Crossfire by Buckskin

#3 in the Fear Series

Sequel to Stone Cold Fear and Trigger Point

With many thanks to RonD and Rob for kicking my muse  in the pants to get this story written. This one’s for you, Ladies!
Thanks to Cat, Rob, and Chris for the beta; and to Char for the answers to the legal questions.

Word count: 33,270

San Francisco was a wonderful city. It had everything a sophisticated man could ever want. It offered culture, the arts, fine dining, museums, and the latest elegant apparel, designed by world-class tailors. It also supported thieves, murderers, and businessmen as lethal as any criminal roaming the streets. He ought to know— he was one of them. If he saw a potential for profit, he went after it, disregarding any and all propriety and with no consideration to those in possession of what he sought; after all, he didn’t get to where he was worried about charity cases. No, indeed. Harlan Garrett was a ruthless man who always got what he wanted. Always. Charity was not his business, nor was it in his heart.

Garrett watched Montgomery and Sutter Streets from his fourth-floor corner window in the Occidental Hotel. People scurried about their errands, errands much too mundane for Harlan’s consideration. They weren’t worth his time or the effort; it was of no benefit to him or his pocket. His thoughts were elsewhere, wrapped in the disbelief of plans gone so horribly wrong. Scotty had been seriously injured! The stipulation for his backing had been that Scotty would remain safe; safe so he would return to Boston after the fall of his family and Lancer. But it had not happened, and the beloved grandson had come too close to death! Could Harlan depend on anyone to do the job they’d been paid to do?

And now, this! The note had just arrived— a note bearing a threat. Harlan crumpled the paper in his hand until it was a tiny ball. Fingers tightened; they squeezed, pulling muscles until his hand shook. How dare he?! He’d been paid for his services and now demanded more… or else! Blackmail, pure and simple!  But, pure it wasn’t, and neither was it simple.

Garrett knew this time that it could be trouble, serious trouble, and the old Bostonian had to handle the problem quickly before the threat was acted on. But Harlan Garrett had not gotten this far and lived this long being a fool. He still had a trick or two left up his sleeve, and no one had ever bested him in a war of wits. No, Harlan Garrett was a force to be reckoned with, and now his life depended on his ability to out-think, to out-fox a fox. And his mind began to turn, explore his options to make the best decision. Perhaps he would have to take matters into his own hands to see this through.

He’d been betrayed— not the first time it had happened and probably wouldn’t be the last, but he would not abide disloyalty. Bill Flemming had worked for Garrett in the past; he often tied up loose ends for Harlan, and now he wanted more than the agreed price. Harlan had been threatened before, but perhaps this would be the first time he would have to get his hands dirty. But he wasn’t about to jump into this ridiculous demand without a fight; he would make Flemming wait, make him nervous; perhaps the man would begin to doubt himself; after all, who had ever doublecrossed Harlan Garrett… and won?

It was all Harlan could do to keep from charging down to Lancer like a maddened bull to be with his grandson after Scott had been wounded and issue the demand that he return home. Home to Boston. But he had to be discreet and not divulge any knowledge of the recent happenings. How would he have known? His sources kept him up to date on Scotty’s recovery. He’d been made aware of every step in the convalescence, but now the time had come for a surprise visit, and Harlan was sure that it would be just that— a surprise.

There was one certainty, though: Harlan Garrett had to see Scotty for himself, make sure his sole heir was alright, and urge him once again that California was not the place to waste his life smelling like cows and coated with dust, dirt, and manure. Disgusting! An involuntary shiver crawled down Harlan’s spine.

“You know, brother, you’d have some explaining to do if Murdoch saw you riding like that, don’t you?” Scott needled, knowing Doctor Jenkins had not yet cleared Johnny for riding. Healing from injuries sustained in attacks on the family, both Lancer sons were forced into restricted activity… like sitting in a chair which did not appeal to either of them.

The bullet wound and broken collarbone kept Scott confined and reasonably easy to control, but it was increasingly difficult to keep Johnny down and quiet. The knife wound to his back and badly bruised ribs were slowly mending, proving that he was just fine; well, to his way of thinking anyway.

Scott waved away the cloud of dust raised by Barranca’s prancing hooves.

“Well, had ta talk ta Val about the trial, an’ besides, Murdoch didn’t see me an’ if I hadn’ta gone inta town,” Johnny hesitated, then pulled the envelope from his jacket pocket, “you wouldn’ta got this!”

Scott’s forehead creased in a puzzled frown. “What’s that?”

Johnny’s eyebrow went up. “Guess all that money was wasted on that Harvard education… What d’ya think it is, Boston, besides a wire…?” Nudging Barranca closer to his brother’s chair, Johnny leaned, then suddenly stopped when the pain in his back sparked and halted further movement.

Scott quickly met his brother’s eyes. “Johnny? Are you…”

“Fine. Here, read your note. Who’s it from? Another girlfriend in distress?” Johnny chuckled, then watched as Scott, using one hand, tore the message open and began to read. But the happy grin that Johnny anticipated turned into a concerted and troubled scowl.

“Scott, y’alright?” Worry skittered through Johnny’s thoughts, branching off like lightning, hot, prickling at his brain. “Hey, Scott…”

Exhaling sharply, Scott met Johnny’s penetrating stare with a response neither wanted to hear.

“It’s Grandfather. He’s on his way to Lancer.”

Johnny tipped his hat back on his head; then, a wry smile snaked its way across his lips. “Wanna hightail it down ta Mexico? I know a place we can hide out. He’ll never find us down there…”

“Oh, brother, I would if I could! Guess we better tell Murdoch.”

“ ‘We’ tell Murdoch?” Johnny laughed.

Scott hung his head. “Guess I had better tell Murdoch…”

“I’ll go with ya, Boston. He’s gonna ask where ya got that wire from anyway. Might as well get all his mad over at once. Hey, ya know that little vein that pulses in his neck? Bet it’s gonna be thumpin’ pretty hard in a few minutes, huh?” Johnny smirked but prepared for the Tune Caller’s displeasure… and temper.

Scott didn’t even want to think about it.

He could see it across the room. That ‘little’ vein bucked like a bronco sent from Hell. Johnny wondered if Murdoch would work himself inta one a them apoplexy things that Scott’s always talkin’ about. The cream tone of his father’s shirt was complimented by the red color of the old man’s face as the shade traveled from under his collar, over his cheeks, and continued upward. Soon Murdoch Lancer’s forehead was shaded with that same red, contrasting very nicely with the silver-gray hair on his head.

But after he assessed his father’s fashionable appearance, Johnny realized that Murdoch was, ahem, favoring him with that infamous Lancer glare. Knowing what was coming, Johnny slid the innocent charm into place with his little boy demeanor and the grin, the child-like twitch of his lips that he knew had melted his father’s heart a time or two in the past. But, this wasn’t one of those times.

“And where have you been, Johnny? You’ve been gone a while, and you missed lunch! Were you in town?” With each word he voiced, Murdoch’s tone increased in volume as the red color deepened on his skin. “You’ve barely had those stitches removed, Johnny! You know you’re not cleared for any serious riding!”

Any humor Johnny had felt before was now gone, replaced by tightening restrictions, and he could feel himself beginning to rebel. Taking a moment to collect his temper before he said the wrong thing and made his father explode and that little vein burst, Johnny took a breath, looked down at his boots, and smiled. Slowly he raised his gaze to meet that of an angry Murdoch. But he couldn’t resist taking a few seconds to add an insolent element to the situation before he spoke and let his temper cool a tad longer; he came to stand in front of his father.

Let’s see, where have I been? Could tell him I spent time upstairs at The Angel’s Nest, or that I been chasin’ mustangs an’ broke three of them this mornin’, no, think I’ll tell him that I was in a coupla gunfights already taday… Johnny’s smile widened. “I went inta Green River an’ talked with Val about Morgan’s trial.”

Lucas Morgan, sent by Anthony Alexander to dispose of Buck Addison, was caught by Val and Johnny on Lancer land, just as he would have followed Addison into the hacienda. There was to be a trial, and Johnny would have to testify.

The smile slid away; he casually settled on the edge of Murdoch’s massive desk. “When I finished talkin’ ta Val, we went ta the café an’ had somethin’ ta eat; that’s when Billy saw me an’ gave me the telegram for Scott. Then I came home. I’m fine. An’ insteada you wastin’ your temper on me, we have a bigger problem that’s headed our way right now. So let’s not waste any more time on worryin’ about the ride I took.” Johnny stopped, then smiled again, but this time, the smile he used was the one that broke through Murdoch’s stampeding thoughts. “Besides, do you really think I’d do anything so stupid ta cause me more harm? Hey, I got a brother ta raise! I gotta take care a myself!” Knowing that he had just told one hell of a whopper lie, Johnny’s grin turned to Boston; Scott could not hold back and offered his laugh, relieved that Johnny successfully broke through their father’s temper instead of aggravating it as was usually the case.

The humor cracked the gruff exterior, and Murdoch couldn’t contain the chuckle that escaped him or the smile that tugged at his mouth. But, yes, he knew without a doubt that Johnny pushed himself much too often, too far, and at great expense to his health. The battle was lost… but not the war. For as long as he lived, Murdoch would wage that war against anything potentially harmful to either son, and that thought raised further apprehensions. But, for now, he would let it go. Once again, he felt he needed to say… something.

Murdoch took a breath with intentions of reprimanding his younger son, then changed his mind and closed his mouth after he saw no sign of victory in Johnny’s eyes, only relief there would be no confrontation. Johnny was a grown man and could make those choices with no input from Murdoch. But it wasn’t easy for the patriarch. He had two sons but was denied the privilege of raising them, and now he had to rein in those protective parental emotions.

The gentle rustle of a woman’s skirt broke the brief silence of the room as Aggie Conway came from the hacienda kitchen. Her soft voice, still strained from the smoke damage, having been trapped as her house burned around her, provided a welcomed interruption to the conversation.

“Excuse me, Murdoch, but Teresa wondered if anyone would be going into town tomorrow. She has a list of supplies and a few things to pick up at Hattie’s.”

“I’ll go!” Johnny volunteered with his dazzling grin and gingerly stood, eager to be assigned the duty.

Murdoch’s eyes flashed. “Oh, no, you won’t! You’re not going anywhere, young man! You’ve already been to town when you weren’t supposed to be riding! Besides,” hesitating in mid-sentence, Murdoch turned his attention to Aggie as a thought sparked in his brain. “…And just what  are you doing, young lady? You’re not to be working too hard either! You’re still recovering from all the smoke you inhaled!”

Aggie would not be cowed; she drew herself up and placed her hands on her hips.

Uh oh, Johnny thought as he threw Scott a grin, knowing that Murdoch had just crossed a line and was about to go head to head with a formidable opponent: Agatha Ann Conway. Murdoch’s gonna regret he started this!

“Well, Mr. Murdoch Lancer,” she began.

Johnny’s laugh betrayed him, and he quickly covered it with a cough that no one believed. Murdoch leveled his glare, and Johnny sobered quickly.

“I’ll have you know,” she continued, “that while I am here, I will pull my weight. Now, if you have a problem with that, I’ll take a room in town while my house is rebuilt! Don’t you think for one minute that I am going to sit back and be waited on hand and foot! Now, will anyone be going into town tomorrow?” With the question asked, she rested her eyes on Johnny. “And don’t you even think about it!”

Properly chastised, Johnny remained silent but had a problem holding back the laugh that threatened to escape as he watched Murdoch and Aggie wage the friendly battle they honed to an art form.

Murdoch could only shrug. “Yes, Aggie, I’ll see to it that someone can make the trip. If Jelly is available, I’d like for him to go.”

And now Johnny did laugh. The vision of the gruff old handyman going into Hattie’s, Green River’s new dress shop, sent him scrambling for control. He dared not risk a glance at Scott, knowing their thoughts were alike. But Johnny would have been happy to carry out the mission, especially if that sweet little Elena was working at Hattie’s when he got there.

Aggie huffed. “Thank you, Murdoch, that’s all I needed. I am sorry to have intruded on your conversation.”

Murdoch sighed, then turned to Scott and inquired about Harlan’s telegram.

The Lancer patriarch needed answers, he wasn’t looking forward to them, but he needed to know about the visit from the dreaded guest. “What does he say, son? Any reason he chose this particular time to come here?” Suspicions ran high for all three Lancers; Harlan Garrett didn’t do anything unless he would gain— profit was his reason and motivation for everything he did. There had to be some gain, either personal or financial. On his last visit to Lancer, he attempted to lure Scott back to Boston, employing despicable means.

Garrett had forced Julie Dennison, Scott’s former fiancée, to accompany him to Lancer and persuade Scott to return to Boston, or he, Garrett, would bankrupt her father’s company. To Julie’s credit and Harlan’s dismay, she couldn’t go through with the deception and informed Scott of the devious plan. But Garrett was prepared. Yes, the accountant’s experience trained him to cover every contingency, including Julie’s traitorous behavior. Harlan employed the Deegan brothers to claim Murdoch had murdered their father when, in fact, it was Deegan himself who had tried to ambush Murdoch in his rush to get to Catherine upon hearing of her illness.

The Deegans would swear in court that Murdoch murdered their father unless Scott consented to return to Boston. But, the tables suddenly turned when the Deegan boys became greedy after eyeing Harlan’s wallet, ‘fat as a stuffed toad’ with money. They tried to ambush Scott and Harlan on their way to the train to return East, even though Harlan had already paid them the agreed upon price. Ambush. Like father, like sons. And in the end, it was Murdoch that came to Harlan’s rescue, as Johnny took wounded Scott to a neighboring ranch. Harlan’s response to it all: The winners become the losers…

The mention of Harlan Garrett set those at the Lancer hacienda in many directions. Although disheartened, disappointed, and incredibly angered, Scott maintained a certain loyalty toward his grandfather. But, as his relationship with his father and brother grew, that loyalty began to degrade with Harlan’s trickery.

Murdoch came from a different place- Harlan left Catherine, his own daughter, to die in a wagon at the side of the road, then took baby Scott and left for Boston. Murdoch was never allowed to see his son, had never held the squirming bundle, did not feel the featherweight in his arms. The promise of life that he and Catherine created. It was gone. Because of Harlan. And the bitterness grew as Murdoch realized Harlan had ruthlessly controlled the strings as he manipulated not only him but Scott as well. Garrett intercepted any communication between father and son. Had lied to Scott, telling the boy that his father had not cared enough to write, to inquire about his grades in school or the things Scotty was doing. Harlan shaded Scott’s world to benefit his own and, in doing so, had also created a living Hell for his former son-in-law.

To Murdoch Lancer, Harlan Garrett meant loss. Loss of his wife and infant son. The thought of Garrett filled him with disgust. The man was evil incarnate. But out of consideration for Scott, Harlan would be tolerated until he employed other deceitful means, then Murdoch held no qualms over tossing the man out on his pompous, arrogant ass.

The knowledge that Garrett was on his way alerted Johnny of potential dangers. He would protect his family at whatever cost and knew that if it came down to it, he could and would make sure Garrett would never have the chance to harm his family… ever again. He knew Scott was torn between love for the old Bostonian and horror at the things his grandfather implemented to get his way. But, whether it be Lancer or Madrid, Johnny would be there for his brother to help him in any possible way.

Although Johnny’s efforts to be Lancer instead of Madrid were still a struggle, he was grateful when Madrid would step to the forefront to take care of business and make those tough decisions, carrying them through. This could very well be one of those times. And Johnny would protect Murdoch, who had suffered more than all of them combined.

“He doesn’t say much other than he was in San Francisco and would stop to see me… us. That’s about it. Here,” Scott held the wire for Murdoch to read for himself, but the patriarch waved it off.

“When will he arrive? Does it say?” Murdoch asked, gauging how much time he had before the sparring game Harlan dearly loved to play would begin. Murdoch would try to prepare himself for another unpleasant visit. Harlan’s previous stay was filled with treachery and deceit, and Murdoch had no reason to believe this time would be anything less.

Johnny sighed. Yes, this was the battle he was destined to fight— the battle for his family.

Steel-gray eyes watched from the corner as Harlan Garrett boarded the train bound for Stockton. Chances were, the old buzzard was headed to see his grandson. What other reason would there be for Garrett to spend time in this ‘uncivilized’ part of the country? The rants and raves were well known; Harlan kept no secret of his dislike for California, after all, Murdoch Lancer and California had taken his dear Catherine from him. Well, Gray Eyes would follow Garrett, keep out of sight, see where the man was going, what he was doing, and above all, who the old man would contact. And if Garrett refused to pay him, it would be too late for Harlan to do anything about it.

The train would pull out of the station in ten minutes. Gray Eyes had better get on board. Plans were set in motion, the plans that would make him a very rich man, and if there was any trouble out of the old Bostonian, well, that old buzzard wouldn’t live to see the sun set behind the San Benitos Mountains.

The beautiful scenery was nothing but a blur as he stared out the window. Harlan Garrett couldn’t see anything appealing about this god-forsaken part of the country. Sugar dreams! Harlan huffed. Dear precious Catherine! If only you could have seen what I saw! This land killed you and came close to taking your son! Oh, if only you hadn’t married that… that peasant!

But there was no changing things now unless he could persuade Scott to come home where he belonged. Tomorrow the train would pull into Cross Creek, where he would rent a buggy and proceed to Lancer. Harlan had to act surprised when he saw Scotty with his arm in a sling. He had to be convincing; this was a spontaneous side trip, not one Harlan had planned. No, he would expect to see his beloved grandson well, healthy, and wanting to come home.

“Y’alright, Boston?” Johnny asked as he watched his brother without appearing to do so. Since Scott received the wire from his grandfather, he seemed sullen and withdrawn. Johnny knew there was good reason for his brother’s change in behavior, and Garrett’s unexpected and unexplained visit affected them all.

Just the mention of the man’s name sent Murdoch straight out to the forge, where he pounded a piece of red-hot iron into a shapeless, useless piece of… red-hot iron, imagining it was Harlan himself that he pounded into oblivion.

Harlan’s insults would roll off Johnny’s back. The only way Garrett could hurt Johnny was to hurt others in the Lancer family. He’d heard those slurs all his life; it was nothing new, and words couldn’t do him any harm. But if Harlan dared anything that tore this family apart, Johnny could and would be Hell unleashed, and no amount of protection would save Garrett from Madrid.

Scott sighed. “Yes, I think so.” He turned to his brother and smiled. “But I really won’t know until Grandfather gets here. It bothers me why he chose this particular time to visit… if it is only a visit and not another ploy to get me to leave. I’m having difficulty trusting him, and that makes me feel…” Scott hesitated, searching for the right word.

“If you say ‘guilty’, I’m gonna hafta shoot ya!” Johnny was only half kidding, but he knew where Scott was coming from. There were still attachments and probably always would be where Harlan Garrett was concerned. Still, the last visit began a slow deterioration of that attachment; Harlan and his true colors blazed their way into the bright light of Scott’s brain. He’d always known his grandfather was a ruthless businessman, and he should have remembered the cold and calculating ways that Harlan employed to keep him away from his father for all those years. But when Harlan blackmailed Scott into going back to Boston, something changed in him. Something was lost… forever, and the relationship would never be what it had been.

Scott had been deceived by the man who had raised him, a man he trusted and loved, although the man did not encourage any demonstrative acts, the kind of thing a young boy needed. Sadly, he’d proven to Scott that he would stop at nothing to get what he wanted, no matter the cost or who was hurt. And Scott’s heart had been gravely injured, leaving a wound that would never heal, remaining raw and painful.

Scott shrugged. “Well, brother, I think you’ll have to shoot me because guilt is exactly what I feel.”

“Insteada me shootin’ ya, how about I punch ya?” Johnny took the chair next to his brother, leaned over, and gently tapped Scott’s chin with his fist as he sat brooding. ”Consider yourself punched. But…” Johnny sighed. “I know how ya feel.” Settling back in his chair as his eyes scanned across the sky, he watched the stars as they glittered, shimmering in the dark velvety night.

Scott turned to his brother; eyes narrowed, his brow furrowed, and a question formed on his lips. “You… you do?”

Johnny rolled his head against the back of the chair to meet Scott’s stare. “Yup, I do. Scott, a kid’s gonna believe what they’re told, no matter if it’s lies or not. They trust the person who raised ‘em; there’s no reason for them not to trust. I know. I felt… feel the same way about my mother. She coulda told me that Murdoch beat her senseless or held a gun ta her head an’ I woulda believed her. She told me all my life that the ol’ man threw us out, an’ I believed her. There was no reason for me ta doubt anything she said. But now I know she lied. All those years, she lied, an’ I still love her. When I think about her sellin’ herself, or havin’ ta steal food ta survive, and all the times I was beaten within an inch of my life when I coulda been livin’ here at Lancer… I still love her.” His gaze returned to the stars.

Although his brother’s voice became no more than a whisper, the words he spoke rang sharp; they ripped through Scott’s brain with piercing clarity. And he understood what Johnny was trying to tell him. They had both been manipulated as children, lied to just to suit another’s deceitful needs, and now, they were both paying the price for those misdeeds. It still hurt, but they still loved. Would always love, and nothing could change that. But that love should hold no guilt.

“Mama’s dead, an’ nothin’ll change that. But, ol’ Harlan’s alive an’ kickin’. Scott, you know what he’s capable of doin’, so ya gotta know the possibility of him tryin’ somethin’ is real, but that don’t mean ya can’t love him. Ya just gotta remember that he ain’t as innocent as he pretends ta be. There’s a reason for everything he does. An’ there’s a reason for him comin’ here.”

Scott sighed and followed Johnny’s stare into the dark sky. He knew Johnny was right; Scott had seen Harlan’s brutal business dealings firsthand; Julie had told him Harlan would ruin her father if she refused to help persuade him to go back to Boston. He knew all too well what his grandfather was capable of doing. While there was still love where the old man was concerned, he could feel it begin to change. His feelings for Harlan weren’t the same as those prior to the last visit to Lancer. He would have to wait and watch what his Grandfather would do and say, but Scott would be wary. The safety of his family depended on it.

Although deeply troubled, Scott smiled, then a sigh escaped him. “Thank you, brother.”

“For what?”

“For helping me know what was in front of me while I refused to let myself see it. For telling me it’s alright to love him even though he’s been less than honest and quite hurtful to us all.”

“You’re welcome, Boston. Ya know, all my life, I blamed Murdoch for the things Mama an’ I went through, an’ now, well, I know he wasn’t ta blame. Findin’ out about your mama dyin’, then losin’ you like he did, I feel bad for Murdoch. He’s suffered more’n both of us put tagether. It wasn’t easy for him.”

Concealed in the shadows, Murdoch’s heart thundered in his chest; his eyes misted over, and he found it hard to breathe. Quietly, he returned to the great room to gather his emotions.

Aggie Conway settled in the chair and picked a shirt out of the basket at her feet. It was a wonder that Teresa had any time to herself with the amount of laundry and mending since Scott and Johnny came home. Repairing the rips and holes torn in clothing was a never-ending, full-time job; darning the socks alone would take several evenings to finish.

Well, Aggie would do everything she could to help out. It would take months to rebuild her house, the house she and her first husband Henry built together, the house that Buck Addison, second husband, tried to destroy— while she was in it, asleep in her bed. Aggie couldn’t suppress the shiver that traveled down her spine as she thought just how close she came to being burned alive, then, with great determination, forced her thoughts not to dwell on what had happened. It was over, and Buck was dead. Now, all there was to do was to move forward.

And, with Lancer’s help, she was picking up the pieces to make that move.

She watched as Murdoch stood by the open doors leading out to the portico. She witnessed his tense stance and squared shoulders. Had he heard something? Something distressing or threatening? For several minutes he held his position, Aggie was about to go to him, but just as she put down the mending she held, Murdoch bowed his head, then turned into the room, visibly shaken.

Aggie waited before she broke into his thoughts, hoping nothing was wrong, then spoke quietly. “Murdoch, are you alright?” There was no response, and her heartbeat quickened. “Murdoch?”

The soft feminine tone nudged its way into his head. “What? I’m sorry, Aggie. My mind was elsewhere,” he murmured as a smile tickled the corner of his mouth.

Relief flooded through her as she noted Murdoch’s demeanor change to one of… What had she seen on the weathered face? A long-awaited solace? Oh, he has suffered so much over the last many years! Please let him be alright!

Murdoch appeared a million miles away; then, he glanced in his house guest’s direction as if seeing her for the first time. “I’m, ah… I walked in on a conversation between Johnny and Scott. That’s all.” His smile grew.

Aggie didn’t ask but was hopeful and sighed to herself; if Murdoch wasn’t going to volunteer whatever he heard said between his sons, she would not pry. But her eyes were sympathetic, knowing that Murdoch was moved clear through to his hardened heart at whatever was said; she suspected the words he heard offered a great deal of comfort. And she was happy for this man that had lost so much and now gained back with the return and settling of his sons.

“I think I’ll turn in. Goodnight, Aggie!” Then Murdoch left, climbing the stairs to his room with a spring in his step that had been there before.

Soon after Murdoch retired, Scott and Johnny entered the room, secured the door behind them, and bid Aggie goodnight; she was left alone with the mending and her thoughts. The stitches were neat and uniform, leaving little ‘scarring’ to indicate a repair had been made, but her mind was not on the needle and thread. It traveled to the Lancer men. So much alike with all of them bearing the trauma of loss and deprived of growing as a family. The fact that neither Scott nor Johnny knew the other existed was unconscionable! But it happened. And now, she grinned as she thought of them making up for all the lost time.

Aggie witnessed firsthand Murdoch’s grief when Maria left with little Johnny in tow. She and Henry spent many a night sitting with Murdoch when he returned from his unsuccessful forays to the border towns to search for his family, always defeated and broken. He’d spent much time and money searching for a woman who did not want to be found and had come close to shattering his life in her defiance and revenge. But revenge for… what?

Murdoch Lancer was a dear friend and one that Aggie would cherish until the day she died… and probably beyond.

But now it was time for bed. Agatha Conway picked up the basket of sewing and, pleased with her progress, stored the mending with the rest of the clothing on the shelf in the small closet off the kitchen. Then she found her way up the back stairs to her private guest room on the opposite end of the hacienda as propriety dictated.

Hooded gray eyes stared at the back of the old man seated five rows ahead. The black wool Homburg hat and crisp black cutaway coat looked out of place without a speck of dust. As he watched, a constant flick of the old man’s hand sent any dirt particle on its way before it had a chance to make a home on the finely tailored apparel. Gray Eyes snorted as he imagined the matching vest and fashionably knotted tie with the pearl stick pin, sullied with a coating of dust. The mighty Harlan Garrett, dirty and covered with the grime of a commoner! Oh, if only it were true, Heaven forbid! But the thought was satisfying.

Gray Eyes pulled his hat low over his face, looking the part of a bored traveler, blending in with all the other bored travelers.

Harlan Garrett sat alone on the hard wooden seat and thanked his lucky stars that no one tried to occupy the vacancy beside him. He had serious thinking to do and would not abide any distractions, not to mention the close proximity of a commoner. Always the savvy businessman, shrewd, and ruthless, Garrett did not hold back in his battles for those things he wanted. He wanted Scotty back in Boston and didn’t care what he had to do to achieve that end.

An ungentlemanly snort escaped the old man as he thought of his former son-in-law, Murdoch Lancer. The immigrant dockworker who dared to talk to Catherine and ultimately marry her, led Harlan to think there was some force behind the whole sordid affair. It nearly drove him to the pit of despair in his agonizing, wanting nothing but the best for his only child. Dear, sweet Catherine could never have loved a man like Murdoch Lancer! The brute was no good, had no credible family, and was an embarrassment to the Garrett name!

The time had come to make Scotty realize he had to shake this fantasy of playing cowboy and settle into the life that was his to carry through— his true birthright to continue Garrett Enterprises’ success. But how would he accomplish that? Past attempts had failed; Madrid had proven more difficult than he anticipated, but then, the men that tried to carry out those attacks on Scotty’s halfbreed brother were not qualified to see the job through. Well, no more mistakes. No, this was a battle that Harlan Garrett was going to win. No matter what means he had to employ, Scotty would return home. Home to Boston.

He began to plan and ensure an outcome that would benefit him… Oh, and Scotty, as well.

Maybe he wore that smile all night; he wasn’t sure, but it was back, securely in place as he drank his morning coffee. Murdoch repeatedly ran the conversation through his mind, and each time, it was more precious than the last.

“Well, someone is happy this morning!” Teresa stated as she came into the kitchen to see her guardian beaming as he wrapped the cup in his large hands.

His deep chuckle rumbled in his chest as he set the cup on the tabletop and looked into her eyes. “Yes, darling, I am happy, very happy!”

Teresa grinned, elated that Murdoch was smiling. And she knew why that was. His sons were home— to stay. It wasn’t until the last several years that she understood her guardian’s moods, his thoughts, and fears, too. Teresa grew up knowing the love of her father and this man, Murdoch Lancer. He was as close to her as a cherished family member, an uncle, and now, a father figure.

Teresa sat by Murdoch’s bedside after her father was murdered and Murdoch lay gravely injured in the attack from the high riders. She fought down the grief of her father’s loss and threw herself into helping Murdoch recover. She’d listened to fevered ravings, calmed delirious rants, and rapidly grew up in literally weeks. She knew Murdoch better than anyone else on earth. Yes, she knew ‘that’ smile and the joys it told.

“I’ll have your breakfast ready in a few minutes, Murdoch,” she said in her sweet, quiet voice as she went about the chore.

“That’s fine, darling; take your time!” Another smile was issued as she placed a hand on his shoulder and refilled his cup with coffee.

A shuffle on the stairs alerted them to someone entering the kitchen, and soon Aggie hurried in and pulled an apron around her, tying it as she crossed to the stove.

“I’m sorry to be late! But I have to admit I’m sleeping very well!” Aggie went into the pantry, anxious to help, not be a burden, and take advantage of Lancer’s hospitality. She would do her share!

“Aggie, how many times do I have to say it?” Murdoch began the familiar argument.

“You don’t have to say it anymore, and I wish you wouldn’t! How many times do I have to tell you that as long as I’m here…”

“I know, you will do your share… Alright, Aggie, I won’t say another word, but I want you to take it easy. The damage done by that smoke is dangerous, so, promise me…”

“I promise, Murdoch!” she said in an exasperated reply.

“Murdoch? What had Scott upset yesterday? He was awfully quiet,” Teresa asked. She had worried over Scott and knew it could be serious as she noticed Johnny’s concern, never too far away from his brother.

The smile disappeared from Murdoch’s face, and Teresa felt her belly flip over.

Murdoch sighed, then turned to face the two ladies that meant so much to him. “Yes, well, it appears we will be having a house… guest.”

And right then, Teresa knew the reason for Scott’s anxiety. Harlan Garrett.

“It seems that Harlan is on his way. He was in San Francisco and wanted to see Scott as long as he was here. It would be a reasonable and customary visit… if we were talking about someone other than Harlan Garrett, but I can’t in good conscience deny Scott time with his grandfather. The wire didn’t specify how long he was staying, but for Scott’s sake, I’ll mind my manners unless Harlan changes the rules and starts the game he plays, then I make no promises. I do worry about Johnny, though. Harlan has made enough disparaging remarks in the past, and I will not tolerate any more of them.”

“We’ll deal with this together, Murdoch, just like any other problem we’ve faced. Lancer takes care of its own!” Teresa resolutely declared.

Murdoch got to his feet and wrapped her in his arms for a hug. “Yes, it does, darling, yes it does!”

Aggie had witnessed many private Lancer moments; she felt privileged to share in them, and at this second, she vowed to help in any way she could. And perhaps this time, she would be able to offer that support. But a thought prickled her brain. How would Harlan react to her being here at Lancer?

“A penny for ‘em.”

Only one person could say those words and remove the anxiety that weighed heavily around Scott’s shoulders. He turned carefully in his chair to see the smirk on his brother’s face as Johnny sauntered around the corner of the hacienda and settled onto the bench next to him. Johnny leaned back against the tree encircled by the sturdy seat, mindful of the tender knife wound on his back. How often had Johnny sat and used the coarse bark to relieve an itch he couldn’t reach? But not today, even though it itched terribly.

“They’re not worth a penny, brother,” Scott sighed.

“Aw, c’mon, Boston, he’ll be gone before ya know it. It ain’t like he’s gonna be here for long. What d’ya think? A few days? A week at the most? Look, we know he can’t be trusted; he does have a right ta see ya… but only if you wanna see him.

Scott shrugged, a move he shouldn’t have made. The pull on the stitches caused a hiss of pain. “I wish I’d stop doing that!” he groaned.

“Yeah, I know whatcha mean. Kinda sneaks up on ya, doesn’t it?” Johnny smiled.

“Yes, it does that!” Scott hesitated, then: “After the last… ‘visit’, I’m having difficulty deciding where I stand with Grandfather. But knowing that he would blackmail Murdoch and me, well, it makes me question everything he does, and now I’m expecting him to pull something underhanded. It’s all because of me that he’s doing these things.”

Johnny wasn’t about to let Scott lie in a bed of self-recriminations. He had suspicions of his own when it came to Harlan Garrett, and there was no way on God’s green earth that he, Johnny Madrid Lancer, would allow Scott to doubt himself. They had experienced firsthand the evils of Harlan Garrett, and Johnny would be damned if he would let it happen again.


“Yes,” Scott answered as he looked off toward the majestic mountains to the west.

“I wanna make somethin’ very clear, so I need for ya ta listen, an’ I mean listen— alright?”

Johnny had Boston’s undivided attention, and he met the blue stare.

“What is it, brother?”

Should he say it, or would he be better off keeping his mouth shut and the thoughts to himself? But he wanted nothing to stand between him and his brother. So Johnny laid it out for Scott to know exactly where he stood.

“You know where you stand with Harlan, Scott, ya just hafta accept the fact that he is what he is. Lovin’ him is fine. He’s been a part of your life since ya were born. An’ now ya know how far he’s willin’ ta go ta get ya back ta Boston. Love him, but don’t turn your back on him, cuz that’ll getcha hurt, an’ probably Murdoch, too. I ain’t about ta let anything happen ta you, ta Murdoch, or ta Lancer. You have my word on that.”

Now, it was Scott’s stare that held Johnny. “What about you, Johnny? Don’t let him hurt you either. I couldn’t bear that.”

The response was soft, but the whispered words slammed into Johnny with a profound hurt yet, at the same time, with a love of brotherhood that melted and seared his heart in a blast so hot that he felt physical pain. Scott had suffered the hurt of a small boy knowing only a cold, unforgiving grandfather, and cheated out of love. No hugs or cuddles to soothe a scare on a dark, rainy night; no touch to let him know everything would be alright and that he wasn’t alone.

But now Scott had a family and a brother to love. And Johnny knew and understood those emotions well. Funny what mothers and grandfathers had in common…

Scott was caught between devotion to the man who had raised him and the family he had now— should have had all along. But he declared his loyalty in those few sentences with concern for his brother.

Johnny had to smile. “Hey, we might be havin’ this conversation for nothin’. Harlan might have learned his lesson by now, an’ if he hasn’t, maybe Madrid might hafta put in an appearance. Who knows? But, we’ll handle it tagether, alright?”

Scott began to relax, and he returned his brother’s smile. “Thank you, Johnny, but I hate to put you and Murdoch in the middle of my problems. I know how my Grandfather’s mind works, and he doesn’t like to lose in anything he does. I am quite sure that he is considering it a challenge to get me to return with him. You and Jelly were… busy throwing grapes at each other to hear what he told Murdoch just before he left last time he was here. He said he wasn’t sorry for trying to get me back to Boston, only for how he went about it. He will try it again.”

The smile couldn’t be held back. “Yeah, I know ol’ Harlan doesn’t like ta lose. Hey, how about we tell him he’s gained another grandson? That’d prob’ly make him turn tail an’ head back ta town before he sets foot in the house…”

Johnny sighed and gently shifted his back against the bark of the tree as the levity ran its course. “Well, we know how he is, so we’ll be ready. Look, Scott, I know this is tearin’ ya up inside, an’ I know what you’re feelin’, but… I got your back. Whatever happens, I got your back.”

Harlan Garrett was a meticulous man; every aspect, every facet of an issue was examined, analyzed, and dissected before he would act. Scotty’s life had been endangered and disregarded; the two stipulations he insisted upon when he entered the deal with Alexander were that Scotty was not to be hurt, and his halfbreed brother was to have met with an unfortunate accident resulting in his death. Neither had come to pass. What was he to do now? Definitive plans would have to wait until Harlan had all the details.

Scotty needs a firm hand to guide him. This show of defiance has gone on long enough! Dear, sweet Catherine made the same mistake, and look where it got her! An early grave because of that idealistic immigrant, Murdoch Lancer! I will not make the same mistake with Scotty as I did with Catherine! He will come home with me!

Garrett found himself grinding his teeth. His fingers clutched the reins in a heavy-handed control of the buggy horse, resulting in a noisy objection and much head tossing from the animal. Harlan settled his angry thoughts and forced himself to relax before the horse bolted. Then he huffed a disgusted sigh, thinking that if this were a civilized place like Boston, he wouldn’t have to drive the buggy; someone would do it for him! If this were a civilized society, my Catherine would still be alive!

He snorted in further consternation; his disgust threatened to boil the blood in his veins. Civilized, indeed! This dreadful country did not deserve Catherine or Scotty! It will kill him just as it did his mother! Scotty will thank me later.

A hazy vision in his memory took hold, and he fought against it, tried to push it from his mind, secrete it away, never to be assaulted by it again. But it wouldn’t leave him and clung relentlessly, a haunting that refused to let him in peace.

Catherine’s last words were seared into his brain and would be there as long as Garrett lived. She cooed to her baby, then looked to her father. “My son… how beautiful he is! Father, tell… tell Murdoch I… love him!” Then she closed her eyes and never opened them again; the shallow breathing told him the end was near.

But Harlan Garrett did not honor his daughter’s last request, his only child, and refused her wish. He would not tell that peasant anything! His grief burned; it scalded and blistered his heart. Harlan took baby Scott, set out for Boston… and left his daughter to die alone. And all of it was Murdoch’s fault! All of what transpired was laid at Murdoch Lancer’s feet.

And now Scotty thought he wanted to stay here in this god-forsaken country! Harlan was not about to give up, and Lancer would learn it had no chance to keep Scotty captive. None at all. Scotty would finally learn what his father had done!

“Boss, there’s a carriage comin’ under the arch. That ‘splains the ache I got in my elbow this mornin’.”

“Thank you for the warning, Jelly. Would you tell Scott that Harlan has arrived? And Johnny, too, for that matter. Do you know where they are?” Murdoch asked, wanting to see them before any difficulties arose.

“Yeah, they’re in the barn lookin’ over the fishin’ poles. Think they’re plannin’ ta go up ta the lake just in case that ol’ man starts somethin’… unpleasant.”

Murdoch had half a notion of going with them. The thought of having to entertain his former father-in-law grated like nothing else Murdoch could think of, but the precedent Murdoch established long ago would not be denied, and he opened the massive front door to greet his… guest.

The buggy pulled to a stop as Harlan paused to take in the Lancer hacienda. Though he would never admit it, he was surprised at Murdoch’s success, such as it was. While the house lacked the opulence of Garrett’s Beacon Hill mansion, it was a very comfortable accommodation and better than any hotel.

Remember to act surprised to see Scotty with his arm in the sling… The front door opened, and Harlan found himself face to face with his former son-in-law, his nemesis. For a fraction of a second, both sets of eyes narrowed; Murdoch recovered first and offered a cool and concise greeting.

“Harlan,” the rich baritone voice acknowledged Garrett’s arrival in dubious welcome. Had they reached a truce when Harlan left Lancer at his last visit? Murdoch hoped for Scott’s sake they had, but where Harlan Garrett was concerned, Murdoch wouldn’t bet on it. The man was much too devious an opponent to trust regarding even the most minute detail.

“Murdoch! It’s nice to see you. Is Scotty around? I sent a telegram; did he receive it?”

Harlan’s grin was out of place, Murdoch thought. The old man fired questions without giving Murdoch time to respond to any of them. But that smile gave Harlan away, warning Murdoch not to let his guard down. For a minute, he thought to rein in his suspicions; they stampeded, running rampant, and jumped to conclusions. But the old man standing before him, waiting for answers to his questions, was, after all, Harlan Garrett— a man known for his treachery.

“Yes, Harlan, Scott got the wire; Jelly is getting him right now. Come in; Scott will be here soon.” Murdoch’s thoughts swirled in his head. And how would Garrett react when he saw Scott with his arm in a sling?

Harlan pulled a valise from behind the buggy seat when Murdoch stopped him.

“I’ll have your bags brought to your room, Harlan.”

“Thank you. I’ll just take this with me.” Then Garrett proceeded into the hacienda, carrying the small leather bag.

I oughtta make that ol’ buzzard wait ta see Scotty! The way he acted last time he was here wuz ’nuff ta send him packin’ with no invitation ta come back! Scott’s in a bad place, though. Caught b’tween that controlin’ coot an’ the family he loves— he needs ta tell Garrett ta butt out!  

Jelly warred with himself during the trip to the barn. Should he take his time and make Garrett wait, or should he quickly deliver the news to Scott and relieve Murdoch of the burden?

The handyman stopped at the door and listened, catching only parts of the brothers in conversation.

“Don’t know how ya did it, Boston. Havin’ him plan out what he wanted ya ta do with your life, well, that just ain’t right. I know it was a tough decision ta make, but I’m glad that ya took Murdoch up on the offer ta stay here.” The words Johnny spoke were kinder than his thoughts. The control Harlan forced on Scott for those twenty-four years in Boston would have had Johnny on the run long before the invitation to Lancer had been extended and, no doubt, tagged with a warrant; no, more like a bounty. But, it wasn’t the same— Johnny couldn’t put himself in Scott’s boots, not with his upbringing, or lack thereof, all his life. He laughed to himself, knowing that there would have been issues between Garrett and him regardless of how he was raised.

Scott leaned against the stall, fishing poles forgotten and gazed at the mare with the newborn foal. It was a beautiful sight; the mare nuzzled her baby, the nurturing gesture not lost on Scott. Never in his young life had his grandfather ever comforted him; instead, the old man responded to the child’s tears with words of reproach. “Scotty, men do not cry. There’s no need for tears, young man.” But the old man was wrong to force Scott to deny himself the emotions he so desperately needed to express and grow. Grandfather had denied Scott of much… including a father. His rightful father.

There was only one person with whom Scott felt comfortable enough to divulge his feelings, apprehensions, and hopes; only one person could understand the torment that resided in his brain. Johnny. His wild and recalcitrant brother knew well the dark void, the bottomless pit that took over, the black shroud impossible to escape. Johnny pulled no punches; he was brutally honest in his assessments and opinions and made Scott see the things he knew were there but buried, perhaps refused, and failed to consider. He offered Scott an awakening.

“You know, Johnny, growing up all those years and without knowing the truth colored what I felt and shaped opinions I’m now ashamed of. I’ll never go back, not to stay anyway. A visit? Maybe, but after learning the truth of what Grandfather did and how he went about trying to get me to return East, well, it’s changed everything.”

Jelly cleared his throat, gaining the attention of the Lancer brothers.

“Ah… Scotty, yer grand-dad just got here.” Jelly’s sarcasm did not go unnoticed. The name Scotty grated on them all.

Scott lowered his head, sighed, then looked at the fishing poles leaning against the barn wall. “Let’s keep those handy… just in case!” He gathered himself together and met Johnny’s eyes. “Come on, brother, it’s time to face this head-on.”

Johnny laid a careful arm across his brother’s shoulders. “I got your back, Boston. However ya wanna do this, I’m with ya.”

“Thanks, Johnny; I appreciate it. Thanks, Jelly. Guess I’d better get to the house,” Scott murmured and pushed off the stall rail. With Johnny at his side, Scott walked to greet the grandfather who had manipulated him his whole life. With every step, he felt the familiar constraints tightening around him once more. Old resentments boiled to the surface, now molten after a lifetime of suppression. Scott resolved not to let his Grandfather have the upper hand again. The years of control were over. Forever.

No harsh words or heated arguments came from the great room; Johnny thought that was a good sign unless the two already had their hands wrapped around each other’s throats. It hadn’t taken much in the past for Murdoch and Garrett to launch into battle; what had changed? Johnny would be waiting, watching, and ready for whatever happened. The only certainty where Garrett was concerned was he could not be trusted. Was this the quiet before a storm? Then he wondered what excuse Scott’s grandfather would offer to explain the sudden visit.

Murdoch heard the footsteps and turned to his sons as they made their through the back of the house and into the great room.

Surprise— look surprised! Harlan reminded himself and prepared for the meeting.

Harlan pulled off a convincing act of astonishment as Scott entered the room, followed by his brother, but stopped instead of going to Harlan’s side. The bulk of the bandage around Scott’s shoulder spoke of a serious injury, more serious than Harlan anticipated. The look of surprise was not forced.

Scotty! My boy, what happened? Are you alright?” Harlan stepped forward, hands outstretched, reaching for his grandson.

Scott held his ground and did not advance toward Harlan, the lack of movement not going unnoticed.

“I’m fine, Grandfather, nothing to worry about. It’s… it’s nice to see you.”

Nothing to worry about? Scotty, why didn’t you let me know you were hurt?”Anger began to rise as he felt the blatant exclusion from his grandson, knowing he would have to step up his efforts to convince Scotty to come home. The old man stopped the ‘pursuit’ momentarily, then stood still. However, there was bitter resentment that no effort to contact him had been made regarding the injury. He’d been informed in detail of the incident by his collaborator but could not risk that knowledge being discovered by others, specifically, the Lancers and definitely not Scott. He could not allow his involvement in the takeover of the San Joaquin Valley to come to light. Fortunately, he was able to eliminate Anthony Alexander and keep the blundering fool from divulging his involvement.

Harlan turned an accusing eye on his former son-in-law. “Is this a safe environment for your son?! You subject him to this unspeakable danger…” Harlan stopped. He’d only just arrived— it was too soon for the arguments to start, and judging from the faces of the three Lancer men, Harlan knew he’d better tread softly, for a while at least. There would be time later to wage the battle. Now, discretion was the key to his victory.

Harlan sighed, feigning fatigue. “I… I apologize for my rude behavior. Forgive me, please. I’m very tired from travel.” He turned his gaze toward Scott and leveled what he hoped would be a concerned stare at his grandson. “But you are alright, my boy?”

Although still reserved, Scott nodded. “Yes, Grandfather, I’m fine. Here let me get your bag.” But Scott’s hand was brushed aside as Johnny bent to retrieve the valise, wincing as he did.

Johnny quickly replaced the grimace with a smile, not letting the discomfort show. “C’mon, Ol’ Ma… Mr. Garrett. I’ll take this upstairs for ya.” Johnny turned toward the stairs, valise in hand, leaving Harlan and Scott to follow.

Murdoch watched the procession and couldn’t help but feel he had just observed the performance of a lifetime. For Scott’s sake, he didn’t want to assume there was anything but the concern of a grandfather for his only grandson, but this was Harlan Garrett, after all.

Opening the door at the furthest end of the hall from Scott’s room, Johnny set the valise on the dresser, then made to leave the two alone. It would be Scott’s call if he wanted to spend time with the old man.

“I’m sure this’ll be comfortable enough.” Johnny turned to the door.

Harlan made a quick calculation and slapped Johnny’s back as he said his ‘thank you’, aiming where he estimated the slash had penetrated the skin and scored the ribs under Johnny’s shirt. He felt immense satisfaction when the lean body under his hand tightened and pulled away; he heard a hiss of pain and saw Johnny wince at the contact.

“What is it, Johnny, my boy? Did I hurt you?” And though Harlan played the role of apologetic innocence, inside, he was thrilled with his deception. “Are you alright?”

Johnny straightened quickly, not wanting his discomfort known. “Yeah, ‘m fine.”

Scott stepped toward his brother, knowing he was still battling the effects of the knife wound. Johnny quickly recovered, then caught Scott’s concerned stare and smiled. “I’m fine,” then Johnny stepped into the hall and left Scott with his grandfather.

Scott watched the scene play out, but did he see what he thought he saw? Though it happened quickly, he could have sworn his grandfather aimed for that precise spot on Johnny’s back. How would his grandfather know that Johnny had been wounded?

And now, left alone with the man that raised him, it felt awkward. This was a man that Scott knew well… or did he? And now, he felt uncomfortable in the man’s presence. How was that possible? But this man conspired, lied, and cheated, and Scott wanted to be anywhere but where he was. So, he diplomatically excused himself with an “I know you’re tired, Grandfather. You should find everything here you’ll need. If not, Teresa is in the kitchen, and Aggie, too. They can help find whatever is lacking.”

Harlan jumped at this opportunity. “Aggie? Is she new kitchen help?” He knew full well that Aggie was none other than Agatha Conway… Addison.

“No, Grandfather. It’s Aggie Conway. She’s staying here while her house is being rebuilt.”

It was a masterful performance. No skilled actor in Boston’s many theaters with their extensive repertoires could have pulled off this performance so convincingly. Harlan’s eyes widened as the words tumbled from his lying, conniving mouth. “Rebuilt? What on earth happened, Scotty?” Oh, what an opportunity! And Harlan Garrett would use it to his benefit.

“But, that is hardly proper that the Widow Addison should stay under this roof! This is highly suspect and would certainly be frowned upon in Boston society!”

Scott felt immediate irritation; he wasn’t ready for this, not now,  not yet, and he sighed. “Well, Grandfather, this isn’t Boston high society. It’s California, and in California, if a friend or neighbor needs help and we can give that help, then we do. There is nothing improper here, just friends helping friends,” Scott replied bluntly. Taking another deep breath, he calmed the beginnings of a fraying temper. It was becoming increasingly difficult to deal with his grandfather, making Scott wonder why it had taken him so long to see this side of the man that raised him. It wasn’t until coming home to live at Lancer that Scott realized the ruthlessness that governed every thought, every decision of Harlan Garrett’s life. But he was Scott’s grandfather…

Trying to brush aside any confrontation for civility’s sake, Scott turned to the door. “Why don’t you rest for a while, Grandfather? We’ll talk later.” And not waiting for a response, Scott Garrett Lancer stepped into the hall and closed the door behind him.

Johnny arched his back and groaned, trying to work through the ache. The thought occurred to him that ol’ man Garrett knew exactly where the knife wound was on his back. The slap seemed too well placed and a little too hard…

Murdoch stood in the doorway and watched as Johnny dealt with the discomfort. “What’s the matter, son?” He hoped Johnny hadn’t done anything to set him back in his recovery. Up until now, Johnny was behaving… well, as much as Johnny was capable of behaving.

“Ahhh, ol Harlan slapped me on the back an’ hit square where the knife blade cut. It’s fine, just stings a little.”

“Son, let me put some linament on that. It will help with the sting.”

“It’s fine. Nothin’ a little stretchin’ won’t take care of.” Johnny gave his father a grin. “’ M fine!”

Murdoch conceded. “Alright, but don’t do anything to make it worse!” He had to get that ‘order’ said— it was a father’s prerogative. “How are those headaches, son?”

“Better. They’re not as bad as they were.” Johnny offered his brilliant smile.

Murdoch thought about letting the remark slide, but his younger son wasn’t always truthful about his pain, so using that same father’s prerogative for the second time in as many minutes, he let Johnny know he wasn’t fooled.

“Just be careful, Johnny. That was a serious concussion you had.”

Gray Eyes watched as Garrett drove up to the hacienda, then went into the house. He wondered how long the old man intended to stay. Well, there were plenty of places where he could keep tabs on the comings and goings at the ranch without the risk of detection if he was careful, and he knew the Bostonian was only a guest and not for very long. From everything he’d heard about Garrett, there was no way on God’s green earth that he would lower himself to be at this ranch any longer than necessary, that the only reason he was there at all was for the disloyal grandson. The ‘traitorous’ grandson! Gray Eyes had to chuckle, thinking if he had a grandfather like Garrett, he would undoubtedly feel the same.

For now, he could only watch and wait, but the time was coming, and Harlan Garrett was going to pay. He settled himself down, willing to wait for as long as it took. He was a patient man. As young boys, he and his brother sat and waited for wild game when they hunted, and as they grew, Gray Eye’s brother expanded his ‘hunt’— he hunted men. But that was over now.

There was a niggling in his brain. What was it? A tickle of sorts, so close to light, before it quickly faded away. And just as suddenly, it would flutter, almost making it into the light, but disappeared as though it had never been, leaving him frustrated and desperate to pull the ‘flutter’ back to expose whatever was there. Perhaps if he didn’t try and force it, it would make itself known when he least expected it.

Scott managed to keep himself busy and as far away from Harlan as possible. There were no longer any puzzling or guilty notions regarding his grandfather, knowing Harlan would use whatever means possible to get what he wanted, and Scott knew his grandfather wanted him back in Boston. Scott also knew he would remain here, in California, with his family, where he should have been all along. There were many years taken away from them, thanks to Garrett’s self-serving beliefs, but no more. Scott would see that his family would stay together despite his grandfather’s desire. It was time Grandfather knew his place.

Although the arrival of Harlan Garrett cast an air of doubt and suspicion as the Lancers waited for something to happen, Aggie went about her day as if nothing had changed. One couldn’t fix what hadn’t yet occurred; it was the mindset of ‘don’t look for trouble that wasn’t there’. But she would be on guard, ready to defend her friends if necessary. She had never dealt with Harlan Garrett personally and could only assume the Lancers were preparing for the worst; after all, they had experienced Garrett’s underhanded ways in the not-so-distant past, and she suspected they were waiting for something to happen with this visit as well.

There was mending to do, and she pitched in to clean and cook, but she took the time to check out the horses that Cipriano and the men rounded up and herded into the corral on the far end of the barn. They were beauties, and she couldn’t help admiring the magnificent, wild animals as they circled and bunched in the unfamiliar confines. Aggie smiled as she watched Johnny study the animals, sizing them up and making plans for breaking and training. She could almost see his mind working, assessing, and sorting them as they tossed their heads in defiance.

The curtain from the second-story window slowly moved to the side as the pale blue eyes watched the scandalous scene displayed before him, his lids lowered in disgust. He studied their every move and noted their closeness as they stood out in the open, making a nauseating spectacle of themselves.

Unaware of how long she’d been standing at the fence rails, suddenly, she was not alone as she heard Murdoch’s proud voice.

“What do you think, Aggie? Fine looking horses, aren’t they?” Murdoch asked as he took a place at her side by the rails.

Aggie smiled and, without taking her eyes from the horses, spoke. “Murdoch, they’re gorgeous! They will certainly make fine cow ponies, and the Army will take whatever you can’t use! The mustangs are fine animals, they always have been, but the care given to breaking and training them makes them more valuable. You and the boys have done a remarkable job, Murdoch! Just remarkable!” Aggie’s eyes fairly danced as she observed the steeds. Then she turned to face Murdoch; a crease furrowed her brow. “Murdoch, where are Scott and Johnny? Johnny was just here a few minutes ago… I saw Jelly come out and talk with him, and now, he’s gone. I wanted to ask him about their plans with the horses…”

Murdoch chuckled. “Yes, they did want to be out here longer, but Sam has them sequestered upstairs while he checks them over!” Another chuckle escaped him as he thought that Harlan was effectively put in his place when doctor Sam Jenkins denied him entry to the room.

“I must insist! That is my grandson! I’m entitled to be there!” Harlan declared and further attacked, accusing the ‘backwoods doctor’ of using potions and leeches on Scotty.

“First and foremost, this is Scott Lancer, a grown man, and he does not need your consent or permission. Oh, and Mr. Garrett, when you get back home, please feel free to drop in at Boston University School of Medicine and say hello to the Dean, my good friend and mentor, Dr. Walter Channing. I’ll have to write to him and explain that, according to you, my diploma isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on!” Then Sam shut the door in Harlan’s face as the old man seethed in the empty hallway.

Murdoch left before the chuckle made its way out of his mouth and thanked the Heavens that no one would intimidate Doctor Sam Jenkins!

“Well, I’d better get back to the kitchen and help start dinner.” With one last admiring look at the new stock, Aggie made her way into the hacienda.

And the curtain moved back into place.

The disapproval was not lost on Aggie as Harlan Garrett eyed her with a cold glare as introductions were made when Harlan came down to join them before dinner. The old man stayed in his room under the pretense of resting from the long and tiring trip but joined the Lancer family when summoned for dinner.

Harlan scoffed at the seating arrangements at the dinner table. Murdoch sat in his usual place, Scott on his left, Harlan next to Scott, Teresa on Murdoch’s right with Johnny next to her, and Aggie sat at the other end, facing Murdoch, the position of status.

This is an outrage! Harlan fumed. I should have occupied that place of distinction; the Addison woman should have taken her meal in the kitchen with the help! Murdoch is flaunting this abhorrent behavior! Why, it’s downright scandalous!

Garrett raised his eyes and found himself the attention of all seated at the table.

“…Grandfather…? Pass the vegetables, please.” Scott’s request broke through the old man’s musings.

“Yes, yes, of course, Scotty.” Harlan took the bowl and handed it to Aggie without meeting her eyes or offering a word of apology.

Scott sighed, not bothering to disguise his frustration at Harlan’s behavior.

But Aggie took a different direction. “Thank you, Harlan! My, doesn’t this dinner look wonderful? You can’t beat Lancer beef; it’s the best in the whole state of California! And Maria is the best cook in the valley, so you’re in for a treat!” Aggie’s smile could have brightened a blazing sun-lit day.

The woman had a natural grace not many could claim, and everyone grinned at her sense of clarity… except Harlan. Agatha Conway was a savvy woman. She knew how Harlan felt about her residing in the Lancer hacienda and made up her mind that she would not hide from him, avoid his accusing stares, but meet them head-on with not an ounce of submission. Harlan did not like her attitude one bit, but apparently, it was not a deterrent. Aggie acted as if there wasn’t an issue. She was polite in their short conversations, responding to his questions and assumptions with wit and honesty.

And that grated on Garrett’s sensibilities. His vexation grew as he sat, wanting more than ever to rescue Scotty from this… this backwoods environment and take him home! Then he turned his attention and criticisms elsewhere.

Looking across the table, Harlan leveled a beady-eyed stare at Johnny as he ate, completely unconcerned with the fiery blaze that Harlan continued to glare.

“What’s the matter, Harlan? Ya look like ya just ate somethin’ sour.”

“Indeed not! But I would like to think that we are all adults, at least chronologically, that is. That means numerically, or simpler yet, act our age! We might act like adults and not as if we are eating our last meal!”

“Grandfather, can we just…”

But Scott’s words were halted when Johnny spoke.

Scott hoped that his grandfather would control his insults, but it was not to be. However, he had all the faith in his brother to handle the situation as only Johnny could.

“It’s alright, Boston,” he said quietly, then turned to Garrett. “Ya ever been so hungry that your belly’s grindin’ on your backbone, Harlan?”

“No, of course not! But that’s no excuse for gluttony!”

“Maybe not, but it makes ya enjoy your food… when ya have it… Besides, comin’ ta the table lookin’ like ya been suckin’ on lemons don’t make for a pretty picture. Dinner time at Lancer is when we enjoy each other’s company an’ the food we raise here. So, that’s what I’m doin’— enjoyin’!” Johnny took a sizable bite of the tender beef and chewed enthusiastically as his cheeky smile eased across his face and irritated the already irritated Garrett.

Though exasperated, Scott couldn’t help but smile at his brother as Harlan sputtered, then fixed his attention on his plate. Johnny had all he could do not to laugh at the pinched expression and pursed lips, thinking that now Harlan did look as though he’d eaten something sour.

The meal progressed in strained conversation until Scott had had enough. He would not let his Grandfather force the control on him that Garrett thought he still maintained. And what better partner in crime than his little brother?

But, Scott was apprehensive. This could get ugly… Resolve set in, and Scott vowed to do everything in his power to protect his family and friends from the potential threat that was Harlan Garrett. His grandfather had proved dangerous in the not-so-distant past, and not only dangerous but lethal and cunning. Nothing and no one mattered to Garrett except Garrett himself and the control over Scotty he so desperately wanted to resume.

Scott began his rebellion by bantering with Johnny across the table, and soon the family and Aggie were talking over their day and joking at each other’s expense.

Harlan had to rethink his actions. He’d only just arrived, and the situation was already tense, too tense. Perhaps he needed to go about this from another direction. Though it grated on him to do so, Harlan knew an apology was the most effective course of action for him now.

He sighed, looked down at his hands, then placed his fork on his plate. “Excuse me, everyone, I want to apologize for my sharp tongue. My intention is not to offend anyone, but I must confess that my travel here was quite exhausting, and the shock of seeing Scotty injured was quite unexpected and troubling. Please, I ask your forgiveness, and perhaps we might allow this visit another chance and start anew.” He looked around the table, making eye contact with them all, attempting to cover the thoughts raging in his head.

Scott wasn’t fooled and thought again that much had changed in his feelings for the old man since his last visit; much had changed. Once Scott accepted the horrifying fact that Harlan had kept him from his father all his life, it became a much clearer picture of precisely how deceitful his grandfather could be. The years of education and a childhood wanting for nothing had come at a steep price. The price of the love of his father and brother. And now, Scott found that he couldn’t overlook the fact any longer.

Teresa wondered at the sincerity of the statement while Murdoch nodded his head in polite acceptance and only out of consideration for Scott. He didn’t believe the words, but he didn’t challenge Garrett strictly for his son’s sake.

Years ago, someone told Johnny that a man’s eyes were the key to his soul. Look at a man’s eyes, and you can see everything you need to know. But you had to look deep. Johnny became an expert at detecting the lies, deceptions, and dishonesty in many eyes in his years of gunfighting, where those determinations were the only line between life and death. Without that talent, he would have been dead long ago. But now, he smiled at Harlan, although he wasn’t fooled by the shallow apology. “Good, let’s eat!”

Johnny wasn’t about to let his position be known; the old man was a viper, no less dangerous than a rattler with fangs ready to inject deadly poison. Lethal and self-serving, a most toxic man who would stop at nothing as he pursued his goal, and his goal was Scott. Ain’t gonna happen, Garrett. Ain’t gonna happen.

Harlan wiped his brow for the second time in as many minutes. The evening was cool, but he excused himself from the others in the great room under the pretense of enjoying the night sky and getting a ‘breath of air’. He’d come very close to giving himself away at dinner. Garrett wanted to dismiss Murdoch Lancer as a daydreaming foreigner, but in reality, he knew his former son-in-law was no fool and had been quite successful in building the Lancer ranch, although Harlan would never admit the fact to anyone.

He would never understand. His dear Catherine chased her ‘sugar dreams’, making the journey from Boston to this untamed wilderness, and it killed her! And now, Scotty, her only child, lived in the same backwoods, dangerous land, and he’d been wounded! What was the attraction? Choosing to overlook the fact that it was his money that financed the trouble that injured his only grandchild, Harlan blamed all except the true guilty party— himself.

Garrett sighed deeply, then looked to the stars but never saw their beauty. “Dear Catherine, I will bring him home! I promise!” Thunder rumbled loud and angry somewhere in the cloudless sky, challenging the old man’s declaration. Quickly, Harlan returned to the safety of the hacienda.

Murdoch observed his former father-in-law enter the room, and where he would love nothing better than for Garrett to announce he would be leaving, he would abide by Harlan’s game but set to his own rules.

“Harlan, would you care for a drink?” Murdoch held out a glass, but it was refused.

“No, thank you, Murdoch. I would like to retire for the night. Good night everyone.”

Although there was a response from those in the great room, it was not the enthusiastic salutation that Harlan expected for wishing a pleasant night to a guest. What did you expect, Harlan? A decent and respectful acknowledgment? From backwoodsmen? Scotty has been here much too long; he’s forgotten his manners! He needs to be taken home, and soon! Garrett’s gaze intentionally skipped past Aggie, a transgression that escaped none of the Lancers or Aggie herself.

Harlan stopped at the foot of the stairs, then faced the room. “Scotty, if you can spare the time tomorrow, I wish to speak to you privately.” He dabbed his face with his handkerchief and slowly climbed the stairs to the second floor.

Scott watched his grandfather until he disappeared from sight. He was conflicted, deeply so, but it was a battle, not so much about his grandfather but what was in his mind. Why was there any loyalty at all regarding Harlan? True, his grandfather saw to his every want, whim, and need… except one. The need for his father and brother— his family. Harlan Garrett had deceived Scott his whole life; he’d lied, literally brainwashed Scott, and told him his father didn’t want him.

When he visited last, Harlan had made a deal with Murdoch to let Scott decide on his own, with no influence from either, whether to stay at Lancer with his family or to leave his birthright and return to Boston. Harlan did not honor his end of the bargain and had no intention of doing so. His deceit knew no limits when he employed the Deegans to testify against Murdoch for their father’s ‘murder’. In truth, Murdoch did kill the man, but in self-defense. Harlan was unaware Murdoch reported the incident to the local sheriff and was cleared of any wrongdoing.

Scott had no knowledge of the incident; he would not have known a man was killed until his grandfather informed him of the ‘murder’ and that he, Harlan, would involve the law if Scott refused to leave with him and return East. Harlan would win the battle at any cost. He had built Garrett Enterprises on deceit and force, and he would ruthlessly continue the deception to win the war with Murdoch. Harlan would use any means necessary to bring Scott home. He disregard all else. If the truth did not benefit his ambition, it was disregarded.

Scott had much time to mull things over since his grandfather’s last visit, and before long, he’d concluded that things were not, nor would they ever be the same between him and the man who raised, lied to, and deceived him. In the last year since Harlan had been physically out of his life, Scott, with the help of Johnny, explored what had been in front of him the whole time. The long talks helped Scott to sort out the troubling thoughts that clouded his mind. If only he knew then what was so clear now. Harlan Garrett was a ruthless man, going after his prize regardless of who was hurt or ruined. And deep down, Scott wondered if Harlan had committed worse crimes.

Johnny watched as his brother struggled with the heavy load. Quietly he went to the sideboard and retrieved the bottle of Glenlivet, then without asking, he refilled the empty glass in Scott’s hand. Looking into Boston’s eyes, Johnny smiled and nodded. “Ya don’t hafta do this alone. Hey, you thinkin’ any more about sneakin’ down ta Mexico?” he asked and coaxed a smile out of his brother. With a nod at his hand, he smirked and said, “Now, let’s finish this bottle of Murdoch’s good stuff.” He wondered if alcohol would help the pounding headache or make it worse.

Scott couldn’t help but laugh at the wicked grin his brother gave him or the sparkle that danced in the blue eyes.

It was not going according to plan, and Harlan seethed. All attempts to bring Scotty home had failed. But Harlan was anything if not tenacious, and he would succeed… somehow. He hadn’t gotten to this position by failing in his endeavors; ‘failure’ was not a familiar word. Nor was ‘quitting’. He reached into his pocket for the handkerchief he always carried and pulled it into his hand; as he removed the linen, the crumpled note he had received before he left San Francisco fell to the floor and rolled unseen under the bedside table.

Garrett, lost in contemplation, stared at the cloth in his hand as a thought struck him. That was it! Yes, I’ll tell him I’m sick! Scotty will have to come home with me! And the plan began to grow— cultivated and fertilized, Harlan would reap the bounty it would provide him.

Walking to the mirror over the washstand, Harlan studied his reflection and briskly rubbed his cheek. Before long, a rosy hue colored the area; now, how long would it last? Would it work, or should he look for something else to make him appear pale and sickly? Either way, flushed or pale generally signified illness… He would give it careful consideration.

“I’ll give ya a nickel for ‘em now.” Johnny’s grin teased, coaxing a like response.

Scott snorted. “You’d be giving your hard-earned money away, brother. My thoughts weren’t worth a penny yesterday and less today.”

Johnny leaned on the top rail of the fence next to his brother. “Ya wanna talk about it?” Scott’s stance was unmistakable; he’d watched his brother enough throughout the day to know he was drowning in the turbulent waters of self-loathing, disappointment, and the need to protect everything Lancer, and it all stemmed from Harlan Garrett. Boston was like a broken tree branch, not knowing whether to fall or hang on swinging in the breeze. Scott needed Johnny now, whether he knew it or not.

Without meeting his concerned brother’s stare, Scott shrugged and shook his head. “I can’t seem to get my thoughts in order.”

Johnny chuckled. “They hafta be in order, Boston? Not everything is gonna make sense, not all the time. Besides, that’s why ya got me— ta talk things out. If ya wanna talk.”

He waited for Scott to start. Those first few sentences were the hardest, but all Scott had to do was begin, and the rest would flow; Johnny would see that it did. “Well, just know ‘m here for ya…”

Scott turned to Johnny, knowing the talk with his brother was his starting point for sorting through the conflict which was building by the minute. “It’s Grandfather.” The statement was simple; the problem wasn’t.

“Yeah, kinda figured that out already. What’s got ya confused?”

“I can’t quite figure it out. It’s… he’s my grandfather, he raised me, gave me everything, and now I… I don’t trust him, and it’s got my mind going in circles. One minute, I think of what he did for me; I wanted for nothing as a kid; the next minute, I’m angry for the lies he told me, letting me believe that Murdoch didn’t want me. This volley back and forth… Why am I doing that?”

How many times would they have this conversation? As many times as it takes. Different words were spoken, but they said the same things and implied the same thoughts and emotions.

“Scott, he’s the man that kidnapped ya right out from under your father, he lied to ya an’ manipulated you all your life… an’ he kept us apart. You’ve told me before he never gave ya much attention, never had much time for ya. But I understand that ya love him. Hell, Mama did mosta them things, too, an’ it took a while after I found out the truth ta sort it out. It’s no crime that I still love her, but I can tell ya that if she was alive, I sure as hell wouldn’t be trustin’ her.”

He wasn’t sure if anything he said made the point that his brother needed to hear; did his words make sense or provide Scott the encouragement to fight, to come to terms with Harlan Garrett? Johnny didn’t know, but he would do whatever was necessary to help his brother.   

“You hafta figure out for yourself, decide what’s important, an’ go from there. I’ll talk with ya, tell ya how I feel, but ya already know that I’m gonna lay it on the line and tell ya exactly what I think. You ask, an’ you’ll get the truth as I see it.” Johnny stopped and allowed Scott the opportunity to weigh his thoughts.

Scott watched an ant scramble in the dirt beside his boot, first going one way, then another. He knew how that ant felt. Had it been that simple, that clear? Harlan committed every crime that Johnny voiced, and probably more than any of them knew, but once put into words, the solution seemed so obvious. Until the next day, when he found himself back in the volley of conflicting emotions that were making him crazy. Scott wondered if he was subconsciously making excuses and covering for the old man. But Johnny’s words rang true. And once again, Scott marveled at his younger brother. Here was Scott, a Harvard-educated man in the top five of all his classes, and it was Johnny, his uneducated, ex-gunhawk brother, to point out what was important and what had been there in front of Scott his whole life.

Another brick was added to the growing wall of separation that Harlan Garrett constructed, contrived for his greedy wants, layer after layer of lies and deceit. Harlan began to build that wall when he stole Scott away from Murdoch and issued the subsequent threats to drag the boy through the courts, ultimately bankrupting Murdoch should he pursue his rights as Scott’s father. And worst of all was the blatantly denied chance for Scott to know his brother.

Why had he been so confused? It was as crystal clear now as the night sky above; Johnny’s words spared no blame and put that blame where it deserved to be— squarely on Harlan Garrett’s shoulders.

His grandfather might have raised Scott from infancy, but the man took what he wanted from Scott and tried to force his corrupt business acumen onto his grandson, along with convincing lies. It was becoming clearer by the moment that Harlan Garrett was a thief and a liar; he was filled with hate and deceit, not anything that Scott aspired to be, and finally admitting to the beast Harlan was, he was ready to cut his ties.

Out of nowhere, that little niggle he felt yesterday sparked as a flash of memory ignited. ‘The Widow Addison’!

“Johnny, Grandfather knows about Aggie! Why would he know about her? He knows her name was Addison and referred to her as ‘the widow Addison’! But I specifically mentioned her as Aggie Conway! How could he possibly know that unless…” The words ‘he was involved somehow’ died in his throat, and Scott was immediately filled with dread.

His belly flipped over, and the pain in his head began to thump. Johnny finished Scott’s statement— Garrett knew the happenings at and around Lancer, but he kept those thoughts to himself… for now, even though Scott suspected what had happened.

“It’ll come out, Boston, an’ we’ll find a way ta make sure there won’t be any trouble. You an’ me, Scott, tagether.”

Scott nodded his head, then the beginnings of a smile tugged the corner of his mouth. He turned his eyes to his brother and placed a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “It was there; all the time, it was there, but it took you to help me see it.”

“You woulda figured it out, Boston. I think ya already did, but sometimes ta hear the words said, insteada just thinkin’ on them, makes it clearer. But you’re welcome. ‘ M goin’ ta bed, see ya in the mornin’, Scott.” With a gentle hand on Scott’s shoulder, Johnny left his brother at the corral fence, feeling less confused but with more troubling thoughts.

The morning sun streamed through the window as Harlan Garrett lay in his bed. How long could he stay there before someone knocked on the door, checking on his welfare? He couldn’t waste time and, in fact, didn’t know how much he had left, but he had to act. He needed to appear ill. He got out of bed and stood by the window. Pulling the curtain aside, Garrett looked out over the grounds.

He had decisions to make. He had to act quickly to deal with the threat from Bill Flemming, a man Harlan trusted in the past. But things change, and so do men, and Harlan had to find a solution. Perhaps a walk would help to put his thoughts in order.

Garrett dressed and made his way down the stairs, walked through the great room, and out the front door.

Maria, intent on her chores, stopped in mid-stride and watched Scott’s Abuelo hurry out into the bright sunny day. Puzzled, she went about her business, glad she didn’t have to deal with the cold, arrogant attitude. 

Aggie shook the wrinkles out of the blue-flowered shirt and pegged it on the line. The day promised warm sun, and the light breeze would dry the clothes in no time. Happy to be of use while staying at Lancer, Agatha Conway then reached for the faded red shirt that Johnny favored and smiled, thinking it wouldn’t be long before the shirt was too worn to wear. A thought crossed her mind that turned her smile into a full grin. Ana Rivera was excellent with a needle and thread, and together they would duplicate the shirt and surprise him! Oh, Aggie could see that grin already!

She pinned the shirt to the line; movement caught her eye as she watched Scott’s grandfather walking in the garden, stopping to… smell the flowers? That was odd. Now, if it had been any other person, Aggie wouldn’t have given it a thought, but the action seemed most out of place for Harlan Garrett. He stood, not doing anything. Did Harlan Garrett enjoy the simpler things in life? She wondered. From the things she’d heard, she had her doubts.

Finished with her task, Aggie picked up the empty basket and headed into the house, smiling to herself and thinking the clothes she’d just hung to dry were probably already dried, however, that kettle on the stove needed her immediate attention, and the laundry would have to wait. As she passed him, she greeted Harlan with a wide smile and a cheery “Good morning, Mr. Garrett!”

Harlan jumped as if he’d been burned. Too late to control his surprise and wide-eyed shock, he admonished Aggie.

“Mrs. Addison! Do not do that! You startled me!”

Oh, where are those bees when you need one? She thought to herself. “Beautiful morning, isn’t it? Oh, and my name is Conway, Aggie Conway.” Then without apologizing for disturbing the old man, Aggie left Harlan standing in the garden looking as if he’d been caught doing something he shouldn’t have been doing. Still, she wondered what he could be up to in a flower garden and why he called her Mrs. Addison…? Suddenly unsettled, she felt a prickling sensation crawl up her spine. Was Harlan Garrett the cause? Was the man up to something, again? Feeling protective of all that was Lancer, Aggie made up her mind to watch him. She wouldn’t let him hurt the people she considered her family.

Harlan had come to the garden to think over his course of action but was interrupted by that dreadful woman! He needed to sort out the fragments of tangled thoughts. His first step was to speak to Scott, and he was keenly aware that his grandson was avoiding him. Well, it couldn’t continue forever. But today would reveal answers, whether Scotty wanted to talk or not.

The vision through the telescope made Gray Eyes laugh. The old man looks a little troubled… Hmmm, wonder what has him in a knot? The man chuckled and thought old Harlan Garrett hadn’t seen trouble yet! Just wait, old man!

The rustle of papers brought Harlan into the great room, hoping to find Scott alone so they could have the necessary conversation, but he was disappointed to see Murdoch sitting at the desk going over the ledgers.

Murdoch looked up as his ex-father-in-law tried to slip away before he would be seen.

“Harlan,” Murdoch’s voice was soft but held an authoritative edge that let Harlan know he would be forced to engage in conversation with his former son-in-law.

“Oh, good morning, Murdoch. Have you seen Scotty? I wish to speak to him.”

Murdoch had to hold his temper in check as he wondered why Harlan insisted on using ‘Scotty’ instead of ‘Scott’. Scott’s a grown man and deserves that consideration! But Murdoch decided not to challenge the issue and accept it as another attempt to enforce control over the young man. Scott would deal with his overbearing grandfather, and Murdoch sensed that his son was ready to do just that.

“The last I saw of him, he and Johnny went to the barn to check on the new foal. They could be there for a while, but you are welcome to go find them,” Murdoch offered.

Harlan’s frown creased his forehead. He needed to get that half-breed away from Scotty. What he had to say could not be known, especially to Johnny Madrid, but then, Johnny Madrid wouldn’t be around much longer. That threat would soon be eliminated, for good, this time! There had been too many mistakes, mistakes that had come near to taking Scott’s life and missed the opportunity that would have removed Madrid permanently.

Buck Addison’s many failures came at great cost. The gunfighter Addison hired had botched his job and was now sitting in the Green River jail, compliments of the bungling Sheriff Crawford. Thoughts swirled in Harlan’s brain as he contemplated options; perhaps he would arrange a jailbreak and give the man a chance to redeem himself. The idea held merit, but Madrid had proven himself a difficult target, and Harlan wondered if it would be a waste of time. However, it was a chance he would take if the meeting with Bill Flemming didn’t yield the results Garrett desired. Ambush Madrid a second time and force a more productive outcome was a chance he was willing to take to be rid of the half-breed gunfighter.

Harlan Garrett walked to the barn, a filthy barn filled with manure and flies, but it was where he would find Scotty. He had to begin the battle to win the war, and should the steps be taken in a dirty barn, then the barn was where he had to go.

The gray eyes strained through the spyglass. The ol’ man’ goin’ out ta the barn… Not a place he’d usually go unless he had to. That grandson must be out there… Hunkered down, out of sight in the trees and rocks on the hillside, Gray Eyes watched, keeping his attention focused and analyzing every move the elderly man made.

Teresa knocked and, receiving no answer, pushed the door open into the guest room. Thankful she would not have to face Scott’s grandfather, she began to straighten the sheets and blankets, smoothed out any wrinkles, and plumped the pillows. Teresa rinsed out the wash basin, tossed the water out the open window, refilled the pitcher with clean water, and replaced the towels. After completing the last of the cleaning, she glanced around the room, ensuring there was nothing to offend Mr. Garrett.

Her sharp eye caught sight of something under the table next to the bed. Bending to retrieve the article, Teresa found a wrinkled ball of paper. Although knowing it was none of her business what was written, she couldn’t control the curiosity that bubbled to the surface. Quickly she looked around and listened, not wanting to get caught reading what didn’t concern her. Carefully she coaxed the paper flat and read the written words.

Garrett- The deed is done-  But it’s going to cost you more- I’ll be in touch. Don’t get any funny ideas about running. I’m watching every step you take.

Teresa’s heart began to pound, and she felt knots form in her belly. Was someone watching the hacienda at this moment? Teresa was torn; she needed to tell someone about this, but who? Murdoch would demand an answer, thinking Garrett brought possible danger to Lancer, and Harlan would resent the interrogation. Neither Scott nor Johnny should be dealing with anything physical, but she might not have a choice whether to tell them. What am I going to do?  She looked out the window into the yard and saw the best option open to her.

“Ain’t he a beauty, Scott?” Johnny asked as he studied the healthy, spunky foal in the stall nursing at his mother’s side.

Scott grinned at Johnny’s enthusiasm, but he had to agree. “Yes, brother, he certainly is! He’ll sire some fine babies! Have you thought of a name for him yet?”

“Not exactly, but somethin’ with ‘Johnny’ in it!” He laughed when Scott pulled a face. “Ya know, with the lines we’re turnin’ out, these horses’ll bring top dollar…”

“Scotty,” Harlan’s voice broke through the brotherly conversation, setting Scott on edge and Johnny immediately on guard.

Johnny watched as his brother tensed and closed his eyes in dread. And he waited, not wanting to leave Scott should his help be needed.

“Scotty, I want to talk to you.” Harlan was not to be ignored. Scotty needs to be re-educated! This way of life has ruined him!

“I’m busy, Grandfather. It will have to wait until later.”

Although the words were controlled, they sent an unmistakable message, one that the old man neither appreciated nor accepted, and Harlan Garrett would not be put off.

“You’ve forgotten your manners, Scotty; we will talk and talk now!” Harlan was appalled. Never before had Scotty behaved so disrespectfully! It would stop… immediately! “Johnny, you will leave us now,” he commanded.

Johnny slowly turned to face Harlan, casually leaning with left elbow on the stall rail, weight on left leg, and his right hand resting on the butt of the Colt. His hooded eyes stared in a challenge. Johnny saw the tremor in the old man’s body and let the insolent grin crawl across his face, knowing the ol’ man wouldn’t make this call. This was up ta Scott ta decide.

Harlan felt his heart pound, and for a moment, he thought the half-breed killer was going to shoot him. But what bothered him most was the inaction and lack of protection from his grandson.

A laugh from Johnny Madrid raised Harlan’s ire… and worry.

“I’ll, ha, I’ll leave when Scott tells me he’s alright with that.” Never breaking his stare from Harlan’s face, Johnny waited, purposely stretching out the seconds before directing the question to his brother. “What’d ya think, brother, wanna talk alone, or ya want me here?”

Harlan gritted his teeth in irritation.

And now it was Scott who took his time to answer. An audible sigh escaped his lips before he spoke, and when the words came, they were bitter on his tongue. “No, Johnny, I don’t want you to leave, but I think to speed this along and get it over, this talk would be best done in private. Thank you, Johnny, for understanding.”

“Understand more’n you know, brother, more’n you know. I’ll be in the kitchen.” With one last hard stare at Harlan, Johnny left them alone to talk. The last thing he heard was Harlan criticizing Scott further on his manners and Scott’s reply, “Perhaps you should have thought of the consequences before you lied and deceived me on your last visit…” And Johnny knew Scott would hold his own in his discussion with Garrett.

Harlan watched as the half-breed walked into the bright sun of the day, then turned to Scotty. Make it good! Make him believe! He took a deep breath, then launched into battle.

“Is there somewhere we might sit, Scotty? I have something very serious to talk over with you.” Garrett pulled a forlorn expression, and he feigned illness.

Teresa raced down the back stairs but slowed, hoping not to attract attention. Her fingers wrapped around the note safely tucked in her apron pocket, waiting for Johnny’s appraisal. She paused at the bottom of the stairs, knowing Murdoch was working on the ranch ledgers, and quietly crossed the space that led into the kitchen. Teresa caught a brief glimpse of Maria’s back as the cook headed into the pantry. Luck was on her side!

Aggie smoothed the last shirt, then carefully added it to the pile of dry clothes, in time to see Teresa hurry out the back door, then watched as the girl approached Johnny; the two went in the direction of the garden. The faint prickle returned, much like the wispy skitter of spiders’ legs crawling across her skin. She would find out what prompted Teresa to intercept Johnny and hoped nothing was wrong.

Just as the kitchen door opened to admit Johnny, Teresa grabbed his arm, spinning him around and back outside before the jingle of his spurs had the chance to echo within the adobe walls.

“Whoa, there, querida! What’s…”

“Johnny, quiet! Don’t say anything; come here where no one can hear us!”

Alarmed, Johnny followed her to the garden, not quite escaping Aggie’s attention as she finished taking the last of the clothes off the line. She picked up the basket and disappeared into the hacienda.

“T’resa, what’s goin’ on?” Warnings flooded Johnny’s brain; the uncharacteristic behavior from his sister set him on edge, and he wanted to know, needed to know what troubled her.

“Johnny, I was cleaning Mr. Garrett’s room and found this on the floor under the bedside table! I don’t know what it means, but it scared me!” She held out her hand and presented the crumpled note to Johnny.

The hair on the back of Johnny’s neck stood on end, signaling trouble. The message was clear. Old man Garrett paid someone off; what order had Harlan given? It must have been something big cuz they’re wantin’ more money. But the thing that set Johnny’s hackles to raise was that whoever it was, was watching the hacienda. Someone was on Lancer land watching every move they made.

“For the time bein’, let’s keep this between you an’ me, okay, querida?” Johnny reached for her, placed his hand on the back of her head, and pulled her close to kiss her forehead.

“Johnny, what are you going to do?” Worry filled her blue eyes. Teresa knew the lengths to which Johnny would go to protect his family and all associated with Lancer; she only hoped he wouldn’t further jeopardize or sacrifice himself to find the answers.

Johnny smiled at his sister, doing his best to ease her fears. “Well, T’resa, I can’t do much for now, other’n take a look around. That’s all. I ain’t goin’ far an’ I’ll be back soon. Can I trust ya ta not say anything till I get back?” He gave her another smile and hoped the grin worked its magic. But he wondered if he’d convinced her, knowing he’d stretched the truth but also knowing he couldn’t take much time to search. She would tell Scott or Murdoch if he was gone very long. If Johnny could get to the bottom of this without anyone knowing, it would be easier on Scott; Boston could be seriously hurt, and Johnny would avoid that at all costs.

Oh, Johnny doesn’t play fair! He knows he can talk me into just about anything! Teresa shrugged. “Alright, Johnny, I won’t say anything, but you’d better get back soon! The whole ranch will know you’re gone if you’re not!” And Teresa always kept her word.

“Thanks, querida! I’ll be back!” Leaving Teresa in the garden, Johnny walked to the barn, and finding no sign of Scott or Harlan, he saddled Barranca, then casually rode out of sight behind the hacienda and up into the hills. If someone was watching Harlan Garrett, chances were they weren’t keeping an eye on the back property. It was a chance Johnny was willing to take.

He kept riding into the hills until he reached the woods. From there, he circled around to begin the search, wondering who or what he would find.

“Alright, Grandfather, what is so important that it couldn’t wait?” Scott sighed, already tired of the talk— the conversation that had not yet begun.

Harlan knew it would be a battle of wills, but he was prepared to do whatever it took to make Scotty see what was right and honorable. He would remind Scotty of his… obligations. And he would reprimand him for his consistently lacking manners.

Harlan sighed, then drew himself up and, with pursed lips, pointed out Scotty’s shortcomings. “I am ashamed of how far you’ve allowed yourself to fall, Scotty! Your manners are appalling, and I do not deserve to be treated like a…”

“Criminal? Because that is precisely what you are! You have lied, cheated, and bribed to get what you want, and God only knows what else! To be perfectly honest, Grandfather, I’ll tell you right now that I will not be returning to Boston with you, so don’t try to convince me. I am staying here with my family— the family you denied me; my rightful family. I know that you lied to me all my life about Murdoch, claiming he cared nothing for me! And as if that wasn’t bad enough, you deprived me of my brother! All that time, I had a brother and never knew it! I will not let you manipulate me or my life any longer; the sooner you get that through your head, the better off you will be. Excuse me; I have a conversation to finish with my brother!” Scott turned to leave.

“I need help, Scotty. I’m sick, and in a very short time…”

Here it is. “You will need me to run Garrett Enterprises, am I right?” I was expecting this. “Find someone else. I don’t want it. You’ve burned your bridges with me.” Then Scott Garrett Lancer left his grandfather standing alone.

He didn’t have much time before Teresa would tell someone that he had left the ranch. Johnny wondered if he should have taken a different approach and ridden out under the Lancer arch under the guise of going to town or some such errand. He wasted much time going around the back way; still, if someone was, in fact, watching the ranch, they might have seen Teresa hand him the paper, distressed and worried, and would have abandoned his mission, opting to run or resume the watch after Johnny gave up and returned to the hacienda. Could he afford to waste any more time searching for someone that possibly had already left? Whoever it was would be watching Harlan. But was it only Harlan who was under surveillance? There were too many questions, and none of them had an answer.

Making a brief circuit around the area and finding no sign of a stranger, Johnny turned Barranca toward the hacienda, reining him down off the hill to the back of the barn. Stripping the saddle off the horse, he settled it on the top rail, brushed the golden coat, then turned his amigo into the corral.

“Where did you go?”

Johnny turned to face his concerned brother and hoped Scott wasn’t suspicious of his sudden disappearance. “Just thought I’d take a little ride an’ let you have time with Harlan. How’d it go?” Johnny skillfully directed the conversation away from his ride. But he already knew the answer to the question as Scott shrugged and tried to rein in his emotions.

“Johnny, with every sentence that comes out of that man’s mouth, he’s driving me further and further away. He’s trying to convince me that he’s sick and needs me back in Boston!” Scott closed his eyes and shook his head.

“Ya sure he ain’t sick? I mean, sometimes ya can’t always tell, an’ I’d hate for ya ta make a mistake an’ lose him for good.” What the hell’m I sayin? But in his heart, Johnny knew he had to convince Scott that it was OK to have feelings for his grandfather.

“I know what you’re saying, brother, and I thank you for it, but it’s just another ploy, and a dishonest one, to get me back to Boston. I told him I wasn’t going and to get someone else to help him, that I’m not interested.”

Relief flooded through him. Johnny was well aware that Harlan Garrett could talk a jackrabbit out of hopping. He’d manipulated Scott all his life, and Johnny knew he wouldn’t stop just because Scott suddenly stood up to him. No, the fight was yet to come… and Johnny would be ready.

Harlan’s blood boiled, prompting a hammer pounding an anvil heartbeat; he would not be denied his grandson! He would not be denied anything! The old man stood, livid and seething, but pushed his anger aside as an idea flashed in his head— a plan so simple that it made Harlan smile despite his rage. I’ll employ Bill Flemming and make him earn the money he wants! Harlan held back the cackle of laughter that threatened to escape.

It seemed that Scotty was a Lancer at heart but as horrific as that thought was, the old man was determined to sway his grandson’s mind— One way or another. The boy obviously didn’t know what he wanted!

Harlan Garrett readied himself to start the next step in his venture to make Scotty change his mind about staying in California. He would court an enemy to ensure his victory, and he would win in the end— he would win.

The way was clear; Harlan made his way to his room, checked his coat, ensured the Derringer was in its place, retrieved his hat, then hurried out to the barn.

Ol’ Harlan has a knack for gettin’ everyone in a pucker. But Johnny had to admit that, where Harlan was concerned, his brother was more forceful when dealing with his grandfather than he’d ever been. Scott was seeing what was in front of him rather than seeing Harlan as Harlan wanted Scott to see him. And that made Johnny smirk.

Footsteps interrupted the wandering thoughts, and Harlan called for Jelly to ready his buggy. Johnny listened to Jelly’s grumping as the old man harnessed the horse, then left Garrett on his own to settle onto the seat. Without a ‘thank you’, Harlan drove the buggy toward the Lancer arch, leaving an irritated Jelly grumbling in a cloud of dust.

“He say where he was goin’, Jelly?” Johnny asked as suspicions began to grow.

“No, an’ I didn’t ask! He can stay gone far’s I’m concerned!” The old man scowled. “Seems ev’ry time that ol’ goat comes here, there’s trouble not far b’hind!”

Johnny had to agree, but instead of wasting time thinking about that trouble, he needed to find it before it was too late and his brother was hurt yet again. He turned and walked to the corral, saddled his horse for the second time that afternoon, hoping Garrett would lead him to the one who foolishly observed the happenings at Lancer.

Harlan Garrett would meet this threat head-on, and he would turn it to his favor. Perhaps Bill Flemming did deserve more money regardless of the fact they had agreed on the original price. But, there were loose ends from the first attacks, and Harlan was about to order a second volley to complete the job. Scotty will be heartbroken, but he will find solace in Boston! Harlan couldn’t help but smile. He would convince Scotty it was for the best…

Garrett kept the horse at a leisurely trot. If he were watched as the message said, there should be an attempt to contact him before he got into Green River. But Green River was not his destination; Harlan wanted to force this meeting and get his plan moving. Garrett wanted this talk now more than Flemming, he was sure, and he would make it happen. And the talk wasn’t long in coming.

The old man jerked on the reins, startled by the voice behind him.

“You can stop right there, and don’t turn around! Stay right where you are!”

Harlan sat still as ordered. Although taken off guard, he refused to let his surprise show and let the smile slither into place. He was ready to deal— give Flemming another chance, and he would succeed where Lucas Morgan had failed. Why had he trusted Victor Edmunds in the first place? Did the buffoon think that changing his name to Anthony Alexander would fool anyone? Harlan huffed in disgust. Amateur!

Garrett waited, biding his time. The demand came as expected, but neither the tone nor speech pattern were familiar.

“We have some unfinished business, Garrett!”

It wasn’t Bill Flemming’s voice; who else but Flemming would have sent that message? Harlan had no option but to keep the man talking and let this play out. The weight of the tiny Derringer tucked inside the small pocket in the lining of his coat gave him a sense of security until the voice told him to keep his hands out to his side where they could be seen.

“Who are you? And what do you want of me?”

“You owe me more money for doing your dirty work, Old Man!”

Harlan hesitated; should he spill his hand or let this play out and see where it led? But time was wasting, and he wasn’t about to let any more slip away.

“You are wrong, whoever you are. I don’t know you; I’ve never heard your voice, which tells me you are lying to me. Why are you playing games? I’m a busy man with no time for this!”

“Well there, Mister Garrett, you will make time for me, or I will expose you for the man you are…”  Jeff Flemming’s gray eyes narrowed. “Oh, you know me, old man! You know me.”

Harlan Garrett was no fool; perhaps he could strike the bargain. So, he took the chance.

“We need to talk, whoever you are, and spare me the dramatics. I know you are not Bill Flemming, but perhaps we could be of benefit to the other.” Without waiting for the man to agree, Harlan proceeded. “We should get off the road before we are seen. Follow me.” The command was clear; Harlan had turned the tables and taken charge of the situation.

Barranca knew what was expected of him. His surefooted speed took Johnny through the trees and behind the rocks that shielded his presence. The horse slowed when he felt the light pressure of the reins.

Johnny watched from his cover in the trees as Garrett stopped the buggy, then sat perfectly still. Something had happened. Johnny dismounted, secured Barranca to a low-hanging branch, then went forward on foot. Before long, a man broke from cover to stand behind Harlan. Though the words were barely discernible, the body language told Johnny everything he needed to know. It was not a planned visit, nor was it friendly. But when Harlan raised his voice, Johnny knew something had changed, and he needed to find out what the old man was up to now. With that old goat, ya just never knew.

Johnny inched his way closer as he saw Harlan, followed by the stranger, make their way into the trees off the road. When they stopped in a secluded spot, Johnny hunkered down, taking a position and the chance to find out just what kind of hell Harlan Garrett brought to Lancer and, more probably, what new threat he would use and force Scott to bend to his wishes.

Harlan pulled up on the reins, halting the horse in the cool shade of the sycamores. Content under the trees and out of the sun, the bay bobbed his head and stood still as the swish of his tail flicked away the biting flies.

“Let’s not waste any more time!” Harlan knew he was pushing the limits; the man behind him was undoubtedly armed, but he also was keenly aware the situation would not go the way he needed it to be if he did not push.

Without waiting, Harlan climbed out of the buggy, a bold and potentially dangerous move. Would his bluff work to his advantage?

Jeff knew he’d lost control of the moment and was no longer calling the shots. The old man was good, but Flemming stood his ground as Harlan Garrett turned to face him.

A flicker of recognition sparked in Harlan’s brain, but it wasn’t quite right. Not quite. Bill Flemming was a younger man; the face that snarled at him now was much older, however similar. The bone structure was nearly identical to Flemming’s and was a dead giveaway. The man standing before Garrett was Bill Flemming’s brother; he was sure of it.

“Who are you, and what do you want of me?” Harlan went into attack mode to secure the upper hand. “State your business and talk or be off with you!”

Dammit! He’s doing it again! But he wasn’t about to let this man intimidate him a second time. Garrett was partially to blame for Bill’s death. If his younger brother hadn’t been working for the old man, he would be alive right now… but he wasn’t, and Jeff wasn’t going to let the great Harlan Garrett get away with what he did.

“I want you to pay for what you did, Garrett! Because of you and your greedy ways, my brother is dead, and now it’s time for you to face the facts…”

Harlan weighed his options, made a quick calculation, then set his plan in motion. Flemming was after money; money was something Garrett had in abundance and knew it was a great motivator. It was time to convince Scotty that his boyish dreams of living as a cowboy were over. And it was time to end this senseless confrontation and take what he wanted.

But one detail demanded his attention, and now, that detail would be handled… forever.

“Now you listen to me, and you listen well! If you want money, you earn it! Don’t come slithering on your belly like a snake, demanding that I pay you for something you haven’t done! I paid your brother and paid him in full; the fact that he got himself killed is not my concern! He dealt with Alexander, and he earned the agreed-upon price.” Harlan stopped the admonishment and let his words sink in. all the while, he read what was in the man’s eyes and on his face. Garrett had the man’s attention; he would set the hook and reel him in. “Now, if you think you’re up to it, I have a job for you. I’ll pay you five thousand dollars— if you can handle it!”

“You’re going to have to do better than that, Garrett! Make it ten thousand, and you’ve got a deal— but you pay me half the money now!” Flemming countered, not bothered by the fact that he had no clue what the ‘job’ entailed and unwilling to give the old man the upper hand. He’d take what money Harlan had with him now, and Garrett could wire his bank for the rest of it.

Harlan stood as if thinking over the proposal but knowing he wouldn’t pay this man more than the five thousand. “Alright, ten thousand! But you make sure you do the job right! And do it soon!”

“I want half of it now, old man!” Flemming had heard from Bill how Garrett conducted his business and was not about to let him weasel his way out of the deal.

Harlan did his best to appear mortified. “That’s out of the question! I don’t carry that amount of money with me! I’ll have to notify my bank and have them send it to me. I won’t have it for a day or two at the earliest. You’ll have to wait!”

“Then, Mr. Garrett, I suggest you get going and send that wire because I’m not leaving without that money, and I’ll be watching you.” Jeff Flemming’s gray eyes narrowed, and he vowed not to let Garrett out of his sight.

“Just a moment, Mr. Flemming. We need to talk first.”

Johnny knew the ol’ goat was up to no good; the man was dangerous- dangerous to the Lancer family, and sooner or later, Harlan’s greed would devastate Scott, and Johnny would be damned before he let that happen. He settled into place, hidden from sight, and listened to the words that brought Madrid stampeding to the surface. He caught parts of the damning conversation; some words slipped away, spoken in tones too low to reach him, but he’d heard enough to know Harlan was in cahoots with this new employee and was paying him to do his dirty work. It convinced him there would soon be a need for Madrid. He watched Garrett reach into his pocket to hand a paper to the other man.

Knowing the underhanded Garrett kept no rules unless they benefitted himself, Johnny expected the worst, and the worst was spelled out in black and white as if handed to him on a Garrett Enterprises letterhead, a detailed account neatly written and signed by the man’s own hand. Parts were sketchy, but it was trouble. An icy grin crawled across his mouth as he struggled to hear the filth that spilled from the old man, and ultimately, Johnny knew the fate of Harlan Garrett lay in his hands. But would it be the law that would put Harlan Garrett away for the rest of his life… or Madrid?

It was time to move; Johnny had heard enough. He knew Harlan’s game, and he expected something like this would happen, Johnny debated how to handle it. He did not doubt he could keep the lid on the proverbial pot but wondered how it would affect Scott. How was he going to protect his brother from the ugliness that was Harlan Garrett? And how much could he tell Scott without ripping his brother’s heart out of his chest? Scott’s feelings for the old man had changed drastically since the last visit, but his brother had not cut the man from his heart— just as Johnny had not cut his mother from his. It was a fine line to tread.

Johnny needed to head back to the hacienda; he slipped silently through the brush and rocks that protected him from detection. Again he smiled as he mounted Barranca for the ride back to Lancer and thought about the little… talk he would have with old man Garrett.

It was late in the afternoon when the buggy rolled to a stop in front of the hacienda. Harlan wiped the snide grin from his face, not wanting anyone to suspect he’d been up to something. After all, Harlan Garrett did not go around grinning, whatever the reason! But his sudden plans were working out better than he anticipated. He hired Jeff Flemming’s services to tie up loose ends that would effectively prompt Scotty’s return home— his true home. Not bad for a day’s work, not bad at all…

Harlan headed into the hacienda with a spring in his step. Nothing would stop him now. He would set a trap for tomorrow night, after all, there was no sense in dragging out the inevitable

Aggie Conway didn’t know what to say as she stared at the tall man in front of her. Murdoch Lancer had always been a close friend, more than close; they were best of friends and always would be.

“Oh, Murdoch, you’re spoiling me! Maybe I won’t want to go home when the house is finished!” She moved to the rancher’s side and looped her arm through his.

Harlan Garrett skidded to a halt in the foyer after hearing the Widow Addison’s remark. What was happening now between her and Murdoch? This is deplorable! No respectful woman would live under the same roof with another man without the bonds of marriage! It is disgraceful and unacceptable!

“Aggie, you know you are welcome to stay here as long as you want,” Murdoch prevailed. “You don’t know how much we’ve enjoyed your time with us!”

Aggie blushed as she looked into each face. The Lancers were her family, and she held them dear in her heart. She could see in their eyes the feelings they had for her as she looked around the room… until Harlan Garrett’s cold stare pierced into her to shatter the familial moment shared in the warmth of the great room.

Quickly gathering her wits, Aggie addressed him, sensing he was upset. Draw him into the conversation and make him talk. “Hello, Mr. Garrett, come in and join us! Murdoch has just assured me…”

Harlan’s blood boiled over. “I can only imagine what he assured you, Madam!” There was no mistaking the icy glare that emanated from his eyes as he condemned her with his assumptions of their relationship.

Now it was Scott whose mad detonated, causing a confrontation from the usually reserved grandson, elder son, and brother. He rose from his seat and stood beside Aggie in solidarity.

With eyes narrowed on his grandfather, he challenged the old man. He forced his tone to remain steady, although he was livid at the implication made by Harlan, and wanted nothing more than to forget his proper upbringing and put the old man in his place, California style.

“Grandfather, you owe the lady an apology! Aggie is a treasured friend and a part of our family; I will not tolerate any implications of ill behavior on her part or anyone in this family.” Scott waited, leveling a cold stare that bored into the old Bostonian’s heart.

Harlan knew there was no out if he wanted to see his objective through. As much as it went against every fiber of the arrogant, egotistical tyrannical persona that Garrett perfected, he would have to relent and apologize yet again, and it lay bitter on his tongue. But it was too early to risk the ruse.

Harlan took a breath, raised his chin, and let his icy glare wash over the room. He ignored the half-breed and his former son-in-law, who now stood flanking Scott, building the Lancer Wall and a Lancer champion for Aggie.

Johnny watched as Harlan unsuccessfully fought to regain control of the situation. Too much had happened in the past to trust the old man, and now, more was to happen, according to the conversation he overheard today. The threat was real, and Johnny witnessed Scott stand his ground against it. He was proud of his brother, and now Scott was fighting back. And he was fighting with everything he had. Yup, Johnny Madrid Lancer was proud of his hermano. Looks like that ol’ snake’s ready ta explode… And the thought made Johnny smile.

The wooden tone rang insincere as he turned his attention to rest on her, and he made no attempt to curb the fire behind his words. “My apologies, Mrs. Ad… Conway.” Harlan turned and started toward the stairs.

That was it. Scott visibly jolted, and Murdoch grabbed his arm. “Let him go, son.”

But before Harlan left the room, he stopped by Teresa’s chair. “Please inform the cook I will take dinner in my room.” Then he was gone up the stairs. 

“Aggie, I’m so sor…”

“Scott Lancer, don’t you dare try and apologize for him! It’s not up to you to cover for his rude behavior, and I won’t stand here and let you do that.”  Aggie reached out and held Scott’s arm until he met her eyes, then she smiled. “I understand, Scott, I really do.”

Though still raging at his grandfather’s appalling behavior, Scott felt his mad begin to fade. He met the eyes of all in the room; they were his family and would support him no matter his decision. There was no deception or manipulation as there was with Harlan Garrett and Scott felt himself pulling further away from the suffocating confines of the man that raised him.

Harlan paced in his room; he’d made another mistake. What was it about these backwoods… heathens that brought out the worst in him? Oh, dear sweet Catherine never stood a chance! Poor innocent girl! That brute filled her head with nonsense, but he wouldn’t do the same with Scotty! It’s obvious the boy doesn’t know what he wants, but I know what’s best for him!

Harlan shook himself from these thoughts. Time was wasting, and he needed to ensure everything would be ready. Tomorrow night was coming fast…

“I’m proud of you, son. I know this is hard on you; Harlan is bringing this all on himself. You stood up to him, and it’s something he can’t deal with the way he’s used to doing. He’s off balance, and it’s foreign to him.”

Scott silently took in what Murdoch was telling him, took it to heart, and knew it to be true. Why hadn’t he seen it years ago? The answer was that he hadn’t known any other way but his grandfather’s. He’d grown up with it, and now he was ashamed it had taken so long to realize what was happening.

Johnny read the saddened blue-gray eyes and knew what was going through his brother’s head. “Hey, Boston, it ain’t your fault. I grew up with lies, too, an’ yeah, it’s hard ta find out the truth, but ya know it now, an’ ya know just how underhanded ol’ Harlan has been with you your whole life. There’s nothin’ he can do ta you anymore. But I hafta ask that ya be careful around him.”

Scott hurt. His shoulder throbbed, and his head felt like he’d been kicked by a mule, but the ache in his heart was the worst. He tipped his head back to rest on the cushion and closed his eyes. He wished he could make his grandfather understand he had no intention of returning east, and he would not, could not relax until the old man left for home.

Sighing, Scott looked around the room at his family. A tiny tug at the corner of his mouth indicated the beginning of a smile. “I just wish he would leave us alone.”

And that was all Johnny wanted to hear. He jumped out of his chair with a huge, silly grin stretched across his face and started for the stairs. “I’m goin’ ta help him pack!”

A duet of “Johnny, get back here!” stopped him before he made it to the second riser.

Val Crawford was tired from putting up with Lucas Morgan’s mouth. Morgan’s threats went unheeded until the sheriff was at his ragged end of patience and left the jailed man secured on his cell bunk with orders to the Deputy to gag the man when he finished his supper. Before the sheriff left the cell, Lucas threatened to lodge a complaint with the judge about the inhospitable, cruel, and unusual punishment he suffered at the hands of Crawford. Val was unfazed as he issued his own retort… and promise.

Good! If the law wants this badge back, they kin have it! I’m tired of yer mouth, pendejo! Shuddup an’ eat! Rocky, gag ‘im when he’s done with his supper!” Val walked out and slammed the door behind him.

Once in the outer office, Sheriff Crawford threw the keys in the desk drawer and took a steadying breath.

“He mouthin’ off again, Val?”Deputy Rocky Sanders asked with a smile.

“Yeah! That dang judge can’t get here too quick! Morgan’s gonna be lucky if I don’t shoot ‘im an’ save the state some money!”

Rocky chuckled. “Why don’t cha go get some supper, Val, an’ I’ll watch Morgan while you’re gone.”

“Sounds good, Rocky. Give a holler if he starts any trouble.” Val Crawford was out the door before Rocky finished his answer.

Concealed in the alley, Flemming watched as the lawman disappeared into the café.  He straightened his coat and stepped onto the boardwalk, hoping there wouldn’t be trouble with the deputy. The young man hadn’t seemed to be of any consequence while Flemming did his reconnaissance earlier. Jeff pushed open the door.

With a smile on his face, Jeff began his bluff and asked if Deputy Sanders knew of any family in the area by the name Laughlin, they were old friends and the last Jeff’s family knew they moved to California from…

And that was the last Rocky knew before the blade slid in between his ribs, and he fell to the floor.

Flemming quickly searched the desk, grabbed the cells’ keys from the drawer, dragged the deputy’s body into the back, and deposited it on a bunk.

Morgan watched wide-eyed, then got to his feet, his dinner forgotten. “What’s goin’ on?”

“You’re getting out of here; that’s what’s going on! We got a job that needs to be finished, and Harlan Garrett’s paying us good money to get it done. You want revenge on Johnny Lancer for being in jail, don’t you? Well, it can happen! I have a horse for you out back. Come on, follow me and stay close!”

Suddenly the deal Morgan struck for his sworn testimony against Alexander didn’t seem that important. Who needed a deal for a lesser sentence if he was getting out of jail?

Morgan followed his rescuer out the back door to the waiting horses. “So, who are you, besides the man that works for Garrett?”

Flemming mounted, not wanting to spend any more time than he had to— Crawford would be back soon. “You don’t need to know. Shut up, and let’s get out of here!”

Lucas mounted the horse, then turned and rode out of Green River. Nice an’ easy, now, an’ no one’ll notice. An’ then, I’m goin’ after Madrid. Hell, mebbe I’ll call on Mrs. Addison, don’t want her to think I forgot about her… With Madrid outta the way, it shouldn’t be too hard to finish what I started.

Since coming home to Lancer and settling into family life, Johnny found great solace gazing at the spectacular star-studded sky. The silvery glitter against the deep, soft night soothed away worries and stress and left him at peace, something he never thought possible for Johnny Madrid. The night helped to dull the edge of razor-sharp threats and potential danger. And on this night, Johnny searched for that ease; he wanted to do the best by Scott.  If his brother was not involved, there would be no question of his methods. There was only one way to deal with a sidewinder, meaning no disrespect to the critter. But a poisonous sidewinder wearing a fancy, citified suit was different. The most important issue was Scott and keeping as much hurt away from him as Johnny could. But old man Garrett wasn’t giving Johnny much choice in the matter.

Johnny drank the tequila in his hand— the dark amber liquid sparkled in the moonlight and made him smile. Murdoch had purchased the ‘good stuff’ this time, indulging his youngest in the advantages of being a prominent rancher. Aged tequila was, indeed, a luxury. But even the tequila could not completely diminish the cloud that hovered over Lancer. And that cloud was Harlan Garrett.

He thought over the scene he’d witnessed earlier in the day as the old man met with a stranger to help him get what he wanted, and Johnny knew what that ‘something’ was. Scott. Well, the old man was in for a fight; Scott had no intention of returning with Garrett and would not allow himself to be deceived or forced into anything ever again. Harlan would go home empty-handed if he left at all. Johnny almost laughed at that. He would have no second thoughts about dealing with Garrett, and there was no way the Easterner would leave with Scott.

Johnny planned on watching Harlan; hell, he would shadow the old man until he left Lancer. The buzzard had caused trouble in the past, and Johnny knew more was on the way unless he could persuade him, one way or another, to leave and do it now. But whatever happened, however it happened, it would be hard on his brother. But there was something else now: the man working for Garrett.

It all hinged on how Harlan would carry out his conniving and ill-conceived plan.  Johnny snorted as he remembered the man Garrett employed. He didn’t look like the usual hire, but it prompted Johnny to prepare for anything. If any blood was to be spilled, Madrid would do everything in his power to ensure the blood that drained into the dust would not be from the Lancers. If Harlan Garrett persisted and put any of his family in danger, there would be hell to pay.

Pounding hoof beats thundered under the arch; Johnny’s hand went to his side before recognizing Val Crawford. There was trouble; Val would never have ridden in so carelessly otherwise.

Val was halfway out of the saddle before Amigo skidded to a dusty stop as it billowed around Val, hanging thick and toxic in the air. Johnny could tell it was bad news.

“Val?” Johnny asked, then waited.

“Morgan busted outta jail. Rocky’s dead, knifed. We need ta tell Murdoch an’ Miz Conway,” the sheriff panted.

“All’s I can tell ya is I went ta the diner an’ while I was gone, someone knifed my deputy and broke Morgan outa his cell. Y’all needed ta know he on the loose,” Val turned his attention to Johnny. “Keep yer eyes open; watch Miz Conway, too. He confessed ta startin’ the fire, an’ findin’ that pistol on him put him at her house, so that’s attempted murder. He might try again, an’ he got no warm feelin’ fer you, neither, since yer the one that knifed ‘im, then beat the shit outta him! Shoulda heard ‘im while he was in jail. Threatened ta… ”

“What’s going on? Hello, Sheriff Crawford,” Aggie’s stomach lurched. This isn’t good. It was late, and the sheriff wasn’t here to visit.

“Miz Conway, I hate ta tell ya, but Morgan busted outta jail.”

Aggie’s heart skipped a beat, but she steeled herself, pushed through the building terror, then looked at Johnny. “I think you’d better give me that gun again…”

Harlan Garrett stood at the top of the stairs grinning like the Cheshire Cat.

Age-wrinkled hands opened the gold timepiece. 3:45. He needed to move and get out of the house without someone seeing him leave so early in the morning. Throwing the covers aside, Harlan Garrett sat up, swung his feet to the floor, and stood a moment, letting his sense of balance adjust before he took that first step. Getting older was not fun. He slipped out of his nightshirt, pulled on his clothes, and tied his shoes, then he grabbed his coat from the closet and carefully opened the door to the hallway. Looking both ways and finding the way clear, Harlan left his room, quietly making his way down the back stairs. He would have to harness the horse and hitch it to the buggy, but he would manage.

When he was finished, Garrett climbed onto the seat and sent the horse trotting down the road under that blasted Lancer arch that he’d come to hate. Hopefully, the damned thing would soon be a pile of rubble. Yes, tonight, things would begin. Tonight would be the beginning of the end of Lancer.

As excitement over the upcoming fall of the ranch and demise of Johnny Madrid flooded through him, Harlan Garrett was completely unaware he was observed by two men— one he employed but didn’t trust, the other he hated and wanted dead.

A twitch teased the corner of Johnny’s mouth; the ends tilted up in the beginnings of a smile. He felt weightless, drifting on the breeze; consciousness pulled him from sleep but sleep refused to relinquish him completely. Until he sensed someone in the hall. It was too early for anyone to be up, too early to start the day, so that left only one thing— someone was up and didn’t want anyone to know.

Now fully awake, Johnny jumped from the bed and pulled on his calzoneras. He crossed the hall into a guestroom and looked out the window just as Harlan walked toward the barn.

“Well, what d’ya know… Ol’ Harlan’s startin’ his day without me.” Johnny had to smile. “Better hurry up just in case he’ll need some help.” And Johnny chuckled to himself, thinking of the many ways he could ‘help’ Harlan Garrett. The twinge began in Johnny’s head; it hadn’t been too bad lately. Well, Harlan Garrett was enough to give anyone a headache.

Entering his room, he quickly dressed, timing his departure to avoid being seen by the ol’ goat. When he got to the back kitchen door, Harlan drove out of the barn and away from the Hacienda. It was time for Johnny to go.

Barranca tossed his head at the intrusion and whinnied as Johnny threw the saddle blanket across the broad, golden back.

“Yeah, I know, amigo, but we hafta find that ol’ man before he does something stupid an’ gets himself killed.” Johnny chuckled when Barranca turned to look him in the eye. “Yeah, I know, but I’m doin’ this for Scott.”

The horse nodded his head as if in agreement they should get going. Johnny kept his amigo in the trees but close to the road; he didn’t want to lose Harlan.

Jelly pulled his suspenders over his shoulders as he fought the temptation to crawl back under the blankets. He needed an early start, but dang, if that bed wasn’t calling out, urging him to forget starting on the smokehouse roof. Nope, don’t even look at that bed! Better ta git that roof done before it starts ta git too warm. With one last look at the bed, Jelly went out the door into the cool of the morning. It was peaceful and still, bringing a smile to the man’s mouth. He stumbled to the pump for the morning ablutions, movement caught his eye as a golden horse entered the treeline. What’s Johnny doin’ up at this hour?

Bill Flemming watched as Garrett made his way to the designated spot and pulled the horse to a stop. The old man sat for a moment, looking around, then stepped to the ground, making Jeff smile. He witnessed Garrett touch his top coat as if confirming the gun was still tucked away in the inside pocket. Bill always talked about that little gun, thinking it amusing Harlan felt the need to carry it. Jeff remembered his brother’s words that he wouldn’t need it if Garrett weren’t so crooked. Jeff had to agree. After researching Harlan Garrett and his business dealings, the man should be in prison for the rest of his natural life.

Harlan knew better than to trust Jeff Flemming; the man’s original intention was to kill him. He would not hesitate to use his Derringer, but he now suspected that money meant more to Flemming than pulling the trigger in revenge for his brother’s death. One more loose end I don’t have to worry over.

It was getting light; soon the sun would blaze its way over the mountains. Harlan needed this business done; there wasn’t much left to discuss other than when he would have the extra five hundred dollars for Flemming, and that thought made him smile. There would be no more money for keeping his end of the bargain; Harlan would tie up that loose end himself.

It was going to happen! All the planning, scheming, and deceit was worth it. Harlan Garrett would perjure himself in front of the Lord Almighty to get what he wanted. Scott Garrett Lancer was one– and Johnny Madrid dead was the other.

Lucas Morgan bided his time. He kept a close eye on the man that broke him out of jail as he followed through the thickets. Morgan needed to know more; Harlan Garrett was one sneaky bastard, and Lucas wouldn’t put it past the old man to back out of the deal after Madrid was lying belly down in the dust and refuse to pay him.

During the night after the breakout, Flemming outlined some of what would happen. Morgan was to kill Madrid and meet Harlan for the payoff, then, he was free to go where he wanted, but Madrid had to be dead, not injured this time. But dead. Morgan was to bring Harlan Madrid’s gun as proof. Shouldn’t be a problem, Morgan thought idly. Wait for Madrid along the trail somewhere, then ambush him. Easy as breathin’. But until then, Lucas would follow and listen, then make his plans.

Flemming stopped; Lucas watched from a distance as Harlan Garrett drove the buggy into the clearing by the creek. He couldn’t hear their words and needed to get closer, but moments later, he did hear something else. Hoofbeats… and he waited behind the rocks. His patience paid off, and he grinned.

The minute Garrett drove out under the Lancer arch, Madrid settled in, ready for whatever would happen. With a man like that Easterner, one just never knew what was to come, but one thing Johnny Madrid did know was that he would take care of it, one way or the other. There was no doubt in Madrid’s mind that Lancer would win the battle that Harlan Garrett waged, his unrelenting and unscrupulous fight for the grandson that had no intentions of returning east.

Following the buggy was getting to be a habit, and a bad one at that. Well, he had had enough. When Johnny caught up to Harlan, they would have words and get to the bottom of whatever the old man was up to. Then Johnny would take him back to Lancer to gather his belongings and escort him into Green River to pick up the next stage out of town. Johnny snorted, thinking Murdoch and Scott should have let him help Garrett pack last night; it would have saved some time.  

Harlan had disrupted life at the Lancer hacienda, had interfered with, aggravated, and hurt Scott for the last time, and Johnny was willing to do whatever it took to make the threat leave. For his brother.

Movement off to the left caught Johnny’s attention too late for him to act. Barranca pranced wildly as a horse and rider stepped out to block their way.

“Well, well, well, if it ain’t the halfbreed!” Morgan grinned viciously, taking great delight in surprising the great Johnny Madrid! With his gun already drawn, he could take the gunfighter down and claim his reputation to boot. It was getting better and better all the time…

Inwardly, Johnny cursed himself for being that careless. Well, he’d been in worse places before, and he’d try and get out of this one, too. But he had to hurry. Harlan Garrett was ahead of him somewhere; he had to find him and stay close.

“Morgan,” Johnny acknowledged. “You kill the deputy last night?”

“Nope, that wasn’t me. Flemming was responsible for that. He busted me out, then paid me to kill you. And that’s what I’m gonna do.”

Disregarding the statement, Johnny stalled for time— time he didn’t have, but there was no other way around this confrontation.

“Flemming’s working for Garrett now, huh?”

Morgan nodded, making Johnny laugh.

“So, Flemming’s workin’ for Garrett, an’ you’re workin’ for Flemming. How much did he pay ya ta kill me?”

“It’s Garrett’s money that’s payin’ me. Five thousand dollars once the job’s done. Just thought you’d like ta know. Thought that’d make ya feel better knowin’ that ol’ bastard hates you enough ta pay someone ta kill you.” 

“Well, ain’t that somethin’? Not surprised, though. How about we settle this man ta man? Whatd ya say we get offa these horses an’ see who’s the best man?”

Morgan grinned. He knew Johnny had been injured and wasn’t in top form. I owe the bastard! “Yeah, sure, Madrid.” Morgan could stop that damned grin as he dismounted, gun already in his hand.

Johnny nudged his horse with his right spur, then pulled slightly to the right, causing Barranca to stomp in a nervous prance. He calmed the horse, patting his neck as he stepped down off the right side of the saddle, keeping his boot in the stirrup long enough to reach his knife before letting go of the reins and giving Barranca his freedom. The distraction was all Johnny needed as he successfully retrieved the blade. He ain’t never gonna learn. Johnny thought as he quickly fingered the knife into throwing position.

Morgan couldn’t contain the realization that Johnny Madrid was a dead man! He would take down the famous Madrid, no matter it wasn’t a fair fight! But before his finger tightened on the trigger, the blade pierced his chest, and he fell.

Johnny quickly retrieved his knife, then vaulted into the saddle. He suckered Morgan into that fight but couldn’t risk the gunshot. He needed to take Garrett and Flemming by surprise.

They went further through the trees and rocks than they had their first meeting. The time spent with Morgan could spell failure in stopping whatever Harlan and Flemming planned. But Morgan was a loose end, and loose ends had a bad habit of turning up at the worst times. It was done, over, and not worth the debate. Garrett was the focus now. But whatever happened, it would end today. Johnny fought against the growing pain in his head. Damned Garrett!

“Glad ta see you’re on time, Garrett. Get down off of that buggy and hand over the money!”

The cold voice startled him, forcing Harlan to pull suddenly on the reins. The horse pranced and tossed his head as the buggy lurched, and he fought to keep from tumbling off the seat.

Harlan reached for the handkerchief in his pocket and dabbed at his brow; his fingers touched the cool steel of the Derringer tucked away there. He collected his fraying temper and leveled a glare at the man he hired to kill Johnny Madrid.

“There is no need to be rude, Mr. Flemming. We shall conduct our business as civilized men!” He rebuked as he climbed down from the seat. “We need to discuss  some things before we proceed …”

“The only thing we need to ‘discuss’ is you handing over my money! I have everything else under control; I’ll handle it my way. Once I have my money, I’ll take care of Madrid, and no one will be the wiser. But, you see, I’m not going to do anything until I get the rest of what you owe me.”

“If I’d have known you were going to try and welch on our deal, I would have…”

“What would you have done, Garrett? Find someone to take care of me like you did Anthony Alexander? You are very good at covering your trail. It doesn’t seem to bother you to have anyone that crosses you… ha, how do you say it? Disposed of?  How many men have you killed in your lifetime, Garrett? I know my brother told me of several, and now you’re adding another to the list wanting me to dispose of Madrid!”

“Now you see here! I’ll not have you talk that way to me! You will be paid well for your services!”

Flemming laughed. “Oh, you should see yourself, old man! You’re losing control, and you know what? You can’t stop it! Now, give me my money!”

It was rapidly spiraling downward, and Harlan knew he had to get Flemming in hand before the man ruined what could be his last chance at winning this war.

“Listen to me, Flemming; we both stand to benefit from this joint venture, don’t go blundering your way through this, thinking there won’t be any problems! If we handle this the right way, who’s to stop us?”

“I will.”

“Jelly, have you seen Johnny? For that matter, have you seen Grandfather?” The questions swirled in Scott’s mind like a tornado, wondering where they had gone without his knowledge. He desperately hoped they were not together; that would spell serious trouble.

The uncertainty built in his gut— a sour, vile pain that began boiling molten fire begging for a way out before it consumed him. Since the arrival of Garrett and knowing Johnny wouldn’t abide anymore of the man’s deceptive ways, Scott was keeping the two apart the best he could. But, he had to admit he was proud that Johnny had not yet punched his grandfather in the nose because Harlan certainly had it coming!

“Well, I sure ain’t been watchin’ for your granddad. Mebbe he left already knowin’ he ain’t ‘xactly welcome. But I seen Johnny real early, at least, I think it was Johnny. Who else rides a yeller horse ‘round here?”

“Señor Scott?”

Scott turned as Matteo, Cipriano’s young son, stepped out from the side of the barn. “Yes, Matteo?”

“I saw Señor Johnny ride out after your Abuelo early this morning. It was just getting light— I came to check on el potro (the foal) and heard a caballo run, then I saw Barranca. Señor Johnny took the ridge behind the barn, but I think he followed your Abuelo. The buggy is missing.”

Scott went pale. No, please, God! No!  “Jelly, saddle my horse… Now! That’s an order, and I don’t want to hear anything from you! Just do it!” His left arm was still useless, but that wouldn’t, couldn’t stop him! He had to find Johnny and keep him from whatever he was going to do.

Within minutes, Scott Garrett Lancer rode up the ridge behind the barn in search of his brother. He had to find Johnny before anything happened… to either of them!

Jelly ran to the hacienda. Murdoch ain’t gonna like this!

The voice was soft but no less startling. Harlan and Jeff Flemming turned to see the man sauntering casually toward them. Garrett paled as he watched his nemesis, Johnny Madrid, close the distance between them with his easy stride and that infernal, infuriating grin that set the old man’s blood to boil.

“What do you think you’re doing here, Madrid? No one asked you to this meeting!”

“I could ask you that same thing, Garrett. I see ya got some outside help.” Johnny’s smile stretched further across his face as his eyes took in the scene before him. Ol’ Garrett’s got himself another gun. Wonder if he thinks it’ll do him any good?

Why isn’t Flemming doing something? This is what I’m paying him to do! Harlan seethed.

As if reading his employer’s mind, Flemming took a step back; he could not kill the gunfighter in a fair fight, of that he was certain. Madrid was too good. His plan of a bushwack was going up in smoke. Where the hell is Morgan? Should have let him come along…

“Stay where ya are an’ throw your gun over in them bushes. Next move ya make’ll get ya a bullet, so I wouldn’t be too anxious ta go anywhere if I was you,” Johnny advised, and Flemming’s gun landed with a thunk on the ground. He let a smirk twitch his lips, knowing Harlan boiled inside as the insolence pushed him to his limit.

Getting caught red-handed with the man doing your dirty work was never good, especially for someone with Garrett’s standing in society. But getting caught by the man who was the object of that dirty work was damning and just plain stupid. Johnny allowed himself a chuckle, knowing he was nudging Garrett into doing something that would spark the incident to an end; exactly what end, Johnny wasn’t quite sure yet. But he was willing to play it out.

Flemming cursed his greed; this wasn’t how he intended things to happen. Garrett was paying him to ambush Johnny Madrid, kill him, and rid the world of a worthless gunfighter and a major threat to his grandson. But now Madrid knew their plans. The old man had been careless; Madrid found out what they intended to do. Jeff felt the control slip through his fingers and resolved it wouldn’t happen. He needed to do something— now!

Johnny could not resist the temptation and looked between the two men. He shook his head in disbelief, thinking them both three cards short of a deck. “Oh boy, ol’ man, ya sure dug yourself in a hole, an’ it’s gettin’ deeper by the minute. Ya know what? I think ya out-foxed yourself. Now what’re ya gonna do? Ya got a two bit has been ta do your dirty, and he can’t get the job done— not facin’ me like a man, he can’t, an’ just so ya know, Morgan’s dead. An’ I just heard him,” Johnny nodded to the unarmed Flemming, “spill his guts about some killings you ordered.” Johnny laughed again. “Guess this means I take ya inta jail! Hey, you’ll like stayin’ with Sheriff Crawford! He’s a real warm and likable fella!”

Those soft, lightly spoken words held more threat than any enraged arguments at the hostile takeovers of the many businesses Harlan had pirated in his years of building Garrett Enterprises. He had developed a system of control and cold indifference to those whose life’s work was cruelly ripped away from them. But the thought of a filthy half-breed who dared to sully Scotty by mere association and appeared humored with the situation was inconceivable! And if Harlan was to be truthful, he was afraid— afraid of losing everything he’d worked for all his life. Madrid heard Flemming spell out the order for the termination of Alexander and others. He could bring the law down on Garrett’s head. But then, who would believe Johnny Madrid instead of Harlan Garrett?

Garrett would bluff his way out. He’d done it before, against civilized men. His team of attorneys would clear his name in no time- that’s if any charges were brought against him. He would be free and clear to continue Garrett Enterprises with Scotty soon at the helm.

“Do you think you scare me, Madrid? Do you think anything you say will make me fear you?” spat Harlan.

Would he get there in time to stop any bloodshed? Scott had faith in his brother to avoid violence, and that thought struck him as almost funny. Johnny Madrid would be the one to keep the pot from boiling over, and the sophisticated Eastern businessman would be the one that would initiate that violence. When had things turned? But in his heart, Scott knew who was, and always had been, the better of the two men.

He felt his belly flip over, and he urged more speed from his horse. Remmie moved unguided, acutely aware and sensing the desperation of his rider. The tracks were a blur in the soft earth, cut deep with Barranca’s sharp hooves at full gallop, and Remmie followed unerringly.

Please don’t let me be too late!

“I don’t hafta think anything, ol’ man’; I can see you’re already scared. An’ I’m gonna talk ta the sheriff an’ have him send off a coupla wires, one bein’ ta the law in Manteca. The death of Anthony Alexander seems ta have a few questions surroundin’ it. I just heard you two talkin’ about him… We know he’s dead. He ah, met with an unfortunate… accident, an’, well, with that conversation I just heard, Garrett, ya just dug that hole a foot deeper, cuz I’m gonna testify in court ta what I heard here taday.”

“I’ll see you in jail for this, Madrid! I’ll make it so you’ll never see the light of day again!” Harlan’s eyes widened, his temper escaped the will to keep it in control.

Johnny laughed. “Ya don’t believe what I’m tellin’ ya, huh? Well, yeah, there’s been those who didn’t believe me either, an’ I’d tell ya ta ask ‘em about it, but, ya can’t… cuz they’re dead… So, ya got yourself in a crossfire, ol’ man, what’d ya gonna do about it? If ya don’t pay your hired help the money ya owe him, he’s gonna kill ya. If ya don’t talk ta Scott an’ listen ta what he’s tellin’ ya, then you’re gonna hafta answer ta me. Either way, Garrett, you’re gonna lose, but it’s all up ta you how ya lose. There’s a chance, a small one, but a chance you can come outta this an’ keep a relationship with Scott, but ya keep on like ya have been, it’s a sure bet he ain’t ever gonna wanna see ya again, Garrett. You ain’t gonna run his life anymore.”

The words were like silk, caressing their way into his ears and mind. Easy to hear, soothing, and… lies! Scotty wouldn’t cut me out of his life! He wouldn’t!

Flemming watched the exchange escalate. He knew Garrett’s reputation but had only heard about Madrid’s; with no first-hand knowledge, could he believe the rumors, the bloodthirsty, murderous tales of the gunhawk?

Jeff knew without a doubt he was in over his head, that this wasn’t the easy job Garrett had led him to believe it was. But if he and Harlan worked together, the two could overpower Madrid, swear it had been self-defense, and corroborate each other’s story. And it also crossed Jeff’s mind they could just as easily fail.

Then he focused on words spoken between the two men.

The young man standing before him appeared relaxed as if speaking to a friend, the smile almost innocent… until Jeff saw the glacial eyes that could stop a man in his tracks. Could he and Harlan possibly overtake the gunhawk?

Garrett was out of his element; the skirmishes fought in boardrooms filled with attorneys and businessmen in formal attire were different battles. This was not Boston, and he wasn’t dealing with businessmen. He was dealing with a killer. Would Madrid murder him? Would Madrid tell Scotty lies and force him to stay in this uncivilized, heathen-filled land?

“You’re not welcome around here anymore, Garrett, an’ I’m gonna save Scott the embarrassment of tossin’ ya off the ranch. Get back in that buggy,” Johnny ordered, then turned to Flemming. “An’ you, Mister Good For Nothin’ Second Rate Pendejo, get in the buggy with the old man!”  

Thoughts of failure began to crack the rough exterior of Harlan’s self-constructed shell; it splintered and fragmented into tiny pieces, weakening the safe and sheltered security. He desperately battled the panic that started to take root. He’d always thought Madrid could never hurt him, that Scotty would protect him no matter what transpired, but here he was, facing down the killer, and Scott was nowhere to be seen.

Harlan shook himself mentally and gathered the straying wanderings of his mind. He tried to pull himself together; why was he fretting? He had faced numerous more dangerous adversaries than Johnny Madrid and won!  But the old man admitted to himself this was a much different battle. He had to win this fight; he had to.

Scott saw the golden horse through the trees, thankful he hadn’t heard any gunfire… yet. Hopefully, he’d gotten there in time, he thought, until he saw the body of Morgan lying on the ground. No! Johnny, where are you?

Tying off Remmie, Scott made it through the cover of rocks and brush. With heart pounding painfully against ribs and shoulder throbbing, he pushed past the discomfort to focus on a potential fight between two people- two people he loved, and only one was right in their battle. Then, he heard the voices that stopped him in his tracks.

Immediately, Scott took cover behind a shelter of rocks, then risked taking a look. To interrupt now could mean the death for one of them below. Just beyond was a clearing and a sight that froze Scott’s heart.

“You’re not welcome around here anymore, Garrett, an’ I’m gonna save Scott the embarrassment of tossin’ ya off the ranch. Get back in that buggy,” Johnny ordered, then turned to Flemming. “An’ you, Mister Good For Nothin’ Second Rate Pendejo, get in the buggy with the old man!” 

It was now or never. Garrett slid his hand into his coat pocket, then briefly nodded and hoped Flemming would catch the subtle movement. The flicker of Flemming’s eyes alerted Johnny, and all four men moved simultaneously.

“Sorry, Scott, but that ol’ man ain’t getting’ outta that cell! Not even for you!

“Val, I’m not asking for him to be released, but I’m wondering if he should be over at Sam’s. We can cuff him to the bed if need be.”

“Only if it’s alright with Johnny. I ain’t lettin’ that ol’ coot…, sorry Scott, but what that ol’ man tried ta do, well, it just ain’t right! An’ I trust ‘im about as much as I trust a rattler!”

“Believe it or not, sheriff, I feel the same, except that that rattler is my grandfather, and I want him to have the best care. But I want you to know that I will testify against him; you have my word on that.” Scott sighed, then settled into a chair. After staring at the wall, he closed his eyes and shook his head.

Val thought he’d never seen anyone look so lost. Damn, that boy don’t look so good, but I ‘spose I wouldn’t neither if’n half my family had more holes in ‘em now than what they woke up with this mornin’.

Scott opened the door to Johnny’s room and looked toward the bed to see Murdoch sitting in the overstuffed and comfortable chair. Scott’s question was out before Murdoch had the chance to greet him.


“He’s fine, son! He’s fine. How are you doing, and how is Harlan?”

Did he hear correctly? Johnny was down with yet another injury, and Murdoch asked about Grand… Harlan? Scott corralled his wandering thoughts, then smiled. Yes, he heard right. Murdoch Lancer is twice the man that Harlan Garrett is.

“He’s stretching Val’s patience to its limit, but as soon as Sam’s done with Johnny, he’ll see to Harlan.”

“Sam should be back in a few minutes; he went down to the kitchen for more salve. Johnny’s resting comfortably, though, and Sam said we could let him up a few days. The wound wasn’t bad, but the blood loss was substantial. Ironically, his right collarbone was fractured but not a complete break. But he’ll need rest for several days. The Derringer is small, but the bullet can cause a lot of damage.

“Scott, tell me what happened…” Murdoch needed to know; his family was threatened in a most horrible way, and he needed answers.

Just as they settled to talk, Aggie slipped quietly into the room. “Billy sent out a wire that just came in; it’s for you, Scott.” She came into the room, handed Scott the telegram, then turned to leave but stopped. “How’s he doing, Murdoch?” she asked as she stood at the door

Murdoch smiled at Aggie’s words. She and Johnny had become close friends through everything that had happened, and he suspected Aggie felt a certain amount of guilt over what transpired and for Johnny getting injured for a second time.

Murdoch smiled. “He’ll be fine, Aggie, and as long as you are here and wanting to help, I can assure you that we will need all the help we can in seeing him through his recovery!”

“It will be an honor, Murdoch! I’ll do anything I can! Oh, Scott, Tuck’s waiting downstairs in case you want to send a reply to the wire. Should he wait?”

Scott read the wire marked ‘San Francisco’. It was from Cody.

Scott, give me a few days to gather some information—I’ll be there as soon as possible.— I hope everything is alright.

Scott sighed in relief; Cody Justice would have the answers. He looked up and smiled at Murdoch, then at Aggie.

“No, thank you, Aggie. Everything’s fine. Is Tuck working for Billy at the telegraph office now instead of acting as the foreman at the Circle C?” Scott laughed.

“No, he was in town, and Billy asked him to deliver it!”

The door closed behind Aggie, leaving Murdoch and Scott in the quiet of Johnny’s room— a room where they had spent many hours waiting for the younger Lancer’s recovery. There were times they spent as much time in that room as Johnny did. Scott handed Murdoch the telegram, and after he read the brief message, Murdoch nodded, relieved to have Cody Justice on their side.

Scott blew out a deep breath, then began relating the harrowing and horrific sequence of events of the morning.

“I followed Johnny’s trail and finally found them in that small clearing just beyond Spencer’s Creek where it narrows.”

“Yes, I know the spot,” Murdoch said.

“I’d gotten down as far as I could without letting them know I was there; not knowing what was going on, I didn’t want to interrupt Johnny if he was in trouble.” The vision was branded in Scott’s memory, and he wondered if it would ever fade from the blaze that seared his brain as he remembered the image before him. Two of the three most important men in his life were locked in a battle of wills. Something was about to happen, and it wouldn’t be good.

“Johnny ordered Harlan to get in the buggy, and the other man as well, but Grand… Harlan reached for his gun, and that man moved to where his gun lay on the ground.” Scott fought against the crystal clear memory that scared his brain. Would he ever forget it?

“It all happened so fast, Murdoch! It was as if I was watching a nightmare play out…” And the vision flashed in his head once again.

Three guns sounded in unison. Johnny pulled the trigger as Flemming went for his gun on the ground, hitting the man with a kill-shot that split his heart in two. Harlan fired his Derringer, hitting Johnny in the upper right shoulder, propelling him back to crash into the rocks. Scott fired his Colt as he watched his grandfather draw a bead on Johnny. The bullet shattered the old man’s hand to a bloody pulp, and he stumbled in shock and disbelief when he saw Scott come down from the rocks.

Johnny struggled up, and swayed on his feet, his arm going numb. He felt the wash of blood as it covered his chest. What the hell’s Scott doin’ here? But glad Boston was there. He didn’t think he could get Harlan into town by himself.

“Hey… Bos-ston! Glad ya came ta the party…”

Harlan whimpered. “Scotty! How could you?”

Scott walked past Garrett and went to his brother, which shocked the old man as he cradled his mangled hand and tried to wrap it in his handkerchief.

“Scotty, I’m hurt! I need…”

“A jail cell!” Scott retorted. Then, dismissing Garrett, he turned to Johnny, muttering in tones of quiet concern. “Easy brother, I’ve got you! I got your back!” Scott whispered as he eased Johnny to a sitting position on the rocks. “Looks like I’d better get you into to see Sam.”

Johnny huffed. “Yeah, I ain’t seen him for what, three days now?”

Scott offered his brother a smirk, then glared at Garrett.

“But, Scotty! I’m…”

“Shut up, Grandfather, just shut up!”

Harlan was stunned. He opened his mouth, then closed it, looking much like a fish out of water. It was the first time Scott could ever remember his grandfather speechless.

With another deep sigh, Scott continued, “Then I got them here; it was closer than town. Grandfather refused to let Johnny ride in the carriage, and Johnny, being his obstinate self, insisted on riding Barranca.”

Murdoch could see the disgusting event play out as Scott described how it happened. But he wondered what would have happened if Scott hadn’t found them in time. Chances were that Harlan would be dead. But there was no sense speculating on it. Scott was there in time, and, though wounded, Johnny was alive and would recover.

Filled with relief, Murdoch gave his thanks, knowing that Scott chose to see to Johnny’s welfare before going to Harlan. But had to admit he was shocked when Scott told the old man to ‘shut up’! And he was thankful beyond belief that his son found his way through the maze of emotions that had him locked in uncertainty since finding the grandfather he loved had betrayed him his whole life.

Sam came into Johnny’s room; he stopped when he saw Scott and waved him across the hall. “Let me check that shoulder while I’m here, Scott. I understand that you were involved in the ruckus today.” Then he chuckled. “Well, Murdoch, it looks like you have a pair of bookends with these boys of yours. It’s Scott’s left shoulder in a sling and Johnny’s right!”

Murdoch laughed, thinking Sam had a point.

Much to Sam’s surprise and relief, Scott’s shoulder was mending nicely. He sincerely hoped things would settle down and let the Lancer sons heal.

“I’m going to tend to Mr. Garrett now. He’ll not be happy with his accommodations, but I’m sure that Val can handle it. At least the guardhouse is more… private than a cell in the Green River jail! And I know how much he’ll appreciate all my knowledge of backwoods medicine. Oh, I’d better pack my leeches to use on him!”

The tension was fading, and Scott took the opportunity to laugh. “Let’s check on that brother of mine, Murdoch. Lord knows we can’t leave him for ten minutes before he gets himself into trouble!”

It had been four days since the shootings in that small clearing by the creek on Lancer land. The scene repeatedly played in Scott’s head, making him wonder if his grandfather would be in jail now if he had handled the situation differently. But he knew the answer. And the answer was yes. There was no way that Scott would have allowed Garrett to shoot Johnny. No way in hell. It boiled down to shoot a loved one to save a loved one. Plain and simple. But in truth, it wasn’t plain, nor was it simple. How could Harlan Garrett do such a thing? But Scott could finally see Garrett for what he was— a ruthless son-of-a-bitch that would stop at nothing to get what he wanted, at whatever the cost.

“I’ll give ya a dime for ‘em now,” Johnny joked, thinking Boston looked like he needed something to lighten his spirit. Scott had been sitting there alone for the last hour, lost in thought and probably a fair amount of guilt. And Johnny was going to do his brotherly duty and snap him out of it.

Scott’s eyes went wide, then the barest of tugs twitched at the corner of his mouth, but he said nothing.

OK, I’ll do the talkin’. Johnny sighed. “Cody’ll be here tomorrow, an’ this is gonna be done an’ over, Boston. I know it ain’t gonna easy for ya, but, like you told me, I got your back on this.” Johnny waited for his brother to say something… anything, and when he didn’t, Johnny continued.

“I’ll do whatever ya want me ta do, Scott, but I need ta know what ya want. Should I not testify? I won’t, if ya don’t want me to. But ya gotta tell me what ta do.”

Scott turned to his brother, letting his eyes travel over the sling that held the injured shoulder, then remembered the slash to Johnny’s back, the deep bruises that covered most of Johnny’s torso from the attack of only a few weeks prior, and the concussion that still plagued him with headaches. It occurred to Scott that there was no way Johnny should have been out there confronting his grandfather and Harlan’s hired gun.

“I want Harlan to pay for the things he’s done, Johnny. There is much I don’t know, and I suspect there is much I don’t want to know, but he can’t go on doing these god-awful things anymore. I’m sick to death of his wants and his insistence that I go back east, that I don’t know what’s best for me! And I’m furious at myself for not seeing it sooner!”

And there it was. Scott put it into words, said it out loud, and now he could begin to heal.

“Have ya talked ta him yet? Maybe let him know what you’re thinkin’?” Johnny kept at it— he kept chipping away in hopes that Boston would let it go and let him, Johnny, have his back. Because that’s what brothers did.

“No, Johnny, I really don’t want to talk to him just yet. Anyway, like you said, Cody will be here tomorrow, and I want to get a few things straightened out in my head before I try and… reason with Harlan. I don’t know if I could stand to look at him right now.”

Johnny stood, reached into his pocket, and pulled out a few coins. Picking a dime, a nickel, and a penny, he held them out and put them in Scott’s hand.

“What’s all this for?”

Johnny laughed. “It’s for all them times I asked ya about your thoughts. Figured it was time ta pay up!”

“Boss, looks like Sheriff Crawford an’ Scott’s friend, Cody, are coming in!” Jelly called as he watched the riders pass under the arch.

“Thank you, Jelly! Do you know where Scott and Johnny are?”

“I’ll round ‘em up for ya!” Jelly quickly left.

Murdoch went to the front portico and waited as Val and Cody stepped down from their saddles. Cody untied a large bundle from behind his saddle, then came toward Murdoch.

Offering a smile and handshake, Murdoch greeted the Lancer guests and guided them into the hacienda.

“Would either of you care for a drink?” he asked.

“No, but thanks. It’s a little early yet!” Val declared.

Soon, the jingle of spurs announced Johnny, followed by Scott as they came from the back of the house to join the three in the great room. Scott crossed to Cody and shook hands.

“Thank you for coming, Cody! I appreciate this more than you can know! How’s Marcy and the baby?”

“Marcy’s as beautiful as ever, she sends her love, and little Scott is getting to be a handful, just like his namesake if appearances are any indication!” Cody nodded to the sling Scott wore. “Johnny, it’s good to see you, as well! I hope you two are on the mend. It looks as though you’ve had trouble.”

“Hey, Cody,” Johnny responded enthusiastically and extended his left hand.

With handshake completed, they settled down to business. Cody opened the leather bag he carried, pulled a hefty stack of papers, then began the discussion.

“Well, gentlemen, I hope you are prepared for the long and arduous task ahead of us. Scott, I had to take a few extra days as new information has come to us recently, and because of legalities, it had to be handled with the utmost care. One wrong move, one slip up, and everything can come crashing down on us. Although Harlan Garrett’s attorneys will have legal authority in this case, constituents here in California are all too ready to jump into a high-profile case like this, using the same underhanded tactics. So it is important that we,” Cody smiled and looked at the Lancer brothers before he continued, “watch our backs.”

Both Scott and Johnny smiled, confident that Cody knew the odds and did have their backs.

“So, I’ll get right to it. We’ve long had Victor Edmonds, alias Anthony Alexander under surveillance. He has been suspected of various crimes over the last fifteen years. His affiliation with known criminals has left a trail of embezzlement, theft, extortion, and murder across the state of California that has taken our law enforcement on an incredible journey. With the sworn testimony from Lucas Morgan before he broke out of jail and the evidence that has recently come into our possession, it is of our opinion that the incidents here in your part of the San Joaquin Valley are tied together. This is what we have… so far.” Cody watched the faces of the men around him. Surprise and shock registered in all but one.

“It has come to our attention that one, Buck Addison, was hired to rid the valley of the ranchers, mainly you, Murdoch. He hired Day Pardee, and we know that attempt failed. Time was needed to launch another attempt. Two years later, Victor Edmonds, now known as Anthony Alexander, initiated the second attempt using Buck Addison…”

“Cody, wait, I think Aggie should hear what you have to tell us.” Without waiting for Cody’s answer, Murdoch left, returning a few minutes later with Aggie. He seated her next to him on the couch, then nodded to continue. Aggie, confused over the invitation to the meeting, sat quietly and waited.

“Mrs. Conway, Murdoch felt you should be here as we have uncovered evidence of your former husband’s involvement in an elaborate scheme for a take over of the San Joaquin.”

“Yes, I am aware of some of the things Buck… did. I will help in any way I can.” Aggie Conway was a strong woman, but she still felt massive guilt for bringing Buck into their peaceful part of the world.

“Thank you, Mrs. Conway; we appreciate your cooperation.” Cody smiled warmly, then proceeded.

“We have uncovered evidence that these supposedly unrelated incidents are not unrelated. Here is what we were able to piece together. Our current information revealed that Buck Addison hired Day Pardee, but that attempt failed. A second attempt, two years later, revealed Edmonds-Alexander’s involvement in using Buck Addison as a scapegoat, more or less, should anything go wrong. Edmonds-Alexander covered his tracks, so Addison would be the one that paid upon discovery.”

Murdoch laid a comforting hand on Aggie’s arm when he felt her tense, her muscles tightened, and her back became rigid.

Aggie looked down at her hands, then mumbled: “I brought him here… I started…”

Cody had to speak up, knowing what he had to tell her would not sit well, but he couldn’t let her shoulder this blame. “Mrs. Conway, I don’t know how to tell you this, but Buck Addison was involved in this scheme from its very conception.”

And what Cody isn’t saying is worse! Was Buck’s involvement in this ridiculous scheme to own the whole valley the only reason he married me? I  feel like such a fool! Aggie took a deep breath, then exhaled. Alright, Aggie, you can’t change what happened. She steeled herself and, in that brief moment, resolved to move forward.

Johnny felt Aggie’s emotions as she sat in a roomful of men, although they were dear friends, he also witnessed her strength, her determination to deal with what was. And he was proud of her and proud to be her friend.

Aggie met Cody’s eyes. “Alright, what else is there?” she asked.

Cody, impressed with Aggie Conway, knew the woman was a survivor!

“Yes, Addison went to prison, and while there, he turned bitter, eager for revenge. The information we discovered regarding the second take-over attempt revealed Addison hired Lucas Morgan to reduce the Lancer hold on the valley, the attack on Johnny failed, and the attack on Scott failed. However, Scott was not to have been harmed at all.”

Scott immediately filled with apprehension. ‘The incidents here in the San Joaquin are tied together’ No, no, no! Please don’t… But he knew what was coming.

Cody turned again to Aggie, “I’m sorry to have to tell you, Mrs. Conway, but Lucas Morgan confessed that Buck Addison paid him to burn your house. Upon your death, he planned to take over the Circle C Ranch, hence the new brand you found in his possession when you inadvertently dropped his bag. The plan was to murder Johnny, hoping to make Murdoch sell out when Scott returned to Boston, grief-stricken at the loss of his brother.”

That was it- Scott put the pieces together as he fought to keep his feelings under control. He knew how everything transpired.

“Easy, Scott. Let’s wait for the rest of it,” Johnny whispered, ever supportive and always there.

“But things didn’t work out the way Addison and his employer thought. In fact, nothing worked out to their advantage. Morgan was apprehended, and Addison was killed. That left Addison’s employer, Edmonds-Alexander, to bide his time for a third attempt at taking over the valley. However, he was not acting alone, and his partner had him killed.”

Scott closed his eyes; his brain spun in dizzying circles, leaving him sick to his stomach. The bile pushed into his throat. The warm pressure of his brother’s hand brought him a measure of calm as he muttered, “Grandfather.” It was all an elaborate plot to lure him back to Boston.

“All the evidence is pointing in that direction, Scott. I’m so sorry, my friend. There was a letter in Mr. Flemming’s saddlebags stating that if anything were to happen to him, Harlan Garrett was responsible for the murder of Anthony Alexander at the hands of Flemming’s brother, Bill. Ironically, Mr. Edmonds-Alexander was of the same notion of leaving confirmation of Garrett’s involvement in the event of his death. Garrett financed the take-over attempts. It seems none of them had much trust in the other.” Cody paused, allowing Scott to gather his thoughts.

For the second time in a brief span, Johnny witnessed an incredible display of strength; it rose from the pain of a cruel betrayal to push aside hurtful and damning facts and grasp the truth in front of them all.

Now it was Scott to look around the room. These were the people most important in the world to him. Except for Cody, they had all been put in a dangerous position because of Harlan Garrett— because Harlan wanted Scott where he could control him and be assured that Garrett Enterprises would continue for another generation. But it wasn’t going to happen.

Scott pushed those thoughts away and turned to his friend. “Cody, I want to draw up legal papers against Harlan Garrett. I want no further contact…”

“Wait a minute, Scott. You sure you wanna do that? He’s your grandfather,” Johnny said softly; he had to make Scott sure of his actions.

“He’s also the man that tried to have you killed, Johnny. I know what I’m doing. I’m assuming his team of attorneys will help to build a solid case in his defense, but I am prepared to testify against him and offer whatever I can to find him guilty.”

Murdoch’s confusion prompted a question. “Harlan’s Boston attorneys will be working on the case?”

Cody sighed. “Yes, they can. They will handle Harlan’s defense, and an attorney from California will be allowed to assist. The term is pro hac vice. So, gentlemen, we’ve got a fight on our hands…”

Scott jolted as if burned. The book! “Cody, would it be possible to issue a warrant for evidence to be used in court?” Scott asked.

“Yes, it’s done all the time. What are you thinking?” Cody knew that look; he had spent enough time with Scott while wasting away in Libby to know something was going on inside his friend’s head.

“All my life, I watched Grand… Harlan sit behind his desk in his study, reading what looked like a journal. He’d be smiling, and I could see triumph in his eyes. I would ask what the book was, and he would tell me that it was the future of Garrett Enterprises. Once when I was about fourteen, I snuck into his office while he wasn’t home, picked the lock on his desk, and found that book tucked in the back of the drawer. I always wondered why he took such great pains to hide it. My curiosity had gotten the better of me, and as Harlan refused to tell me, I vowed to find out by myself.”

Johnny grinned. “See Murdoch, told ya he’s the sneaky one.”

Scott’s mouth twitched, then he finished the explanation. “I wasn’t sure what it was exactly. Truthfully, I’d forgotten he had the book, but I remember reading brief accounts of Harlan’s businesses and the ridiculous profits he made while leaving the original owners broken. Even as a young boy, I knew that Garrett Enterprises thrived but hadn’t realized why it was successful. The book was a trophy; he enjoyed reading about his victories. One reason I did not desire to work with Harlan is his cutthroat practices. If we can get that book, we’ll have enough evidence to put him behind bars for a very long time.”

“Why the hell would ol’ Harlan keep a book like that? If it could be used against him, seems like a stupid movie on his part ta keep it.” Johnny voiced what everyone was thinking.

“Arrogance, brother, ego, and arrogance. He took great pleasure in reading it and thought no one knew about it, and he could get away with the things he’d done.”

“That might be a long shot, Scott, and that’s if Harlan still has that book or one like it, but I’ll see what I can do. It might help us establish his character, though. We’ll have to move quickly before Harlan gets word to his attorneys, and they confiscate that information before we do.”

Val, who had been quiet up to now, chuckled. “Don’t ya worry about that. I’ll let ol’ Harlan write any wire he wants ta his lawyers in Boston. I just won’t send it off right away. Cody, how long ya figure it’ll take ta get that book?”

“I’ll notify my people when I get back to town. It shouldn’t be more than a day or two. But that would be the evidence we need to break his character defense.”

“Hell, ask me about Harlan’s character, I’ll tell ya!” Johnny said, but there was no smile to indicate he was joking.

Cody stared at Johnny, then delivered a piece of information that made Johnny grin. “You’ll get your chance, Johnny because you will be testifying against him in court.”

Johnny lowered himself into the chair beside his brother. “Two bits.” The words were soft in the evening dusk.

Scott turned as a frown creased his forehead. “Two bits? For what?”

Johnny sighed. “Well, a penny wouldn’t buy your thoughts, so I raised it to a nickel, an’ that didn’t do it. Ya turned down a dime, so now it’s up ta two bits! Geez, Boston, what exactly did ya learn at that fancy school of yours?”

Scott let the words sink in and began to laugh. He was tired of thinking about Harlan, tired of thinking that his whole life, Harlan Garrett tried to mold and manipulate him into something he wasn’t, to force him to become like his grandfather. Hell, Scott was just plain tired, and it felt good to laugh. It was all he could do. If they couldn’t make the charges of murder stick, it would be a bitter pill to swallow, but there would be the papers filed to keep Garrett away from Scott and everything Lancer for the rest of his life.

“Two bits, is it?” And his laugh began to grow. “Tell me if you think this is worth two bits, brother: I’m going to have Cody arrange that Harlan pays for Aggie’s house to be rebuilt since it was due to his greed that it was lost and nearly Aggie, as well!”

Johnny began to laugh in earnest. “Oh, boy, Boston, guess ya do know how ta use that head of yours!”

Aggie Conway was exhausted. She climbed the stairs, going down the long hallway that led to her room on the opposite end of the hacienda. There she had her own space, away from the Lancer family, where she could try and process the things she heard from the young attorney. Harlan Garrett’s words stung like nettle rash that she splashed with vinegar, but it was Buck Addison’s actions that pierced her heart in white-hot fire, searing, blistering hurt.  

Aggie walked to the window and looked out over the mountains. Damn Buck Addison!

She turned to stare at the Judgement Seat, the chair she had purchased for Henry shortly after they married. It was badly burned in the fire, but to her surprise, Johnny rescued the chair and had it repaired. New leather graced the seat and back, and the wood, sanded and stained with a coat of varnish, made it look new. There was one burn mark that Johnny insisted was left. It was a burn from Henry’s cigar that marred the arm. No, marred was not the right word. It was a memory, a memory that meant everything to her. The chair was the only item to survive the fire.

Aggie ran her hand over the new leather and across the top of the chair. She walked around it, studied it from every angle, then sat down— in the Judgement Seat— and cried.

Court was scheduled to start in two days. Garrett’s team of lawyers worked tirelessly, interviewing those involved to build their case and declare Harlan Garrett a slandered but free man. Then they would begin the case against Lancer. After all, dragging Harlan Garrett’s name through the mud was scandalous, and Garrett would be vindicated in the end as he had in the past…

Money could buy most things, except for Judge Thomas W. Clearidge. Cody Justice would have a fight on his hands but felt confident the trial would be fair with Clearidge presiding. And waiting for an outcome would not be easy. But it was the only way.

The new foal was full of spunk as it ran circles around his mother, then suddenly stopped and kicked out with its back legs. The action brought a smile to the Lancer brothers’ faces.

“Have you thought of a name for him, brother?” Scott teased, knowing that his choice of Archimedes would be banned forever.

“No, I haven’t, Boston. But it ain’t gonna be Archie-whatever-you-said.”

Murdoch Lancer listened to his sons as they bantered between themselves. Standing off to the side and out of sight, he listened without their knowledge. When he stooped to eavesdropping, he didn’t know, but he found these conversations too precious to pass up.

“Maybe I’ll name him Caesar,” Scott continued.

“Over my dead body. His name’s gonna be Valiente,” Johnny said with a satisfied smile.

“You told me you already had a horse named Valiente!” Scott countered.

“So? This one’ll be named after him- he was a good horse!”

Scott grunted. “I’m surprised you’re not named him Little Barranca…” 

Johnny turned to look at his brother. “Hey, that’s a good idea!”

The grin that followed made Scott laugh. “You know what I think, Johnny?”

“Nope, hard ta tell what you think, Boston. With all that Harvard education ya got, your probably gonna tell me…”

Scott interrupted his brother’s statement. “I think we ought to go fishing. We took the poles out of the store room, and they’re still sitting where we left them.”

“Ya know what I’m gonna do?”

Uh oh, the game is on! And Murdoch couldn’t hold back his chuckle.

Scott rolled his eyes. “No, I don’t know what you’re going to do. Are you going to tell me or make me guess?”

“I’ll tell ya. I’m gonna push ya in the lake. That’s what I’m gonna do.”

Murdoch was amused. The conversation between his boys was matter of fact, no raised voices, just plainly spoken words.

“You think so, do you, little brother? If you push me in the lake, I’m taking you with me.”

“Nuh uh, can’t do that.”

“And why can’t I?”

“Cuz Sam don’t want me ta get this wet, that’s why.” Johnny motioned to his arm in the sling. He reached out with his left hand and pushed Scott’s right shoulder.

Scott reached out with his right hand and shoved Johnny’s left shoulder.

I don’t think I want to hear or see anymore… and Murdoch Lancer walked to the hacienda with a smile on his face and joy in his heart.



August 2022


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


24 thoughts on “Crossfire by Buckskin

  1. Reading about Harlan’s schemes and underhanded dealings got even better as Scott saw him for who he was. When he finally ended up in cuffs, I breathed a sigh of relief. And will we find out more in a future story? I enjoy these tales of yours a lot. Thank you for a great read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey there, Sherry! Thank you for reading and commenting. Yes, poor Scott was really torn, remembering the man who raised him and he wanted for nothing, but finding out the lengths Harlan went to to keep Scott separated from his family opened his eyes to the man his grandfather really was. At the present time, I have no further story planned for this series.

      Thanks again, Sherry, for your kind words!



      1. Hi, Rita! Thank you for reading and commenting. And you are welcome! I’m glad you liked this trilogy!



    1. Hey there, Caterina! Yup, Scott finally saw exactly who Harlan Garrett was- at least he admitted it to himself. It was important for hm to do that.

      Thanks for the feedback and glad you liked this story!



    1. Hey there, Chris! Thank you very much for the compliment. I appreciate it more than you know.



    1. Thank you so much! I’m very happy you enjoyed this one. Poor Scott! He was so torn between Harlan’s benevolence toward him as a child and the ugliness of what his grandfather really was now that he could see through adult eyes. It would confuse anyone… Thanks for reading and the feedback!



  2. A fitting end to your first two stories, and now you have an excellent trilogy. Thanks for the shout out and glad your muse devised this tale. Not a great idea to keep a record of all your dirty doings, Harlan….I so enjoy your tales, Diana.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, RonD, for the nudge! Sometimes the old brain just stops and it’s hard to pull a story together. But you did help immensely! I happy you liked the series.



  3. You wrapped this story up beautifully. Thank you so very much for sharing all of your wonderful stories with us. I hope there will be many more come.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Carolyn and you are very welcome! I’m always working on a story, but it’s easy to get ‘stuck’. But there are more in the works! Thank you again!



    1. Thank you, so much, Crystle! It makes me happy when others like my Lancer World! Yeah, ol’ Harlan had that coming… he was such a rat. He kept trying to get Scott back to Boston— you’d think he’d learn!

      Thanks for reading and sending feedback!



    1. Hey there, janbrac! Glad you liked this collection a ‘Horrible Harlan’! Great name for him.
      Thank you for reading and commenting. I appreciate it very much!



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