Word count 32,866
Episode Tag for The Rivals
Thanks to Cat, Sandy, Rob and Barbara for the beta. And a huge thanks to Char for the legal advice and Chris for the medical advice. With all due respect to my devoted beta’s, I was stricken with tinkeritis and changed a few lines. Any and all mistakes are mine.
Beautiful yellow rays of morning sun filtered through the windows, washing the parlor in sweet, comforting light, as Agatha Conway Addison reveled in her new life. Had it already been six months since she married Buck Addison? It felt that only six minutes ago, she said her vows and gave her heart away to the man who had swept her off her feet. And she was happy, happy like she’d hadn’t been for a long, long time.
Aggie looked around the room. It remained the same as when she and then-husband, Henry, lived together in the elegant home. The same drapes adorned the windows, the same expensive carpeting, and the same furniture filled the room, yet it was different now. Even Henry’s judgment chair was in the same spot close to the fireplace. Nothing was changed, yet it felt so different. Had Buck taken over her heart and mind so completely that it caused her to see things through different eyes? She smiled, giddy as a schoolgirl; it had been such a long time that she experienced the butterflies fluttering in her stomach. It was good to be in this role of a loving wife again. She’d missed caring for Henry, and she missed the interactions of husband and wife, the intimacy and the caring, the loving touches, and being close to the one who had captured your heart.
Feeling loved, the center of each other’s universe.
Well, she had work to do. There was no more time to dawdle. Buck would be home soon, she hoped. He’d left quite suddenly with not much of an explanation given, only that something needed his immediate attention. Something was always needing his immediate attention! Buck Addison was a very busy man, and a busy man required an understanding and accommodating wife who was ready and willing to help him in everything he did.
Aggie eyed the top of his desk and shook her head at the mess he’d left. Well, Acme Land took up his time, sudden issues came up often, and she smiled, thinking she would help him as much as she could. I wonder how his office in San Francisco is? It must be a fright! She placed the ornate letter opener in the holder next to the ink well with the matching pen and plumed quill. Buck did indulge himself with the ‘extras’, but after all, he was a successful businessman; he could well afford the extravagant lifestyle he led.
Papers covered the top of the desk in unruly piles begging to be straightened. Aggie’s smile deepened as she attempted to put them to order in a neat stack and reached under the desk for the exquisite leather case Buck used for his business meetings, carrying the documents he needed that would ensure his success.
Her fingers closed on the corner of the case, and she lifted it out from under the desk, but the unexpected weight of it caused it to slip from her grasp and spill the contents on the floor. She puzzled at what made it so heavy and stooped to pick up the mess scattered under the mahogany furniture.
The first thing she saw was what looked like part of a branding iron lying on a stack of documents. It was an elaborate ‘A’. Why did Buck carry a branding iron with these papers? And, more than that, what was this iron for? The Circle C brand would not change; she’d already discussed the matter with Buck before they married, and they agreed that the ranch was hers.
The longer Aggie stared at the ‘A’, the more questions she had. Well, Buck must have a good reason. He always does! She smiled again, thinking that her new husband was full of surprises and in need of all the domestic help she could provide. Aggie began to hum; her mood matched the glow of the bright sun that flooded the room, and she filled with contentment she’d not known for years and went about the task of straightening out the mess.
She began to pick up the papers that slid out of the leather case when her eye caught sight of what looked like a map… Oh, this must be a new business deal in the works. Anxious to see what her husband was doing, she pulled out the map to see the whole of it; proud that Buck was prosperous, she wanted to be a part of it, too!But confusion drew her forehead to furrow; she couldn’t make out what she was holding. It was… it looked like… It wasa map of the combined Lancer and Conway ranches with no boundaries between them. Why would Buck have a map like this? What could he possibly be doing… And a horrifying thought pierced her brain. No… he can’t be…
The humming stopped.
Her trembling fingers began to chill as they held another paper, a list of times, places, and names; companies dealing in timber and mining with appointments already set! No, Buck, no! This can’t be what I think it is! A payroll account with thirty names, names she didn’t recognize, screamed to her there was much she didn’t know. Surveyors were set to be there in the coming weeks, and letters from companies confirming business deals. Her panic grew, enshrouding her in a stifling cloud of dread. No, no, no! This can’t be happening!
Cold foreboding filled her heart as ice prickled in her veins. She felt sick and couldn’t control the shaking of her hands; her head was spinning out of control. Could she believe the documents that lay in her grasp? She kept looking at them, hoping they would change, telling her she was reading them wrong! What was Buck doing? And Aggie Conway Addison felt fear.
She wanted to believe there was an explanation for these contracts. There had to be! But it wasn’t until she picked up the last paper that she knew the full extent of the hell Buck Addison brought into her life and, very soon, the lives of Murdoch Lancer and his family. Her heart slammed into her ribs as she read the damning evidence, for there, in her cold fingers, was a receipt signed by no other than Buck Addison of the Acme Land Company. A receipt for wanted posters— wanted posters for the death of Johnny Madrid. Twenty-five hundred dollars to the man that would kill the famous gunhawk.
Buck, what have you done?!
Aggie felt stone-cold fear. Buck Addison was attempting another run on the Lancer Ranch, and this time there would be bloodshed.
Now, wait a minute, Agatha Conway Addison! There must be a reasonable explanation for all this! But what reasonable explanation could there be for the wanted posters? Why would Buck want Johnny Lancer dead? She didn’t want to believe the proof that she held in her hands. Please let this be a mistake!
A shout from outside drew her to the window, and pulling back the curtain, Aggie saw Buck ride to the front porch as he called for the nearest hand to take his horse. Quickly she returned to the desk and stuffed the papers and branding iron into the leather case as the front door opened.
Buck Addison took off his coat and hung it on the hall tree along with his hat and expected to find Aggie anxiously awaiting his return. His mind drifted to the emergency that required his immediate attention, and he frowned. The location for the new dam needed to be approved, and if he could get it done today, the work could begin in the next few days. But he’d need to see for himself and had left the house in a rush.
He needed to speak to Jake Kling about keeping the workers in line. There had been too many mistakes lately. Mistakes that Acme Land couldn’t afford if this attempt for the Lancer Ranch were to be carried out in the next couple of weeks. Until now, Kling had firm control over the operation, and he wondered what happened to cause the problems that took him away. Issues that Kling should have handled.
He’d been able to keep his business dealings under wraps so far, and it wouldn’t do for his wife to know his intentions now. Buck found it a tight line to walk. Aggie was still close with Murdoch Lancer, even though Buck discouraged the friendship. It was about time Agatha learned there would be no room for Murdoch in her life. She’s not aware of it yet, but there were going to be a few major changes for her, and the absence of Lancer was to be one of them.
“Aggie?” Buck called out, expecting his new wife to throw herself into his arms and anxious to see him again after the two-hour absence. His already over-inflated ego burst along its seams to have her wrap him in an embrace and smother him with sweet kisses. If only they were out where the hands could see! Buck Addison craved that attention, and he encouraged it. It fed his narcissism, and he would use it any time it was of benefit.
“Aggie!” He looked around, then turned toward the kitchen.
What was she going to do? Here she was, crouched half under his desk! What would she say? Now wait a minute, here, Aggie, she told herself. Just get up! There’s no need to hide! Or was there? The tiny voice in the back of her mind called a warning. How would she handle the fact that she’d seen a wanted poster on Johnny Madrid? She needed more answers before jumping to conclusions. Act as if I haven’t seen anything… But she wondered if she could pull it off.
“In here, Buck!” And Aggie stood as he reentered the room.
Buck stopped, and for a second, Aggie saw shock flood his eyes, and those same eyes narrowed in… what? Anger or misgivings? But she chose to ignore it and act as though nothing was amiss.
He realized he had left the leather case under his desk. And that she could have seen it… seen what was inside. “What are you doing, Agatha?” Did he successfully hide the suspicion in his voice? He wondered.
“Nothing, Buck, just tidying up. There was a spot on the rug by your chair, and I cleaned it up before it was ground in and would leave a stain.” She slipped her dainty hanky into a pocket as if she’d used it to do the chore, then offered him her smile. Did he believe me?
He felt something was not right. Aggie usually came to him with arms open wide and a smile that would melt sunshine. She saw something. I need to find out what she knows. Had he been arrogant enough to think he could keep her from knowing what was about to happen and that she would never find out? Buck Addison decided in that second what he was going to do.
A hooded look came over his face, and it struck Aggie as odd. It was cold. He suspects I saw something…
“Well, don’t I deserve a welcome home kiss from my adoring wife? After all, I’ve been gone two hours!” he asked, and a smile crawled across his lips as he stepped forward.
Buck insisted on a romantic dinner. The candlelight was soft, and the wine was perfect. Dinner was wonderful, but Aggie didn’t taste it. It had been a tremendous effort on her part, but she pulled herself together and feigned an interest in Buck’s conversation.
“Aggie, have more wine. I bought a case of it; I know how much you like it.” And he topped off her glass without waiting for her to accept the offer.
Suddenly, he leaned over, put a hand on the side of her face, and gazed into the beautiful eyes reflecting the romantic dancing flames of the candles. Then he smiled.
“Aggie, let’s go to San Francisco! Tonight! Now!” he whispered.
“Buck! So soon? Why, I don’t have anything packed! I can’t go now!”
“Why not? I’ll buy you whatever you need! Let’s just go! We’ll have another honeymoon!”
He wants me away from here… But a thought struck her. Perhaps she could find something in the office there. Something more than the papers she found today in that leather case he used.
Aggie coerced a wide-eyed happy grin. “Let’s leave in the morning, Buck! First thing. I need to put together a few things, and then we’ll go, alright?”
Buck was satisfied the trip would deter any further suspicions on Aggie’s part. A few days in the big city, visiting the museums, dining at the finest restaurants around, shopping… and it would take her mind from the matters that didn’t concern her. And when this was over, Buck knew she would be happy with the ‘gift’ he would give her. But it would only seem like a present, and she would never know how that gift came to be.
Morning came all too soon. And now, Mr. and Mrs. Buck Addison were on their way to their second honeymoon in six months. But would she find anything? Could she find anything that would stop the bloodshed?
But, she did have hope— the note she had written would be delivered today. Her trusted foreman, Tuck McKay, promised he would see the job done.
Aggie settled into the seat next to her new husband and tried to appear anxious and excited about the spontaneous trip. Could she pull it off? And more than that, would Murdoch heed her message?
Ain’t nothin’ on the face of this earth more stupid than a cow! Johnny Lancer pulled Barranca to a stop and stepped down from the saddle. This makes seven… Seven cows either stuck in mud or tangled in brambles. “Barranca, how come they’re so dumb?”
The palomino shook his head, then as if attempting to speak, the horse dramatically lipped the air and snorted. Johnny shrugged in understanding. “Yeah, I know.” With another head shake, Barranca lowered his muzzle to nibble the sweet grass. “You ain’t no help!” Johnny chuckled, then carefully cut away the heavy vines wrapped around the bellowing cow, freeing her in minutes.
The angry bovine swung her head in Johnny’s direction, but he sidestepped, avoiding the horns, and with a splayed-fingered swat, sent the cow on her way. She took off without a look back. And now it was Johnny that snorted. “You’re welcome!” he called after her, then swung into the saddle and continued northeast.
The Conway Ranch was just beyond the rise and was the halfway point of riding fence on this side of Lancer. Happy to be going back, Johnny made it to the top of the rise and checked out the surrounding area. Finding nothing that needed rescuing or mending, he turned Barranca south and started down the other side, ensuring that Lancer cows would stay on Lancer land.
And he missed spotting the man that stepped out of the trees on the Circle C property. Rick Jessup pointed his fingers like a gun at the back of the rider. “You’re dead, Madrid, ya just don’t know it yet.”
The ambush would be successful. It didn’t matter to Jessup that it wouldn’t be a fair fight; just as long as he claimed the twenty-five hundred dollars, it just wouldn’t matter.
Sheriff Val Crawford crossed the street on his way to the Green River Diner. His belly rumbled, knowing that a favorite food was on the menu. The thought of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and green beans set his mouth to water, and his pace quickened. Finish that off with a piece of Hannah’s homemade peach pie, and he would be a happy man. Smiling to himself, Val stepped onto the boardwalk and tipped his hat to Mrs. Rogers, then dodged a trampling by the red-headed Smithson twins, Green River’s rowdies in the making. If the Widow Smithson didn’t get help soon, it was a sure thing her boys were on a short road to jail. Val shook his head, wondering how the seven-year-olds could cause so much darned trouble around town. But they did.
Almost to the diner, Val’s gaze drifted to the batwing doors of the Angels Nest Saloon, and he stopped in mid-stride. Something was going on. There, pushing his way into the saloon, was another stranger. A stranger that just happened to have a six-shooter tied low on his hip. Two strangers in two days; Jessup rode in yesterday.
Val decided his lunch could wait; he needed to find out what was going on in his town. He wandered to the swinging doors and scanned the interior. The newcomer sat at a table with Cindy Middleton, and Val knew if anyone could get information out of a customer, it was Cindy. Her sweet-sassy attitude, green-eyed gaze, and spirited conversations could coax a monk to blabber like a gossipmonger at a church social.
Walking to the end of the polished bar, Val leaned against worn but shiny oak, his right hand close to the Colt on his hip, and watched Cindy as she worked her magic. With a smile, she ordered two beers, then she saw Val and mouthed the word ‘trouble’ to him and was back at the table to join her customer with the drinks in less than two minutes.
Val gave it some time, then walked to the table and introduced himself to the stranger. “I’m Sheriff Crawford. You have business in Green River?”
Cindy smiled inwardly. Val never did mince words. Always gets right to the point.
The man gave Val a hard stare, then huffed. “You greet all folks like that, Sheriff?” Then smirked, thinking to put this lawman in his place.
But Val didn’t back down. “I asked if ya had business here…”
“I heard ya. If I got business here, it’s my business. No one else’s. I ain’t done nothin’ wrong here. Just come in for a drink an’ maybe some comp’ny. There ain’t no law against that.”
“Not yet,” Val said, trying to manage his temper. “Jus’ remember, I got a nice comfortable jail cell waitin’ for ya if ya start anything. I ain’t puttin’ up with no trouble here. R’member that.” With an icy parting stare, Val left, trusting Cindy to make a report. She was seldom wrong about these things. Ha, I should deputize her!
Val knew he wouldn’t have long to wait, so he enjoyed his lunch by the window in the diner to watch, hoping the stranger would leave.
Murdoch Lancer stood watching the big dapple-gray as it trotted under the adobe arch. He wondered why Tuck McKay was coming to Lancer and hoped there wasn’t trouble at Aggie’s ranch. Walking out through the French doors, he greeted the Circle C foreman with a wide smile and an outstretched hand.
“Tuck! It’s good to see you! Can you come in for a drink?” Murdoch asked as he motioned to the door.
“No, Mr. Lancer, but thanks. I just came by to give you this. Miz Con… Miz Addison asked that I bring it over.”
“There’s no trouble, I hope…”
“No, don’t think so. Seemed alright when she left.” McKay met Murdoch’s questioning stare, not able to answer honestly. Something was troubling the boss lady, but he didn’t know any particulars, and if Miz Con… Miz Addison wanted him to know, she would have said so.
Murdoch was taken aback. “Left? Left for where?”
“They left for San Francisco first thing this morning. Well, I got work to do, Mr. Lancer. I’ll see you later, huh? Tell the boys I’ll be waitin’ to clean them out at poker on Saturday night!” Tuck nudged his horse around and left Murdoch looking at the note in his hand.
Well, he wasn’t going to find out what it said standing here looking at it. Murdoch walked back into the hacienda to his desk and settled into the comfortable leather chair. Slicing the envelope open, he removed the single page and read the flowing script.
Went to San Francisco for a few days. See you when I get back.
Please tell Johnny to be careful— there could be trouble. I’ll talk to you as soon as I can!
Murdoch read the message again. Why would she say that? Was this meant to be a vague warning? But if it was, it seemed strange there was no explanation. What was she trying to tell him?
Val waited for Cindy to get to his table. With his beer in hand, he settled in the chair in the corner and appeared to relax, but inside he was wound as tight as Mayor Higgs pocket watch. With her words earlier of trouble, Val needed to know what was going on. And he hoped that Cindy was able to ferret out what that trouble was.
She made her way across the saloon, pulled out the chair to join him, and give her report. Val saw worry in her eyes and his stomach tied in a knot.
“His name is Jeff Conley. He’s after Madrid.”
Agatha Conway Addison tried her level best to appear like nothing was wrong. During the night, she tried to convince herself that the papers she saw in Buck’s case weren’t anything— no, she knew what they were. She spent the night trying not to believe what she saw. But Aggie wasn’t gullible, and neither was she stupid, not by a long shot. And even though she didn’t want to believe it, Buck was up to something, and her stomach began to churn. Could she find out what was going on and try to stop any bloodshed? Because if anything happened to Murdoch or his sons, it would be on her head.
The train car swayed and rocked, and the clack-clack-clack of the iron wheels on the tracks usually lulled her into a relaxed state, but not today. She sat at Buck’s side, pretending to enjoy the impromptu trip going to her favorite city to dine and dance with her love, her husband… and a possible thief and murderer?
Little things began to pierce her brain, and once she thought more about them, there were many unanswered questions, more than she wanted to know. Then, thinking back, she remembered that Buck brought up the issue of changing her brand. If she was now Mrs. Buck Addison, shouldn’t the ranch reflect that fact? And Buck had authorized a new man to act in Tuck’s foreman capacity.
Gradually, he had eased Joe Walsh into a position at the Circle C and was slowly edging Tuck away. She suddenly began to realize the ramifications of that move. It would affect every aspect of the ranch. Her ranch. They had an agreement that the Circle C was hers and forever would be; she would run it the way she always had. But it was starting to feel as if Buck was going back on their agreement. It was a slow transition, but a transition, nonetheless, and she was going to stop it before it went any further.
Aggie had to get control of her thoughts. It was too much, too fast. She needed to think, and how she was going to do that, she had no idea. Get hold of yourself! Do it now!
Aggie ran the Circle C with an experienced hand; she’d run it for the many years after Henry died unexpectedly. Having no children to help, she was alone, except for her dearest friend, Murdoch Lancer. When asked, he would lend his knowledge to help with whatever problem arose, offering advice and physical labor. The Lancer and Conway Ranches had always worked together, facing troubles of every kind, and mounted a strong defense in their unified front. Land pirates, rustlers, or catastrophic weather, it made no difference, they fought it all… together.
It was now an issue that the new Mrs. Buck Addison wasn’t quite sure how to handle. But she did know one thing: she always wanted Murdoch Lancer in her life, and she wasn’t about to sacrifice their relationship, especially with these suspicions flooding over her now.
Alright, Agatha, you have to do something!She knew she was treading on dangerous ground and didn’t want to believe Buck had done anything wrong, but she knew what she saw. Don’t panic, don’t panic… You’ve got to do this the right way, and he can’t know…
Buck watched, his cold gray eyes missed nothing. Aggie had been acting strange since he came home yesterday, and she wasn’t as free with her passionate kisses and warm embraces as she usually was after an absence, even one that short. He knew he would have to use discretion in dealing with his new wife. She was far from ignorant and knew how to stand up for what was hers. It won’t be hers much longer… He smiled as if acting the doting husband and, with a gentle finger, turned her to face him.
“Aggie, is there something wrong? You seem distracted, my love!” The sugar-sweet expression masked the true intent of the question.
Aggie’s eyes registered a bit of shock. Play this right, Agatha! “Oh! No Buck, I spent most of the night awake! You know how much I love San Francisco! And, I think it was very romantic of you to suggest this sudden trip! Buck, it’s exciting! I just didn’t get much rest, that’s all!” She looped her arm through his and snuggled into him.
“Buck?” Aggie turned wide eyes up to his with her question.
Addison looked into her smiling face. Oh, but she was a beautiful woman! “Yes, dear?”
“How do you feel about dining at that French restaurant tonight?” Good start, Aggie. Act it out…
A wide grin stretched across his mouth. “You’re reading my mind!” This will work out just fine. A nice dinner with wine and candlelight, and after that… who knows…
It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was all she had at the moment. Just keep acting as the devoted wife. She had to push aside the soreness in her splintering heart and hope it wouldn’t shatter into tiny pieces.
The suite of rooms owned by Acme Land on the top floor of San Francisco’s most elegant hotel, The Occidental, greeted them again. Six months prior, Mr. and Mrs. Buck Addison celebrated their reception in the ornate hall of the hotel, at Buck’s insistence, of course. They had spent their honeymoon here, three weeks in pure wedded bliss in these very rooms. Oh, what a lovely time we shared!
Aggie had wanted the wedding at the Circle C, but Addison convinced her otherwise, saying he wanted all of San Francisco to witness their happy occasion, and she relinquished, gave in to Buck’s urging, Buck’s wants. Could they ever recall those three weeks? Could she ever again have the same feelings, hopes, and dreams wrapped in the silken ribbons of those wonderful days? But, she strongly suspected they were already gone. Act, Mrs. Addison!
“Oh, Buck! It’s so good to be here again! It’s such a beautiful day! Let’s go out!”
“Aggie, we just got here! Don’t you want to rest? You said you were tired on the train.”
“But that was just sitting there, swaying in that passenger car… Look outside! Let’s not waste it!”
Her eyes won him over. He would play the adoring husband, for now. But Buck knew he had to get complete control over her, he knew just how to do that, and a pleasure it would be. He couldn’t stop the grin that slithered over his lips.
Tonight, he would wine and dine his wife, and he would reap his just rewards.
“Hey, Murdoch, whatcha want me ta do this afternoon? Scott’s busy up at the north line shack. Ya want I should go help him out?” Johnny asked as he came to stand in front of the massive desk.
Murdock studied his son. Aggie’s note unnerved him, and Johnny was acting like nothing was wrong. That note told of possible trouble; how was he to keep Johnny close to the ranch? And he knew he couldn’t.
“No, son, I need you here to take care of the horses that Cip and the men are bringing in.”
“Why didn’t ya tell me horses are comin’ in taday? Why didn’t ya let me go round ‘em up?” Then as soon as he said it, Johnny knew the answer. “Murdoch, nothin’s gonna happen. You know me an’ Aggie joke all the time, but she’s kind of right about it. Seems like every time she comes here, I got inta some kinda trouble. Look, when she gets home, she’ll tell ya she was just havin’ some fun.”
Murdoch didn’t believe it, nor did he find the situation humorous. But the conversation was broken when the shouts from Cipriano and his men interrupted the argument that was about to take place between the two stubborn Lancer men.
“They’re back! Gonna check out them mustangs. You comin’, Murdoch?” and Johnny was out the door. Although still very concerned about Aggie’s note, Murdoch couldn’t help but think of the two-year-old whirlwind that had wrapped him around that tiny little finger. And now that whirlwind was grown into a full-fledged tornado and more wild than ever. He left the comfortable chair, followed his son, and watched Johnny perform his magic on the horses.
Murdoch never tired of the scene as Johnny worked the animals; he inspected them from nose to tail, then divided them into the appropriate corrals, and Murdoch thought he’d never seen his son so alive. Murdoch was in his glory; his proud gaze followed the man, amazed at how easily Johnny handled the wild horses. And their response was just as incredible. Once they knew who was boss, the training made Murdoch bust his buttons every time he witnessed the process. Ha, even Arabella, the sow Jelly brought home for Murdoch’s birthday, came to the fence seeking attention when Johnny walked by.
And Murdoch was almost able to push his dread aside. What was it that Aggie knew? Why didn’t she just come out and say something instead of making him wait for her to arrive home?
“Hey, Murdoch! Come look at this horse!” Johnny leaned on the fence with the smile that warmed his father’s heart.
And Murdoch joined his son, admiring the new stock.
It was hot. Hot and dry, and Johnny was ready to quit for the day. After he cleaned up and had supper, he and Scott were going into town. They made their plans earlier in the day; both agreed it was time to blow off some steam. He finished the chore, then vaulted on Barranca’s back and galloped off to meet Scott and ride back to the ranch together. “Whew! Is that me that stinks so bad?” He asked as Barranca snorted in reply.
The hot bath soothed the aches and pains, and after a soak, a vigorous scrubbing, and hair wash, Johnny Lancer felt like a new man. The banter at dinner between the brothers bounced off the walls as Scott and Johnny teased with the usual abandon and made Teresa laugh until she cried.
But Murdoch found nothing humorous about the situation. That ‘situation’ sat like a rock in his belly. What was Aggie trying to tell me? And he was snapped back to the dining table when he heard Johnny summon his brother.
“C’mon, Boston, last one to the saloon hasta buy the first drink!”
“Johnny?” Murdoch’s voice thundered, making Johnny stop in his tracks. His son met his eyes and held them as if daring his father to say any more; he wasn’t going to back down. Knowing he wasn’t going to change Johnny’s mind, Murdoch had to accept the fact that Madrid would keep him safe.
“Be careful…” was all he could say. Finally, the father consented, though his heart was screaming for them not to go out this night.
Johnny lowered his head for a moment, then raised it and locked his gaze once more on his father. “I will, Murdoch; I got my big brother ta keep me safe.” And with that said, Johnny offered a soft smile, then he and Scott headed to town.
Once on the road and away from other’s ears, Scott’s curiosity got the best of him. “So, are you going to tell me what that was all about, brother?”
“Oh, Aggie sent Murdoch a note an’ at the end, she said ta tell me ta be careful cuz there could be trouble. Murdoch’s thinking somethin’ bad’s gonna happen.”
Scott chuckled. “Well, she is right, you know. You do find your share of trouble. I’m sure if she knew something, which is highly unlikely in the first place, that she would have told you face to face and not through a note,” Scott rationalized.
“Yeah, but that’d be kinda hard ta do. She an’ Buck left for San Francisco. C’mon, I’ll race ya inta town!” Johnny kicked Barranca into a gallop, leaving Scott to play catch up.
Town was quiet, but it was early, and it was the middle of the week. Val stepped off the boardwalk and waited for Scott and Johnny to rein in at the hitchrail. He stopped beside Barranca and patted the golden neck.
“Howdy, Val!” Johnny grinned, but it faded when he saw the look in Val’s eyes. “What’s wrong, amigo?” he asked quietly.
“You two c’mon over ta the sheriff’s office. We gotta talk.”
Johnny and Scott exchanged glances, then followed Val across the street.
The Lancer brother’s passed on the offer of coffee and took their seats around the sheriff’s desk.
“What’s goin’ on, Val?” Johnny asked as Scott listened in.
“Cindy picked up somethin’ ya oughtta know about. There’s someone in town lookin’ for Madrid. I’s just on my way out ta the ranch when I saw ya ride in. An’ there’s more. There’s another stranger in town. Came in yesterday but wasn’t askin’ any questions. Name’s Jessup, Rick Jessup. Then taday, Jeff Conley came in, an’ he was askin’ about ya. Said there’s a twenty-five hundred dollar reward out for ya, dead. Ya need ta watch your back, amigo.”
Johnny turned to stare at Scott, both thinking the same thought.
“He say who put out the reward?”
Val shook his head. “Nope, only told Cindy about it.”
“Must be somethin’ in the water. Aggie sent Murdoch a note, tellin’ me ta be careful, that there could be trouble.” Val shot Johnny a surprised glare.
“Why’d she send him a note? Why not tell ‘im to his face?” Val asked.
“Cuz she an’ ol’ Buck left for San Francisco kinda sudden, an’ didn’t have time.”
Val’s mind scrambled to make sense out of what he’d just heard. Questions raced through his mind, the same questions that Johnny and Scott were mulling around in their heads. Did Aggie’s sudden departure have anything to do with two strangers in Green River, one of whom made no secret over wanting to find Madrid?
“Oh, Buck, dinner was wonderful!” Aggie smiled, thinking over the delightful day they’d spent riding through the beautiful city. The San Francisco Bay brought the sea breeze to kiss her face and wash the heat away. But it did not push aside the cold bricks that weighed heavy in her heart. She had to keep the act believable.
True to his word, they bought Aggie new clothes that afternoon. Buck had commissioned the best dressmaker in town and created a new wardrobe that left her in a state of shock. She was amazed to find out Buck had taken one of her dresses, left in the suite on their honeymoon, to the dressmaker to tailor the exquisite garments in the exact size.
The colors were perfect, and Aggie herself couldn’t have chosen anything better; the styles were beautiful! But why? They certainly weren’t anything she could wear at the ranch, then chastised herself for thinking there was a motive behind everything he now did. Couldn’t he act as a caring, considerate husband? And she wanted so desperately to believe there was nothing, no motive for the surprise gift.
There just had to be a reasonable explanation for the papers she read, the papers she physically held in her hands. The papers printed with a wanted poster for Johnny Madrid- Dead. Stop it, Aggie! You’re supposed to be having a wonderful time- Act like it!
“Oh, Buck! These clothes are beautiful! Thank you, sweetheart! I… I don’t know what to say!” And even though she was overwhelmed with the gesture, she knew in her heart there was a reason behind the gift.
“Oh, it’s no less than you deserve, Aggie! Besides, you can ‘thank me’ later… My beautiful wife! No one can compare. I am a very lucky man!” Buck’s eyes twinkled, and he winked.
The dancing after dinner was cut short when Buck announced he wanted to go back to their suite. He helped her with the velvet cape, draped it over her shoulders, left the elegant dance room at the French restaurant, and Buck hailed a cab. The night was chilly, and he put his arm around her as they rode. Forcing a sweet smile to her lips, Aggie pretended to enjoy the night.
Now at their destination, Buck gallantly helped her from the cab and into the Occidental, where he steered her toward the elevator.
“Oh, Buck! This thing makes me nervous! Can’t we take the stairs? Please?”
“It’s fine, darling. Nothing will happen! Arthur Gilman designed one in The Equitable Life Building in Manhattan, to be exact. They use it every day. I made it a point to talk to him myself, and it’s perfectly safe!”
But Aggie couldn’t help herself and clutched the railing as the car began to move. A few minutes later, they reached the top floor and their suite of rooms.
“Now, wasn’t that better than climbing all those stairs?” Buck said with a smirk.
Aggie sighed in relief as the elevator came to a halt, then she waited for Buck to open the door to their suite. “I guess I just need to get used to it! It feels so strange!”
“You’ll get used to it, Agatha.” She’ll have to when we move to San Francisco permanently. He moved to her, and wrapped his arms around her in a warm embrace, then nuzzled her ear, kissing gently and trailing his tongue around the lobe. “Oh, Aggie! I love you!” he breathed into her hair. He reached for the wine bottle, and with one hand, he filled a glass for her. “Here, darling, I had this wine brought here just for you!”
“Thank you, Buck. It is wonderful!” and she sipped, then sipped again.
And Buck felt the power over her flood through him. Have another drink…
Not waiting for any more talk, Buck took her hand and led her into the bedroom. There, he took the pins from her hair and, with a heated gaze, watched her honey-colored tresses fall in a glorious mass around her. He removed her dress, ignoring the tenseness of her body, and backed her to the bed.
The night passed slowly for Aggie and, though his touch was soft and gentle, she wished he would leave her alone.
Buck Addison had been ‘cultivating’ a plan, nurturing it to fruition, just as Aggie would nurture their baby. He’d drugged her wine with a potion from a doctor he knew here in San Francisco. A doctor that specialized in ancient remedies that were said to work. He smiled. They’d discussed their plans before the wedding and agreed they were getting older, so starting a family wasn’t a wise thing for them to do. But, he thought with a smirk, she’s still young enough to carry a child, and what better way to control her than if she were pregnant with his baby?
“You two watch your back. An’ don’t be takin’ no chances! Somethin’ ain’t right. Maybe Aggie knows somethin’, maybe it was just a joke, but till we have a chance ta talk ta her, I want ya ta be careful, as a matter of fact, I think ya need ta leave town… now.”
Johnny wasn’t one to jump to conclusions, but neither would he disregard the things Val had just told him. He’d already chalked up Murdoch’s worries as an overactive imagination, except now with the things he just heard from Val, Murdoch’s worries wouldn’t be disregarded as the ridiculous suspicions he originally took them for, but the fact that Aggie said anything now took on a whole different perspective. Did she know something? And what did Buck know about it? Buck Addison had rubbed Johnny the wrong way from their initial meeting. The way he bullied the smaller ranchers into selling him their property, property they paid for with sweat and blood, and that Acme Land paid them a pittance was an insult.
“Why don’tcha just go home tanight, amigo?” Val said, knowing that Madrid was not about to leave until he had a few answers.
Johnny stood and stared at the wall, at the bricks where there was nothing, but he saw volumes of his life, pages of past incidents, fighting for what he thought was right; battles… to the death. And he never ran. He met everyone head-on, and he was not about to run now.
His eyes narrowed before he asked the softly spoken question. “Val?”
“You ever known me ta run?”
Val knew that Johnny wouldn’t leave, but he had to ask. And now, he would have to answer. “No, Johnny, ya ain’t never run from nothin’, an’ deep down, I knew ya wasn’t gonna run from this. But I had ta ask.”
Johnny turned from the wall and headed to the door. “C’mon, Boston. This won’t take too long.”
Scott could do nothing but cringe. Someone, maybe two people, was out there wanting to call out Madrid. Sure, they had names but no faces to go along with the names. And where Scott sincerely hoped Johnny knew what he was doing, all he wanted to do now was take Val’s advice and go home.
“Johnny, don’t you think we should just leave? Why go looking for trouble?” It sounded like a reasonable idea to Scott’s way of thinking.
Johnny opened the door and quickly scanned the street, then, without turning to face his brother, said, “I’d rather find the trouble before it finds me. You wanna leave, leave. I hafta find out what’s goin’ on.”
This is crazy! And Scott shrugged. “Alright.” He met Val’s eyes and huffed.
“Well, c’mon, if you’re comin’ with me! The sooner I get movin’, the sooner we can go home!” Johnny tugged the front of his hat down over his eyes and stepped off the boardwalk.
With Scott and Val tagging behind, Johnny crossed the dusty street, stopped at the batwings of The Angel’s Nest, and peered through the blue smoke that hung thick in the room. With no sign of danger, he pushed his way into the saloon and walked to the end of the bar.
Catching the bartender’s attention, Johnny called for three beers. Another scan of the saloon satisfied his curiosity, and as the drinks were served, he began to relax but kept alert.
Cindy Middleton threaded her way to them, and after greeting them, she offered her report. Jeff Conley had not been in for a drink. But she would keep an eye open for him and would let Val know.
Well, it was all they could do for the night. Johnny set the empty glass on the bartop. “Ya ready, Boston? Let’s go home. See ya, Val. Thanks, Cindy.”
“Anytime, Johnny. Bye, Scott.”
“We’ll see you soon, Miss Middleton!” Scott said as he kissed her hand, and she smiled.
“Hey, you two keep yer eyes open an’ don’t be takin’ no chances, ya hear?”
“Sure, Val, sure. Takin’ no chances. We hear ya.”
Scott looked to Val with raised brows. “I’ll try to keep him out of trouble but won’t make any promises.”
Scott and Johnny Lancer crossed the street to their horses just as two rifle shots, fired in rapid succession, echoed through the night. Johnny whirled, drawing his Colt, and returned fire… just as Scott hit the dirt.
“Scott!” Johnny whispered and knelt by his brother’s side. He quickly assessed the wound. It was clean, the bullet passed through, leaving bloody twin holes, and although it bled freely, it was not serious.
Val ran past to kneel by a body lying in the shadows.
“Boston, can ya hear me?” Johnny’s heart pounded in his chest. Scott took a bullet meant for Madrid! Johnny felt sick. Scott was shot because of…, and Scott began to move; he tried to sit up.
“Johnny! Ya better see this!” Val called.
Scott struggled, trying to get his feet under him and stand. “Johnny, I’ll be alright. Go see what Val wants!”
“Ya sure, Boston? Don’t want ya tryin’ ta walk by yourself. You’ll stay here?”
“Yes, I’ll stay here! Go see Val!” he groaned and reached for the wound.
Reluctantly, Johnny went to Val as the lawman leaned over the body. In Val’s hand was a wanted poster for Madrid, and blood boiled in Johnny’s veins
A crowd started to gather, and Val stood to get them going on their way. There wasn’t any sense in any of the good citizens spreading rumors about the reward on Madrid. Val could hear them now: Madrid was wanted for murder, or Madrid’s Gang held up a bank or stage… Whenever there was trouble, the first thing on most minds was ‘Where was Madrid when that happened?’ Everyone always seemed to forget that it was largely due to Johnny that Pardee’s reign of terror was over.
“Someone go for Doc Jenkins; the rest of ya just move along! Go!”
As Val controlled the onlookers, Johnny turned his attention to the shooter. The man was still alive, but not for long, judging by the blood bubbling from the gaping mouth. He wanted answers, and he wanted them now.
“Who’s payin’ ya?” Johnny’s cold, low tones sent a chill through the body in the dirt. Colder now, as the blood flowed out of him. There was no answer. Johnny grabbed the man by the front of his soaked shirt and shook viciously.
“Who’s payin’ ya?” he demanded again. Val knelt next to Johnny.
The man opened out of focus eyes and murmured, “A-Addison, Buck…. He said… said there’d be more… money if I got both of… you.” And that was it. The man closed his eyes, and with one last shuddering breath, more blood bubbled from his mouth, and he died.
Johnny’s mind scrambled. Scott, take care of Scott first!
“C’mon, amigo, let’s get yer brother ta the Doc’s!”
“Johnny, I told you, Scott’s going to be alright! You need to go home and get some rest. I’ll send for you if something happens, but the wound is not serious. He’s going to be back on his feet in a day or two. Go home!”
“If it’s all the same ta you, Sam, I’m stayin’.” Johnny took the seat next to the bed and settled in for the night, never breaking the stare he leveled at the doctor.
Sam shook his head. “Why do I try?” he mumbled to himself. He left the room but soon returned with a blanket that he tossed in Johnny’s lap. “Here, I don’t want you catching a cold, and I’ll have both of you under my feet!” Then he turned and left, leaving Johnny Lancer to sit with his brother.
“You gonna be alright, Johnny? I sent word ta Murdoch. He should be here in the next hour or so,” Val sympathized.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine. Thanks, Val. Hey, did ya find anything else other’n that wanted poster ya took offa Conley?”
“Nope. Nothin’. Ya come on over ta the sheriff’s office an’ press charges. We’ll get a investigation goin’. If ya need me, I’ll be at the jail. Watch yerself, amigo. There could be another man out there.”
“’Night, Val, an’ thanks.”
Val nodded and left Johnny to his own thoughts, knowing his amigo would be making a plan. Val just hoped Johnny would let him in on that plan. But with Madrid, one never knew what to expect, and Val had a feeling neither he nor Murdoch was going to approve of anything the recalcitrant young Lancer had up his sleeve.
Johnny wasn’t about to sleep, and he wasn’t going to swear out a formal complaint on Buck Addison. Johnny Madrid would take care of Buck Addison his way. A way that Buck could surely understand. A plan was tickling in his brain, and he knew what he needed to do.
Quietly, he took the bullets out of Scott’s gunbelt and stuffed them in his jacket pockets. Then he searched his brother’s saddlebags, not something he was in the habit of doing, but he needed any extra ammunition Scott carried.
With the search and confiscation completed, Johnny stood and looked down at Scott lying in peaceful, drugged slumber in the bed. He leaned in and touched Scott’s hand. “See ya, brother,” and then Johnny was gone. He had to leave before Murdoch got there and tried to stop him from finding out why Buck Addison paid to have Scott and him killed.
Johnny rode north out of Green River. He didn’t figure to make it to San Francisco for another day and a half at the soonest. More like two days. And he couldn’t help but wonder how many other shooters were out there, biding their time and waiting for him to ride by to shoot him from ambush. How many wanted posters were sent out, and how many others were on their way to call him out? And most of all, he wanted to know just what the hell Addison was trying to do. Then he wondered if Aggie was safe, knowing full well she had nothing to do with wanting Johnny Madrid dead and Scott, too, for that matter.
Well, there was one less backshooter out there now. Johnny’s bullet caught him in the chest and, in his last minute of life, he revealed that Addison was responsible for the wanted posters. At that moment, Johnny wanted Addison in his sights. What he wouldn’t give to have that son-of-a-bitch standing before him right now.
It’ll come soon enough, Johnny-Boy. That bastard’s got a lot to account for; I just hope he don’t hurt Aggie…
Johnny stopped Barranca and reined him off the road. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. He was being followed.
Barranca stood still under him. Johnny could feel the muscles bunch as the horse knew what he was expected to do. They waited until the rider passed, then the golden horse rushed onto the road, looking like a ghostly apparition in the dark of the night.
“Hold it right there! Don’t move!” Madrid commanded, his Colt pointed at the man’s head.
The rider whirled his horse to face the threat and desperately tried to slow the pounding in his heart.
“Don’t move! Why ya followin’ me?” Johnny demanded.
“Madrid? That’s you, aint it?” Keep ‘im talkin’; maybe he’ll let his guard down…
“What if it is?”
“Boy, I’m glad I found you! Been lookin’ for ya all day!” Did he sound desperate enough?
“Funny, the other guy didn’t have any trouble findin’ me…” Johnny saw the man tense as his hand drifted toward the gun on his hip.
“Other man, what other man?” And Rick Jessup threw himself from the saddle and went for his gun, narrowly missing a killing headshot to Madrid. He swore at his failure as he felt Madrid’s bullet slam its way into his heart, tearing it in two. Then, nothing.
The battle was short, and he wondered if there would be any more surprises this night. Johnny didn’t have time to dispose of the body properly, but neither did he want to leave garbage lying around. Well, the body would have to wait.
Two attacks in one night. Would there be more? Johnny was pressed for time; he couldn’t take the body back, he had to get to San Francisco as soon as possible; Aggie was there, and she was the only one that had any idea of what was going on. With the decision quickly made, Johnny left the corpse in the road and continued on to San Francisco and Aggie Conway. He couldn’t bring himself to call her Addison.
The knock on the door interrupted the sumptuous breakfast, and Buck nearly jumped from his seat to answer the summons. Aggie, startled with the sudden move so uncharacteristic, watched intently as her husband read the message he held, then noted the frown he wore.
“Buck? Is anything the matter?” she asked, appearing to offer comfort to her agitated husband.
“What? Oh, no, dear. Ah, I need to change our plans for this afternoon, Aggie. I hope you don’t mind. Something has just come up, and I need… Well, you don’t want to hear about tedious and boring business. There are enough things to keep you occupied here in the suite while I’m gone,” he placated.
“Oh, Buck, that’s alright. I know you’re a busy man. This will be a good excuse for me to go shopping. There are a few things I want to bring back to the ranch. You go do… whatever you do, and I’ll take a little time for myself. It’s fine, Buck!” Was her casual response enough to dissuade him, to disregard his control with her innocent statement? And she knew that was exactly what Buck was doing, trying to control what she did and where she would go.
Aggie felt ripples of fear andanger grip her heart. How was she going to find out what was going on? Where would she find any proof? Buck was trying to keep her in his sight; that was clear. And the more she thought about the situation, her mad began to build. She didn’t want to believe Buck could do anything so horrible, but she knew for a fact he never wanted the relationship between her and Murdoch Lancer to continue. And he did try everything in his power to take over the estancia in a most aggressive manner. Damming up rivers, buying the land around Lancer to force the estancia into paying a fee for driving the cattle to the railhead, and Buck personally tried to lure Lancer’s hands onto his payroll. It boiled down to a hostile attempt at complete control. Buck Addison wanted everything under his control, and particularly his wife.
But thinking back to finding that map in Buck’s case and, most of all, the wanted posters was now her turning point. The shock was wearing off; she was no longer looking for a reasonable explanation. There wasn’t one, and the truth was staring her in the face. What was she going to do about it?
And more than anything, she wondered what was happening at Lancer. She damned herself for not writing an explanation in the note she sent to Murdoch. He must be at his wits’ end trying to make sense out of it, but Buck was with her almost every second, and there was no time for details. And she had to wonder, was Johnny Lancer still alive? If something happened, she would be haunted by her inaction for the rest of her life.
Buck knew he couldn’t force her to stay in their suite. To do so now would only confirm there were things she didn’t know, and Agatha Addison didn’t need to know any of Buck’s business dealings. So, he decided to let her have her way. But, soon, she would be doing exactly what he would tell her to do.
“That’s fine, Aggie dear! Do you want me to send someone with you? You know, to carry your purchases?” he asked, wanting her to have all the help she required… and to watch what she did and where she went and with whom she talked.
“Oh, Buck! I’m only going to be gone a short time! How much can I buy in a short time?” She chuckled when Buck rolled his eyes at her statement.
“Well, have a good time, Aggie! I’ll be back later this afternoon!” Buck gathered his coat and his exquisite leather case, then left the grand suite.
Aggie waited quietly, then opened the door to see Buck round the corner at the end of the corridor… in the opposite direction of the elevator. Was this the chance to find out what Buck was up to? Aggie didn’t know but couldn’t let the opportunity slip out of her fingers; she was going to find out whatever she could. She owed it to the Lancers. She was the one who brought Buck into the valley and now felt responsible for the pending tragedies looming that had the potential to shatter all their lives and hers as well.
Retrieving her handbag, Aggie made sure she had the keys to the suite and followed at a discreet distance. But he had vanished. Where are you, Buck? Where are you? Aggie slowed her step, not wanting to attract attention. Putting a sweet smile on her face, she continued, appearing as if there was all the time in the world, and wandered the halls, hoping she wouldn’t run into Buck.
Aggie was in luck; a porter came out of a room she passed and turned when she heard the door open.
“Oh, excuse me, but I’m looking for Mr. Addison. Have you seen him, please?” she asked in a casual tone.
“Oh, yes, Ma’am. He went into the suite at the end of the hall. Can I be of some assistance?”
“No, but thank you! I want to surprise him, so please don’t say anything about me…?” Aggie snuck in a soft giggle, implying a romantic rendezvous. Then, she winked.
A wide grin split his face. “No, Ma’am! He won’t hear a word out of me! Good day, Ma’am!”
The porter left, turning down another corridor, and Aggie breathed a sigh of relief. Then, acting as if she belonged there, she walked to the indicated door and stopped. No one was around, so she listened.
Voices were coming from inside, raised, angry voices, and she recognized Buck’s defensive tone, sounding as if he was trying to explain… something. Then it was quiet for a minute. Suddenly a deep voice shouted what sounded like a threat. “You’d better get control! Things need to start happening, and you’d better keep your end of the bargain— do you hear me? You fail me this time, and I’ll ruin you! Now, get out!”
Aggie needn’t hear any more. She started down the long hallway toward the front of the hotel when the door to the suite opened, and Buck Addison stormed out, going the opposite direction. Had he turned the other way, he would have seen his wife in the middle of the corridor.
And now, Agatha Conway Addison felt that same cold fear as when she’d first seen the map and the wanted posters back at the Circle C. Hands turned icy, and her stomach wanted to rebel. How was she going to get proof to reinforce what she heard through that door? And, just what had she heard. ‘… bargain? I’ll ruin you!’ What was Buck doing?
Seconds after Buck left the mysterious suite of rooms, Aggie heard the door open then slam shut. Heavy footsteps pounded down the hall away from where she stood. Taking a chance, she turned and watched a heavy-set, white-haired man turn down the same corridor as Buck had just a minute ago. Who was he, and why was he shouting at Buck? Did he have the ability to ruin Buck? What was going on?
Things were happening so fast! What should she do? But Aggie knew time was of the essence, and she didn’t have the luxury of mulling over in her mind the last several days trying to make heads or tails of everything that transpired. But there was one thing she knew for certain: that Lancer was in trouble, specifically Johnny. Well, Aggie, you’d better do something about it, and now!
With her mind made up, she would take the chance that Buck had left the hotel and their suite was empty. She had to search his office. Desperately pushing hesitation and pounding heart aside, Aggie Conway pulled together all the dignity and confidence she could, walking calmly back to the Acme Land suite. This one act could be the single, most critical deed that would spell out the rest of her life. As Mrs. Buck Addison, I have the right to be in that suite. And the office is part of that suite…
Aggie’s resolve, bolstered by the maddening thoughts at the lengths Buck was using in order to control her, urged her on and grew with every step. Depending on what she found would spell out her future and the futures of the Lancers. The Circle C would always support Lancer as Lancer would be there for the Circle C. Always!
She reached her suite, let herself in, then went from room to room, making sure Buck was not in residence. Satisfied she was alone, Aggie went to the office and tried the door but knew it would be locked. With a quick sweep of the parlor and not finding a key, Aggie smiled wickedly. There might be things I don’t know about you, Buck Addison, but there are things you’ll never know about me! Taking a pin out of her coiffed hair, Aggie Conway picked the lock and let herself into Buck Addison’s private office. Wasting no time, she began the search that would change her life.
Her investigation turned to absolute horror as she sifted through papers in a third desk drawer on the right-hand side. A thick file containing more receipts from various expenditures, all paid in full by the Acme Land Company, lay in her hands. Deeds for parcels of properties purchased in the San Joaquin Valley and more contracts for work in the San Joaquin added to her apprehensions. Ranches with names of former neighbors jumped off the pages, stunning her with the low prices Acme paid them for their land. Receipts from other contractors for many services and… and a receipt from a doctor… Doctor? Aggie’s mind was spinning in sickening circles. Certain words jumped off the page… apothecary… induce pregnancy… WHAT?
Agatha Conway exploded in rage. Buck was intentionally attempting to get her pregnant. Not out of want for a child… it was for control. Flashes of memories of the last few days burst into her head. Drink the wine, Aggie! I had it brought here just for you, darling! Have another drink. He drugged the wine! Her stomach rolled, and she felt dizzy, but she shook those thoughts away and gathered every piece of damning information that she could.
At the bottom of the drawer, Aggie found the wanted posters. Taking one, she added it to the growing pile, then sifted through more papers, taking out more receipts, and the map of the Circle C and Lancer as one property. Stuffing other documents into the drawer, she put them back as she found them, then made to leave… just as she heard the outer door to the suite open. It was Buck!
Grabbing the evidence, Aggie hurried into the closet and wedged herself into the back corner. She pulled her skirts tightly around her, not letting any of the fabric peek out to give her away. She could hear her heart pounding and wondered if Buck could hear it as well. Her knees shook, threatening to collapse and leave her on the floor. Then, her heart dropped to her feet as the closet door was thrown open, and Buck Addison stood in the doorway. He seemed larger as he stood there; she thought she saw waves of rage roll off his body and his eyes flashed, burning with fury.
Time stood still, making her hold her breath, not daring to breathe. He would hear it! She could almost smell his anger, and for the first time, she was afraid. All she could do was to stay still, not move, not make any noise. Ha! No noise! That was impossible! She knew her heart was beating out of her chest; how could Buck not hear it?How long would he stand there? Then suddenly, he was gone, a muttered “Damn!” exploded after him, indicating his anger as he slammed the door.
She could hear him in his office as he frantically searched… for what? Was he looking for something that was disturbed, missing papers or documents? Did he suspect her of taking anything? Drawers were opened and closed with force. Books fell to the floor and kicked aside. Did he know someone had been there! Did he know things were not how he’d left them? She could only hope he would leave the suite so she could get out of there and get to safety. But where was that? Where could she go that Buck wouldn’t find her? She needed help!
Damn him! Damn Edmonds! Buck fumed, thinking that pompous and arrogant fool wouldn’t be in the position he was if not for Buck Addison. Without me, that bastard wouldn’t know the profits to be made in the San Joaquin! And now that I have the Circle C and soon Lancer, we’ll make millions! But it’s because of me that will happen!
The door swung open. It wasn’t locked. Panic, rage, and worry all competed for prominence in Addison’s head. This can’t be! The door was locked! Who had been here? Aggie? No, she was out for the morning; besides, she didn’t have a key. He searched the spacious room, then threw the closet door open to slam against the wall, and looked for something that was out of place, something that shouldn’t be there but was, and found nothing. Buck stood staring; his mind ran in furious circles, trying to reason why the door was unlocked. He had to find Edmonds and fast.
He took his leather case, the exquisite leather, hand-tooled case he’d gotten right here in San Francisco. Oh, but it was an expensive item and one of many that hadn’t cost him a red cent. Not after he’d promised the shop owner it would be an excellent way to promote his business. Buck would direct associates to The Finest Leather on The Bay and had an unending supply of the best leather goods in the state. And it hadn’t cost the owner a cent to advertise. Now, that case held critical information that could land Buck in jail should the papers fall into the wrong hands.
Closing the door to the Acme Land suite, Buck headed straight to the elite club whose membership included the most prestigious businessmen in San Francisco. Glad Aggie was not around, and he didn’t need to take certain precautions to keep her from entering this private place, he took his key from his pocket, thinking how convenient it would be once they would move here permanently. Keeping his business private would be much easier…
Aggie heard Buck leave. Or was it just to make it look as if he left? She waited as long as she could, then grabbed her shawl and wrapped it around the papers from Buck’s office in a secure bundle. She had to hurry, but it wouldn’t pay to leave here and meet him in the hall. What would she say? Oh, Buck, my love, I was just tidying up and found these damning papers, proof of what you are doing…? If the situation weren’t so dangerous and infuriating, she would have laughed. You need to move, Aggie, and make it fast!
Holding the papers as tight as she could, Aggie made it down the stairs, bypassing the elevator. Almost there! One last flight, then out of the building! Her feet moved as of their own will. Slow down; you’re drawing attention! Someone will tell Buck they saw you running… But it wasn’t easy to slow down when you have this damning proof in your hands!
One more flight, then across the lobby… almost there!
“Oh, Mrs. Addison! Mr. Addison was looking for you!” The desk clerk called out as she quickly passed.
Think, Aggie! Not stopping, she said, “Oh, yes, I’m on my way! Thank you!” and she smiled sweetly.
The clerk was confused. Well, that’s peculiar! Mr. Addison was going the other way! Then, as if on cue, Buck Addison came around the corner. “Oh, Mr. Addison! I just saw Mrs. Addison going out the front door. If you hurry, you can catch her!”
Without a response, Buck ran to the door and down the steps of the Occidental Hotel to see Aggie hurrying down the walkway. Edmonds could wait— he had to get to Aggie!
“Aggie! Wait up! Aggie!” She disappeared around the corner, and Buck was in hot pursuit.
Aggie made it to the alley, then turned into it. Keep going! She made it! But kept running as a bullet screamed by her! He was shooting at her! Her feet did not stop, and she ran until someone grabbed her…
Johnny Madrid Lancer rode into the outskirts of San Francisco. He needed to find Aggie as soon as possible and could only hope that Addison hadn’t done anything to harm her. But he had to push those thoughts aside. No sense in makin’ things any worse than what they were. Johnny already knew what he’d do if Buck harmed Aggie. And it wouldn’t be pretty… or legal.
Knowing Addison kept a suite in the hotel, the same hotel where they spent their honeymoon, Johnny threaded his way through the crowded streets to The Occidental Hotel. The last time he was here was for Buck and Aggie’s wedding and reception. The affair was lavish, too much for Johnny’s liking, but he was there, for Aggie, dressed in a suit, an uncomfortable shirt with a scratchy, starched collar, tie and dress boots that gave him blisters. Hell, he had even danced with the bride! And now here he was, trying to make sure she was safe… from her husband of only six months.
The Occidental was a massive building, four floors tall and hundreds of rooms. Just how many rooms can one place rent out? Johnny always wondered. He began to think he was in the wrong business but then thought of putting up with idiotas like Buck Addison, and he knew that he’d take stupid cows any day! But Aggie was happier than he’d ever seen her, so he considered it an honor to be there and share in her happiness. And now, it looked as if that happiness was short-lived. Her world turned upside down, backward, and she was headed over a cliff. Just hope I ain’t too late ta help her…
Johnny Madrid had a plan. Not wanting to come straight in the front door and draw attention to himself in his calzoneras and embroidered shirt, he cut down the alley behind the hotel to gain access and not be noticed. Johnny scouted for a safe place to leave Barranca and dismounted when a woman turned into the alley, running straight for him but looking back over her shoulder. He held Barranca steady and called out… Dios! It’s Aggie!
Aggie ran straight into Johnny’s arms knocking him back a step into Barranca’s flank; the horse shied, then snorted in agitation. Aggie couldn’t hold back the gasp that escaped her lips, thinking her chance of escape was gone until she focused her eyes and saw the one person she never thought to see. Johnny!
“Johnny, we have to get out of here! Now! Buck’s behind me! He can’t catch me! Please!”
Madrid vaulted into the saddle and extended his arm toward her. “Aggie, gimme your hand, swing up behind me!”
Johnny reached down and took her outstretched hand as she clutched the bundled papers close to her body, just as Buck rounded the corner to the alley. Johnny pulled his Colt as he kicked Barranca into a run, firing back when he heard the gunfire behind them.
No! She was getting away! Who’s helping her… then his gaze took in the whole picture. Son-of-a-bitch! Madrid! Buck aimed his Derringer and fired two shots. One went wild; the other found its mark. He watched in morbid fascination as his wife was spirited out of the alley as he dodged the single shot fired back at him.
Buck quickly made it out of the alley when people began to run in his direction. He had to deflect the situation.
“No need to worry, folks! It was only a scuffle between drunks! I have their gun!” He grinned as if he were the hero for saving them, then walked to the hotel, the hotel he’d so recently occupied with his beautiful wife and the soon-to-be mother of his child.
He had to find them! Damn Madrid! He gathered his scattered thoughts and struggled to come up with a plan that wouldn’t incriminate him now that he was sure Aggie knew his plans, some of them anyway. She knew enough to make her run from him. And getting Aggie back was paramount, but he needed help. And now that Madrid was involved, time was critical. The man had an annoying habit of finding a way out of trouble, and he was very dangerous. And the fact that Aggie was now in Madrid’s company would make things difficult, to say the least. But Buck Addison would do whatever it took to come out of this on top.
Edmond’s threat to ruin him was very, very real. The man had the ability and the power to destroy everything Buck had worked for, all the planning, conniving, cheating, and dishonesty that got him where he was. And that included his relationship with Aggie. He couldn’t afford to have this rug yanked out from under him. No, not for anything; even though he loved her, in his greedy kind of way, he would sacrifice her to keep himself from going to jail. She might not make it out of this alive, and he would see that Madrid would somehow get the blame.
Johnny rode through the back streets, keeping to the seedier part of town. Soon they would head south, toward home, or wherever Aggie wanted to go. She hadn’t said a word since they left the big city, no doubt in shock, Johnny thought after Addison took a few shots at them. Then he felt her fall against his back.
“Mrs. Conway?… Mrs. Conway!” And she started to lean off to the side. Johnny had just enough time to grab her before she slid to the ground.
“Oh! What happened?” she asked as she forced her eyes to focus. “Johnny? What are you doing here? Where’s Buck?” And then she remembered. “We have to… get out of here, Johnny! Please!” Then she groaned.
“What’s wrong?” Dios, let her be alright!
“I’m al-alright, just keep going and get us out of town!”
“I think ya need…” but her sharp retort cut him off.
“Johnny, get going!”
She knew they couldn’t stop. Buck would have men out looking for them very soon, and they wouldn’t hesitate to kill Johnny and possibly her as well. There was no possibly about it. Buck had tried to kill her, and as the wanted posters were circulated, he would make sure that Johnny was killed along with her.
They needed to take precautions and had little time to do it. Knowing they made quite an unusual sight and one that would be remembered, discretion was paramount. A woman in an expensively tailored dress, a man with distinctive calzoneras and a bright shirt, riding double on a flashy palomino. Yes, they would attract attention, and Buck would soon know where they were. But she would put her faith in Johnny to get them away to safety.
Victor Edmonds watched Buck as he approached the ornately carved table in the elite club frequented by wealthy male clientele. Addison appeared to be in control, but Victor knew it could also be the façade Addison liked to use, thinking he could bluff his way into some imbecile’s confidence. Victor was no fool and knew that Buck had failed to stop his wife. Nothing happened in San Francisco that he wasn’t aware of; Edmonds had eyes everywhere, and Addison had just fallen into his own greedy trap.
Not bothering to look up, Victor Edmonds spoke, his tone one of condescending disgust. “You’d better stop them. Whatever it takes, stop them.” Then he wiped his thick lips with the linen napkin and took a drink of wine. “Now, get out of here. I don’t want to see you until you’ve cleaned up your mess.”
Buck Addison was dismissed; in the blink of an eye, Edmonds wanted him gone from his sight and, quite possibly, out of his business affairs.
Against his better judgment, Johnny made it out of town, and now in the rolling hills overlooking the city, he reined Barranca to a stop. Aggie needed help, he was sure. He brought his right leg over the saddlehorn, and held her limp body in place until he got his feet on the ground, then lowered her into his arms and cringed when he saw the blood on her left side. I’m gonna fuckin’ kill that bastard!
He carried her to a sheltered spot in the rocks, out of sight to anyone passing on the road. Then he carefully pried the bundle she clutched protectively out of her grasp and set it to the side.
“Mrs. Conway? Can ya hear me? It’s Johnny.” Then he waited.
Her eyes fluttered, then squinted in the low sun. “Under the circum-stances, Johnny… call me Aggie.” And she attempted a smile.
“Yeah, seems like we’re gettin’ kinda close, huh?” he said with a chuckle. “Lemme get this bleedin’ stopped, then we can find a safe place for the night. How ya feelin’?” he asked as she caught her breath, then stifled a gasp, the pain threatened to spin her head off her shoulders.
“Stings pretty good, doesn’t it?” he asked as he applied pressure to her side.
After exhaling with a harsh breath, she was able to answer his question. “Stings doesn’t… quite describe how it feels! It hurts like hell!”
“Well, I’ll get ya to a doctor, Aggie,” he said, not expecting her to refuse.
“No! We’re not going anywhere that Buck will expect us to go, Johnny! Buck… he’ll find us if we go to a doctor!”
“Aggie, ya need help! I can’t stitch you tagether an’ sewing that gash is the quickest way ta stop the bleedin’.” Was he getting through to her? Was she grasping the serious nature of the predicament they found themselves in? Madrid had his doubts.
Aggie fought to control her scattering thoughts. It was as if trying to keep a flock of birds in order, making them fly in a straight line. She had to concentrate; she had to come up with a plan.
She was not about to let Buck Addison ruin her life or any of the lives of the people in the San Joaquin. She was horrified knowing what she did and knew there was much more that she didn’t know. Agatha Conway made up her mind. She was going to face Buck Addison, then destroy him for what he’d done to countless lives. But she needed Johnny’s help.
“Johnny? Listen to me. I desperately… need your help. Buck put out wanted posters on you and,”
“Yeah, I know. Already met up with two second-rate cobardes back in Green River.”
Aggie grabbed his arm and held on tight. “Are you alright?” Her voice was tight and full of anguish.
“Yeah, I am, but Scott was wounded. He’ll be alright, just lost some blood, is all.”
She wanted to cry; terrifying guilt seized her, rendering her nearly helpless for the evil she brought into the valley. The atrocity that was Buck Addison would destroy everyone and everything she cared for, and now, Scott Lancer was injured because of her, and Johnny’s life was at stake, as well. Her blood boiled; she had to do something about her ‘mistake’. And without a doubt, it was a mistake; she could see that now.
Aggie took a breath and grabbed his arm with a shaking hand. “Johnny, I want you to listen to me and listen good. I need help, and you are the only one I can depend on right now.” She locked him with a hard stare, then continued. “Stitch me up. I know you have laudanum in your saddlebags. I’ll take it, but I need your help, and I need it now!”
“…Ah… ya sure about that, Aggie? I can…”
“…stitch me up, Johnny! Buck isn’t far behind us, and he has to be stopped! I will not let him hurt another person! Now, get the damn needle and thread!”
Johnny jumped at her firm request. “Yes, Ma’am!” He approached Barranca as the animal sidestepped, unsure of the woman’s sharp tone. “Easy, boy! It’s alright. It’s OK; she’s just hurtin’,” Johnny murmured as he untied the saddlebag and canteen, then returned to kneel by Aggie’s side. He placed the small bottle of painkiller in Aggie’s hand, then located the pouch containing the needle, thread, and bandages.
She watched him as he worked, knowing he was apprehensive of tending to this personal injury, an intimate gesture between friends. But it had to be done, and he was the only one she could trust to get it done. Aggie placed a steadying hand on Johnny’s arm and smiled as best she could through the pain in the fiery skin.
“Johnny, it’s alright,” she whispered.
The words meant to calm only served to send waves of uncertainty through his trembling hands.
Aggie saw the trepidation in his eyes and wanted to calm the misgivings that she knew were trampling his composure.
“Johnny, you’ve seen a woman’s body before,” she began.
“Yeah, seen lots of ‘em, never one belongin’ to a friend of my father’s, though.”
She almost laughed. “It’s alright, Johnny, you’ll do fine. It will be our secret; just you and I will know.”
Johnny cast a glance her way. “Hey, I won’t tell if you won’t!” Then awarded her his Johnny Madrid Lancer smile. “I’ll try an’ be quick, Aggie. Here, take the laudanum. Tastes awful, but it’ll do the job.”
Aggie sipped, then forced herself to swallow and battled to keep the vile stuff down. Johnny handed her the canteen to take a drink. “Oh! That’s horrible!”
He offered a soft chuckle. “It is that!” The needle was threaded. “OK, that stuff takes a few minutes ta start workin’, then I need ta wash out that crease. It’s gonna hurt some, but like I said, I’ll make it quick as I can.”
The laudanum fogged her mind amazingly fast, and soon Aggie was struggling to keep her eyes open. Johnny nodded in satisfaction. This was going to be hard on her, he knew, hell, it was going to be hard on him! He would gladly trade places with her if it were possible.
“I hafta cut that dress so I can see. This’ll be done before ya know it.” He commanded his fingers to stop trembling, then picked up his knife. Johnny breathed deep and let Madrid settle into place, then slit the dress open at the side seam. With all the privacy he could offer her, he cut through layers of fabric, partially exposing the fleshy swell of her breast, and eased the underclothing aside to access the area. The crease was nasty, over three inches long and deep, bigger than he anticipated. It scored over a rib, leaving the ragged, tender flesh inflamed a bright red as it continued to bleed.
Placing a pad of bandages over the wound, he pressed down, hoping to stem the flow. He risked another glance into her face, then watched as she clenched her teeth and ground them together. Aggie turned her head away as her sky-blue eyes filled with tears.
Minutes later, Johnny removed the blood-soaked pad and began to place the first stitch. As the needle pierced the delicate, hot skin, Johnny began to talk in soothing tones and tried to ignore the deep frown that creased her sweat-dampened brow.
“First time I ever set some stitches, I was fifteen years old. Got knifed an’ wasn’t no one ta help. It was either do it myself or bleed ta death.” First one done. “Never forget it. Got one thread knotted an’ had ta stop an’ throw up.” His blood-coated fingers slipped, taking longer than he should have at knotting the stitch. Second one… “It never got any easier ta do, but I learned how to sew somethin’ closed without lookin’ like I used rawhide strips insteada thread.” Third one… “ an’ not leave much of a scar.” His fingers froze when he heard her gasp. It was one hell of a gash, and taking small but more stitches was necessary. Fourth one set.
“Almost done, Aggie. Are ya still with me?” Almost done, hell! She needs at least four more. Didn’t take enough laudanum…
“Yes, kind of…” her words slurred as she sighed, then the eyes glazed and remained unfocused, although she was semi-conscious.
Johnny breathed a sigh of relief. The fifth thread was set. Then, three more, while he talked about some insignificant injury sustained doing something stupid and made up a silly story to go along with his misadventure. But the one-sided conversation helped to take her mind off what was happening and even coaxed a smile at his reckless shenanigans. “Well, you can rest now. Just hafta knot this last one, an’ I’m done. Ya want some water? You lost considerable blood.” Johnny poured water over his bloody hands and dried them on the grass. “Aggie?” But there was no answer. She was out.
Reaching into the saddlebags, Johnny retrieved a tin of salve and layered a liberal amount over the gash, then enlarged the cut in the dress to carefully bandage the wound as tightly as he could and ignored the creamy skin exposed to his view. He’d attended many injuries, not only for himself and amigos over the years but never had he to contend with a wounded woman or her many layers of underwear. Well, not underwear in this capacity, anyway.
It was done, for now. For the sake of modesty, he covered her with his spare shirt, then tucked his bedroll securely around her. All Johnny could do was to watch over her and hope that fever wouldn’t set in. In all likelihood, it would raise its ugly head. The present conditions were hardly that of a doctor’s office, but he would do the best he could to keep infection at bay. Johnny then wondered if he should have put the stitches closer together. Had he done enough for her?
Aggie struggled to consciousness. Why was she lying on the ground? Had she fallen? And then she remembered when she tried to sit up. She heard soft murmurings and felt strong hands helping, holding her steady.
“Hey, Aggie. Ya feelin’ alright?”
Johnny? That sounded like Johnny… Aggie opened her eyes and blinked. It was Johnny sitting close, handing her the canteen.
“Ya better take a drink. It’ll help ta clear your mind.”
The water, although not cool, did indeed help to wash away the fog that seemed to hold her captive. Then suddenly, she tensed.
“The papers! I wrapped them in my shawl, Johnny; where are the papers I had?” Frantically she searched the ground around her, then tried to stand. No! She couldn’t have lost them! She had to have them…
“Hey, settle down, Aggie. They’re right here, they’re here. Don’t be movin’ around; you’re gonna tear them stitches out. Here,” Johnny reached the bundle and slid it into her hand.
Aggie caught her breath and sighed. Her hand grabbed the shawl that held proof that Buck Addison was responsible for killing so many lives, and she held it in a white-knuckled fist, then she bowed her head and cried.
Johnny’s belly flipped. “Aggie! What’s wrong? Ya hurtin’? Did ya rip…?”
Shaking her head no, she raised her tear-streaked face and met his with a red, watery, pathetic stare.
“Oh, Johnny, I’m so s-sorry!”
“Sorry? Sorry about what?” he questioned softly.
“Johnny, help me go through these papers. They concern you and Lancer and everyone in the valley! I’m so very ashamed…”
Well, the only way ta find out is ta look. “Kay, Aggie, I’ll help ya with whatever ya want.” Settling beside her, Johnny reached for the bundle on her lap. He untied the knotted shawl and began sorting the papers, fury mounting with every sheet.
Nothing was in order; Aggie had no time for that when she left Buck’s office. The first thing Johnny saw was the map. At the top of the paper was the elaborate ‘A’, the same ‘A’ as the branding iron Buck carried in the leather case.
“Johnny, Buck was going to use this as the brand for his filthy little ‘kingdom’!”
Although seething inside, Johnny was able to keep control. Aggie was not to blame for the things that happened. “Well, guess he didn’t count on one thing,” he smirked as he turned to her with a sparkle in his eye.
“What’s that, Johnny?” she asked as she wiped a tear from her face with an angry swipe of her hand.
“Oh, he never figured out how strong his wife is. He was never gonna control you.”
“He was going to try. Look at this,” and Aggie handed him the doctor’s instructions for the fertility drug he’d been using on her without her knowledge.
Johnny read the handwritten script. He knew Addison was capable of heinous acts, and greed flowed through the man’s veins instead of blood. But this was… this was desperation at its worst. Buck Addison was worse than the Rurales that raped and pillaged across Mexico.
“He wanted me pregnant, probably thinking I would be easy to control if I were carrying a baby. There was certainly no room in his life for a child…” And Aggie burst into tears as Johnny pulled her close.
“Aggie? I’ll help you stop him, alright? We can do this, you an’ me; we can do this.” The soft words began to have their effect, and Aggie took a deep breath and pulled herself together. “But we need ta go through this mess an’ see what we can use against him. We’ll do it, OK?”
Pushing her mad and regret aside, Aggie stopped to clear her thoughts as much as she was able. Her emotions were running rampant, everything from fear and disbelief to horror and recrimination. She brought Addison into the valley. And she loved him, and he made a fool out of her. The man was not capable of love, and his only concern was for himself. No one mattered, not even her, only what she brought to the marriage.
A bill of sale for the Ramirez ranch slammed into her brain. A more hard-working, modest family Aggie had never known, and Buck practically stole their little piece of Heaven right out from under them. She drew in a ragged breath and struggled mightily with emotions nearly running rampant. Heartless! Egotistical bastard! And my fault! She sniffed, then shaking herself free of those thoughts, Aggie Conway made up her mind; she would take control. Take it from Acme Land Company. Take it from Buck Addison.
A letter from Buck’s attorney in San Francisco caught her attention. With trembling fingers, she picked up the document and read the words that exploded in her head. It was instructing Buck what needed to be done to take the Circle C out of her possession. Her stomach rolled, and she became dizzy.
She couldn’t read anymore. She didn’t want to know any more about the atrocities committed by the man she married. The man she fell head over heels in love with and brought home to her ranch. And into the valley that he raped and ransacked, raided, and plundered. She wanted to vomit.
“Johnny, how could I have been so blind?” Her voice cracked with the words. Then she took another breath. “Enough feeling sorry for myself, let’s get this done!”
Johnny Madrid grinned. He felt honored to be her friend; the woman had guts! Going through the papers tested her strength and resolve, and she was facing that trouble head-on.
Johnny read the receipts from the timber and mining companies, and the list of hired hands, thirty or more, besides the existing cowboys already working for Aggie. Buck was going to take what the land had to offer after he ran off the rightful owners. If Johnny was livid before, he was ready to blow up now.
“Oh, my God! J-Johnny, l-look at this! Buck paid for Pardee…” and she couldn’t finish; the words died in her throat, cut off as if gunned down by Pardee’s bullets.
Johnny took the paper from her trembling fingers and read, ‘Addison, you have to do better! Hiring your friend, Pardee, didn’t get the job done. I paid you good money to clear the valley. Now you DO IT! You’re the one that approached me with this deal, and you can’t seem to deliver. I’ll ruin you, and don’t think I won’t do it. You keep your end of the bargain and keep my name out of it! Now, do your job!
Flashes of that tumultuous time sparked through Johnny’s brain; one after another, incidents exploded in his mind, shreds of horrible dreams, torn and broken… wasted. Pictures of murdered, innocent ranchers hanging by their feet from the ridge beam of the barn, the woman, raped and slaughtered, lying in a pool of her own blood on the floor of her home, and a dozen other flashes of brutality lit the fuse of rage, and it burned out of control. Now, it was Johnny’s turn to take a breath.
Aggie watched the ice as it filled the blue eyes, and she shivered, knowing Johnny was reliving that time, knowing what it almost cost him, knowing that he came so close to dying and been denied his father and his family. And now it was she to support him, bring him back to the present and away from the crippling fear of almost losing his family before he knew he had one.
Wanting desperately to break his frame of mind, she whispered, “Johnny, we have to stop him.”
With a physical jerk, Johnny snapped back to the present, “Oh, we’ll stop him alright, and don’t doubt that for a second.” Then, after gaining his composure, he turned to Aggie and shoved aside the knowledge that Buck Addison was responsible for the raids by Pardee and his men. “How about we get some rest. I have a feelin’ both of us are gonna need whatever sleep we can get, cuz it ain’t gonna be long an’ we’re gonna have a fight on our hands.”
Johnny stayed next to Aggie as she slept. Blood loss sapped her energy, and she was out before Johnny got settled. He occupied the night running options through his head, but this would be Aggie’s call. However she wanted to handle things would be the way of it; he would help her in any way he could, but he wasn’t about to let that bastard Addison hurt her any more than he already had. He’d already broken her heart and now had physically hurt her. Any more hurt would be over Johnny Madrid’s dead body.
“I want to go home, Johnny. I want to handle this my way— on my terms, on my ranch. We’ll make him come to us.”
He admired her grit. Addison was a murderer, and he’d taken a shot at her with intentions of killing her. And now, Aggie was steeling herself to face him, but on her terms, and again, Johnny felt proud to know her.
“How ya wanna handle this Aggie? I’ll be with ya every step of the way, but I hafta tell ya up front, he ain’t gonna hurt you again. I’ll kill him before he even comes close.”
She smiled. “Thank you, Johnny, but it might not come to that. Personally, I think it would hurt him more to find himself in prison. There’s enough proof here that will put him away for a long, long time.”
The glass shattered, propelling a silvery spray into the flames, causing a sudden flare in the hearth until the alcohol burned away. I have to find her! I can’t let her get away! From now on, she’ll do what I say when I say! I can’t let her destroy all work I put into this! Edmonds won’t ruin me, not with the deal going through. He’ll see it was worth it after the money starts rolling in…
“Johnny, did you know that Henry and I bought the Circle C right after we were married?” Aggie tipped her head back against the rock behind her. Her sky-blue eyes fixed on the clouds as they floated gracefully, suspended in the weightless air and seeing again the memories that time would never fade.
“How long ago was that?” Johnny asked as he traced her line of vision.
“Twenty-five years ago, now. Murdoch had just brought your mother to Lancer. Oh, he was so happy! He couldn’t wait for you to be born!”
Johnny smiled, and though bittersweet in his mind, he knew the memories held a special place in her heart. Murdoch anxiously awaiting Johnny’s birth must have been something to witness. But the thought of the big Scotsman doting on a tiny baby did bring a smile to his lips. And then a thought hit him with her words.
“Hey, you musta been a child bride! Couldn’ta been any more’n what, seventeen or eighteen?” He looked into her face, and she grinned.
“That’s right, Johnny, I was eighteen.” Aggie sighed, then struggled to her feet, brushing off Johnny’s attempt to help. “Let’s get going. I want to get home as quick as we can.”
“Ya sure, ya get enough rest?” he asked, wanting her to take more care. He didn’t want to have to restitch anything that tore loose, nor did he look forward to picking her up off the road.
“Yes. I’m sure. Let’s go.”
It took two tries to get her settled behind Johnny, but Barranca was patient and stood still, sensing she was injured. Then with a gentle nudge, the golden horse started out, toward home— toward the Circle C and Lancer.
As they traveled, Aggie couldn’t help the bitterness that boiled within her. She felt like such a fool. How could she have fallen for Buck? She hadn’t felt that lonely; it had been many years since Henry died, and she thought she handled her single life quite well. But when she came home from that first week spent in San Francisco with Buck, she’d fallen in love with him. They dined and danced and had a wonderful time together, and it felt so good to share with a man on that intimate level. And she fell in love.
Oh, there was the talk with Murdoch where she asked him what to do, and thinking back, she could have sworn there was regret in his eyes or was it just reluctance on his part to help her make a decision? After all, it was something that only she could decide.
Aggie should have given her dear friend’s reluctance more consideration; she was confused before she married Buck, and now regret filled her and pushed aside the sweet tingles that, only days before, warmed her in a blanket of love. And now, loathing took its place.
Aggie knew, without a doubt, the papers she took from Buck’s desk were proof of the wrong he’d done, and the illegal dealings would land him in jail, least of all the wanted poster on Johnny Madrid. Those dealings included plans intending to take possession of the Circle C, and she would be damned before she would let herself be ruined, not by Buck Addison, not by anyone. And now, with Johnny’s help, she would see her way through. But they needed a plan.
It was late into the afternoon when Johnny spoke. “We’ll be back tomorrow or the next day, Aggie. I been thinkin’ on the way we should handle things. You sure ya wanna confront Buck at the Circle C?”
“Yes, he might think he owns it, but I want him to find out from me that he’s wrong. I want to see the look on his face when he realizes he’s not the important man he thought he was. And I want to watch him escorted from the house as the law takes him away.”
“I’m sorry, Aggie, I really am,” Johnny whispered.
“Why are you sorry?” What has Johnny got to be sorry for? It’s his name on the wanted poster!
Johnny shrugged. “Just wanted you ta be happy is all, an’, well, it ain’t turnin’ out that way. You deserve better.”
Aggie was close to breaking down. Why is it when I’m furious and emotional, and someone shows me support and kindness, all I want to do is cry? I’m stronger than that! At least, she wanted to be. But Johnny’s words impacted her like a kick from a wild mustang, and she had everything she could do not fall apart and sob out loud. She gathered the frayed notions with a mighty effort and made up her mind she was done playing the victim.
Agatha Conway cleared her throat. “Johnny, I think it’s time I take the bull by the horns. Finding out exactly the kind of man Buck is and what he is trying to do shocked me more than anything ever in my entire life, and right now, I can’t afford the luxury of wallowing in self-pity. This needs to be handled right. I’ll need witnesses, and I’ll need the law. If we can get Val and Murdoch to help, maybe I can get Buck to talk.”
Johnny didn’t like where the conversation was going, but he admired Aggie’s grit, in all honesty. And no matter what she said, Johnny was going to be there to keep her safe. So they began to plan.
“First thing is we’re gonna get you in ta see Sam.” He was prepared for the opposition, so when it came, he was ready for it.
“Johnny, I’m…” and her words were cut off by soft tones that would not be swayed.
“Gonna go see Sam. Ya got no choice in this one detail, Aggie. I can see fever startin’ an’ ya need Sam. Just listen ta me for a minute. I ain’t gonna watch you make yourself sick when we can all work tagether an’ make sure Buck doesn’t get away. Now, just hear me out,” and he hurried to explain when he saw the argument in her eyes begin to threaten.
Aggie sighed deeply, not wanting to concede the point. But Johnny Madrid didn’t live this long without considering every aspect of every situation. With another audible sigh, she spoke. “Alright, Johnny, tell me what you think.”
“We get inta Green River an’ see Sam. While you’re with him, I’ll get Val and come over to the Doc’s. When you’re ready, we hafta get ta Lancer an’ make sure Murdoch knows what’s goin’ on, cuz him an’ the Lancer hands gotta back us up. We’ll have someone standin’ by ta get Sam if we need him. Somethin’ tells me we will. Mosta this hasta be done at night. Don’t want anyone watchin’ Lancer an’ gettin’ word ta Buck. What’s his foreman’s name?”
“Kling. I know that Kling is pushing Tuck McKay out of his job or trying to. I suppose it’s a way of taking over of the ranch.” Saying the words sparked a flash of temper, and her eyes took on a fiery glare. “Damn him! Damn Buck Addison!” she spat through clenched teeth.
“I know these are just words right now, but we’ll get him an’ set things right. I wonder if the law in San Francisco has any interest in the Acme Land Company. It’ll be worth checkin’ out.”
Aggie suddenly remembered standing outside the suite at the other end of the hotel. “Johnny, Buck has a partner, a silent partner. I heard arguing coming from inside the room when I followed Buck at The Occidental. I heard his voice; I know it was him! I heard a man threaten him. He said ‘he would ruin Buck if Buck failed him this time’! I only saw him from the back; he’s a large, heavy man with white hair. Did he put Buck up to bringing Pardee into the valley? We need to be very careful, Johnny! I think we’re going to need more law than just Val and I have to contact my attorney in Sacramento!”
“He musta wrote that letter ta Buck about keepin’ his end of the bargain. We’ll get it done, but for now, first things first. I need ta check that bandage.”
She didn’t say a word. Aggie Conway knew enough about bullet wounds to know if not properly cared for, it would lead to serious trouble. She waited until Johnny found a suitable spot and couldn’t hold back a groan when he helped her down from Barranca’s back to stand on the ground. His hand remained on her arm, ready to assist should she falter, making sure she was stable and could walk independently before he let her go. He could feel her anxiousness as she fought for control, wanting to make it under her own power and not need assistance.
Satisfied she could manage, Johnny pulled the saddlebags into his hand and followed as she settled in the grass and forced herself to relax. Was it just yesterday that Buck pulled that trigger? Was it only four days ago that her world crumbled? Then her thoughts took a different approach to the question. No, it was six months ago her world crumbled— she just didn’t know it yet.
Carefully, Johnny began to peel away the layers of bandages but stopped after finding the wound now oozing the infection that he hoped not to see.
“I gotta get this bandage off, the wound is infected, an’ the bandage is stuck. That salve helped some, but not enough. Here, take the laudanum. It’s gonna hurt like the devil when I clean this out, an’ I don’t think you wanna go through that.” Johnny took the cork from the bottle, then handed it to her.
Aggie took the painkiller and, although apprehensively, she choked it down. Her eyes watered and screwed shut, and she fought the gag that threatened to propel the vile stuff out of her belly in the next second. Finally, she caught her breath, closed her eyes, and slid down to lie prone in the grass.
“Johnny, that tastes so bad; that should be enough to make you more careful about getting hurt!”
He gave her a chuckle. “Yeah, there’s that, but sometimes, it can’t be helped.” Johnny watched as the medicine took effect, and she began to relax. His words came soft and soothing as he worked the bandage free and tried to forget that the expanse of naked skin before him was a woman that he respected and a friend of the family.
The process was slow, but soon the crusted bandage was pliable enough to remove, and Johnny inspected the angry-looking wound. The stitches held tight, but he didn’t like the puffy redness surrounding the gash. He gathered the needle, thread, salve, and knife, then began the process of draining the injury.
The first thing was to cut a stitch and hope that one would get the job done. Johnny hated to put her through any more restitching than necessary. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, as he could well attest. The razor edge on the knife dispatched the thread easily, and the pus began to erupt in an odious, ugly flow. He gently pressed along the wound, expelling the poison from her body. The skin was hot to the touch, and he knew she deserved better help than he could offer, but he did what he could.
OK, Madrid, keep talkin’, make it as easy for her as ya can…
“Did I ever tell ya about the time Val got himself shot thinkin’ he was rescuin’ a girl that was drownin’ in a river? Well, turns out she was in the water thrashin’ around, an’ Val jumped in ta save her, but she wasn’t drownin’. She fought against him, an’, boy, did he wrestle with her, tryin’ ta keep her safe! Ha, turns out, she was throwin’ a temper tantrum about somethin’, an’ her husband was standin’ off ta the side where Val couldn’t see. All the man saw was Val goin’ after his wife lookin’ like he was attackin’ her, an’ he shot him. Ha! Ya shoulda seen Val’s face! He’s savin’ a drownin’ woman, or so he thought, an’ he gets shot! Well, I had ta haul his as… carcass outta the water, so he didn’t drown an’ then take the bullet outta his arm an’ stitch him up. Boy, oh boy! Ya shoulda heard him carryin’ on! It was like I was skinnin’ him alive with alla his whinin’. Next time ya see him, ask him about it. I’m sure he’d be happy ta tell ya.”
Johnny washed the area as best he could. Of all the times to be without tequila… But, he carried a small bar of soap, and where it would sting, it would also help clean the wound. He reset the stitch and applied the salve, more of it this time, and bandaged her tightly, all the while averting his eyes out of respect as much as he could. Finally, he pulled her clothes into place, and he let her rest.
He waited an hour, then he roused her from the brief respite and helped her onto Barranca.
“How ya doin’, Aggie? Think ya can stay there an’ not fall off?” With a bit of a tease in his question, he wanted to get her talking and assess her condition. Aggie had never been one to let Johnny get a smart remark over on her, and apparently, she wasn’t going to let it happen now, either.
“The day I fall off a horse is the day you go crying to your father because Aggie Conway outsmarted you!”
That’s the Aggie I wanna hear! And Johnny couldn’t help but smile.
“Atta girl! We’re headin’ out now. Maybe sometime tomorrow afternoon, we’ll get back ta Green River, an’ we can finish what ol’ Buck started. Think ya can make it?”
Thinking again of the horrific deeds committed at the hands of Buck Addison, Aggie gritted her teeth. “I’ll make it, Johnny, and Buck will pay. Those papers stuffed in your saddlebag are the beginning of the end for the Acme Land Company.”
Johnny nudged Barranca with a gentle heel, making it easy on the horse and the woman riding double on his back.
Buck knew he couldn’t say much in the wire. Billy, the telegraph operator in Green River, was loyal to those that resided there, and Aggie was no different. Buck had to know where she was and what she was doing. In the company of Johnny Madrid, the outcome wouldn’t be in his favor. He had to find her, and at that moment, he wondered if any of the bullets, fired in panic, had found their mark. Regardless, he had to find out exactly how much she knew, if she was still alive, and until he knew for sure, he had to assume she was alive… and talking. And he had to make it fast.
Buck hoped it wasn’t too late but knew the message would have to wait until morning. The telegraph office was closed, after hours now. He wasted a day looking for Aggie and Madrid in San Francisco with no luck. Then, the thought struck him in a physical blow to the belly. The Circle C. She went home. But there was something he had to do before he followed his wife to the ranch. He had to see his attorney. There was a job the man had to complete before any more time slipped away.
“Murdoch, have you heard anything from Johnny yet?” Scott’s anxiety over his missing brother mounted by the minute. And Scott could see it build in Murdoch as well.
“No, son, nothing. I would have thought Val might know something, but he said your brother didn’t say anything to him about leaving. Scott, sometimes I want to take that boy over my knee, and…” the angry huff finished off the statement that words didn’t.
Scott almost chuckled and used the conversation as a diversion, taking his mind off the aching arm in the sling. “I wouldn’t advise it. Somehow I don’t think Madrid would allow that to happen.” He settled back on the couch, thankful to be back home and out of Sam’s care. Two days was long enough. “He’ll be back, Murdoch. I know he will.”
“I know he’ll be back; I just hope he’s in one piece. If Buck Addison put out that reward on him, it’s almost sure there will be more attempts. This waiting is unbearable!”
Now, Scott did chuckle. “Murdoch, waiting and hoping your son is alright is part of fatherhood. You’ve done a pretty good job of it once you learned we’re not children. But I know it’s not easy where Madrid is concerned. He’ll get here; Madrid will get him home.”
Johnny hoped she could make it just a little farther. They were on Lancer now, and he didn’t think Aggie could make it to Green River. She leaned against his back and hadn’t responded to any of his inquiries for the last hour. Lancer was the closest help they could count on to see she was safe. They made it this far, and that was good enough.
An hour later saw Johnny reining Barranca down the slope to the back of the hacienda. Keeping to the shadows, not wanting to attract unwanted attention, they made it to the back door. Aggie was limp, not responding to Johnny when he talked. He steadied her as he dismounted, then guided her descent into his arms and quietly slipped into the kitchen.
“Yes, Scott, I’ll tell you, acting as a father to two grown men was a challenge at first. It was very different than the kind of help that a child would have required…”
“Well, I don’t know about helpin’ a kid, but I could use some help right now,” Johnny said as he nodded to the woman lying unconscious in his arms.
Startled by the presence of the son that of moments ago was not there, Murdoch jumped to his feet, shocked at the sight before him. “Johnny! What happened? Aggie, is she alright?” The questions fired rapidly, and none were answered.
“Send someone for Doc an’ Val, but tell ’em ta be careful. Addison might have his men watchin’ Lancer.” Johnny then turned to a guest room on the first floor and carefully laid Aggie on the bed.
“I’ll send Cipriano to town. He’ll make it quick and knows to be quiet.”
“Hey, Scott, tell him ta go around the back way; Addison could be watchin’ the road in an’ outta here, alright?”
Scott nodded, then left out the back to the small house where the Segundo lived.
In the guest room, Murdoch sat by Aggie’s side. He poured water into the basin and gently washed her face, noting the flush of fever on her cheeks. “Johnny, what happened to her?” Murdoch’s worry escalated as he waited for Johnny’s answer.
“Addison shot her. It’s just a graze, but it’s a nasty one. She lost a lotta blood, and ridin’ a horse all the way from San Francisco didn’t help.”
“Shot? Why would Buck shoot her?” Murdoch felt the fury boiling through him. Aggie. Shot. By Addison!
“She found proof of some of the things he was responsible for.Murdoch, Buck hired Pardee an’ his gang… An’ he was the one who took out the wanted posters on me, and there was more money for the shooter if they took out Scott, too. Addison is after Lancer again. Guess he figured if both Scott an’ I were gone, that you wouldn’t wanna stay, that you’d give up. I got papers Aggie took outta his desk in my saddlebags, I’ll get ‘em for ya. Where’s T’resa? She might be able to help with Aggie.”
“She’s in her room, Johnny,” Murdoch spoke softly, not wanting to disturb the woman on the bed, the woman that was so very special to him.
Johnny took the stairs three at a time and hurried down the hall. He stopped at the closed door and knocked, then waited for her answer.
“Yes? What is it?” The sleepy voice called out.
“T’resa, it’s Johnny; we need your help. The guest room downstairs, quick.” Then, he was gone.
“Johnny! I’ll be right there!” Teresa O’Brien called out with worry in her voice. Throwing the blankets to the side, she lit the lamp, slipped on her robe, and tucked her feet into slippers. In seconds she was at Murdoch’s side assisting in the care of Aggie Conway.
Johnny took the bundle of papers from his saddlebag as Jelly took Barranca into the barn, muttering all the way across the yard about watchin’ for varmints crawlin’ around in the dark.
Quietly, Johnny entered the house and checked the guest room, knowing Aggie was in good hands while waiting for Sam. “How’s she doin’?” he whispered.
Teresa looked up with a smile. “I think she’ll be alright, Johnny, but Sam will tell us more. She’s exhausted. I can sit with her while you two wait for Sam. I’ll make some coffee while you wait. I’ll be right back!” Teresa made her way from the room.
Murdoch stood feeling numb with shock at the thought of Buck Addison taking a shot at his wife. At Aggie…
Teresa returned. “The coffee will be ready in a few minutes.” Then she took a place beside the bed that held their friend and neighbor.
“C’mon, Murdoch. Don’t know about you, but I sure could use a drink,” Johnny sighed and walked out the door with Murdoch following.
Teresa did what she could for Aggie, tucking the warm blanket around her patient, then she turned the lamp down, leaving just a soft glow to wash over the room.
Scott returned, then the Lancer men gathered in the great room. With their drink of choice, Murdoch and Scott studied several papers from the bundle Aggie took from Buck’s desk. Buck Addison’s reach to gain control of the San Joaquin Valley went above, and beyond anything Murdoch ever imagined. As far as Murdoch could tell, Addison was well on his way to complete and total dominance, and much of it not by any legal means. Murdoch would wire Governor Steve Bronson in the morning, informing him of the takeover. Although certain purchases of property were legal, others were not. Some methods used for those purchases were questionable, while others were out-and-out robbery.
Murdoch picked up the wanted poster on Madrid, his son, and couldn’t stop the tremble that coursed through him. He closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath.
Scott read paper after paper, awed by Addison’s blatant and bold moves. Perhaps Addison wasn’t quite in league with the likes of the bloodthirsty Genghis Khan, he was well on his way for that brazen, tyrannical journey to be completed.
“How did he think he could pull this off? This is insane!” Murdoch wanted to explode.
“He got this far, Murdoch. With just a little luck, he coulda finished what he started. But, he made a big mistake. He married Aggie.” Johnny’s mouth turned up at the corner. “Yup, big mistake. His greed took him one step too far.”
Scott held a document in his hand but gave up reading to listen to his father and brother.
“He had to know she would fight him against this! He wouldn’t win her over— she has as much to lose as anyone involved! He could never hope to control her to that degree!”
Johnny dropped his head and sighed. “Well, Buck was sure gonna try… look at this, Murdoch,” Johnny handed the Lancer Patriarch the instructions for using the drug from the doctor in San Francisco.
Murdoch turned white, his eyes widened, his belly rolled over several times, and rage surged through his veins.
“A baby. He would try and control her, thinking that if she had his baby, she would abide by his rules, and he would use that child as a tool to manipulate her!”
Johnny huffed. “Never did think that Addison was as smart as he thought he was.”
Johnny’s tiny grin twitched to life, and Murdoch’s rage sparked. It started as the shock grew; Murdoch’s eyes gleaned the outrageous deeds with every flip of the page. And Murdoch seethed.
“I fail to see the humor in this situation, Johnny! This despicable attempt by Addison to force Aggie to submit to his will is horrific!”
Madrid let the ol’ man burn himself out, then he spoke, his cool manner and quiet, deadly tones enshrouded Murdoch, trapped him in the net meant to ensnare, to hold him captive, and to listen.
Scott watched, ready to assume the role of mediator and pounce to eliminate the battle inching forward to explode.
Icy eyes held Murdoch with an iron grip and would not let him loose. “No, ol’ man, it ain’t nothin’ ta laugh about. All I’m sayin’ is that Buck ain’t as smart as he thinks he is. What he was tryin’ ta do to Aggie’ll get him one thing from me— a bullet between the eyes that’ll send ‘im on a one-way trip ta Hell. But, ta get ta the bottom of the rot he’s bringin’ into the Valley, we hafta fight this a different way. That’s where I come in. That’s where you’re gonna hafta trust Madrid, an’ if ya can’t come ta terms with that, just ask Val about it. I’m goin’ upstairs. Gotta get ready.”
Murdoch watched as Johnny left the room. I’ve done it again… he thought, knowing that he jumped the gun. He let his personal thoughts and feelings rule not only his heart but his head, hurting his son in the process.
“You know he’s right, don’t you, Murdoch?” Scott’s voice came soft but firm, reinforcing his stand with his brother.
“Yes, son, I know. I guess I’m just upset about Aggie. I handled Johnny wrong… again. Because she was hurt, I’m not thinking clearly…” Murdoch let the statement fade out.
“But, Johnny is thinking clearly. Trust him on this. He knows how to handle the situation.” Scott offered his father a sympathetic smile.
They talked over options and speculated what Johnny had in mind to do until a movement at the door caught Murdoch’s attention as Cipriano, Val, and Sam Jenkins arrived just as quietly as Johnny had when he brought Aggie to Lancer.
“Sam! She’s in here; Val, I’ll be right back.” Murdoch led Sam into the guest room to tend Aggie- Aggie Conway. Not Aggie Addison…
Murdoch stood at the foot of the bed as if mesmerized, watching as Sam and Teresa tended their patient, then realized that Sam was facing him, was speaking to him. “Murdoch! You are going to have to leave while we tend her.”
Sam took Murdoch’s arm and pointed him to the door.
“Yes, yes, of course, Sam,” he stammered, then took his leave, feeling useless.
Murdoch went directly to the sideboard and poured himself a drink, then remembered Val was in the room, poured a drink for him and Scott as well.
“Tell me what happened, Mr. Lancer. Where’s Johnny?”
Tossing back the drink, Murdoch poured another before he answered. “Johnny’s upstairs, ‘getting ready’. He’ll be down shortly.”
Val knew the meaning of ‘getting ready’ There was going to be trouble.
“Aggie found proof of Buck’s illegal business dealings. Val, Addison not only put out wanted posters for Madrid, he’s the one that brought Pardee into the valley. On the desk, you’ll find receipts and contracts for some of his shady dealings.”
Val went to the desk and sat in the comfortable leather chair, then noticed a drink untouched, sitting amongst the papers. “You turnin’ inta a two-fister drinker, Mr. Lancer?”
Murdoch huffed over the forgotten glass.
Val looked over the evidence he assumed Aggie had taken from her husband’s possession without his knowledge. Five minutes into the chore, he heard the familiar jingle of spurs coming down the stairs. Without looking up, Val snorted.
“’Bout time ya got in here. Tell me what happened, amigo.”
Johnny entered the room, tossed several boxes of ammunition and a few other items onto the coffee table, then headed to the sideboard. He stopped and directed his question to Val. “Doc here?”
Val nodded, then settled back to wait for Johnny’s narrative.
Johnny nodded once, then took his drink to the massive desk, sat on the corner, and told the sheriff what he knew.
“We made it outta the alley an’ into the hills before I knew somethin’ was wrong with her. She’s takin’ it hard findin’ out what Addison’s done. We started goin’ through the papers she took; it’s all there, Val. An’ there’s somethin’ else. Addison’s got a partner— someone with enough power to ruin him. Aggie heard an’ argument, Buck and another man, an’ he said Buck failed in his attempt ta have Pardee take over the valley an’ he’d better not fail again, cuz he’d ruin Buck this time.”
Johnny gave Val time to examine the documents then settled on the couch to wait. Waiting was always the hardest part when someone was ailing. And Johnny had grown close to Aggie these last several days. He’d always liked her; their light-hearted banter developed into a normal and expected thing when they were together. But now, it was more than simple humor and laughing. They’d been through a traumatic experience where an injury was involved. Now, it was more than a casual relationship. It was personal.
Forty-five minutes later, Sam stepped into the room, and all four men stood and waited for his report.
Now it was Sam that headed for the sideboard and helped himself to Murdoch’s finest Scotch. Taking a sip, he glanced at the anxious faces around the room.
“She’s going to be just fine. A little rest, and she’ll be ordering all of us around.” He couldn’t help but smile at the relief on their faces. “Who stitched her up?” he asked as his eyes turned to Johnny.
He didn’t want to tell them, but they all waited, watching him and wanting to know. Sam expected an answer, but not the answer offered in the quiet of the great room.
“I did.” Johnny wished the doctor hadn’t asked that question in the company of the three other men, but he did. It was to have been his and Aggie’s secret.
Sam’s eyes grew soft, offering not only approval but the empathy in his expression spelled out his support, the understanding of what it had taken for Johnny to do what was necessary.
“You did a good job, Johnny, with the stitching and controlling the infection. She’ll be just fine!” Sam responded.
Johnny couldn’t do anything but blow out the breath he was holding. “Thanks, Sam,” he murmured. Then, he thought of the drug Buck was going to use if he hadn’t already.
“Hey, Sam? Could ya look at this?” Johnny handed the doctor the instructions for the drug, then let Sam study the paper at the dining room table while he turned the conversation to Val.
“Val, I don’t know if Addison’s figured out where Aggie is yet; no one followed us here, but that don’t mean that he didn’t wire whoever he left in charge at the Circle C with a warning. Maybe ta watch for Aggie ta try an’ keep her there till Buck got there himself. We need ta find out what’s goin’ on, then go from there.”
Val considered everything Johnny said, then took a minute before he spoke. He turned to Murdoch with one simple question and knowing what the answer would be. “Mr. Lancer, can I count on your help with this?”
“Sheriff, I’ll do whatever I can, and that includes wiring the Governor. As soon as the office opens in the morning, I’ll be in there to get that done,” Murdoch spoke with conviction.
“Ah, Murdoch, before ya go, talk with Aggie. She said somethin’ about having ta send a wire ta her lawyer on Sacramento. Maybe you can get that done, too.”
“Yes, thank you, son. I’ll see to it as soon as she wakes. Oh, Johnny, I, ah…” Murdoch hoped the harsh words spoken earlier could be forgotten.
Johnny saw the regret on his father’s face, then he smiled. “Forget it, ol’ man,” and he laid his hand on Murdoch’s shoulder in reconciliation. Johnny then saw Sam push away from the table and went to the doctor’s side.
“Sam,” he began quietly.
Sam was livid, but he kept his emotions under control. “I’ll take care of it, Johnny. Judging from the dates on the receipt, I don’t think it will be an issue, but thank you for letting me know.” The words were quiet and discreet; no one heard the exchange, then Sam walked in the direction of the guest room.
Johnny returned to his place on the corner of the desk. “Ya come up with a plan, Val?” The blue eyes searched the sheriff’s face, waiting for the next step that would lead Buck Addison into a trap.
Val leaned back into the comfortable chair, eyes squinted and fingers steepled in front of him. “We hafta assume he’s already wired his foreman. No way would Tuck get the message. So the men he’s got at the Circle C know something. We need ta get Tuck an’ the rest of Miz Conway’s men in on our plans cuz we’re gonna need all the help we can get. We might stand a chance with the men here and the Circle C boys if we can surprise Buck’s crew.”
“Murdoch’s goin’ inta town tamorrow ta wire Bronson an’ Aggie wanted ta send one ta her lawyer. Think we could convince Billy ta let us know if somethin’ from Addison came in?”
The brightness in Johnny’s eyes set Val to chuckle. “Oh, I’m sure that Billy’ll be more’n willin’ ta help out. OK, amigo, we need ta finalize a few things here. If we kin keep Addison’s men from actin’ on his orders, ol’ Buck won’t be able ta do much by hisself. Got any ideas in that connivin’ head o’ yours?”
Johnny let the off-handed compliment roll off his shoulders. Turning to face Val full-on, he spoke as the grin worked its way across the handsome face. “As a matter of fact, I do!” he laughed. “I think we need ta leave someone at the telegraph office, out of sight, cuz Addison’s gonna have that place watched, an’ when Murdoch leaves after sendin’ those wires, that someone just might try an’ force Billy ta tell them what Murdoch was doin’ there. What’d ya think, Boston? Ya up for a little security job?”
Scott grinned back, then nodded his head. “You tell me when and where, brother, and I will execute the task to the best of my abilities and do my civic duty.”
Johnny stared at his brother. “Ya couldn’t just say ‘Yeah, I can handle that’?” Pushing the nonsense aside, Johnny continued. “We need ta get inside the house without bein’ seen. When Buck gets back there, the first thing he’s gonna wanna do is get ta Aggie.” He turned to Val. “With you there, stayin’ outta sight, you can act as a witness, seein’ as you’re the law, an’ all. Don’t think any court would take the word of Johnny Madrid, do you?” He finished with a smirk.
“Well, the court ought to!” Murdoch growled, taking Johnny by surprise.
He turned to face his father with a look of appreciation in his eyes.
The warm smile he awarded Murdoch was a memory the Patriarch would never forget, and he knew at that moment all was well between him and his tempestuous son.
Then Johnny continued. “We’ll need ta get Kling outta there. Maybe a little diversion at one of the worksites, an’ he’ll hafta ta get things under control. If Aggie’s there ta…”
“No! I won’t let Aggie be put into any more danger! She’s already injured!” Murdoch vehemently objected.
Johnny tilted his head to the side, then snorted. “Well, I sure don’t wanna be the one ta tell her no, she can’t go. She’s mad, Murdoch, an’ she’s filled with regret that she brought the bastard here. You can’t deny her the chance to redeem herself.”
“She doesn’t need to redeem anything!”
“Yeah, she does; in her eyes, she does. She’s blamin’ herself an’ is takin’ all the fault, even though it ain’t her responsibility, but she thinks it is. Let her have this, Murdoch. Her self-respect is at stake here. Besides, we’re gonna be there. At no time will she be alone. Hell, ol’ man, come with us an’ make sure she stays safe.”
The conversation was over. Their plans were made, every detail was considered, and everyone had their job to do. The battle for Aggie Conway and the San Joaquin was about to begin.
The light filtered in through the open window bringing with it the cool of early morning. Aggie Conway opened her eyes and blinked. Where was she? Then she jolted when she heard the soft words.
“It’s alright, Aggie, you’re safe.”
That voice! She was safe! Never before had that voice meant so much. She tried to sit up but felt pain in her side. “Ahh, Murdoch! What am I doing here? How did I get here?” And it all came crashing down around her. She rallied her scattering thoughts and pulled herself together. She had to end this nightmare and quickly.
“Murdoch, Buck, he did awful…”
But Murdoch didn’t let her finish. No sense in letting her try and take any more responsibility.
“How do you feel, Aggie? Could you eat something? You need your strength, young lady!” he said with a smile.
“Murdoch! There’s no time for food!” she argued.
“Oh, yes, there is, and you need to eat, Aggie,” Murdoch persisted.
“Murdoch, Buck’s up to…”
“I know, but it will be over very soon. Johnny brought you in last night. He said you wanted to send a wire to your attorney. I’m going into town shortly to send a wire to Governor Bronson. I’ll send yours for you when I’m there. Just write out what you want to say, and I’ll see it done. I’m going to get Sam— don’t you dare move!”
Although still very tired, Aggie did feel better after the light breakfast brought to her by Maria. The Lancer cook took her job seriously, tending for all that was Lancer and close to Lancer. Aggie often enjoyed a cup of café with the personable Señora, sharing thoughts and ideas and discussing the stubborn Lancer men.
Under Maria’s care, Aggie would be up and around in a day or two, and she had to hide the smirk, knowing it would be sooner rather than later. There was much she had to do. She picked up the paper and began to compose the wire Murdoch would send to her attorney, John Daniel Taylor, JD for short, alerting him there would be a move on the part of her recently estranged husband to take over her assets, mainly the Circle C, and to be aware that all was not well. Aggie would be in contact very soon.
It would be all she could do for the moment.
As Agatha Conway wiped the sleep from her eyes, Buck Addison was getting ready to leave for an urgent meeting with his attorney. Arthur Zimmerman would send a message informing Mr. John D. Taylor of the unfortunate illness that had befallen Mrs. Addison. Her husband, Buck Addison, would be taking over her affairs. Zimmerman would schedule an urgent meeting today to draw up the necessary documents.
Arthur Zimmerman was not the least bit amused at the early summons to his office. And though Buck Addison was an influential businessman in San Francisco, the assumptions and demands on Addison’s part were becoming a nuisance. But the fact that Acme Land Company backed him in a land deal that wasn’t quite on the up and up sealed Zimmerman’s loyalty, and Buck abused that dedication at every opportunity that arose. But as of late, that loyalty was showing signs of weakness, waning away. As Addison’s demands became bolder and unpredictable, the risk of discovery and certain conviction would be inevitable. Arthur Zimmerman had much to lose if that were to happen.
The office seemed a bit stuffy as the attorney listened to the order informing him of the task Buck expected him to pull together. “It’s quite simple, Arthur. I want to make sure I’ve got control over Aggie’s estate. And I expect you to take care of things for me. After all, I do pay you handsomely, and… you owe me. You’ve helped me with, ahem, questionable issues in the past; here is one more.” Addison pierced the attorney with a hard stare. “Make it happen, Arthur.”
Addison’s next stop was the telegraph office to send Kling the warning to watch for Aggie.
The ride into Green River went unnoticed. Murdoch Lancer’s mind spun in every direction, then turned upsidedown and backward. He was filled with what-ifs, hows, and whys. But he vowed to himself, and Aggie Conway, he would do whatever it took to help her through the nightmare.
The wire he would send to Governor Bronson was brief, saying only that proof of another run for the San Joaquin was discovered, help was desperately needed, and to prepare for trouble.
Scott discreetly glanced in Murdoch’s direction, noting the deep lines etched around the eyes. Murdoch was deep in thought, contemplating how he was going to handle the situation. Scott told his father to wait, to see if the plan conjured up by Val and Johnny would pan out. It was a good plan, after all. From the little Johnny divulged of his past working the range wars, it was Johnny’s area of expertise; he and Val had the experience to see this thing through, hopefully to the right outcome. Buck Addison could not win this battle. If he did, he’d win the war.
Scott knew if they all worked together, Addison would have one hell of a time gaining control over the valley. Silent partner be damned.
Green River was quiet. It was amazing that none knew of the impending fight, the fight that could change all of their lives. But the townsfolk went about their business just as if it were another ordinary day.
Widow Hargis swept the boardwalk in front of her store and waved as Murdoch and Scott rode down the street and tied their horses in front of the sheriff’s office. They dismounted and stepped onto the boardwalk, then took a surreptitious look around. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, father and son entered the office and closed the door.
Val stood from behind his battered desk, shook their hands, then reached into the desk drawer, withdrew a deputy star, and tossed it to Scott.
“Say ‘I do’ an’ consider yerself deputized.”
“I do.” Scott shrugged. “Informal, but effective.”
“Don’t need nothin’ fancy, just legal. Johnny’s gone?” Val asked, looking from one man to the other.
“Yes, he left before sunup,” Murdoch responded, not liking the idea of his younger son on his own during this part of the plan. Worry shrouded his face.
“Look, Mr. Lancer, Johnny knows what he’s doin’— done it plenty a times in the past. He’ll be fine. Hey, he got paid a lotta money doin’ this kinda thing. He’s gonna be fine!” How would he convince the Lancer patriarch not to fret?
Murdoch huffed. “I’m going to send the wires. Scott, do you need time to get into the back of the telegraph office?”
“Give me five minutes, then head on over. I’ll be ready.” Scott left quietly by the back door and was gone.
“Val, what do you think? Can we stop this? Can we stop Buck Addison before he destroys everything we’ve all worked for?”
A wicked grin crawled across Val’s face. “Johnny an’ me, we done it before. I think we kin do ‘er again, but nothin’s fer sure.” Though soft, the words were hopeful.
But if they alleviated Murdoch’s anxiety, he didn’t let it show.
Johnny Madrid hunkered down out of sight. Behind the cover of rocks and brush, he pulled the buckskin jacket around him, effectively covering the faded red shirt. Boy, that would be somethin’- getting shot cuz someone saw my- what’d Scott call it? Salmon, that’s it— gettin’ shot just cuz someone sees my salmon colored shirt…
Extending the spyglass, Johnny scanned around the house of the Circle C Ranch. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary until he aimed the scope at the front door. Four men lounged in the comfortable chairs on the porch he had occupied many times when visiting Aggie. The Circle C did not look like the working ranch of just a few weeks ago.
The front door opened, and Kling made his way out, then stopped to talk with the men lazing about. Arm gestures told of orders given, the men nodded, then left the porch. Johnny watched as Kling turned back into the house.
In the next few hours, moving to other locations, Johnny scouted around, gathering what information he could. He’d watched the ranch and followed the four men that left after Kling directed them away to arrive at a construction site at the bank of a river. Bastard’s puttin’ in a dam. Johnny wondered what else the tyrant would try and accomplish. If the dam were built, it would mean the end for Lancer and most of the valley. Then he returned home.
Murdoch Lancer, with Sheriff Crawford alongside, made their way into the telegraph office. Operator Billy was jotting down a note on a piece of paper as the telegraph key chattered an incoming wire, and he turned when the door opened.
“Sheriff Crawford, Mr. Lancer, what can I do for you?” he asked with a huge smile barely seen under the shaggy mustache.
“I have a telegram that Aggie Con… Addison wants to send. She’s a bit under the weather today, and she asked if I would do it for her.” Murdoch slid the note across the counter, Billy took it over to the keypad and tapped out the message.
Then Murdoch wrote the warning to Governor Bronson and handed it to Billy. Silence fell over the office as Billy looked up and pierced Val and Murdoch with a troubled stare.
“What’s going on, Sheriff, Mr. Lancer? I just got a message that come in as you two were walkin’ in here from Mr. Addison! Is there gonna be trouble?” He knew he wasn’t to be asking about telegrams people chose to send or those coming in, but this wire to the Governor sent waves of apprehension through his body and spelled out a potential threat. He remembered all too well the horrors caused by Pardee and his gang, and if it were to happen again, he wanted to be ready… as much as he could.
Val stepped to the counter and rested his elbows on the top as he held Billy with a piercing glare. “Ya got that message, Billy, an’ I need ta see it.”
“Val, it’s against regulations; I can get in a lot of trouble if I let folks read everything that comes in!” Billy was clearly stressed.
“An’ yer gonna be in a whole heap a trouble if ya don’t let me see it. Don’t worry, Billy, it’s official business. But I hafta tell ya that yer sworn ta secrecy. No one, an’ I mean no one is ta know about any a these telegrams. Far as yer concerned this one,” a Val pointed to the telegram from Addison, “never came in, an’ those two,” indicating the two Murdoch wanted to send, “never went out. No one’s ta know, Billy. Do I got yer word on that?”
Murdoch had to admit that Val Crawford’s glare almost equaled Johnny Madrid’s… almost.
“Sure, Sheriff, sure. Nothin’s come in or went out this mornin’, except for this!” Billy repeated as he slid the missive for Kling across the counter.
Val’s fingers closed around it, then a friendly smile crawled over his scruffy face. Tapping his finger to the battered old hat in a goodbye gesture, Murdoch followed the sheriff out the door, each hoping that Scott was settled in the backroom watching for one of Addison’s men wanting to know what the Sheriff and Murdoch Lancer were doing in the telegraph office.
The door to the sheriff’s office was barely closed as Murdoch and Val each took a window on either side of the door, watching for a stranger to enter, but no one was there.
“Well, guess we hafta wait,” Val said as he went to his desk. He pulled out the chair, and Murdoch listened to the rebelling squeak ground out as it took the sheriff’s weight.
“Val, I think you’d better have Charlie Wingate take a look at that chair before you have to pick yourself up off the floor,” Murdoch said absently, his back turned as he continued to watch across the street. Then he heard Val sigh.
“Look at this, Mr. Lancer,” and the sheriff held out Addison’s message.
Secure the C-STOP- Guard A- STOP- Returning tomorrow-STOP
“He’s expectin’ somethin’ ta happen at the Circle C and wants Aggie out of the way. That the way you see it, Mr. Lancer?”
“That’s exactly how I read it, Sheriff. And we’ll be ready for him,” Murdoch whispered.
Scott heard the door close as Murdoch and Val left the office. Tucking himself out of sight, he bided his time for an unwelcome customer. And it wasn’t a long wait. But it was the back door that squeaked open, and someone slinked in from the alley, not wanting to be seen or heard.
He leaned to the side as far as he could to keep out of the man’s sight, and Scott waited for him to check the outer room, making sure he was alone with Billy, then he let his presence known.
“Ya got any massages for Mr. Kling at the Circle C Ranch?” The deep voice grated in the quiet of the office.
Billy jumped, not hearing the entrance and not appreciating the use of the back door. “The back door is not for public use…”
“I ain’t gonna repeat the question, just gimme whatcha got for the Circle C,” the man growled.
Billy did his best not to shake in his boots. This man didn’t look like the type for idle chat nor interested in anything except the wire from Addison.
Standing erect, Billy didn’t back down but couldn’t control the shiver that skittered down his spine. “There’s nothing here for the Circle C.”
The man’s black stare drilled through Billy like the auger in old Wingate’s toolbox. But he recalled the apprehensions of Val and Murdoch Lancer, knowing something was about to happen, and Billy would do his best to see their orders carried out. No one would know of the incoming or outgoing wires of the morning. No one.
And to Billy’s credit, he held his ground. He remained silent; digging deep, he pulled his strength to the forefront.
And the man advanced, coming around the counter and back into the private area not meant for the public.
“This is against regulations that you are back here! You need to leave!” Billy raised his voice, but it did no good.
The man grabbed fists full of the agent’s shirt and yanked him close, nose to nose, so close that Billy could see there was no distinguishable difference between the pupils and iris color in the man’s eyes. It was a solid black void. Cold and deadly.
“What come in for the Circle C, or about the Circle C? You tell me what I wanna know, or you’re gonna wish ya never woke up this mornin’!” He gave Billy a violent shake. “Now tell…”
The snick of the trigger pulled back was loud in his ear.
“I suggest that you let the man go. You’re under arrest for harassing a civil agent in the line of duty. Put your arms up and try not to do anything stupid,” Scott issued the order as he slipped the aggressor’s pistol from the holster.
Billy sagged in relief, not having been aware of Scott’s presence.
The man tensed, then opened his fingers, leaving Billy to fall backward.
And Deputy Scott Lancer smiled.
“Arrested? I didn’t do nothin’ wrong!” the man objected.
“Oh, but you did. Now get going. I’m taking you to jail.” The muzzle of Scott’s Colt, still buried behind the man’s left ear, was enough to make him think twice about trying to get away. Under Deputy Lancer’s guiding hand, they walked to the door, across the street, and into the Sheriff’s office, where a nice comfortable cell was waiting.
What am I doing just sitting here when my world is falling apart? Her mind spun out of control, thinking of the ugly, violent disaster she brought to the once peaceful corner of her world. In one single self-centered move, she had sealed the fate of everyone in this whole valley; people that were her dearest friends and friends that were closer than family.Friends that were her family. The Lancers. Scott had already suffered an injury, and Aggie wouldn’t be surprised that before it was over, there would be others. Because of her. She brought Buck Addison here. Now, what was she going to do about it?
Aggie Conway took a deep breath, well, as deep as the stitches and bandages would allow. She made up her mind. She would see this through if it was the last thing she ever did in this life. She was going to stop Buck Addison, and she was going to do it soon. The next time she saw his face, she hoped it was going to be behind bars. But until then, she needed to see Sheriff Crawford. It was important, and Aggie would have a private chat with Val when he next came out to Lancer.
And she didn’t have long to wait. Thirty-seven minutes later, the front door opened as Murdoch, and Val entered the cool of the hacienda. She met them in the great room as they sat around Murdoch’s massive desk.
“Aggie! Are you sure you should be up? How are you feeling?” Murdoch’s hastily fired questions triggered a flare of temper, but she quickly gathered it under control. He was worried and concerned, but she was edgy and felt like she’d been walking on a razor. She didn’t have time for pleasantries, but she curbed the bite in her words.
“I’m fine, Murdoch, and thank you. What’s happening? Has there been any word from Buck?”
“Well, Miz Conway, by law, I ain’t ‘spposta tell ya anything. Interceptin’ a telegram’s a fed’ral offense, an’, yeah, he tried ta get word through ta his foreman. But we didn’t let it get that far. We have a man in custody, too. Tried ta force Billy ta tell him what wires came in. But, ol’ Scott took care of it an’ arrested him. He’s sittin’ in jail right now.”
“Val, I want you to take the papers I took from Buck’s desk. And, yes, I stole them, but it’s proof of the things he’s been trying to do in the Valley. One big piece of information that I don’t have is who Buck’s partner is. He’s a man of much power, I know. He can ruin Buck and threatened to do it. I’ll testify to that. I heard it with my own two ears, but I never saw him except as he walked away. He’s a large man with white hair. The wire Murdoch sent to my attorney will help. I’m expecting to hear back from him at any time.”
“I’ll lock those papers in the safe at the sheriff’s office. They’ll be fine there. Now, I want you ta take it easy. We’re workin’ on a plan an’ hope ta take care a things before too many folks get hurt, or worse, but we’ll get it took care of. Ya got my word on that.”
Val said the words, but he wasn’t entirely sure Aggie heard them.
Johnny rode under the Lancer arch, wondering if Murdoch and Val found any wire from Addison; then had to smile knowing that Billy would stand his ground and tell Val it was against regulations to divulge any information. Then Val would get that ‘don’t fuck with me’ look in his eyes and melt Billy into a puddle where he stood. How many times had Johnny seen that happen over the years?
Tying Barranca at the hitchrail in front of the hacienda, Johnny stepped through the front door, and the three voices in the great room ceased as he threw his hat on a dining room chair and joined them by the desk.
Val was the first to speak. “Ya find out anything, amigo?”
Seeing the apprehension etched on Aggie’s face, Johnny hesitated a minute but didn’t hold back. “Yeah, saw a coupla things. Kling’s givin’ the orders, didn’t see any sign of Tuck. Four men rode off while I was watchin’ an’ I followed ‘em to the river. Murdoch, Addison’s buildin’ a dam. He’s gonna try an’ control the water in the valley.”
“We have to stop him, Murdoch!” Aggie felt her anger rise. Depriving the ranches of water was a death sentence, not only to livestock and humans but also to the land. Right then and there, Aggie Conway promised herself she wasn’t going to let that happen.
Orange-yellow flames danced across the logs, releasing bright sparks and soothing pops in the quiet of the room. What should have been a peaceful evening was anything but, and the silence of the long night was deafening. Attorney Arthur Zimmerman contemplated his options. And there weren’t many. Working for the Acme Land Company was lucrative beyond any other client he’d had in his twenty-seven years practicing law, and where he didn’t want it to end, he was having frequent second thoughts of representing Acme, and in particular, Buck Addison. Arthur poured himself another brandy, then resumed his seat by the fire.
The request, rather the demand that Zimmerman contact attorney J.D. Taylor with a false declaration of the failing health of Agatha Addison and that Buck would be taking over her affairs, could be the first of many nails in his coffin. Ha, was he only now beginning to admit to the wrongs he’d already committed for the man? Could it be he had a conscience after all? All Arthur knew at this moment was he needed to give serious thought to this matter, treading very carefully not only where the law was concerned but where was Buck Addison was concerned as well. Either way, he needed a clear mind and a delicate hand in manipulating legalities and Buck Addison for whatever was about to happen.
The tick of the clock sounded loud this night. That coffin was beginning to feel tight. The brandy wasn’t working, and he needed another drink.
“Johnny, what are you and Val planning? I’m assuming the two of you have a rough idea,” Murdoch questioned as he watched Johnny pace around the room. He could almost see the thoughts swirl in his son’s head. Johnny would walk, stop suddenly, then tap his fingers against his leg, staring off as if watching something play out in his mind. There hadn’t been much time to come up with any certainties, but it was the best they could do.
With a deep sigh, Johnny turned to his father. “There’s a coupla of plans, just depends on what happens, what Buck’s gonna do, and as soon as Val gets out here, we’re gonna figure out the best way. We have a few men watchin’ the Circle C; it’s about the only thing we can do right now. Billy said he was gonna stay in the telegraph office and wait in case somethin’ urgent comes in an’ see that Val gets it right away. But until Val gets here or we heard somethin’ from the men posted around the Circle C, we wait.” And waiting was not something Madrid liked to do.
Every aspect of this issue was difficult, and not only because Aggie Conway was involved. This concerned the whole valley.
The knock interrupted his concentration, then the softly spoken words confirmed his moment of quiet was at an end.
“Mr. Taylor, there’s a Mr. Arthur Zimmerman here to see you, sir.”
J.D. Taylor looked up from the papers he’d been studying. “Thank you, send him in, please.” J.D. rose from his chair as Zimmerman entered, looking as if he had spent a long and sleepless night. The mussed gray hair and wrinkled suit attested to the fact the man had not slept for some time. Something was drastically wrong, and no doubt it had to do with Agatha Conway Addison. This was a fight J.D. could not lose.
“Have a seat. What’s on your mind, Mr. Zimmerman?” J.D. resumed his chair and watched the bespectacled eyes.
“I think you know why I’m here, so let’s not waste any time. We have much to discuss regarding Buck Addison’s wife, Agatha.” There were no mincing words; they were direct and to the point. The battle was on, J.D. thought.
It was too early for it not to be an emergency. Billy shot forward in his chair and began to scribble out the words chattered in code from the tapping key.
Agatha Conway Addison STOP Confirmed BA attempt at takeover STOP Will do what I can here STOP
Grabbing the wire, Billy made it to the Sheriff’s office in record time and pounded on the door, not letting up until the bedraggled face looked through the window. Val allowed Billy to enter and took the missive intended for Aggie Conway.
“Thanks, Billy! This’s what we’re waitin’ on! Anythin’ more comes in, you send out ta Lancer!” Val tucked in his shirt, strapped on his colt, then woke Scott. “C’mon, Scott! Wire just come in from Aggie’s attorney. Buck’s tryin’ ta take the Circle C! Let’s get out there!”
Scott stumbled from the bunk and grabbed the cell keys; he would take them with, just in case someone would let the scoundrel they arrested yesterday out of jail, and Scott wasn’t going to let that happen. Together, Val and Scott made it out the door to the livery. In minutes, they were on their way to Lancer. And the beginning of the end, they hoped, to Buck Addison.
Not able to sleep, Aggie stood in the kitchen and hadn’t intended to eavesdrop but couldn’t hold back when she heard the conversation between Murdoch and Johnny. This whole thing was her fault, and she wasn’t about to let anyone else pay for her mistake, so she listened and made her plan according to the things she heard.
Dawn began to cloak the land in a soft coppery haze, usually a comfort in the early morning, but not today. Not today. Besides the grief and embarrassment, Aggie’s worry for her dear friends and neighbors continued their assault in her mind. How would she ever come to terms with what she’d done?
The sound of other voices broke through her reverie as she heard Val and Scott come through the front door. Keeping to the shadows, she listened.
“Scott, Val! What is it?” Murdoch demanded.
“This just come in for Miz Conway…” Val began.
This is it, Aggie… She’d never run from anything in her life, and she would meet this trouble head-on— Just try and stop me! And Aggie walked into the great room.
“Aggie!” Murdoch began.
“What do you have for me, Sheriff?” She asked in a voice that belied her inner fear.
“This just come in for ya,” Val announced as he held out the wire.
Hoping no one saw the tremble she felt in her fingers, Aggie took the wire and read the words from J.D. Taylor. She took a breath, then met the eyes of the sheriff and the Lancer men.
“He’s going to try and take my ranch. If he does that, it will be hard to stop the complete takeover of the valley.” Her response, spoken in tones of defeat, hung in the air. “Murdoch, Buck doesn’t know about the…”
Murdoch smiled. “No, he doesn’t.”
They were wasting time until Johnny said, “Well then, I think we need ta get movin’.”
Aggie snapped out of her dread. “What are you going to do? I don’t want any of you getting hurt! Scott’s already…”
“An’ he’s fine, Aggie. Hey, r’member when we were out on the trail, r’member what I said about helpin’ you with whatever it took ta stop him? Well, that ‘whatever’ is about ta happen. We have Lancer men waitin’, and we’re gonna take out Buck’s crew an’ replace ‘em with ours an’ yours, too. If he don’t look too close, we oughtta be able ta pull this off. But we can do this, an’ it’ll be a lot easier for me if I knew you were safe, so I gotta ask ya to stay here. We’ll get this done today, Aggie, I promise you.”
“How do you know he’ll be here today?” she asked, eyes wide and full of apprehension.
He gave her his Johnny Madrid Lancer smile. “Oh, we got our ways. But, I’m serious; I need ta know you’re gonna stay here.”
The stare did not let her go until she nodded her head, then she quickly looked away.
Val was the first to speak. “We hafta get Addison’s men outta there an’ get your’s an’ Aggie’s men in without gettin’ found out. Let’s go. Kling’s men ain’t no run a the mill cowboys, an’ they’re gonna be watching for anything outta the ordinary. Here’s what I’m thinkin’…”
While Val spelled out the plan he and Johnny devised last night, both Aggie and Murdoch sat in stunned silence. Scott was the only one that had no problem accepting the audacity of their plan and made a few contributions of his own. And before they could object over what they had heard, Val, Johnny, and Scott were headed for the door. Then Johnny stopped.
“Well, c’mon, ol’ man, we’re leavin’ an’ we can use your gun.” Then, they were out of the hacienda and headed for the Circle C.
The ‘battle’ was not what J.D. expected. Arthur Zimmerman was not what J.D. expected, although they had met many times before. The reason for this visit was highly unprecedented. Circumstances such as these could ruin more than the client involved, and Zimmerman wanted to ‘settle out of court’. If Buck Addison threatened any retaliation, Zimmerman would remind him that he, Addison, had much more to lose.
He made the trip to Sacramento after sending the wire to J.D. Taylor. They needed to talk, face to face, and come to an understanding, for all their sakes.
In the end, the attorneys came to an acceptable agreement, one that would produce the desired outcome.
J.D. Taylor leaned back in his chair and hoped that Aggie Conway would understand.
Arthur Zimmerman hailed a cab to the train station and pondered his next meeting with Buck Addison. Things were about to change for his client; that client just didn’t know it yet.
JD relaxed at his desk. Zimmerman hadn’t known about the trust… Agatha Conway had never confided that critical piece of information to her new husband.
“I have two men spotted in that grove of trees,” Scott said as he lowered the binoculars. “I’ll get their attention, and you two come up behind them. When they are properly subdued and secured, take them to the cabin and make sure they can’t get away.”
Scott moved Remmie down the hill and made no attempt to hide his presence. He whistled, hoping to give Addison’s men the impression he was out enjoying the day. Scott had to grin, thinking they wouldn’t like how this was going to end.
“Stop right where you are! This is private property, and you need to leave, or you’ll be shot! Your choice, cowboy!”
Cowboy, well, at least they didn’t call me a ‘dandy,’ he thought, learning the value of humor from his little brother. “That’s not very hospitable on your part. We can talk about this,” Scott stalled, hoping his men were getting into place.
“We ain’t here ta be hospitable! You’re on Acme land, an’ it’s private property!” Hands were inching toward their guns.
Scott shrugged, then chuckled. “That’s where you’re wrong, gentlemen. This is the Circle C, and I am a welcomed guest, and I’m certain that you are not.” A nasty remark was almost issued before the cartridges levered into the chambers of the two Winchesters behind them silenced whatever they were about to say.
Scott smirked. “Well, now that we have that settled, my men will see to it that you are safely tucked away and out of trouble!”
To argue with a pair of Winchesters, loaded and aimed, was not a wise decision, and Addison’s men were quietly disarmed and bound, then taken away.
A similar process was acted out many times on the Circle C and successfully reduced the number of Addison’s men with only two incidents that resulted in a broken arm and a cracked head for Buck’s gunmen. Lancer and Conway hands were strategically substituted in their places while more of Aggie’s men patrolled the ranch for any overlooked Addison crew. Scott and Tuck McKay were left in charge of Addison’s men detained in the barn.
That left Buck’s foreman, Jake Kling. And after the argument he won with Murdoch, it was Johnny’s job to handle him. Every shred of protective fatherhood instincts in Murdoch’s body went on high alert as they quietly entered the kitchen of Aggie’s house, knowing that Kling was waiting in there to carry out another dangerous order. And there was a huge possibility Johnny could get hurt. Murdoch had already dealt with Scott getting shot on Buck’s orders, and he wasn’t going to sacrifice Johnny, but outside of confining his son with Addison’s men, and Murdoch knew Johnny would not consent to that, there was nothing he could do except to wait and worry.
Murdoch now held his breath as Johnny put his finger to his lips, asking for quiet. Then he silently slipped into Aggie Conway’s parlor.
Johnny had all he could do not to laugh. Kling sat in the chair behind the mahogany desk, feet propped on the paper-cluttered top, eyes closed and mouth open.
“Well, I can see why Addison hired you. I mean, nothin’ like keepin’ on top of your work,” Johnny said softly, motioning to the dirty boots soiling the ledgers.
Kling jumped like he was stuck with a red-hot poker, then made the mistake of grabbing for his gun.
The Colt was pointed in his face before he knew how it got there and all Kling could do was to stare at the hungry blue steel. The heart in his chest battered against his ribs, and he found it hard to breathe, but his hand hovered over his sidearm.
“Oh, I’d think twice before I did somethin’ so stupid, like drawin’ that gun if I was you, pendejo. One twitch outta you an’ I’ll blow your head off.”
Though the tone was light and the smile on the face of the man before him was cheerful, Kling didn’t doubt for one minute that Lancer would pull the trigger. He’d run into this one before, but now, the odds were in the kid’s favor.
“Ya know, Mr. Addison ain’t gonna like you being in his house…” but Kling’s words were cut off, and the face before him lost the smile it wore two seconds ago. It turned glacial, and Kling felt himself grow cold.
“Well, this ain’t Addison’s house, an’ just so you know, you ain’t welcome here. Get up, keep your hands where I can see ‘em.” Johnny backed up a few steps as Kling slowly got to his feet.
“Just why are you here, boy? You know my men outside aren’t gonna let you get away with this. So why don’t you put that gun away before you hurt yourself?”
Val nearly burst into a belly laugh. Even though the seriousness of the situation was sickening, the fact that Johnny Madrid was going to hurt himself with his own gun sent waves of hilarity coursing through him, and had to rein it in before he gave himself away. A glance at Murdoch confirmed the patriarch was not humored, helped to keep that silliness in check.
“Shut up an’ do what I tell ya ta do.” Motioning with his Colt, Johnny waved Kling into the kitchen, and the man visibly jolted when he saw Val, Murdoch, and Scott waiting for him.
Val stepped forward, his Colt aimed at Kling’s head. “Alright, Mr. Got Yerself in a Shit Pile of Trouble, when’s yer boss comin’ in?” At Kling’s continued silence, Val’s temper began to erupt. “Ya got five seconds ta tell us what we wanna know. After that, ya better start makin’ yer peace. An’ if ya think I won’t pull this here trigger, think again. I don’t take too kindly ta the way yer boss does business. That means I don’t take too kindly ta you neither.” Val snicked the hammer back. He always found it amusing to watch their shock when it finally occurred to them they were in a heap of trouble. There was a widening of their eyes and an ‘oh, shit’ expression that was easy to read. Sheriff Crawford smiled, his teeth white against the scruffy-bearded face. But the deciding factor was always when he jammed the barrel of his pistol under the idiot’s jaw. That’s when they broke. Worked every time.
“Today. Mr. Addison didn’t say a specific time. Just today.” Kling spoke evenly, thinking this was an illegal entry and assault on his person. This was Addison’s property now, and these men would end up on the wrong side of the law. Mr. Addison wouldn’t put up with this violation of his rights.
“Consider yerself under arrest. Ya cooperate an’ it’ll be taken under consideration. Turn around.”
Kling suffered through as his hands were secured behind his back, then Scott and Val herded him to the barn. Surprise sparked in his eyes when he saw his men, most of them tied, gagged, and guarded by, he could only assume, Lancer men holding double-barreled shotguns. But looking closely, there were Circle C men, as well. What was going on?
Val returned to the kitchen, leaving Tuck McKay in charge after settling
Kling with his men. His mind now on the next step in bringing Addison’s Acme Land
Company to a grinding halt. They had to do this right. One mistake, and the man
would go free, and Val wasn’t going to let Addison walk. Not after all he’d done.
Once in the kitchen, Val spoke. “Alright. Looks like we hafta wait. That bastard shows up, we hafta let him make a move. Something that’s gonna incriminate ‘im otherwise this whole thing’ll blow up in our faces. It hasta be right!”
Buck Addison was livid. Arriving in Cross Creek, he bought a horse and where not as comfortable on a horse as in a buggy, time was of the essence. He needed to get to Aggie before she could ruin his plans. And the information missing from his office that he was certain she’d stolen could very well make it happen. His attorney would work to have Agatha Addison declared incompetent, putting the Circle C in his control. The signed agreement made before the marriage would be null and void should Aggie fall ill. But she had escaped.
He’d covered all the possibilities… he thought. There had not been enough time to use the drug, increasing the chances for a child, and that would have been the key to have her submit, give up the Circle C to keep her baby safe. Perhaps he would arrange to have her tucked away where no one would find her, and should there be achild, maybe he would raise it himself. And who knew, he could have her declared dead. Claimed an accident and would not allow anyone to see the body. It would be his right as her husband to make that decision.
But that plan failed. Had Johnny Madrid not been there in that alley, Aggie would not have gotten away. And now Buck had to wonder just how much Madrid knew. If Aggie stole those papers, had Madrid seen them?
Angry, violent thoughts flowed through him. Could he get to her in time? If anyone saw the evidence those papers confirmed, he might as well walk himself right into prison and slam the door behind him. No, Arthur has my back. Zimmerman would take care of things. He always does.
How would he do it? Would he shoot her and claim an intruder had done the deed? He could beat her, then strangle her, and watch the light fade from her eyes. He could lock her away with no contact from anyone. What would Murdoch Lancer say when Aggie went missing? Oh, how Buck would enjoy torturing them both!
But for now, he had to get to Aggie, and home is where he would find her.
Aggie felt she had been pacing for hours and wondered if she straightened out the steps if she would be in San Francisco by now. Funny how the city she had loved and longed for only brought sadness to her heart now. The love for a man she never really knew killed those once treasured memories. And it was entirely her fault. If I would have given it more time… If I would have done this instead of that… She berated herself for hours. It did no good. She needed to do something that would stop Buck and needed to do it now!
It was hours since the Lancers and Sheriff Crawford left her. Were they alright? Had they caught Buck? What if…? Stop it! Aggie screamed at herself! Just stop it and do something about it! And she made up her mind; she knew what she had to do.
Checking to see that she was alone, Aggie made it out to the barn, then struggled to saddle a horse. The stitches in her side pulled, making her gasp, but she ignored the pain as she pulled herself into the saddle and rode to the Circle C. Her ranch…
The ride to the ranch was sapping her strength, but Aggie pushed forward. Her mind spun in dizzying swirls, picturing the beautiful wedding, dancing with Buck, his arms tight around her, holding desperately, bordering indecent, and the sparkle in his eyes that promised an intimate night. Their honeymoon, passionate kisses, fierce and fiery. Had it all been a ruse? A ruse to get the ranch. She felt like such a fool!
There was no one on the road, and Buck didn’t see any of his men. Kling must have them busy at the dam site. It was paramount that the dam would be finished in plenty of time. Once completed, he would own the valley, and no one would stop him! With Aggie gone, and he now knew he needed to be rid of her, his dreams of an empire would be realized. His accountants and attorneys had always come through for him and knew where the money was. They were talking millions instead of thousands. But he had to find his wife before she could destroy in seconds what had taken him years to build, to manipulate, to steal.
Buck smiled as he rode through the gate that supported the Circle C brand. This was the last day that brand would preside over this ranch. The Addison ‘A’ entwined in elaborate scrolls was ready to be installed and had he not left San Francisco in such a hurry, he would have brought it back with him. But Aggie ruined that plan. When he saw him, his first order to Kling would be to take the ‘C’ down off the gate.
Where was Kling? Buck thought as he tied his horse at the hitch rail in front of Aggie’s, correction, his house. There was activity in the corral by the barn, but Kling was not there. The trusted foreman usually met him by now. Addison shook his head, then made his way into the house.
Stepping into the foyer, Buck looked around; he listened then walked into the parlor. No one was there that he could see. “Aggie? Aggie!” he called. No answer.
Buck immediately went to his desk. Taking keys from his pocket, he inserted one into the lock and turned. A soft click signaled the drawer was opened; then Buck Addison began his search. When he found nothing useful in that drawer, he searched another.
Where were those papers? What had she done with them? His temper soared, anger flared; Where the hell was she? Addison ripped open another drawer, then abandoned the idea and ran up the stairs. He searched every room; Aggie was not there.
“We need ta catch him with some damnin’ information; there has ta be more here somewhere!” Val whispered, knowing that if they stayed long enough, Buck would uncover something useful, or they would be discovered. Murdoch huffed while Johnny stood quietly and waited.
Agatha Conway rode into the yard, tied her mount next to the strange horse at the hitchrail in front of her house. Then she crossed the porch and stepped into her foyer, shocked at the sight that greeted her. But she pulled herself together and spoke.
The charge down the stairs announced the panic Buck Addison felt growing around him. Suffocating him. Stone cold fear. The desk, he hadn’t searched all the drawers in the desk. He lunged forward, aiming for the large bottom drawer. The drawer with the secret compartment. The compartment that held…
“Missing something, Buck?”
Aggie’s soft, sweet tones stopped him in an instant. She’s here! I can salvage this after all! “Aggie! Darling! I thought I’d lost you!” Buck stepped forward; he reached out for her, thinking she would run to him for comfort.
Does he really think I would fall into his arms in relief of surviving a harrowing ordeal? And she didn’t. Instead, she stood erect, strong, and self-reliant.
She’s bluffing! Buck felt more doubt begin to take hold. Bluff all you want, Aggie, dear. It won’t do you any good!
Murdoch gasped when he heard Aggie’s voice. There was no way he would let her face this alone, and he started to move. Johnny grabbed his arm to prevent him from entering the parlor and giving themselves away.
“She’s safe, Murdoch; I can see ‘em both. Ain’t gonna let nothin’ happen ta her, trust me, but we hafta let this play out as long as we can. Just sit tight,” Johnny whispered, and thankfully Murdoch listened to reason. “Let her do it, Murdoch; she needs this.”
He vowed she wouldn’t be in any danger, yet there she was, confronting the man who had shot her. Buck had willfully pointed his gun and pulled the trigger with no regard, and Murdoch wanted to kill the man with his bare hands. But he had to wait and watch for Buck to make a mistake and admit what he was doing so Val could be a witness, yet wait, knowing that at any minute, this could turn deadly for a second time.
Val listened intently, hoping to catch something he could use against Addison before there would be gunplay, and there would be gunplay before he would allow Aggie to be hurt again.
Johnny knew they had to wait, but he had an advantage. He’d been with Aggie through the last several days, had witnessed her strength and her mad. She was righting her wrong, though truth be told, she’d done no wrong, but Johnny had not been able to convince her of that fact. He wanted Aggie to have this— it was her vindication, and Johnny Madrid knew how important that would be for her.
“Mmm, you thought you’d lost me? Tell me, Buck, is that why you shot me?” Her words emotionless. Flat. Her eyes blank, cool, aloof.
He was losing her! Buck rounded the desk, attempting to hold her, and once he would have her in his arms, he would…
But Aggie wasn’t backing down. Instead, she folded her arms across her body; in no way would she accept his touch. Not now, not after the crimes she knew he had committed. Funny, she thought, Buck is desperate; guess he’s got reason to be.
“Aggie, let’s sit and talk. I didn’t know it was you! I saw someone running! I had to stop them! I didn’t know it was you! But, darling, I would never have pulled the trigger had I know you were in that alley! Are you alright, my love?”
Aggie drew herself up and stared into Buck’s eyes. “You’re lying, Buck. I know it, and so do you. So let’s not waste any more time. I want you out of my house and out of my life. Now, get out!”
There would be no more talking, and Buck knew what he had to do. It had to be now. He took a step toward Aggie, toward his wife. And she turned away.
“I mean it, Buck, I don’t want any part of your dirty life!”
“Oh, Aggie, dear sweet, ignorant Aggie!” he said, drawing out his words, talking as if to a child. “If you only knew! I own this ranch, and I’ll own Lancer and every property in this valley!”
Aggie felt her courage fade. She didn’t know where she could take this, oh why didn’t she wait for help? She turned away, facing the desk, and nervously fingered the elaborate set of pens and quills; then, her fingers were still.
“What about your partner, Buck? Where does he fit into all of this? He’s going to ruin you, or have you forgotten?”
Murdoch’s breath caught in his throat, his hands fisted of their own accord.
Val held his breath; it was almost time.
Johnny’s hand held rock steady and ready to draw the Colt.
Scott stood ready to back his brother.
“You see, I know all about your dishonesty, your illegal dealings. And I’m going to stop you, Buck.” Calm words, where had they come from? She was alone and did not feel calm; she had no backup…
Buck’s temper exploded with an animal snarl. As rough hands snaked out and wrapped around her arm, spinning her to face him, her fingers fisted and closed on something from the top of the desk; then she felt those large hands slither around her throat… and she panicked, but the panic quickly turned to rage, and it flooded her brain; her mad flared into fire. Her fists pounded his back out of reflex as she struggled to breathe, to pull oxygen into her starved lungs. She watched with fading vision as Buck’s eyes turned wild and full of hate.
Val, Murdoch, Johnny, and Scott charged into the room with guns drawn; Val and Johnny tackled Buck to the floor and broke the death grip he had on Aggie. They had to take him alive but didn’t hold back, using more force than necessary in slamming Buck to the floor. Addison fell as pain exploded in a fiery white ball before his eyes.
Aggie’s body shook as she looked at the man lying on the carpet. Buck Addison groaned in agony and curled into a tight ball with the ornate letter opener protruding from his back. Her knees buckled as Murdoch caught her before she hit the floor. Then she turned in Murdoch’s arms and sobbed into his chest.
Val hauled the criminal to his feet, and with Johnny on the other side, they started to drag Buck out of Aggie’s house. But she stopped them.
She pulled herself together, then spoke. “Just a minute, Sheriff, I have something to say to Mr. Addison.”
Val and Johnny, holding Addison securely between them, halted their progress to the door.
Aggie forced herself to stand, pushing away from Murdoch’s steady arms, and leveled a cold stare into Buck’s painfilled eyes. “You would have never won this fight, Buck. Do you know why?” Though the words were spoken softly, they were filled with ice and deadly. “Do you know why Buck? Maybe you should because I think this will bother you more than going to prison. You see, Buck, you could havenever owned the Circle C because my Henry put it into a trust to protect me. I never thought you needed to know that; after all, we agreed that I would always run the ranch, and it would always be mine. But, I think that I would like you to know that… Murdoch Lancer is the trustee, Buck. Henry saw to that. He knew Murdoch to be an honest man… and a friend. You wouldn’t have owned this ranch, ever.”
The stare did not let up as Buck’s face turned from blazing red to sick purple. Addison’s eyes bulged, wide and furious, as his breath sputtered and threatened to choke him. He struggled in the sheriff’s and Johnny’s grasp, spewing vile curses, heaping threats, damning them to Hell and Aggie along with them. The grips on his arms tightened as he fought.
“Aggie! I wasn’t going to take the ranch! You have it all wrong. Aggie, are you accusing me of trying to steal it away from you? No! I wouldn’t do that! You’re my wife!”
“Not for much longer, Buck. You destroyed that, which was your plan all along, wasn’t it, Buck?”
Buck stared, hoping to talk his way clear, but Aggie remained cold, distant.
“Save it, Buck. Save it for the judge.” Her eyes narrowed, shutting Buck Addison off, dismissing him like one would a disgusting maggot.
“I’m going to kill you, Lancer, you bastard! I’m…” and his threat was silenced when Johnny’s left hand clamped on Addison’s throat, effectively cutting off any more obscenities. “Shuddup, Addison!” he growled.
Johnny reached for the letter opener still in Addison’s back, then yanked it out, sending Buck to his knees once again. “Can’t be stealin’ anything from this house, Addison. Ya oughta know better’n that,” Johnny chided as if talking to an idiot.
For once, Buck felt defeat as his brain spun out of control, knowing that he’d lost.
“I’ll own this entire valley, this ranch, Aggie, and yours, Lancer!” Spite was an evil companion, and Buck would soon come to know that it would get him nowhere. They dragged Addison out of Aggie’s house while he insisted they let him go and that they could expect to hear from his lawyer.
“Aggie! Aggie…!” Then the voice faded away.
Murdoch quickly stood when Sam entered the room. His anxiety clouded his thoughts, and he hadn’t noticed the doctor’s good spirits.
“Murdoch?” Sam waited for his friend to gather the scattered thoughts. “Murdoch, she’s fine, just fine. Exhausted from the ride, but her stitches are good, and there was no bleeding. Her throat is bruised, but nothing serious. She’s asking for you, but don’t stay long. She needs to rest.”
“Thank you, Sam.” Murdoch hurried from the room, taking the stairs two at a time.
“Hey, Sam, Aggie really alright?” Johnny asked as he stood at the doctor’s side.
“Yes, Johnny, she is. She’s been through a lot these last few days, and she’s suffered shock and loss. But she’s got many things going for her, most of all, the Lancers. She needs all of you to support her.” The doctor’s keen eyes caught the sadness on Johnny’s face. “Johnny, you’re not taking the blame for any of this, are you? You did more for her than you’ll ever know!”
The blue stare held him, wide and full of doubt. “I shoulda been able ta do more, Sam. She shouldn’ta got hurt…”
Sam was ready for it, and he cut off the words that he knew were coming. “You were with her when she needed you most, Johnny. And, you got her home, so don’t you go blaming yourself, not for any of this! This whole thing was Buck Addison’s doing, and no one else’s!” Sam stopped to take a breath, then asked, “By the way, where did you learn to stitch up a wound like that? That was good work!” He said with a smile and a hope to take the conversation away from another burden Johnny Madrid Lancer would carry, though not his to bear.
The question took him by surprise. From a lifetime of practice, Sam. “Oh, mostly on me. Patched up Val a coupla times, squawked like a chicken, too.” The soft response held humor when he divulged that Val acted in an unmanly way; hell, he acted like a baby!
Sam smiled. He poured himself a cup of coffee and watched the young man before him, amazed yet again by the heart, soul, and depth of Johnny Madrid Lancer.
Victor Edmonds breathed a sigh of relief. Although he’d not taken control of the San Joaquin liked he hoped, neither would he be ruined by the failures of that idiot, Buck Addison. Addison was presumptuous and greedy. He overestimated himself and underestimated others, and that incompetence had landed him in jail. Well, that was his own fault, Edmonds thought as he satisfied himself with the knowledge of another plan, though in a fledgling state, would be put into action. The valley would be his, sooner or later.
There was no evidence to tie him to the Acme Land Company. Soon after Buck’s sudden departure, Edmonds had Buck’s suite picked clean of any proof that would confirm they’d been in business together. Nothing was overlooked. He was free to carry out his plan, and no one would be the wiser.
He tented his figures and contemplated his options. Perhaps an accident or two involving Mrs. Addison… or Conway. Oh yes, can’t forget about Murdoch Lancer, and most of all, that gunfighter son… What the hell, the other son, as well. Take them all out of the equation, and it will be easier next time…
“If I didn’t know any better, Johnny, I would have thought that you were trying to avoid me,” Aggie sighed. She thought he seemed apprehensive when she was around and wanted him to know how and what she felt. “Can we talk, please?” She reached out a hand, took his, and gently tugged, pulling him down beside her. She was pleased when she saw the tiny grin turn up the corner of his mouth as he lowered himself onto the bench.
“Is anything the matter, Johnny?” She needed to know and saw him take a breath before he answered.
“No, nothin’s wrong. Just thought that after what we been through, that you’d wanna have some time without me around remindin’ ya of what happened, is all.” Johnny dipped his head for a second, then looked back at her, trying to read what was on her mind. Madrid, ya know ya can’t know what’s goin’ on in a woman’s mind.
Aggie’s smile reached her eyes. “Oh, Johnny, I wish I could get you to believe that what happened over these last several days would have turned out horribly different if you hadn’t been there for me. And I want you to know that I’ll never be able to thank you for what you did. And for letting me try to right my wrongs. It was my fault this happened. If I hadn’t brought Buck into this valley…”
“He’d a found another way ta get into this valley, Aggie! It wasn’t your fault. None of it was your fault!” He stopped, then a few shaky breaths later, “But, I know what you felt. The feelin’ of makin’ somethin’ right again. I know what that means.”
Aggie reached out and took his hand, then gave it a squeeze. “Johnny, I want to go home. Tomorrow, I want to go back to the Circle C. Will you take me?”
“Ya sure, Aggie, I mean…” He thought it too soon.
“Yes, I’m sure. I want to get on with my life as Agatha Conway. I want, I need to clean out the Addison part and have it gone for good. Can you understand that, Johnny?”
“More’n you know, Aggie, more’n you know!” His grin brightened her mood. “Oh, I gotta tell ya, ya know that… thing that was our secret?” Johnny hesitated, but after Aggie’s nod, he continued. “Well, it ain’t a secret no more. Sam asked about it an’ Murdoch, an’ Scott heard.”
Aggie smiled. “Well, as long as it stays in the family. You know we are a family of sorts? It might not be of blood, but we take care of each other. And Johnny, who knows, any more secrets will stay between us, alright?”
Johnny Lancer laughed. “Yeah, sure, Aggie, I won’t tell if you don’t!”
Agatha Conway signed the documents and was forever rid of Acme Land Company. She sold it, and it was now out of her life. She was free and feltsatisfaction after selling back the land to those in the valley that wanted it. J.D. Taylor worked out the details, leaving Aggie with a healthy profit. Acme was no more. The name was poison, a vile, toxic plague, and it was gone!
Oh, Henry, thank you! Thank you for looking out for me after all these years!
It might be gone, but it wasn’t dead. Victor Edmonds grinned as he signed his name with his usual flourish. Acme was no more, but he was taking over now, and he would employ someone to see his orders through, someone to do what Buck Addison failed to accomplish. Ahh, the San Joaquin was ripe for the taking… And he was just the person to take it, make it his, and prosper.
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