to be heard.

“…railroads gonna come through…”

“…offer us top dollar…”

“… no more scratchin’ ta make ends meet…”

Johnny knew that once McClain got into town, he would be stirring the pot, and Johnny was right. The Senator had only been here for what, less than eight hours, and had everyone dancing in the streets like fools. The situation was going to be next to impossible to contain now. Once the Senator would begin spewing promises that couldn’t be kept and riling small ranchers, convincing them they were sitting on a pot of gold, there would be no stopping them. McClain would secure their votes and take office.

Scott pushed his way through the crowds, with most of their beer still in the mugs. He set the glasses on the scarred table and dried beer-soaked hands on his pant leg. Scott studied his younger brother as he leaned on the table with his chin in his hand. With Johnny’s hat covering much of his face, Scott couldn’t tell if his brother was amused or not. Pulling out a chair, Scott sat in hopes of enjoying his beer before things got ugly, and he and Johnny would have to leave.

Johnny leaned back in his chair, pushed his hat off his face, and then picked up his mug with his left hand. Scott noticed his brother’s right hand hovered near his Colt the entire time.

“Well, brother, think if ya read them all the stuff Cody sent that it’ll change their minds?” Johnny asked with a disgusted sigh as he drank his beer.

Scott looked at the ruckus that filled the room before he answered. “Only if they are sober, and from the looks of things, that will be a while.”

Johnny saw it coming and had just enough time to shove his chair to the side and pull Scott out of the way. Their table scraped across the wooden planks and tipped on its side by two bodies locked in a struggle as they now traded sloppy punches on the floor.

“My property’s worth more’n yours!” old Grover Hutchins spit out through bloody lips as Homer Colby drew back to deliver another punch.

“The hell it is, ya stupid ignoramus! The Railroad’s gonna buy mine for twice what yer gonna get for that sandpile you call a ranch!”

“I’m leavin’, Scott.” Johnny turned, and Scott was on his heels as they made their way across the battlefield. Almost to their destination, Scott’s arm was grabbed and held in a tight grip.

“Scott, aren’t you going to stay and help celebrate? Why, I bet you Lancers will never have to work a day again in your lives!” old Cyrus Gage said with a happy grin splitting his face.

Scott wanted to shake the man until his teeth, correction, tooth fell out. “Cyrus, don’t believe everything you hear.” Scott pulled his arm free and left with his brother.

It was long after midnight that Val Crawford, sheriff of Green River, sat back in his chair and ran a shaking hand through his messy, shaggy hair. The Senator’s arrival did not give him much time, and he would need more help than just the two Lancer boys to keep the lid on things. Damn it!

The town filled to overflowing, and still, people flooded the roads into Green River. It looked as if folks were spending their money before they had it. It never ceased to amaze Val just how stupid folks could be, especially when it came to money.

Red, white, and blue bunting decorated the hotel’s balcony where the Senator would be speaking. A row of five chairs sat a few feet back, no doubt for the Senator and Mrs. McClain, and the three newcomers that arrived yesterday morning on the train. Val found out later that two were speechwriters and one a campaign manager.

After Val had read, then re-read the information from Cody Justice, he could only hope that the Lancers would watch their backs. If there was anything to the story of the two missing persons opposed to the Senator, it would be entirely possible that once they spoke of their stand against the Senator, Murdoch and his two trouble-attracting sons could be in danger. But thoughts as these were putting the proverbial cart before the horse.

Val kept watching as more people crowded the streets, but surprisingly enough, they were orderly. He saw Murdoch, Scott, and Johnny tie their horses on the outskirts of town. Murdoch and Scott went to stand with the crowd, off to the side but close enough to hear clearly. Johnny, as usual, quickly disappeared. Val did not doubt that his amigo would keep an eye out for something, anything that was… not right.

The door to the balcony opened as the Senator and his entourage took their seats, and very soon, a man stepped forward and held his hands out for silence. As Scott watched, he was reminded of the Honorable Jonathan Parks from Boston. The man had enormous, bushy muttonchops, and Scott had never seen anything like them, until now.

“May I have your attention, everyone?” the man began. The crowd quieted, and the man continued with his long and drawn-out recitation regarding the “only man with an education, business sense and drive to bring the state of California to its most profitable best!” Deafening cheers went up, and the man again held his arms out for quiet. He droned on for another few minutes before Scott heard, “and with your support, I would like to introduce to you the next Governor of the great state of California, Senator David McClain!”

David McClain stepped up to the balcony rail, and like his campaign manager, held up his hands for silence. The crowd quickly obeyed and appeared to hang on every cleverly deceptive word the Senator spoke.

Johnny had seen the two bodyguards as he rode into town. The niggling in his brain kept him cautious. He could hear the cheering out front and didn’t need to know the words spoken by McClain were designed for manipulation, words to lead the ‘blind’. Just like Gabe’s sheep. They’d wander in circles, just following the ones in front… around an’ around…

He walked quietly through the hotel and saw nothing out of the ordinary. He guessed everyone was hanging on the lies McClain was spewing. Johnny then walked into the adjoining dining room to find the maid and cook, Gracie, and Sadie taking time for a cup of coffee. Johnny took his hat in hand as he greeted them.

“Ladies,” Johnny drawled quietly. Both women stopped in mid-conversation to watch him enter.

“Johnny! It’s nice to see you! How are you? Haven’t seen you around in a while,” Gracie said as she smiled sweetly.

Johnny had always treated them with respect, had never looked down on anyone thinking them lower than himself, and in doing so, had endeared himself to them. Sadie rewarded him her own smile.

“Fine, ladies, I’m just fine. Hey, there been any suspicious lookin’ characters hangin’ around since McClain’s been here? I mean other’n his security?”

The girls looked puzzled at first, but Gracie suddenly gave Johnny a wide-eyed stare.

“Don’t know if it means anything, Johnny, but three men were standing in the alley across from the back of the hotel the last few hours. I haven’t looked for a while, but they were there around noon. Here, follow me.” Gracie pointed out the window facing across the alley. There, standing in the shadows, were three men.

Yup, just what I thought…

“Thanks, ladies! If ya see anything strange, other’n them just standin’ there, go tell Sheriff Crawford, alright?” Johnny gave them his dazzling smile.

“Sure, Johnny! Hey, when are these high an’ mighty folks gonna be out of here? The Senator’s wife… well, she’s not very… likable.”

Johnny wanted to laugh, but he didn’t. “I know…” he said softly. With one more sweet smile, Johnny tipped his hat and walked away, leaving them to admire the view of his departure.

Making his way through the hotel, he could hear Scott asking a question. He stopped in his tracks to listen.

“Senator, where is the money coming from to buy all of this land?” Scott asked.

“Investors, my boy! Industries are scrambling as we speak to get the first bids in and secure their opportunity!”

“With all due respect, Senator, how can you guarantee these companies will pay these people top dollar?”

The Senator, though seemingly patient, was losing the edge he had before Scott began his questioning. He needed to move on, but Scott Lancer was not letting go.

“We have discussed all our options and covered every contingency regarding purchases and sales. Anyone who would like to know more can make an appointment to see me later.”

“If your companies or the industries you are supporting are going to pay top dollar, which will amount to millions, and if I am going to cast my vote for you, I think I am entitled to know the details. So, yes, Senator, I would like to make an appointment…”

Johnny huffed. The Senator had just put one too many ponies in his corral, and he didn’t even know it.

Lucinda McClain was growing weary of Scott Lancer’s questioning. It seemed the young man was attempting to plant the seed of doubt into the minds of these simpleton frontier people, and it would have to stop. She discreetly left the balcony and made her way to the room across the hall that faced the alley.

Johnny watched the man cross the alley at the back of the hotel. He saw the man stop and stand to look up at a second-story window, then Johnny made his way upstairs and quietly went down the hall to stop and lean against the wall. Suddenly the door to the room facing the alley opened, and Lucinda stepped out. She was startled as she saw him waiting for her.

“What are you doing here? I could have you arrested!” she snarled.

“It’s a public building, Mrs. McClain. Ya don’t own it… yet,” Johnny countered casually, but he laced the statement with insolent sarcasm.

“You didn’t answer my question. What are you doing here?”

“I can ask you the same thing…” Johnny stated, deliberately keeping her off balance. By evading her question, it left her with no control of the situation, and her temper flared. She was not used to anyone challenging her authority, especially this half-breed.

“I am furthering my husband’s chances for election… and I will do everything in my power to see it done, and nothing or no one will stand in my way. Do I make myself clear, Mr. … Lancer?” she sneered.

“More’n you know, Ma’am, more’n you know.” He whispered his words as his eyes narrowed.

Johnny touched the brim of his hat, then sauntered down the hall to the stairs where he stopped, turned back to face her, offered her his innocent, sweet smile, touched his hat again, and left.

Lucinda was seething inside. It was time.

“Your instructions are postponed. Something has come up and needs immediate attention. A threat has jeopardized my plans and requires your services. Here is what I want you to do…”

Chase Elliot, Griss Shamley, and Rance Briggs had worked for Mrs. McClain for several months now. The pay was good, and the work was not difficult. Knocking in a few heads and the occasional disposal of a problem was the type of work they did best: no herding cows or mending fences for them. There were many ways a man could turn a dime without beating himself into an early grave, and, so far, they had been quite lucrative in their business dealings with the lady. She was a very determined person.

“Boy, that lady must have lots a money just layin’ around! She sure has been good ta us!” Briggs muttered as they sat to the side in the crowded, smoky saloon. The bottle in the middle of the table was now empty as the men discussed their plans. Their intended target had been sitting at a table with the local sheriff for the last half hour, appearing to be in deep conversation. The three men sat patiently and waited. Soon, they would go to work.

The sheriff stood and bid the target goodbye. He threaded his way through the room and out into the cool night air, then disappeared from their sight.

After finishing the beer in front of him, Johnny Lancer flipped the bartender a coin and maneuvered his way through the crowd to the batwing doors. As usual, he stopped and checked the street, then pushed his way through and out onto the boardwalk.

Elliot, Shamley, and Briggs casually left their table and walked to the back door. Peering from down an alley, they watched as Lancer stopped and engaged in conversation with another man. Elliot smiled. Timing was everything. They retrieved their horses and headed out of town.

“Ya think it’s on the up an’ up, Johnny?” old Gus Fielding queried. He had been in town earlier when the Senator gave his speech and sure thought it sounded good until Scott began his questioning. Then Mr. Fielding had second thoughts.

“I can’t say for sure, Mr. Fielding, but there’s one thing I do know an’ there’s no way McClain can speak for companies an’ make promises that they’ll pay top dollar for all this land. I think he’s gettin’ folks all riled up, an’ these promises are made ta get him your vote.” If old Mr. Fielding was beginning to think about the situation, Johnny was hopeful others would follow, but he wasn’t going to count on it.

“Gotta go, Mr. Fielding, say hello ta the Missus for me.” Johnny touched the brim of his hat and swung onto his saddle.

“Give my best ta Murdoch!” Fielding said.

“Will do!” With another smile to the old man, Johnny turned Barranca and headed for home.

The night was quiet. It wrapped Johnny in soothing comfort, and the sweet, cool breeze drifted lightly across his face, refreshing and welcomed. After the troubling events of the day, Johnny greeted the night as if it were an old, dear friend. And it was. The stars winked on in the darkening sky and bid the sun good night. The moon came out in all its glory and cast a silver light across the land.

The rifle shot shattered the tranquility as the bullet grazed the side of Johnny’s head, leaving a bloody trail above his temple. He felt a hot gush of blood down the side of his face, and the ground rose to meet him with a bone-jarring blow. That was the last he knew.

“Let’s git ‘im off the road and outta sight jus’ in case someone comes by…” The three men wrestled Johnny onto Barranca and led the palomino into the cover of the trees, a secluded area where they would not be seen or heard.

Griss Shamley grabbed the collar of Johnny’s jacket and tugged, letting him fall onto the hard, rocky ground. Still unconscious, Johnny lay in a heap as Elliot instructed Shamley and Briggs to drag their quarry away from the horses as he retrieved their canteens. Again, they dropped Johnny to the ground and uncorked the vessels to up-end them, effectively dousing Johnny with water to bring him around. There was a hoarse cough, then sputter as Johnny tried in vain to roll onto his belly, the wet shirt and jacket clinging to him, the cold causing him to shiver.

“Get ‘im on ‘is feet,” Elliot commanded as Briggs and Shamley took Johnny’s arms and roughly hauled him vertical onto unsteady legs. His head fell forward, chin rested on his chest as water mixed with blood and dripped steadily into the ground creating small puddles around Johnny’s boots. Elliot grabbed a fistful of Johnny’s wet hair and brutally yanked the head backward as he looked into the barely opened eyes.

“Looks like you need a few lessons in manners, boy.” Elliot grinned as he warmed to the job. Chase Elliot was a man who enjoyed his work, this kind of work anyway.

“You a fast learner, boy?” Elliot pushed, wanting their prey to see the error of his ways. No, that wasn’t it. Elliot wanted him to know what was coming. He wanted to see the fear in those eyes.

“… fuck you… ” came the muffled reply through lips that didn’t seem to work.

Elliot did not hold back, urged on by the baited words. As Shamley and Briggs held Johnny immobile, Elliot rained his punches down mercilessly. Repeated blows to jaws, cheeks, ribs, and stomach continued until the body hung limply between the two men. They let Johnny fall as they stepped back to admire their work.

“Well, she got no worries now ’bout him causin’ any more trouble. Hey, think she’ll let us keep workin’ for her when their campaignin’ is over? Sure would be nice ta have steady pay!” 

The careless laughter rent the night. Elliot looked at the bloodied face on the ground, and with one last savage kick to the ribs, the three men left, leaving Johnny alone and helpless.

The sun breathed life into another beautiful day. The powerful rays shined onto the trees creating a dappled pattern through the branches and leaves that splattered the ground with spots of light. The dancing of light, dark, light, dark made by the gentle sway of foliage in the breeze prompted the beginnings of awareness as two swollen eyes slit open. And then immediately slammed shut.

The brilliant light of the sun pierced into his brain and caused explosions of white-hot shards of pain strong enough to set off the rebellion in his belly. Johnny had enough time to roll on his side before the awful retching in his guts did its best to turn his stomach inside out. The contractions set his ribs on fire as deeply bruised muscles fought against equally bruised ribs. He lay panting, trying to even out his breaths.

Suddenly a flash of memory, a spark ignited… think she’ll keep us on… she got no worries now… when the campaign’s over…  

Gotta ‘member ta tell Val… Johnny thought as he struggled for control over his misery.

It was going to hurt, but Johnny knew he had to move. Slowly and painfully, he got to all fours and carefully sat back on his haunches as he held his chest with his left hand. Without any unnecessary movements, he looked for Barranca but did not see him. He then attempted a whistle, pitiful as it was. Johnny closed his eyes as he touched the gash above his temple and winced, his fingers came away covered with thick, congealed blood.

He jolted when he felt the snort down his neck as Barranca responded to the call and nuzzled Johnny as he sat on the ground. Waiting to catch his breath, he gathered his strength and prepared himself to stand.

“Good boy, B’rranca, good boy. Can ya help me get home?” the soft tones muttered as much for himself as his horse. Johnny grabbed a stirrup and began the slow, painful process of getting to his feet. After a minute to steady the shaking and trembling of his legs, it took four tries to get settled in the saddle. A cold sweat broke out over his face to trickle down his neck as the icy fingers of chills clawed around him and held him captive. He gently nudged his amigo forward in the direction of home.

The empty bottle slammed down on the table as the three glasses were raised in a drunken toast. Elliot, Shamley, and Briggs celebrated the good fortune, again, and drank to ‘the lady’ that had paid them.

“‘ll say it again, boys, we got us a mighty fine employer! Yup, think we should stick ’round an’ see what else she can come up with for us ta do!” Briggs and Shamley laughed and thought this was the best job they’d ever had.

Elliot, on the other hand, was thinking bigger. Yes, the lady was a good employer, but she would make a better hostage…

“My Lord, Johnny! What happened, boy?” Jelly ran to Barranca’s side to help his friend out of the saddle before he fell to the ground. Johnny was a mess. Blood covered much of his face, and dark bruises colored the rest. Careful for the damage that he couldn’t see, Jelly slipped his arm under Johnny’s and around the young man’s back. “Murdoch! Murdoch!” he called out as the front door was flung open.

“Jelly… stop yellin’. My head’s ’bout ready ta come off…” Johnny groaned.

Jelly struggled as his burden stumbled and threatened to fall in a heap in the dirt.

“Jelly, what’s all the…” Murdoch stopped in mid-stride then gathered his wits. “What happened?” he shouted as he raced to take Johnny from the handyman’s grasp. “I have him, Jelly! Send someone for Sam, then come and help me!”

“…’m fine, Murdoch, jus’ get me… on my feet…” Johnny mumbled.

“You are on your feet, son. But not for long,” Murdoch said as he watched Johnny’s eyes roll back in his head just as Murdoch scooped him into his arms.

Murdoch could hear a rider gallop out of the yard and down to the road. Before long, Jelly hurried into the room as Murdoch was easing the filthy shirt from Johnny’s shoulders.

“Jelly, can you ask Maria to get some hot water and supplies ready?” Murdoch said, not looking up.

“Already took care a that, Boss. She’ll be here soon.” Not waiting to be asked, Jelly crawled onto the bed next to his young friend and assisted Murdoch with his ministrations.

“Lordy, Murdoch, someone worked him over pretty good! Looks like there’s  boot prints along them ribs!” Jelly held a cool cloth to the gash on Johnny’s head, and Murdoch continued to clean the dried blood and dirt from his son’s body. He wondered what happened; all Johnny’s money, his rifle, everything had been accounted for. This wasn’t a robbery, so why had his son been attacked? He would have to wait for Johnny to wake to get any answers.

“Ya know, boys, we play our cards right, we could come outta this with thousands,” Elliot spoke, now having their undivided attention. “All we gotta do is get her alone and take her, wait for a coupla days ta let the Senator get scared enough, then send him a little, bitty ransom note…” Elliot let the words sink in, and it didn’t take long.

Sam came into the kitchen and sat at the table. Maria poured a cup of coffee and placed it in front of him.

“Thank you, Maria! Your coffee always hits the spot,” and he took a fortifying drink. Then he turned to Murdoch. “Well, there’s a concussion that will keep him out of work for a week anyway, then light duty. That gash is a nasty one, and headaches will be severe for a while.

“I don’t think there are any broken ribs, maybe a few hairline cracks, though. For now, just keep him quiet and off his feet for as long as you can. He needs time for his body to heal from deep tissue bruising, and it will take several days for that to begin. I did not put a bandage on that gash. It might heal better with the air getting to it, that is, until he’s up and around.” Sam took another drink, closing his eyes to savor the strong, dark brew.

Scott sat, watching his brother sleep. His mind was spinning at a furious rate. What happened last night? Who would want to beat the stuffing out of Johnny? This was not a murder attempt, nor was it a robbery, so what was going on? Scott could think of only one thing to do. He would see if he could find any tracks along the road and piece together the events leading up to the brutal attack. Knowing his brother was sleeping soundly, Scott quietly left the room and began his investigation.

The late afternoon sun was warm, but soon the heat would give way to cool evening air, and Scott knew there was much ground to cover before it got too dark. He carefully studied the road to see if he could read the story in the tracks. Scott would put himself to the test and try to remember everything Johnny had taught him about tracking.

An hour into his search, he found his first clue. A puddle of dried blood lay off to the side of the road, and Scott scoured the ground for other signs. They were there, only if Scott was able to read the story in them. There were hoof prints in abundance, many of them. And boot prints. Scott looked across the road and followed the partial tracks outlined on the hard-packed earth. His heart began beating faster as he put together a few pieces to an ugly scenario.

Lost in his findings, Scott startled when he heard the voice. He grabbed for his pistol but stopped as he recognized Val Crawford’s gruff laugh.

“What the hell ya doin’, Scott?” Val asked as the laugh lines crinkled around his eyes.

Scott let out a deep sigh. “Looking for signs, Val. Johnny was attacked and beaten last night. I think it happened here. There are signs of a struggle…”

Val was off his horse and at Scott’s side before Scott could continue.

“He alright?” Val asked, worry replacing the humor that had been present only seconds ago.

“Sam thinks he will be. The worst is a concussion, but he’s covered with bruises. Sam said they’re pretty deep.”

“Hell, that boy’s got the hardest head I ever did see. He’ll be fine,” Val declared as he joined Scott in the search for clues indicating what happened last night.

“I’d say there was three of ’em. That concussion caused by a bullet?” Val questioned.

“Sam said it was. Johnny’s lucky they didn’t kill him. Shooting at night, well… Damn! I should have gone back into town when I realized he was late getting home! If I did…”

“Cut it out, Scott! Johnny’s a big boy an’ he’s gonna be alright,” Val tried his best to ease Scott’s guilt.

Scott took his eyes from Val to shift across the hard-packed ground and shuddered.

“C’mon, I wanna talk ta that rowdy brother a yours. Let’s go.”

The ride back to Lancer was quick as Val and Scott discussed the information Cody sent them. There was no confirmation the Senator had anything to do with the two missing persons, no evidence, only speculation.

“I was on my way out ta tell ya that Cody sent a telegram sayin’ there’s a lotta things alludin’ ta the Senator havin’ ‘incidents’ in the past. Nuthin’ for sure, but it’s lookin’ awful suspicious. Was gonna ask you an’ Johnny if you’d act as deputies if I need ya.” Val did not divulge the fact Johnny had words with Mrs. McClain in the hotel hallway yesterday at the same time Scott was challenging the Senator.

“Yes, of course, Val. I am glad that you know you can count on me, but, well, Johnny’s certainly not up for anything like that,” Scott answered as he became painfully aware this had the potential for more trouble.

The hacienda was quiet as Scott and Val rode into the yard. Mateo, Cipriano’s son, was there to take the horses for them. Both nodded their appreciation and went inside.

Murdoch came to the front hall and greeted them with a broad grin and took Val’s hand, shaking it warmly. “Val, you’ll stay for dinner, won’t you?” he said.

“Thanks, Mr. Lancer, don’t mind if I do! Hey, is Johnny awake? Need ta talk ta him ’bout what happened.” Val wasn’t leaving until he had a chance to ask Johnny a few questions.

Murdoch held Val’s stare. “Do you know what happened to Johnny?”

“Scott found where he was jumped. Looks like he was ambushed by three men; they worked ‘im over an’ left ‘im there. Lost the tracks, though. They coulda gone anywhere.” Val gave his ‘report’, knowing Murdoch needed to hear something.

“Or, maybe they’re still here,” Murdoch said, putting his thoughts into words.

“So’s Johnny awake, Mr. Lancer?”

Murdoch snapped out of the dangerous place his thoughts were taking him. “Oh, he was about an hour ago, but he’s sleeping now. Why don’t we have dinner, and then you can check on him?” The Lancer patriarch led them to the dining room table.

“Val, how about an after-dinner drink? What’s your pleasure?” Murdoch asked.

“Thanks, tequila, por favor,” Val said as he sat on the comfortable chair.

“Murdoch, did Johnny have anything to say when he was awake?” Scott asked, anxious to hear if his brother volunteered information other than complain he was in bed.

“No, he had some broth, then went to sleep again. He was in pain; I could see it on his face but refused the laudanum. No surprise there,” Murdoch huffed.

“Why does he do that?” Scott said, obviously disturbed at his brother. “He’s got to know he’d be better off taking the painkiller and getting better rest!”

Val snorted and smiled. If they only knew… he thought.

Scott turned and glared at the sheriff. “Something funny, Val?”

“No, jus’ thinkin’ ’bout your brother. Short a sittin’ on ‘im an’ forcin’ that stuff down ‘is throat, he ain’t about ta take it.” Both Lancer men stared at him, wanting more answers. “It leaves ‘im vulnerable. He’d rather deal with the pain. Seen ‘im do it many a time. That boy a yours had some pretty close calls after takin’ some a that stuff, bad things an’, well, let’s jus’ say he’d rather be as alert as he can. The past ain’t that easy ta forget.” Val left his empty glass on the sideboard. “Guess I’ll see if he’s awake yet. ‘Scuse me.”

Murdoch and Scott exchanged worried looks and refilled their glasses.

Val knocked lightly on the door but got no response. He quietly stepped into the darkened room and lit the lamp on the table next to the bed. Turning the flame low, he settled into a chair to wait. Val studied the vivid bruises on Johnny’s sleeping face. He knew that once his amigo was on his feet that there would be no holding him back.

The tiny pinpoint of light forced itself to register in his brain. And there was something else, too, he knew he wasn’t alone. He slit his eyes open to see as Val took the chair next to him.

“What’re ya doin’ here, Val?” Johnny whispered as he watched the silly grin crawl across the scruffy face in desperate need of a shave.

“Hey, amigo. Jus’ stopped in ta see how you’re doin’ is all. R’member anything ’bout last night?” Val asked, talking low and smooth.

Johnny looked around the room, making sure they were alone. Satisfied there was no one else there, he continued. “Only thing is, I heard some talk, parts of things they were sayin’. They were wond’rin’ if ‘she would keep them on’ an’ ‘she don’t have any worries’ an’ somethin’ ’bout the champaign’. Think it coulda been those three we saw last night in the saloon. They’re the same three I saw out back of the hotel.”

Val listened, trying to put the pieces together, and they seemed to fit.

“How ya feelin’, amigo? Can I get ya anything?” Val asked, knowing what the answer was going to be.

“I’m fine, other’n got a helluva headache…” Johnny said as he touched the stitches, holding the gash together.

Val brushed Johnny’s hand away. “Hey, don’t be touchin’ that. How many times I gotta tell ya ta leave them stitches alone? Think ya’d know better by now…”

Val came down the stairs and tipped his hat to Murdoch. “’Night, Mr. Lancer, Scott…”

Murdoch quickly rose from his chair and held out his hand. “Sheriff Crawford, wait. Before you go, did Johnny say anything? Does he remember what happened?”

Val shook his head. “Nope, he said the last he r’membered was fallin’. Lucky for him, he’s got a hard head. Well, ‘night,” and Val was gone leaving Murdoch and Scott with nothing more.

Val felt bad. He hadn’t wanted to lie to Murdoch, well, it wasn’t exactly a lie. He just didn’t repeat all that Johnny told him, and until he had positive evidence, no one else would know.

Johnny stood at the fence and leaned his forearms on the top rail. Echo, the gray mare, came for a scratch with her feisty colt close behind. Johnny smiled as he indulged her with attention. This interaction helped to keep the focus off the headache that had been pounding in his brain for the last several days.

“You do know you shouldn’t be out here, don’t you?” Scott asked as he came to Johnny’s side to lean on the top rail next to his stubborn brother.

Johnny kept his eyes on the animals before him as they leaned into his touch. He could feel the soothing effects of their gentle nature flood through him, the connection with them took him to a different place, a good place, and he reveled in their company.

“I’m alright, Scott. Can’t stay in the house forever,” he said with a final scratch to the silky ears. He then turned his attention to his brother, scrutinizing him, getting a ‘read’ on him.

“Johnny, you should be resting. That’s a serious concussion…”

“What I need is ta be movin’. Always start ta feel better after I move around for a while. Get some fresh air an’ feel the sun on my face.” Johnny watched his brother; he could see it coming, and Johnny spoke to cut off the retort. “Scott, I’ll be fine. Look, I know you’re all worried an’ I appreciate it, I do, but I know what I need ta do, an’ that’s move. Promise I’ll be careful,” Johnny finished with a shrug. “Look, after I’m done here, gonna sit on the patio an’ soak up some sun. That alright with you?” The smile was infectious, and Scott could no longer hold himself immune. He returned the cheeky grin and continued into the barn.

Johnny stopped to visit with Jelly and put up with the old man’s chastising about not taking care of himself, then proceeded to the friend who would not be telling him what he should be doing and what he shouldn’t. Barranca charged the fence at the sight of him and slid to a stop inches away from the wooden rails to receive the coveted attention, and of course, the treat of apple or carrot; he wasn’t fussy. Barranca leaned into the gentle touch, and Johnny felt the soothing sensation flood through his veins with an energy he hadn’t felt for days now. Then, with the social calls done, Johnny retired to the comfort of the chair to sit in the sun.

He had to smile. The rest in the sun did feel soothing as he stretched out his legs in front of him and crossed them at the ankles. The warmth eased the bruised muscles like kneading fingers after his venture around the house and barns.

The click of the door opening from the estancia brought him to full consciousness, and Johnny knew it was Maria. Her soft mumblings preceded her presence, and he could not help but grin as she hurried across the patio to care for her niño. Suddenly it was silent. Johnny cracked an eye open to see her standing beside him, hands on hips with a disapproving frown on the scowling face.

Johnny smiled up at her, but she stood her ground. Huh, must be losin’ my touch… “Mamacita, por favor, don’t start. All I did was ta go for a little walk. Didn’t do nothin’ bad, so don’t yell. I got a headache now. Don’t add to it,” Johnny said as he sighed and closed his eyes again.

Maria softened as she watched Johnny, her niño. “Why are you not in your bed?”

“Started to grow roots ta the mattress,” he deadpanned.

“You wait, I bring you something to drink,” and before Johnny could tell her he was fine, not to bother, she was gone, muttering all the way into the kitchen.

Johnny relaxed into the chair. Truth be told, it felt good to have people that cared about him… if only they wouldn’t hover and nag…

He heard his name called, softly, far away, then a bit louder. Maria was standing, again, by his side, but this time her hands were full. Laden with a large tray of food, she also carried a pillow, and slung over her shoulder was a blanket. Sitting the plate on a table beside his chair, she dragged over a small bench and lifted his feet to rest them on its top.

“Maria, ya don’t need ta fuss over me. I’m fine,” Johnny said as he roused himself awake.

“You do not take the time to do it; someone has to. Lean forward, niño,” she commanded and stuffed the pillow behind him to ease the slouch, then she spread the blanket across his body and arranged it around him.

“Don’t need this blanket, ain’t cold out here…” but his objection was swiftly over-ruled when she slapped his hand away.

“Hush and eat.” Brooking no further comments, she tucked the napkin under his chin and pushed the bowl of soup into his hands.

“Mr. Cummings, I am leaving to see about my purchases. They should be ready by now, but I am sure the proprietress will have some excuse for my order not to be ready.” The ruse of the sham order at the dressmakers worked without a hitch. Once in the store, Lucinda McClain wandered through the inventory as if browsing with all the time in the world. Her instruction for Cummings to remain in front on the boardwalk left her free of observation.

She looked at trim, bolts of fabric, and other essentials, then eased herself to the back door and slipped out to the alley. Elliot, Briggs, and Shamley waited for her.

“What is the meaning of this? This is highly irregular, Mr. Elliot!” Lucinda railed, then lowered her voice and looked around. She couldn’t be seen with these men, not now!

“Look, I wouldn’ta contacted ya if it wasn’t important, now listen! It has ta do with the Senator’s campaign!” Elliot had to keep control.

“What? What about the campaign?” Lucinda stopped her rants.

“Look, Miz McClain, we don’t have a lotta time here, we’re bein’ followed, but we been hearin’ things that’s gonna be bad for ya. If word a this gets out, it’s gonna damage everything unless you can get it stopped now. We ain’t got any more time; we gotta go now. Jus’ be outside the hotel at nine when we can talk, an’ we’ll tell ya what we heard.” And they were gone.

Lucinda McClain stood alone as she watched them slither through the back alleyways, looking over their shoulders as they left. She quickly looked around to be sure she wasn’t seen and entered the dressmaker’s shop once more.

Val watched from the cover of the vacant outbuilding. Mrs. McClain sure did look upset; things must not have gone her way, Val thought as he saw her standing still, a perplexed expression covered her face as if she didn’t know what to do next. Then she turned and entered the back of the dress shop.

Val followed the men as far as he could. He waited for Mrs. McClain to re-enter the shop before he could move without her seeing him. But he lost their trail. They faded quickly from sight, tracks mingled with others, and impossible to discern. The only thing he could do now is to be vigilant.

His thoughts tumbled around in his brain. He had to be ready for whatever would happen. The appearance of the three men meeting with Lucinda McClain added another layer of problems to the rapidly growing list Val knew he needed to straighten out. Could these three be the ones that had worked Johnny over and left him bleeding and hurt? Val couldn’t be sure, but he was going to find out.

“David, I’m going to the dining room for a cup of tea. I will be back shortly,” Lucinda announced as she pulled her shawl around her shoulders and slipped out the door.

McClain sat at the table with his speechwriter, Herman Weldman, and mumbled a barely audible “Yes, Dear,” without looking up. Their speech carefully worded, needed to be perfect.

Lucinda entered the kitchen as the cooks were closing the area for the night. “Excuse me, but could I get a cup of tea?” she asked. Grace nodded and went about the chore. “I will be back in a moment,” Lucinda said as she left the kitchen and stepped out onto the back porch. She waited for her eyes to adjust to the dark before she left the stoop and walked slowly to the shadows knowing that Elliot would be waiting.

There was no sound, nothing to indicate the men were there, and Lucinda began to wonder where her hired men were. They had never been late before. She stopped just as a shadow broke from the dark to stand before her. Lucinda gasped but quickly recognized Chase Elliot.

“Elliot, you scared me half to death!” she said as she caught her breath.

Chase smiled; a wicked gleam flashed in his eyes. “Sorry, Mrs. McClain, we couldn’t take the chance of someone seein’ us talkin’,” he explained as he motioned her further away from the back of the hotel. And Lucinda followed.

Once in the shadows, she began to ask her questions. “What do you have to tell me, Mr. Elliot? What is so important about the campaign?” Annoyed but a bit worried, Lucinda McClain was anxious to hear what Elliot had to say.

“Well, Ma’am, it’s just some things we heard an’ the Senator might not like ta hear that…”

She felt her arms grabbed from behind and a gag stuffed into her mouth. Her hands were secured, and everything went black as Shamley pulled a dark sack over her head. The gag muffled the shriek that left her lips, and she felt herself lifted off her feet, then slung over a shoulder, and the men ran into the night.

The pounding on the door jolted Val out of sleep. What the hell! Don’t no one sleep at night ‘round here no more? He groused as he pulled his pistol from its holster and stumbled to the outer office.

“Just a minute!” Val called out as he fixed a searing glare on his face. “Who’s there?” he barked.

“Sheriff, open up! It’s an emergency! Please open up! It’s Senator McClain!” came a panicked reply.

 Val checked out the window before he lit the lamp, barely making out the Senator’s face in the dark with three other men. He scratched a match to life and lit the lamp before opening the door. “What the hell’s goin’ on?” he growled as the Senator pushed his way into the office.

“My wife, she’s gone! You have to find her, Sheriff! Find her!” David McClain was a distraught man. His face, flushed as sweat trickled down chubby cheeks. The senator’s hands shook, and Val thought the man’s legs would give out any second.

“Just settle down an’ tell me what’s goin’ on! Senator, siddown b’fore ya fall down!” Val shoved a chair in his direction, and McClain sat on it with a plop as he wiped his brow with his handkerchief. Val looked over the three men that entered with the Senator.

“Now, what’d ya mean ‘she’s gone’? She didn’t just up an’ vanish inta thin air!” Val said.

“Lucinda… my wife said she was going to the dining room for a cup of tea. I was with Herman, here. We were writing a speech. I lost track of time! She didn’t come back! I went downstairs to look for her; the dining room was closed, so was the kitchen… and she was gone! You have to find her, Sheriff!”

Val shot the two security men a cold glare. “What about you two? Ain’t that what you’re for, ta keep an eye on them? Where were ya?”

“We had been dismissed for the night. We were not on duty.”

Val huffed. Both Val and Johnny had been hired for security in the past fighting range wars, and never had either of them been ‘dismissed’ for the night. Val shook his head in disgust.

Getting Senator McClain out of the office had been difficult, and the only way Val succeeded was to tell the man that he couldn’t look for the woman if he were here talking. As the Senator could provide nothing useful for the search, Val would have to start from scratch.

Or maybe he did have something useful to say. Val had questioned the man extensively, had him spell out every detail of the evening. McClain said his wife had gone to the dining room for a cup of tea. She picked up her shawl and went to the dining room… What did the woman need the wrap for? The dining room was in the hotel where they were staying.

He started a pot of coffee and sat at his desk. The sun was just coming up as he thought about his options. He tucked in his shirt and pulled on his boots, then drank his first cup of coffee, and was out the door before the tracks, if there were any, would be covered over.

Reaching the back of the hotel, he scoured the ground in the alley, his first thought about the three men he had seen with Mrs. McClain behind the dressmaker’s shop. Right now, that was all he had to go on. And that’s what his gut was telling him. About to leave, Val heard his name called and looked up to find Gracie, the hotel maid hanging a few towels out to dry.

“Sheriff Crawford, what’d ya doin’ out already this mornin’? C’mon in for a cup of coffee!” and she let him in the back to the kitchen. Fresh biscuits were baking, making his mouth water, and Sadie, the day cook, set a large mug of coffee in front of him.

“Somethin’ goin’ on, Val?” Sadie asked.

Val sighed, then set the mug on the table. “Well, seems like Miz McClain is gone. The Senator is fit ta be tied. Says the last he saw of her was last night when she said she was comin’ down for a cup a tea.”

Sadie and Gracie stared at each other with shock filled eyes.

“Val, last night she came into the kitchen and asked for the tea. Said she would be back in a minute. Then we left. When we got in this morning, there was the cup of cold tea sittin’ on the table. Didn’t look like it’d been touched…”

During the ride out to Lancer, Val tossed the facts around in his head. The three men he saw with Mrs. McClain and the three men that Johnny saw in the alley were too coincidental. Val, like Johnny, did not believe in coincidences. Plus the fact there had been three men that worked Johnny over. Crawford and Madrid had been a dangerous and daunting force and rarely had been wrong in their days of fighting. Val truly wished Johnny would be up for this venture. But he had his doubts about that.

Scott answered the door and let Val into the cool interior of the estancia.

“Val, what brings you out here so early? Honest, Johnny was here all night, so whatever it is, he didn’t do it!” Scott joked. “Come in. Can I get you some coffee and breakfast?”

“No, thanks anyway, Scott. Gonna need your help a little sooner’n what I thought. How’s Johnny doin’?” Val asked in a subdued tone.

“He’s still sore, headaches can get bad, but he’s doing better. Why do you ask? What’s wrong, Val?”

“Seems Mrs. McClain is missin’. Went down ta the dinin’ room last night for a cup a tea an’ never came back…”

“Got any leads, amigo?” Johnny’s soft voice settled in the room.

“Damn, I wish you wouldn’t do that! What’d ya sneakin’ up on us for?” Val barked, suddenly guilty for getting caught talking behind his amigo’s back.

“Ain’t sneakin’ Val, so what’s goin’ on? Any leads?” Johnny repeated.

Val huffed; once Johnny found out he and Scott would be riding out to investigate, he knew there would be no holding Johnny back. But it was too late, Johnny heard. He could only pray his amigo had the good sense to stay out of it. Ha! That’ll be the day.

“Ain’t found nuthin’ yet. Thought I’d deputize Scott an’ see if we could find any tracks or the like,” Val said.

“Shouldn’t be too hard ta pick up three or four sets a tracks, Val,” Johnny said with a spark in his eyes.

“Three or four sets of tracks? What do you mean?” Scott questioned, curiosity taking over what Johnny already knew that he did not.

“Both me an’ Val seen Mrs. McClain talkin’ with three men at different times. Kinda strange is all,” Johnny said with a smile.

“And there were three of them that attacked you, Johnny. Do you think they were the same men?” Scott asked, putting the pieces together.

Johnny grinned. “Probably,” he said as he watched the wheels turn in his brother’s head.

“Without casting aspersions upon Mrs. McClain, do you think she was involved in any way?” Scott was beginning to wonder what part the woman was playing in all of this mess.

“Huh?” Val said. “As… asp what?”

“Aspersions, Val, it means to discredit or slander,” Scott explained.

“Well, then why didn’t ya just’ say discredit or slander in the first place? Don’t need ta throw them ten-dollar words ‘round an’ ‘spect us ta know what yer talkin’ ‘bout!” Val groused.

“Sheriff, I think we’d better get going, now,” Scott said, wanting to get away before Johnny would dig in his heels and go with them.

Both Val and Scott turned to Johnny and glared their threats hoping to discourage any thoughts of going with them.

“Don’t you even think about comin’ after us, amigo!” Val warned with a finger pointed at Johnny’s chest.

“What? I wouldn’t think about it! Sam told me, ‘no ridin’!” Johnny said, wide-eyed and as innocently as he could without laughing.

“We shoulda told Murdoch we was leavin’ an ta keep an eye on that boy. Ya know he ain’t stayin’ outta this, don’t ya?” Val said.

“I never thought for a moment that he would. He all but admitted he would go,” Scott said, thinking about his stubborn brother and believing for a moment the innocent, wide-eyed expression he witnessed on his little brother’s face.

“I have had enough! Where are you taking me? I demand you take me back to town! Right this minute!” Lucinda railed the second the gag was removed from her mouth.

“Nope, lady, ‘bout time that you start ta listen up… You ain’t callin’ the shots no more! This thing’s goin’ our way now!” Elliot laughed when the shock washed over her pale face. “An’ I’d watch that mouth a yours if I was you cuz this here gag can get put right back!”

The three men, her former employees, chuckled as they watched the realization settle over her that she was no longer in control, and for the first time in her life, she was truly alone. Her body screamed in protest as she was forced to ride a horse, something she’d never done. She turned to look around her and saw only trees, rocks, and mountains, and she began to cry.

“Stop your cryin’, Miz McClain! An’ dry up them eyes. We need for ya ta write a note…” and the three men laughed again.

Johnny knew he hadn’t fooled either Scott or Val, but he would let them go their way, and he would go his. Besides, if they spent enough time looking around the alleyways and shady places in town, Johnny would have a chance to scout out a few other locations that just might tell a different story. He put all his time sitting on the patio, appearing to rest, to good use. He had given a lot of thought and consideration to the issue. He felt sure the same three men he and Val had seen with Mrs. McClain were the same three men that waylaid him that night on his way back from town. Now, the Senator’s wife went missing. Funny how things happened…

Johnny took stock and, pleasantly surprised at the lack of a headache, made his way to the barn. The constant eyes that had been watching him for days now seemed to hold their interest elsewhere, which suited him just fine. He had watched as Jelly busied himself repairing the smokehouse chimney and, satisfied the old handyman would not be paying him the unwanted attention, Johnny saddled Barranca and slipped into the trees behind the barn. With a successful escape, Johnny turned his golden horse and headed for Green River.

The sun felt good as it warmed his back and eased tight muscles. Johnny smiled as he remembered the chastising from his father and brother as they threatened to lock him in his room if he didn’t start taking his injury seriously. Hell, short of a tree fallin’ on my head or Barranca rollin’ over me, ‘ll be fine. Jus’ got a bit bruised an’ a little headache is all… guess they think I ain’t gonna make it back home if I’m out by myself. But, in his heart, he knew it was because they cared. And his smile grew.

Johnny kept Barranca at a relaxed pace once he put several miles between him and the ranch. He again took stock of his aches and pains and was pleased with the lack of discomfort. There was a mild headache, but Johnny was able to push it away and focus his thoughts on the issue at hand.

The men he had seen talking with Mrs. McClain then, later at the saloon, were not the typical ranch hand sort. These men hired out to handle problems, take care of the dirty work for those that couldn’t risk scandal, and needed to appear clean. Men that were dangerous and hard. And that assessment gave Johnny an idea.

“Scott, help me ta look for tracks. This is where Johnny saw them yahoos talkin’ with the Senator’s wife. Don’t know if there’ll be anything ta find or not, but gotta start somewhere.”

For over an hour, the two men searched the area. It was mid-afternoon, and both Val and Scott were at their wits’ end. They had found nothing to indicate that Mrs. McClain had been anywhere near the vicinity.

Johnny kept going in ever-widening arcs, searching the hard, rocky ground looking for the passage of three or four horses. Wonder if the woman can ride… Maybe when I catch up with them, I can offer her some of Jelly’s linament ta help, an’ she won’t be saddle sore… bet she’ll get pissed about that. Maybe I won’t tell her, an’ she can suffer with it… The thought made Johnny smile, and the more he thought about it, the funnier it got.

“Sheriff! Sheriff! Stop!” Senator McClain ran as fast as his stubby legs could carry him across the street, and he glared coldly at Scott standing next to Val. His security team trailing two steps behind him.

Val sighed in exasperation at the man, and before he could say a word, McClain shook a paper in Val’s face.

“It’s a ransom note, Sheriff!” the Senator announced.

Val quickly looked around but failed to see any suspicious men watching their moves. Satisfied as he could be they were not observed, the sheriff of Green River hustled the Senator and his men into his office and closed the door.

“What is he doing here? I will not have this issue compromised by…” McClain began in a huff, but Val cut off the remark as he defended Scott’s presence.

“He’s my deputy, an’ if ya have any objections, take ‘em up with the territorial marshal. It’ll only take ‘im ‘bout a week ta get here. Now gimme that note an’ keep quiet till I get it read.” Val held out his hand as the Senator handed over the wrinkled paper. Val grabbed it out of the chubby fingers and began to read.

Scott stood doing his best to contain the grin that threatened and maintained his control, then became serious as he observed Val reading the note.

“When did you get this?” Val asked, eyes narrowing as he glared at the Senator.

“About a half an hour ago. Apparently, the hotel manager found it lying on the registry book,” the Senator said as his eyes went from the note back to the sheriff’s face.

“Can you raise that kind of money by Friday?” Val asked.

“Most of it. I can have my bank wire a draft…”

“Senator, they want cash money, not any note! An’ the Green River bank don’t have that kind of cash ta cover no note of that amount. Ya best do all ya can ta get that money here. In the meantime, me an’ my deputy have some scoutin’ ta do. ‘Scuse me. C’mon, there, Deputy.”

“Val, you have any idea where you’re going?” Scott asked as they made their way out of town.

“The only thing ta do is ride the perimeter an’ look for tracks. Seein’s they wanna get the money on Friday, they can’t have gone too far, they wouldn’t be able ta travel an’ then get back ta make the trade. They didn’t say where ta leave the money, either. If we knew that little fact, we could get a better handle on where ta be lookin’.”

Johnny watched the ground. The trail he picked up headed to the northeast. He had heard of the country up there. It was rugged and treacherous, and Johnny had to wonder if that was where they headed. If that was the case, he had better catch them in the next day or two or risk losing them for good. There were miles and miles of mountains and valleys and a million places to hide.

Darkness was falling, and Johnny hunkered down and waited. He had spotted Val and Scott a few hours ago moving this way and had to smile. Val was a good tracker, savvy in survival, and would soon find Johnny’s camp. It was tucked out of the way, hidden by trees and large boulders that would block any wind tonight. And he hoped they had food with them…

They kept riding ever further away from town and now found themselves in country they hadn’t been in before. Val thought about their options and tossed them around in his head. How long would they continue? Which way should they go? Should they stop now and get more help?

Val turned to Scott. “Guess we should make camp for…” and he stopped in mid-sentence.

Scott, startled momentarily, tensed and was reaching for his pistol as he watched Val.

“Woodsmoke,” he whispered and motioned Scott off his horse. Val studied the area looking for anything to indicate the possible whereabouts of trouble. Then he motioned Scott around the trees as he took the opposite side. If it were the men they hunted, they would catch them as they closed in from either side.

Quietly they circled and came in on either end.

“Throw down your guns, nice an’ easy!” Val commanded loudly.

“Uh-uh. Ain’t happenin’.” The flippant reply took Scott by surprise, and he cautiously risked a look from out behind the rock cover. Then he heard Val’s belly laugh and stepped out into the light of the fire.

“What the hell took ya so long? Been waitin’ for ya for hours!” Johnny said with a shake of his head. “Hey, ya got any food? I’m starvin’.”

“What are you doing here? Does Murdoch know you’re out here?” Scott railed, slipping into big brother mode.

“Probably knows by now…” Johnny grinned, knowing full well that his father would have words with him regarding his failure to follow doctor’s orders, not to mention leaving without notifying anyone, and not taking care of himself, plus a dozen or more issues. But for now, he would enjoy his escape. “So, what did ya bring for food?”

Scott watched his brother in disbelief. “And just how did you know where to find us?” he asked with hands on his hips.

Johnny smirked. “I knew what Val was gonna do, so, here I am… What kind of food did ya bring?” he repeated with a huff. “Find out anything about Mrs. McClain?” Johnny asked as Val and Scott settled into camp. Johnny had the coffee made, and they had a cup while Val prepared a meager supper.

“The Senator got a ransom note taday. Seems the kidnappers want twenty thousand dollars in exchange for her on Friday.”

Johnny stared into the fire as he mulled over what Val told him. “Can the Senator raise that kinda money by then?”

“He said he could get most of it. Figure somethin’ out for the rest. So,” Val hesitated as he scowled at his amigo, “Just what the hell’re ya doin’ out here? Ya ain’t got no more sense‘n Jelly’s damn goose! Ya need ta be takin’ care a yerself, not traipsin’ all over these damn mountains! Jus’ how many times do I need ta tell ya?” Val stormed out of camp.

Johnny risked a glance at Scott, and he didn’t appear any more amused than Val had been. “You gonna yell at me, too? Hell, you shoulda brought Murdoch with an’ I could get it all over with at once,” Johnny mumbled as he filled a plate with beans.

Scott huffed as he watched his brother. “You came out here with only coffee, Johnny? That wasn’t very good planning on your part.”

“Didn’t have any time ta plan. Everyone’s been watchin’ me like a hawk, what’d they think, I was gonna grow horns or somethin’? Grabbed what I could an’ left the ranch. What’d ya gettin’ so steamed about? I had coffee waitin’ for ya, didn’t I?” Johnny asked as he flashed Scott that maddening grin, the grin that made Scott think, do I want to hug him or hit him?

Val wandered back into camp, and with a glare at Johnny, he filled his plate and settled into his bedroll.

“We been wand’rin’ ‘round but ain’t had any luck turnin’ up a trail ta follow,” Val looked at Johnny with a hopeful gleam in his eyes.

Johnny shrugged, and with a thumb that pointed over his shoulder, he gave Val the news the lawman was hoping to hear. “Four sets a tracks about twenty yards that way, headed northeast.”

Val grinned broadly. Then the smile disappeared. “Northeast, huh? What’s up that way?”

“Mountains an’ a million places ta hide…” Johnny’s soft reply smothered any further conversation.

Chase Elliot sat drinking his coffee and running options over in his head. He knew he would need to send either Briggs or Shamley back down the trail to watch for the law. They needed to take all the precautions they could to make sure nothing would cause their plans to go south.  Chances were that the Lancer pup wouldn’t want to tangle with them again. Elliot grinned, thinking about the fun they’d had working Lancer over and leaving him face-down in the dirt.

“Hey, Elliot, how ‘bout ya get that bottle outta yer saddlebags? It’s cold out here tanight!” Briggs smirked as he watched Mrs. McClain shiver and wrap her arms around herself in an effort to stay warm. “Looks like the lady there needs some help!”

“Ya settle down there, Briggs! Nuthin’s gonna happen ta her, not till we get our money anyway. Once we make it inta camp tamorrow, we can get another note off ta the Senator ‘bout where ta drop off our money…”

Lucinda McClain huddled down and tried to keep warm. She was desperate; she was cold and sore from riding. She had no idea what was going to happen to her. Someone find me! Please find me…

The men were quiet, talking in low tones so the woman wouldn’t hear them. After the tradeoff was successful, it wouldn’t make any difference if she divulged the camp’s whereabouts. They would be long gone. But neither did they have any qualms about getting rid of her; the fact they had killed for her hadn’t bothered them. She had paid them well for it.

“When we break camp in the mornin’, I want you, Shamley, ta watch the trail just in case the law gets nosy an’ comes snoopin’ around. Briggs, you’ll stay with me an’ the woman,” Elliot ordered as he reached for his saddlebags and retrieved the paper and pencil. “Right now, she’s gonna write that note ta let ‘em know where we want that money dropped.”

Lucinda cringed as Elliot advanced on her.

“Ya know, Val,” Johnny said as he threw out the dregs in the bottom of his coffee cup, “I been thinkin’. We picked up their trail, now, what say we push hard in the mornin’ an’ after we find ‘em, just stay outta sight an’ watch what they’re doin’. They gotta send someone back with a note sayin’ where they want the money stashed when they’re ready ta make the trade… what if we intercept him. If he’s on his way back ta their hideout, he’s gonna be in a hurry an’ not watchin’ around too close, maybe even a little careless. Chances are he won’t even see us.”

Both Val and Scott thought about what Johnny had proposed, and both nodded their heads. Neither could think of anything better. If they could apprehend the kidnappers before they made any exchange, they could avoid more trouble.

Scott shrugged and scrutinized his brother. Sighing heavily, he asked: “So, brother, as you were so ill-prepared to make this journey against doctor’s orders, not to mention risking our father’s wrath, did you even think to bring a heavy coat with you?”

“Hey, who ya think you’re dealin’ with here? A tenderfoot?” Johnny replied smugly. He reached behind his saddle to retrieve his heavy coat, slid into his bedroll, and pulled his hat over his eyes.

“What’d ya say, amigo? Think they’ll be sendin’ one a them idiotas back with a note? Can’t take too much time ta do it. The exchange is set up the day after tamorrow,” Val said as he, Johnny, and Scott watched the trail ahead.

“Yeah, figure it won’t be too much longer before we see somethin’ an’ soon as we do, we gotta move in there, wherever ‘there’ is. If we can get the drop on ‘em, we can get this over with nice an’ quiet,” Johnny said as he continued to watch the direction the tracks were leading.

“Well, there ain’t nothin’ nice an’ don’t think there’ll be anything quiet ‘bout this either. What’d you think, Deputy?” Val asked. He had worked with Johnny so often, Val tended to forget that Scott was there.

“The two of you have it figured out; I guess I’m just along for the ride,” Scott said a bit stiffly.

“Don’t kid yourself, Boston, we’re gonna need you an’ that rifle a yours,” Johnny said with a slap on his brother’s shoulder. “C’mon, let’s get goin’. Let’s stay up high, get above them; maybe they won’t see us until it’s too late.”

“It’s time, you two, which one’s takin’ this note ta the Senator?” Elliot asked, and Briggs stepped forward.

“’M goin’, Chase. Gimme that paper an’ I‘ll be leavin’.” Briggs stuffed the ransom note into his pocket and started for his horse when Elliot grabbed his arm.

“Listen, you deliver that note an’ get back here soon’s ya can, got it?” Chase ordered, and Briggs nodded. “An’ be careful not ta lead anyone back here!” Then Elliot smiled, and he pierced Lucinda with a stare. “Otherwise, someone could get hurt!”

Saddled and ready, Briggs rode out of camp.

They hadn’t gone a mile when Johnny straightened up in his saddle. “Well, would ya look at that?” He smiled as he nodded his head to the area below them. Scott and Val looked down at the trail; Johnny reached for his spyglass and huffed as the target came into range.

“Well, is it one of ‘em?” Val asked impatiently.

“Yeah, guess we can move in, all nice an’ quiet,” Johnny chuckled.

Scott turned to Val. “So, he’s always been a smart-ass?”

Val laughed, “Long as I been ridin’ with ‘im!”

“Ya know, we could just sit here yammerin’ an’ let this whole thing play out without us riskin’ our lives,” Johnny quipped with a smirk playing around his lips.

“He ain’t even deputized, an’ he’s callin’ the shots!” Val laughed as he turned to Scott. “What’d I tell ya? He’s a smart-ass!”

They mounted their horses, and Val went back down the trail. “I’ll go after this one; you two see if’n ya can corral them other two an’ Miz McClain.”

Val rode as fast as he dared, taking care not to put his horse in danger. He figured he was ahead of the man he would soon have in custody and intended to stay that way. All he had to do was stay vigilant.

Johnny and Scott came slowly down the hillside, and as they entered into the small valley, they remained alert and ready for anything.

Scott watched his brother riding ahead of him. Johnny sat straight in the saddle, no visible sign of any physical issue other than the gash on his head that was only now beginning to knit together. Scott had seen the bruises on his brother’s chest, belly and back. Johnny had taken a vicious beating, yet, here he was, traipsing into the mountains in pursuit of criminals and a kidnapped woman. A woman that hated him because of his mixed blood. It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with his audacious personality… Scott smiled, then shoved that thought aside and focused on the task at hand.

Chase Elliot reined his horse to a stop and looked around. It would work out fine. The spot was tucked out of the way and secure; shelter and water made it the ideal place to hide out. He had not seen anyone following and felt that it would be safe enough for the short time they would be here.

“This is it, Shamley. Get her down offa that horse an’ tie her ta that tree while we make camp. It’s a good place ta wait this thing out.” Elliot took their mounts to the small creek that bubbled around the rocks as Shamley settled their prisoner.

Lucinda was dragged from the saddle and guided the tree. She limped as her unsteady legs carried her forward, pain from unaccustomed riding made her body tremble. Shamley grabbed her arm hard enough that a bruise would be blossoming on the delicate skin. She cried out in pain and tried to pull away from the brute’s cruel fingers, but they held her tight.

“Jus’ siddown and shuddup,” Griss commanded as he secured Lucinda to the tree. He smirked as he tied her hands behind her. She felt his sour breath on her cheek, and it made her gag. She had never in her life felt so alone or so vulnerable.

Johnny pulled gently on the reins, and Barranca came to a stop. Scott came alongside and looked ahead, wondering what held his brother’s interest. The only sound was the breeze in the trees and a hawk that circled on the thermals above.

Johnny scanned their surroundings and then shrugged. His instincts were screaming at him, and he had long ago learned to trust them. They had saved his life many times, and he wouldn’t ignore them now.

Keeping vigilant, Johnny watched closely for anything that shouldn’t be there, and he watched for things that should be there but weren’t. But it was the faint tickle that crawled across his hide, like that of a spider before it sank its fangs into the skin that got his attention.

Quietly, he put his thoughts into soft words as Scott listened intently. “We need ta go ahead on foot, Boston. Not gonna chance stumblin’ on their camp an’ givin’ them warning that we’re here.” With the words spoken, both men dismounted and tied their horses. Johnny headed out, and they made their way through the trees and around obstructing boulders.

They hadn’t gone far when a woman’s distant cry stopped both men in their tracks. Scott’s eyes searched his brother’s face and watched in fascination as Johnny deciphered the sounds and analyzed the situation. Scott studied his brother’s movements and inwardly smiled with his head cocked and looking slightly off to the right. If there was trouble, Johnny could find it!  

Johnny signaled for Scott to stay low, and they edged forward toward a barricade of rocks.

Ahead of them were boulders that looked to have fallen from above, forming a high wall in a rough semi-circle, a curved wall connected to the parent mountain. Trees grew sporadically between the rocks, tall and protective, and many large boulders lay along the base of the ridge that kept prying eyes at bay. It was the perfect spot to wait out the next day and a half for the ransom money to be delivered.

Turning to Scott, Johnny motioned for him to work his way to the end of the ‘wall’ and stay put. Johnny threaded a path through the trees and boulders, keeping to the cover it provided. Stationing himself safely in the rocks, Johnny took off his hat, then slowly looked around and into the camp of two men. Sitting back out of the way, Johnny could make out the huddled form of a distraught Mrs. Lucinda McClain.

Close enough, now, to hear their conversations, Johnny and Scott listened to every word that was said as the heated debate rapidly escalated into an argument.

“I don’t wanna wait around for her ta double-cross us, Chase! I think we should get rid of her now an’ take that money an’ not leave her behind! She can identify us!” Griss Shamley voiced his doubts. The plans they made, in the beginning, sounded fail-proof. Now, he was having second thoughts.

Chase Elliot shrugged in disgust. “What’s she gonna say, Griss?  We did her dirty work. We killed men for her! We beat the shit outta that Lancer pup on her orders! And she paid us for doin’ all of it and a dozen more things she had us do for her. She was keepin’ us on her payroll! No, she ain’t gonna say nuthin’. Ain’t that right, Mrs. McClain?” Elliot said with a leer.

Scott sat stunned with the admission he’d just heard. He looked at his brother, who smiled at the confession that confirmed the bits and pieces he heard the night they attacked him. Johnny met his brother’s eyes and signaled it was time.

Rance Briggs rode along the trail, wanting to get to town and deliver the ransom note, then get the hell out of there as fast as he could. The talk with Shamley the night before got him to thinking, and, like Griss, Rance was anxious to be done with Mrs. McClain. When they crossed the line of employees of the woman to her kidnappers, the stakes inevitably raised. It wasn’t that he had any qualms committing a crime as much as, and he hated to admit it, but he was afraid of the woman.

The woman intimidated him. She talked and acted like she would squash him like a bug. A smile grew on his face thinking that maybe she’d learn now who was the boss…

The man stepped out into the road with a rifle aimed straight at Briggs’ heart. The sun reflected off the star pinned to the man’s chest. Rance’s horse skidded to a halt, then suddenly reared on his back legs as Briggs reached for his pistol, then the rifle went off.

Elliot and Shamley focused their sights on Mrs. McClain and gave Johnny and Scott the opportunity they needed. Stepping out from behind their cover, Scott took charge.

“Throw down your weapons now! You’re under arrest!”

Both Elliot and Shamley spun around, their hands hovering over their pistols.

“Aww, now you two… you’re in enough trouble as it is. If I were you, I’d do what the man said. Real easy, two fingers, left hands, take your guns out an’ throw them on the ground an’ maybe no one’ll get hurt.” The condescending voice was meant to embarrass, but Madrid finished the command with a tone that immobilized them where they stood.

Lucinda’s eyes went wide, and her heart began to pound in her breast. She was saved!

 Elliot and Shamley stared in disbelief at the two men standing before them. How had they gotten here?

Wait! That’s the Lancer kid! Elliot thought, not believing what his eyes were telling him.

Johnny caught the uncertainty reflected in the outlaw’s eyes, and a wicked, cold smile slid into place as Madrid came fully into view. The dark blue eyes seemed to pierce Elliot’s brain, and he stood, momentarily frozen to the spot.

Scott watched the confrontation unfold as Elliot put up false bravado, and Scott inwardly smiled. Elliot had no clue of the man he was facing.

Other than the sutures above his temple and fading bruises on his face, Johnny Lancer looked fit as the proverbial fiddle. And it was obvious that Elliot was shaken.

Johnny grinned as he saw questions on the man’s face. “Didn’t think you’d ever see me again, did ya? Oh, you probably thought I’d be cowerin’ under the bed… That right?”

The deceiving tone had a quieting effect, and Elliot felt a surge of confidence. Chase read Shamley’s body, the tilt of the man’s head, and the slight lean to his left.

“Don’t know what you’re talkin’ ‘bout, boy, I ain’t never seen ya b’fore taday…” he drawled, and it was then a pistol shot rang through the tiny valley, and Shamley clutched a now useless hand. His gun lay on the ground. Lucinda screamed. Elliot stood,  his jaw dropped, and he spun around to see Shamley stare stupidly at his bloodied appendage. Elliot was stunned; he hadn’t even seen Lancer draw his gun.

“Guess they’re havin’ a hard time listenin’ ta ya, Boston,” Johnny said with a grin, then let the smile fade. “The man said throw down your guns, now! An’…” Johnny hesitated as he stared coldly at Elliot, “I ain’t a boy.”

Elliot and Shamley were now prisoners as they sat on the ground tied to the tree. Lucinda McClain nervously paced the confines of the small camp as they waited for Val to get back with his prisoner.

Scott looked down the trail, not able to see far from all the trees and rocks. His concern for Val grew.

“What’cha worryin’ about, Boston? He’ll get here. No third rate idiota is gonna take him out. He’ll be here.” Johnny assured with a confident grin.

Johnny couldn’t help but laugh. Elliot was having an awful time realizing he had made a mistake, and Johnny found the fact incredibly humorous.

Elliot continued to stare in disbelief. They had left the young Lancer face down in the dirt. He knew for a fact they’d hurt him, yet he was standing here as if nothing happened.

“Yeah,” Johnny said with a laugh, “took three a you ta ambush me. Shoot me, then work me over. Couldn’t do it face ta face, could ya?. Well, now I think it’s about time ya find out who you’re up against. I’ll take on both a you, right now…”

“Johnny, Johnny, Johnny…” Scott sighed, drawing out the name. “Haven’t you learned anything from the last time you tried something like that? You injured those men so badly, they couldn’t even stand trial. Had to be postponed for… how long was that? Three months it took them to heal!”

Johnny looked contrite, then answered in a soft voice, “Well, I could just shoot them sittin’ there,” as his hand drifted low to his Colt.

“Savage!” Lucinda spat as she glared at Johnny with cold eyes.

Johnny slowly turned toward her and fixed her with his Madrid stare. Her feet moved backward with a will of their own as she faced him.

Johnny grinned, “Oh, boy, Ma’am, you sure are somethin’, ya know? You pay them ta kill innocent folks an’ pay them for doin’ all of your dirty work, not ta mention, beat the hell outta me an’ leave me for dead, an’ you got the guts ta call me a savage?” He laughed in her face then asked softly, “Tell me, Mrs. McClain, you attend church every Sunday?”

What was it about this dirty Mexican that set her nerves on edge? Her eyes narrowed, making Johnny laugh again, and it sent her temper flaring.

“I’ll tell ya what, Mrs. McClain, how ‘bout I won’t press charges if you an’ your husband just leave. Just fade away, no runnin’ for governor or no public office. I’ll let these pendejos go, and everyone’ll be happy. How about that? I won’t press any charges an’ you give up your public ‘service’?”

“Johnny, you can’t! I won’t let you do that!” Scott protested.

“Yeah, I can, Boston. They can’t do nothin’ ta hurt the people of California if they fade away. An’ these idiots won’t get far,” Johnny motioned to Lucinda’s hired men. “I can track ‘em down. Maybe I won’t bring them back, but I can find ‘em…” Johnny caressed the butt of his Colt as he cast a look their way. Both Elliot and Shamley began to squirm.

“You filthy half-breed!” Lucinda screamed. “Who will believe you?”

“Ah, ah, ah, Miz McClain, better watch that mouth. I’m a sheriff, an’ that’s slander aimed at an’ upstandin’ citizen under my jurisdiction. Ya oughta be tellin’ him thanks!” Val said with a smirk as he shoved Briggs with a bandaged shoulder into the camp.

Scott sighed with relief at the sight of the sheriff. He then decided to join in the nonsense that Val and Johnny so frequently indulged.

“An’ ta answer your question about who’s gonna believe him, alla the San Joaquin Valley will believe him. He’s helped more folks around here than you’ll ever know about, Ma’am.” Val smirked again and looked away.

“Am I not here?” Scott complained. “Does anybody see me? You all talk as if you don’t know I am here!” Scott grumbled. First, Johnny and Val up in the hills and now Mrs. McClain! Johnny and Val often made light of situations, developing it into an art form, and it was rubbing off on Scott. He then turned serious. “I heard what you said, Mrs. McClain, and I will testify against you in court.”

Val looked at Johnny and rolled his eyes. “Didn’t you learn nothin’ from last time ya tried somethin’ like that? Those fellas ya let go, well, ya didn’t bring them back alive! The Judge is still pissed about that one.”

“I tried to tell him, Val,” Scott joined in with an ‘I told you so’ look. Four sets eyes shifted to Johnny and wondered just exactly who this man was.

“Val, we heard them talking over their… ahem… business arrangement. It seems that Mrs. McClain employed them to ‘take care of problems’, and I am sure that these men will be happy to corroborate my testimony, especially if the court was lenient in their sentencing. Both Johnny and I heard it,” Scott said as he saw Mrs. McClain stop in her tracks and glared at them all.

Her scowl settled on Johnny; the loathing distorted her face, making her appear waspish as she watched him help himself to the outlaw’s coffee.

He stood and took a sip before grimacing and spat the coffee on the ground. “Guess if I want good coffee, gotta make it myself,” he muttered as he went about making a decent brew but stopped and focused his attention back on the woman.

“Ma’am, I asked ya if ya went ta church?” Johnny met her glare with steady eyes and smiled when shock registered in her pinched face.

“And just what does that have to do with anything?” she demanded.

Not answering her question, Johnny went ahead with his inquiries. Scott looked puzzled while Val grinned from ear to ear, knowing where this was going.

Johnny repeated the question for the third time. “I asked if ya went ta church. Do ya?” his stare held her captive as she nodded her head.

“The Ten Commandments… can ya repeat ‘em?” Johnny asked quietly; his tones were deceiving but only to those that knew him. “Can you repeat them?” he said with more force as she stood silently before him. A cold, soft laugh broke the stillness.

“I can, Mrs. McClain. I can repeat them in order. My mother saw ta that. An’ I can tell you right now that from what I know of you, you’ve broken more’n half of them. So, if I were you, I’d be watchin’ what I say ta anyone. I wouldn’t be callin’ anyone names, insinuatin’ they lack in intelligence because of their heritage. An’ I can tell you, discountin’ the name ‘half-breed’, everything you’ve accused me of fits tight around your shoulders.”

Lucinda gasped and lashed out, slapping Johnny open-hand across his face, then attempted a backhand, that is, until he dropped the cup in his hand and grabbed her wrist hard enough to make her cry out. Tears escaped to trail down her cheeks, and she fought to get away.

“Sheriff! Help me!” she begged.

Val watched the scene unfold and shook his head. “He’s got every right ta defend himself, Miz McClain. You attacked him, Ma’am,” Val said with a chuckle. And neither Val nor Scott came to her aid.

Johnny kept the iron grip on her wrist a moment longer before his fingers loosened, and she quickly pulled her arm away and hurried out of his reach. The shade of Madrid faded, and Johnny Lancer once again prowled about for coffee.

“Scott, why didn’t ya make any coffee? I was kinda busy there for a minute, thought you’d do it,” Johnny quipped.

“You alright, brother. It looked like she hit you pretty hard,” Scott asked quietly as Johnny searched through the outlaw’s supplies.

“Yeah, she did. Stings like the devil, but don’t tell her that!” Johnny answered with his smile.

“You were stretchin’ things a tad, weren’t ya, amigo? Your mama really teach ya them Commandments?” Val laughed.

“Mama didn’t, but she don’t need ta know that either!” Johnny laughed as he nodded to Mrs. McClain.

“Well, now I have to ask, brother, can you really repeat the Commandments in order?” Boston asked.

“Yup, sure can. Learned ‘em when I was a kid at the mission orphanage. Sticks with ya, not likely ta forget ‘em after that mean ol’ padre got done with ya.”

The men settled down for a quick meal before gathering up their prisoners and heading back to Green River and justice.

“Hey, Val, how’s your prisoner?” Johnny asked as he walked into the sheriff’s office. He reached for the coffee pot, then changed his mind.

“Dunno, ‘m on my way over there right now. Wanna come with?” the sheriff asked.

“Yeah, don’t mind if I do,” Johnny smiled and walked with Val to the hotel.

Senator McClain petitioned for a room at the hotel where Lucinda would stay while under guard waiting for the territorial marshall to escort them to San Francisco. A guard was outside her door and let no one in or out without Sheriff Crawford’s orders.

Ty Nolan stood as Val and Johnny came up the stairs and greeted him.

“She give ya any trouble taday, Nolan?” Val asked.

“Naw, she’s been pretty quiet but thought I heard her cryin’ some this afternoon. Other’n that, not a peep,” Nolan reported.

Val slipped the key in the lock, and he and Johnny stepped into the room.

Lucinda McClain sat in a chair by the window. There wasn’t much of a view; it faced an outhouse in the rear of the hotel. She turned to face the men as they entered her room and was surprised to see Johnny standing alongside Sheriff Crawford.

“Are you here to gloat, Mr. Lancer?” Lucinda asked. There was no mistaking the venom in her words.

Johnny shrugged. “No, Ma’am.”

“Then why are you here?” she demanded, her icy tones issued a challenge.

“Ohh, just a little curious, is all,” Johnny said, deliberately evasive.

“What, am I on display now?” she shot back.

Johnny smiled. “No, not yet.”

“Then what is it that you want? Say it and get out!” She stood and presented her back to them.

“Just wonderin’. It don’t matter what you think of me. I been called halfbreed all of my life, been called a lot worse. But I been wonderin’ about all this anger you have inside you. Where’s it comin’ from? You were in a position ta make a difference in this part of the country. You had the power ta do such good for everyone here. What I been wonderin’ is… why didn’t you use it?” Johnny asked softly, almost tenderly.

Tears filled her eyes, but she fought against the words Johnny had said, and she whirled on him in anger.

“Do you know what you have done? My husband’s dream to run for Governor is over! He could have made it to the White House!”

“That dream came at a high cost,” Johnny replied softly.

“You have ruined David’s good name and his dreams!” she railed.

Johnny sighed, and in the same gentle tones, he responded. “No, Ma’am, you already did that, not me.” Then Johnny turned and left the room.

The footsteps behind him were welcomed ones. The conversation that would soon take place was sure to ease the restless thoughts. The warm arm that came across his shoulders seemed to wash away the painful and unsettled feelings left by the McClain’s.

“Well, brother, what has you so pensive this evening?” Scott asked.

Johnny could only smirk. Boston an’ his ten-dollar words…

“Oh, just thinkin’ on what’s gonna happen now. Thanks ta you, probably gonna hafta go ta San Francisco an’ testify, huh? Scott, I can’t for the life of me think why she did all those things. She coulda helped so many people, but… she didn’t…” Johnny looked to his brother for the explanation he knew Scott would have.

“That’s easy, Johnny. She’s not near the person you are, brother. She couldn’t put others before herself. Greed was in her too deep.” Scott squeezed his shoulders with brotherly affection. “Come on, Johnny, you look like hell, time for you to get some sleep.”

The last thing Johnny heard before giving in to the fatigue was Echo’s call to the foal in the corral, and the little one answered back.


Thank you for reading! The authors listed on this site spend many hours writing stories for your enjoyment, and their only reward is the feedback you leave. So please take a moment to leave a comment.  Even the simplest ‘I liked this!” can make all the difference to an author and encourage them to keep writing and posting their stories here.  You can comment in the ‘reply’ box below or email Buckskin directly.


13 thoughts on “At What Cost A Dream by Buckskin

    1. Thank you, Caterina! I am so glad you liked this story. It was fun to write Lucinda as a wicked, horrible woman!



    1. Hi, Sue! I am glad you liked this adventure with the boys. They always manage to find themselves in some sort of trouble. Johnny and Scott, and Johnny and Val, then Johnny, Scott and Val… So much trouble… so little time!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!



  1. Another terrific story Diana. I always so look forward to your work. I love the banter between the boys, Val was awesome. Such a master story teller.


    1. Hi, Crystle!

      Thank you for your comments! I am humbled that you like my Lancer World! And have to tell you, the brothers and Val will always banter back and forth! It’s a prerequisite for the stories coming out of my head!

      Thank you again and stay tunes… ore to come.



  2. Loved reading this story! Especially interaction between Johnny and Lucinda.
    Anytime Johnny, Scott and Val get together the adventure is amazing


    1. Hi, Carol!

      Glad you liked this story. I had a fun time with those conversations, Johnny saying so much with that soft, smooth voice… quietly putting Lucinda in her place. While her temper flared and lashed out, our hero was calm, but forceful in his questions and opinions.

      Thank you again for reading and commenting. It is appreciated!



  3. I always look forward to your stories. Thanks for sharing your take on Johnny, Scott and Val. Those three certainly know how to get things done.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Lesley!

      Thank you for reading and commenting on my Lancer World. I appreciate it more than you know! Yes, Johnny, Scott, and Val sure know what they’re doing, don’t they? Glad you liked this tale!



    1. Hey there, zammy! I’m so glad you liked this little tale! Thank you so much for reading and commenting!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create your website with
Get started
%d bloggers like this: