#2 in the Fear Series
Thanks to Cat, Rob, and Chris for the beta and a special thanks to Rob for the clever idea! Sequel to Stone Cold Fear
Word Count 32, 770
Neatly manicured cold fingers guided the pen in a flourish across the paper; the soft scratch competed against the crackle of flames that danced over dry wood. The ‘I’s were dotted, and ‘T’s crossed. It was done; the long-awaited deed was done, and nothing could derail what was to come. What could possibly happen that would change this now? The evil, snide grin stretched across the blue-tinted lips as the old man knew success would finally be in his grasp, that this was the beginning of the end, and his nemesis would not survive. Of that, he had no doubt. He’d seen to every contingency to ensure that failure would not be possible and guarantee that he would win this war.
He would send the message today, just to be sure. He found a certain satisfaction that he was responsible for setting in motion the events that signaled failure for his enemy and a hard-fought victory for himself. It had been a long time in coming, and he couldn’t stop the maniacal cackle that broke the quiet in the room.
Aggie Conway giggled as she delighted in her role of the deception. “Murdoch is going to be so surprised when you give him this horse! Why, I’ll bet he’ll be speechless, and you know that’s nearly impossible to do— make Murdoch Lancer speechless!”Her laugh floated through the morning air, and she turned to her companion. “Johnny, you are sneaky, you know that?”
Aggie thought he looked like a twelve-year-old as the smile grew across the handsome face, as his eyes sparkled. Could he do it? Would he pull one over on the ol’ man!
“Sneaky, huh? I like sneaky! Need ta keep Murdoch on his toes! But I wanna thank you for helpin’ me out on this, Aggie. Havin’ you outbid him when he really wanted this horse was sure fun ta watch. It amazes me why you two aren’t at each other’s throats the way ya go at it. Ya know that vein that pops out on the side of his neck when he gets mad?”
Aggie nodded, then giggled again.
“Well, it was thumpin’ pretty hard, an’ his face was turnin’ red when you went past his last offer!”
Together they laughed, thinking about the shrewd, serious, no-nonsense Murdoch Lancer, father and friend, outnumbered and outbid once again by Aggie at the annual horse auction. But this time, it wasn’t Aggie Conway that won. Oh, she made the winning bid alright, but it was Johnny Lancer that paid the bill. He’d never seen his father want something more than he wanted that horse, and now, Johnny could surprise his father. And a surprise it would be! The only thing was, he would have to wait until December 25th to do it. It was only the middle of September; there were three and a half months to go.
Anticipation, Johnny thought, and he would savor every minute of it! But, until then, Aggie would keep the horse at her ranch and flaunt it whenever Murdoch came to visit. Every dinner he would share at Aggie’s, the horse would be grazing in the pasture in front of the elegant home, blatantly assuring another ‘friendly’ stab to Murdoch’s back over yet another bidding victory. Murdoch Lancer did hate to lose out on good horseflesh, especially to Agatha Conway!
“I only hope we can keep it a secret, Johnny. I’ve told the men to keep quiet about it. It would be awful if, after all this, someone let it slip that you bought the horse and not me! But then, I haven’t told many, and the ones that know are good about keeping their mouths shut!” Aggie watched Johnny’s face. He probably has never done anything like this before! It’s good to see the child in Johnny, to see him enjoy himself at the thought of surprising Murdoch with this gift!
Aggie’s heart melted as she witnessed Johnny’s evolution into family life, enjoyingthe little things, such as the excitement of surprising his father with a gift. The Lancers had a lot of time to make up for, many hurdles yet to overcome, but the family succeeded, growing together as a family should. And Aggie was happy, more than happy to help out any way she could. It would be an honor for her, and she relished her part in whatever she could do for them, especially if it involved pulling something over on her dear friend, Murdoch Lancer. And now she had a capable and willing helper in Johnny, as did he in her!
As Aggie Conway and Johnny Lancer laughed and joked at Murdoch’s unknowing expense, the portly man who sat in the finely appointed office read the telegram in undisguised jubilation. Sausage-like fingers clenched the paper in excited anticipation as a grin stretched across full, chubby lips and caused the sagging jowls to wiggle with the movement.
It was going to happen, and no one would know anything until it was too late to stop it! Tomorrow was the beginning of the end.
The irritating clang of keys announced the guards were at his cell door; the grating sound of the key turning the tumblers alerted him there was a change in the daily grind, that today was different. What was going to happen?
“Alright you, on your feet!” the guard barked out as he puffed out his chest and leveled his pistol at the prisoner, his authority unmistakable.
The prisoner hauled himself upright off the bed and got his legs under him, standing to full height. No word was muttered, no insulting remark; he stood still and waited quietly; however, the hard glare in his eyes spoke volumes.
“Step to the door and hold out your hands!” the guard ordered.
He was deliberately slow getting to the door; cooperating with the uniformed men went against his nature, but he obliged them and extended his hands. The jailer snapped a pair of cuffs around the outstretched wrists. With the prisoner properly restrained, he was led to a room that boasted a table and two chairs and was directed to sit at the far side of the table. The door was closed behind him and locked.
A waiting game. How long will it be? But at the thought, there was a click of the lock, and the door opened, allowing a large man dressed in a suit to enter. He walked to the table, placed a packet of papers on the surface, and took his seat, facing the cuffed man but did not look at him. Leafing through the pages in the folder, he found the pertinent sheet, studied it, then spoke.
“You have some friends in high places.” He continued to peruse the paper; his eyes focused on the documents before him, had not yet raised to look at the prisoner’s face. It didn’t matter. Once he informed the prisoner what was to happen, he’d be finished here. The cuffed man would be of no importance, and his job would be completed. He reached for the pencil in his jacket pocket, made a few brief notations, then sighed and finally met the prisoner’s stare.
A sealed envelope was tossed across the table to land in front of the cuffed hands.
“You are now a free man. There are your instructions. Good day.” The Suit left his chair, went to the door and knocked the signal he was done. A guard let him out then turned to the former prisoner. “Alright, you, this way. I’ll show you where you can change; by that time, the paperwork will be completed, and you can go.”
The prisoner was stunned. Had he heard correctly? He was a free man?
The guard unlocked the cuffs from around his wrists, and he got to his feet. He was getting out… now! Eight months of his life were stolen away, gone! He wasn’t about to waste any more time in this hell hole than necessary, and now he was going to make someone pay for what they did to him, and they would pay dearly!
Putting the pieces together was an impossible task. One minute Buck Addison was locked in a cell in San Quentin penitentiary, and the next, he was a free man. Things had happened so fast that the envelope given to him earlier remained sealed, unread. There hadn’t been time for particulars when Buck found himself guided to a room that held a change of clothes and ordered to remove the uniform worn by the inmates. He obeyed… gladly. Although the suit waiting for him wasn’t what he would have picked out, it was better than the clothes he’d been wearing the last eight and a half months.
The brown suit fit remarkably well, and he wondered who arranged the wardrobe, small as it was, but he felt better than he had since arriving at this hell hole. Regardless, what had happened? Why was he now a free man? But suddenly, he didn’t care when he heard that heavy door close, leaving him on the outside instead of locked behind the impassable barrier.
His mind swirled with questions, and Buck began to walk. He had no idea where he would go, but it didn’t matter. He was free! His feet moved with a will of their own, and the longer he walked, the faster the paces became, and soon the prison behind him was nothing more than a speck on the horizon.
The envelope! He hadn’t opened it yet; perhaps it would give him some clue as to why he had been released, who was behind it, and where he should be going. Buck reached into the inside jacket pocket, his fingers closed around the paper, and pulled it out. There was no writing, nothing to offer a clue of the contents. Wasting no time, Addison ripped the envelope open; inside was a brief note along with fifty dollars. The writing was vaguely familiar.
October 9, 10 o’clock. Contact Mr. Anthony E. Alexander at 37 North Street, Manteca. Be there.
Who the hell did he know in Manteca? And who the hell was Anthony E. Alexander? He shrugged off the question. He wasn’t interested in any agenda but his own. He had a score to settle and wasn’t going to waver and go off on any plan but his. But Buck was curious. Who had arranged for his release from a twenty-year prison sentence? Who had seen to his welfare and left decent, clean clothes and money? The writing… it was his only clue. Well, he had a few days to think about it while he traveled.
37 North Street. This was it. Addison observed the nondescript building and wondered what he would find inside those walls. He didn’t know anyone in Manteca, never had, but the nudge in the back of his mind told him that he’d better find out what was going on. Again he wondered just who this Anthony Alexander was and why he wanted to see him. Buck had served less than one year of a twenty-year sentence, now he was a free man, and he wanted to know why. Was it someone that wanted a favor? That may be, but favors, he knew, had a way of coming back to kick you in your ass. Well, he wasn’t going to find out anything standing out there on the boardwalk. He opened the door and entered the building.
A long hallway greeted him; there were doors on each side, but none had the name he was looking for. So he walked until the name appeared, painted in bold black lettering on his left. Anthony E. Alexander. Wonder what the ‘E’ stands for? Buck grasped the knob and let himself into the room beyond.
“Hello, may I help you, sir?” The woman sitting behind the desk was beautiful, perhaps a bit too young, though, for his taste, but after eight months without female contact of any kind, it really didn’t matter. Buck noticed her eyes; they were hazel-brown, warm and friendly, and held a sparkle that made Buck think twice about being too young or not.
“Yes, ma’am. I have an… appointment with Mr. Alexander at ten o’clock.” He smiled what he hoped was his best charming smile.
The woman smiled again. “One moment, sir. I’ll see if Mr. Alexander is ready to see you. Please, have a seat.” She indicated chairs along one wall with a dainty hand extended toward comfortable seating. “I’ll be right with you.”
“Thank you, Miss.” Was she a miss? There was no ring on her slender, long-fingered hand.
The woman excused herself and went into the office behind her desk. She tapped on the door before she entered and disappeared into the room.
After a brief, muffled conversation, the young lady reappeared and held the door open for Buck. “Mr. Alexander will see you now.”
A shy smile flickered across her lips as Buck walked past, having third and fourth thoughts about this pretty woman, then she closed the door behind him.
While not extravagant, the office was well appointed. The bright sunlight filtered through the window between dark green draperies lending a pleasant atmosphere to the freshly painted walls. A large man sat at the desk, his back to the room as he studied the street outside.
“Sit down, Buck. It’s so nice to see you again!”
Any thoughts of bedding the young woman vanished as the chair turned and Buck Addison was staring into the face of Victor Edmonds.
“Hey, Boston, Murdoch’s goin’ ta Aggie’s tanight for supper. Wonder if she’ll have that horse out in the pasture by the road ta the house?”
Scott had to admit that his little brother delighted in pulling one over on their father. Johnny had mischief about him; tell it like it is, Scott, he thought to himself. Johnny could be a brat, and there was nothing he liked better than to outsmart the Tune-caller!
Murdoch had been a bear, growling at everyone and everything after ‘Aggie’ bought that horse right out from under him, but he wasn’t going to grovel at her feet. He thought he was one step ahead of his sons this year, buying gifts for Christmas that they never would expect. He was practically beside himself as he tried to think of a gift he would give Scott that the young man would never expect. If it could be arranged.
James Harper, Murdoch’s old and dear friend from Boston, had notified him a week ago that there had been an auction for one of the city’s oldest families. James bid on a box of old books and papers, not knowing what was inside. The hunt for a particular and elusive volume led him on a not-so-merry chase, and having eyes only for that tome, Harper disregarded all other books. With no luck locating his prize, he now had a box of items that were useless to him. Then he thought to ask Murdoch if perhaps Scott would be interested.
During his last visit, when his wayward daughter, Melissa, was found and rescued by Scott and Johnny from her ‘kidnapper’/fiancé, James had a chance to talk with Scott and discovered his fondness for these classics. James wired Murdoch, Murdoch responded with a resounding yes, that it was a great idea, and James would send the box to California in Murdoch’s name.
The Lancer patriarch was able to secure the large package and hopefully could keep it a secret until Christmas. After all, who shops for gifts this early? The price of shipping the box was nothing compared to the joy he would receive when Scott laid his eyes on the priceless gift! After all, a first edition copy of Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ was the perfect gift for his Harvard-educated son. It made Murdoch wonder if his friend James even realized what he had discovered, or perhaps it was an offering, an atonement for putting Murdoch’s sons in danger when they went after his daughter and brought her back from certain harm at considerable danger to themselves.
What was he to do about Johnny now? That horse was to have been for him, but Aggie had ruined that plan. He would give it serious thought; there was no other choice. But there was time to think about it. Perhaps he would consult Scott, and between the two of them, they would come up with something that Johnny would never expect.
Buck Addison could only stare. Was this some cruel joke? Victor Edmonds ran out on him, leaving him to face criminal charges and ultimately go to prison! Rage rampaged through his skull, and he wanted nothing more than to throw himself across that big, fancy desk and wrap his hands around Edmond’s fat neck.
An irritating chuckle rumbled from the arrogant man’s throat as he studied Buck’s internal struggle. “Why, Buck, don’t tell me you’re not happy to see me? After all the… business arrangements we forged together, I would think you would be happy to meet again.” The smooth words flowed, condescending and holding more than a little spite. “You were a fool to go after that woman, Buck! And that is why you went to prison, not because of me!”
“I should kill you right now, Victor!” Buck sneered; his control quickly faded.
“You were never that vulgar before, Buck.”
“Yes, well, prison will do that to a man. I kept your name out of it, and your money is safe and, no doubt, making more money! Why did you turn your back on me?” Buck felt his hands shake, and he fought to keep them at his sides instead of reaching for the infuriating man before him.
“Oh, Buck, stop the dramatics.” Edmonds-Alexander chided and pushed aside Buck’s remarks like threats from a petulant child.
Addison went livid. “Dramatics?”
“Yes, dramatics. Listen to me, Buck; what do you want more than anything?”
He didn’t have to think about it and growled, “I want to make Aggie and Lancer pay for what they did to me! I want their land!”
Alexander raised his brow as the cold and condescending smirk tugged the corners of his mouth. “And you shall have them.”
Buck was stunned. “You’re out of your mind, Victor. I ought to turn you in to the law!” Buck railed.
“Ah, ah, ah, Buck!” The irritating sing-song tone did the trick. “There’s no sense in getting nasty. And don’t call me Victor. The people here know me as Anthony Alexander. Victor Edmonds died when you went to prison.”
Buck’s eyes went cold. “How convenient for you. I spend eight months behind bars in a filthy cell, eating maggots crawling around in my food, rats running over my body as I slept, and all you do is change your name! I hope it wasn’t too difficult for you!” He growled.
“I can arrange for you to go back there and sit in that cold little cell… with those maggots and rats.” Alexander let the threat sink into Addison’s thick head. When the man offered no remark, he continued. “Sit down, Buck. We have much to discuss.”
The sullen, hooded glare remained, but Buck took the plush chair across from Alexander and sat. No words could express the thoughts that tore through his brain. And neither were there any words that would calm his temper, no words to ease the torturous memories of his time behind those bars. Although the comment of maggots in his food and rats running across him while he slept were fabricated, Edmonds, ah, Alexander didn’t need to know. But Addison was no fool. He would hear what his once-partner had to say, then figure out what he would do. But never again would he let himself take the fall. Not for anyone.
Anthony leaned back in his chair and tented his fingers on his large belly as he studied the man who once was his partner. Would he consent to the plan? He doesn’t have much of a choice if he wants to remain free of those iron bars.
“How are your accommodations, Buck? Are they satisfactory? Did you sleep well last night?”
Buck sincerely hoped that Anthony would choke on his words. With tremendous effort, Buck pulled his temper under control. “Skip the pleasantries, Anthony, and get to the point. Why am I here?”
“Why, Buck, I thought you had put it together by now. Perhaps I will have to spell it out to you. You see, Buck, there are wonderful and exciting opportunities in the San Joaquin Valley that remain untapped. And we are going to take advantage and pick up where we left off. I’ve already taken some liberties to get the ball rolling, so to speak. What I need to know is, are you with me?” Alexander sat forward, leaned his heavy arms on the desktop, and laced his fingers together. The washed-out blue irises fixed on Buck, and the knowing smirk twitched the man’s full lips.
Buck knew if he refused, he wouldn’t live past midnight. He knew too much of Alexander’s plans and the things he was capable of doing. However, the fact remained that he couldn’t take over the San Joaquin before without Buck’s help and probably couldn’t do it now, either. What did Buck have to lose? As long as he stayed out of that cell, he could go along with just about anything.
An hour later, Buck Addison left the offices of Anthony E. Alexander feeling lighter of heart than he had since the first few months when he married Agatha Conway. But there was a difference now. He was going to get revenge and make Aggie pay. He was going to make Murdoch Lancer pay. And he was going to make Lancer’s boys rue the day they were born.
The door to Alexander’s office had barely snicked shut when the fat man grinned ear to ear and congratulated himself on his success. Anthony rose from his chair and helped himself to a glass of Glenlivet. Thick lips, shiny from the liquid, pulled across small white teeth, and Anthony began to laugh. Buck Addison fell into his old role, and Anthony and his new partner would reap the rewards… at Addison’s expense, of course.
The wineglass sparkled under the glow of the soft light and cascaded a delicate pattern over the white linen tablecloth.
“Oh, Murdoch, how could I have been that stupid? I feel so embarrassed about what happened. I always prided myself on having common sense and not being taken in easily!” Aggie Conway felt like crying, and she knew Murdoch would understand.
“Aggie, don’t you think you’re a little hard on yourself? You were in love! And that’s what love does— You were blinded by the things you thought were offered. And, I’ll tell you something else, Agatha Conway, you stood your ground with Buck and made things right. That, my dear, took a lot of courage!” Murdoch thought back to the things Johnny told him regarding Aggie’s confrontation with her then-husband, Buck Addison.
“Murdoch, let her do it. She needs this! We know she hasn’t done anything wrong, but she thinks she did. Let her redeem herself.”
And Murdoch was now glad he listened to the things Johnny had told him and went along with his son. Aggie could look herself in the eye, knowing she righted her wrong— even though she’d not done any wrong. He watched her this night, their weekly dinner together, and wondered if he should tell her that the people of Green River thought she was a hero. The scoundrel Addison was going to take the Circle C and Lancer, and she stopped it when she confronted Buck.
Aching to change the subject, he forced his stern ‘horse trader’ mask in place. “Now,” he began gruffly, “Can you tell me why you felt the need to put that horse in the front pasture? You wanted to rub my nose in it, didn’t you?”
And Aggie, thankful her guest changed the subject, couldn’t control the laugh that burst from her lips. “Oh, Murdoch, are you still pouting over that horse?”
A heavy sigh escaped, then a tiny smile tugged at his mouth. “No, Aggie, not pouting, just… disappointed. I wanted to give that horse to Johnny for Christmas.”
Addison sized up the young man at his table. “So, you’ll take the job?”
The young man nodded his head and smiled. “You just tell me whatcha want me ta do, an’ I’ll get it done for ya. When do I get paid?”
“You’ll get your wages working on the ranch, and I will pay you $500 when the job is done. Do we have a deal?”
The young man grinned. It was easy money as far as he could see, but he wasn’t particular. He didn’t mind getting a little dirty, especially when the job paid that well. No siree. He’d do just about anything the man in the brown suit asked of him.
“I’ll be in touch.” Buck Addison left the table anxious to put his plan in motion. One down, one to go.
The accident had cost a man his life and seriously injured two others. Virgil Tomkins had been a good, dependable hand, and they would miss him. He didn’t have any family to worry over him and had worked at Lancer for the last seven years, becoming a trusted employee and friend. They would honor him and bury him on Lancer land.
Steve Sloan and Tag Whitfield, though seriously injured, got off lucky. Sloan suffered a broken leg that would keep him off a horse for months, and Tag was nursing four broken ribs and a concussion.
Murdoch waited for Dr. Sam Jenkins to finish tending the two men, then come to the hacienda and make his report. His heart pounded in his chest, knowing that both Scott and Johnny were working with the three men and came very close to getting trapped in the landslide as well. Well, they made it out unscathed, don’t dwell on something that didn’t happen. Just be glad it wasn’t any worse.
Voices in the kitchen alerted Murdoch that his sons had entered and were subjected to Maria’s scrutiny as she checked them over, making sure they were unhurt. A brief smile twitched the corners of his mouth as he listened to their ‘Sí, Mamacita, estoy bien’ and ‘Yes, thank you, Maria, I’m fine’ drifted to his ears. Spurs jangled, and soon both sons came into the great room.
Although he knew his sons were unhurt, he was relieved to see for himself.
“Scott, Johnny, I’m glad you’re home. Do you know what happened?” Murdoch asked as he inspected his boys, making his own assessment of them. They were dirty and worn but unhurt.
Scott sighed, then made his report. “No, we don’t. Johnny and I had just rounded up the strays that broke through that fence. Virgil, Steve, and Tag were fixing the fence as fast as they could when the landslide started. They were directly below the slide. Virgil didn’t stand a chance. Steve and Tag were lucky; a few feet to the left, and they would have been killed.”
Murdoch sagged into his chair, deeply saddened at the injuries and loss of life. Pushing those thoughts aside for a moment, he focused on his sons.
“Why don’t you two go get cleaned up and take it easy for the rest of the day? You’ve earned it.” He tried to smile but failed.
“Murdoch, there’s still cattle runnin’ all over up there. Soon as I get a fresh horse, I’m goin’ back up there an’ finish the job,” Johnny countered, determined to fix what had gone wrong.
“We are going back up there, brother!” Scott announced.
Murdoch, though troubled, was pleased with their decision. “Just be careful up there, you two. We don’t know what happened, and I don’t want you to take any unnecessary chances.” Both Murdoch’s and Scott’s eyes went to Johnny.
Wide-eyed, Johnny gave them the ‘who me?’ look, then bowed his head and acknowledged, “Yeah, okay.”
As they left by the back door, they passed Sam coming into the kitchen.
“Sam, they gonna be alright?” Johnny asked the weary doctor.
“Yes, they’ll be fine when they heal. What about you two? Are you alright?” He gave them the same once over they’d just received from Murdoch and Maria before that.
“Yes, Sam, we’re fine,” Scott spoke for them both, then they continued to the barn.
“Mornin’ Mis Conway! Nice day, ain’t it?” Will Hall asked, his tone bright and chipper.
“Good morning Will, and yes, it certainly is a nice day! How are those horses doing? Are they settling down yet?” Aggie asked as she watched the mares in the pasture. They still looked skittish to her as she observed nervous twitches and intense stares, the sudden movements, as they lifted their heads and tested the air as if they were getting ready to bolt.
“Oh, they’ll be alright. Just a little persnickety after bein’ in that far pasture with no one botherin’ ‘em, I guess. Give ‘em a few days an’ they’ll be just fine.”
Aggie watched the young man closely and had to agree. The mares would, indeed, be just fine. And an idea settled in her mind, making her snicker; she would have to talk to Scott Lancer about it.
The young man brushed away the tracks he left and cursed himself for his carelessness. He would have to be more diligent to pull off whatever the man in the brown suit asked of him. He couldn’t get caught; only two weeks on the job, and he’d almost blown it when Scott and Johnny Lancer rode up with those cattle. Too bad they hadn’t gotten there sooner; they, too, would have been victims of the landslide. Well, there was still time. The man in the brown suit said to be sure instead of fast. The man in the brown suit— wonder what his name is?
He was jolted back to reality when he heard the approaching horses. Damn! Ain’t done with these tracks! Again, he cursed himself as he watched Scott and Johnny Lancer come into view. Today just wasn’t his day.
It would take a week for a full crew to clear away the pile of debris. That was time Lancer didn’t have. Colder weather had already begun to settle in, and the push to tie up the end-of-year chores was upon them. This job would set them back, giving up man-hours and days that were needed elsewhere.
Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt and looked around; he estimated what it would take for the clean-up and didn’t like the figures that came to mind. He sighed, let his discouragement be known.
Scott heard and had to agree with Johnny’s unvoiced opinion. “Too many men for the clean-up and too long to do it.”
Johnny looked to the top of the bluff and frowned. “What’d ya think, Boston? That cliff don’t look too unstable ta me. Let’s go check it out. There’s gotta be a reason it came down when it did.” Without waiting for his brother’s answer, Johnny reined Barranca around the way they came and climbed the ridge that took them to the top and the edge of the cliff.
Scott looked out over the small valley, then studied the ground around them. Johnny stood with hands on his hips, thinking; the creased forehead and squinting eyes signaled intense concentration.
“Johnny, what is it? What are you thinking?” He knew that look on his brother’s face. There was something on his mind.
“Dunno, Boston. Thinkin’ back, did you hear anything just before that hillside came down? I mean, somethin’ that shouldn’ta been there?”
Scott frowned, “No, it sounded like rocks and boulders crashing down the cliff.” Then, Scott began to think of possibilities. “You know, Johnny, if there is an underground cave, something could have shifted, causing that landslide.”
Johnny said nothing. Then began to scour the ground for something that was there that shouldn’t be.
They were faint, but they were there. Tracks from a man’s boot. What was anyone doing up here? The cattle couldn’t get to this spot overlooking the valley; why would any of the hands be up here?
“Scott, here’s some bootprints over here; looks like someone tried ta brush ‘em out.”
They began the search for clues, and it didn’t take long to put a few facts together. The dark smudge on the rocks in a deep crevice marked where the dynamite charge was set— the landslide was meant to cause harm. It was now a murder.
The numbers were beginning to blur, and Murdoch rubbed his eyes. It was hard to lose an employee, but Virgil Tomkins was more than just an employee. He was a friend and a trusted friend at that. Ranching was a dangerous business, but that didn’t make things any easier when something happened.
Murdoch’s musings were interrupted when he heard the horse gallop into the yard, and he immediately felt his belly flip over. Scott and Johnny went out to see if they could find something at the landslide, and there was only one horse that had just arrived. Please let them be alright!
He was halfway to the door when Scott hurried into the great room, alone.
“Where’s your brother?” Murdoch voiced more harshly than intended. Scott’s demeanor did nothing to lessen Murdoch’s wildly stampeding thoughts.
“Johnny went into Green River to talk to Val. Murdoch, we found where a charge was set off. Someone intended to bring that bluff down…”
Murdoch went cold inside.
The slamming door jerked Val out of a dream that he would give a month’s pay to be back dreaming again. Dammit! This better be good!
Oh, shit! This’s trouble…
“C’mon, Val, it’s important; a man was just killed out at Lancer.”
Val snapped awake. “What happened, amigo?” Wide awake now and in full sheriff mode, he was all business, especially after seeing the mad boil in Johnny’s eyes.
“Virgil Thomkins was killed this afternoon. Got caught in a landslide.”
“Ranchin’ dangerous work, Johnny; ever’one knows that.”
“Someone lit a charge, Val. Whoever it was intentionally lit that fuse and buried Virgil an’ Steve Sloan an’ Tag Whitfield were hurt. Me an’ Scott found some tracks an’ the place the charge was set. It was someone that knew what he was doin’, a small charge put in just the right spot ta cause the most damage.”
“Guess I better take a look.” Sheriff Crawford pulled the jacket around his body, settled his battered hat on his head, and followed Johnny out the door.
Aggie Conway reined her horse to the fence to look out across the pasture and the river beyond. At the water’s edge lay the last vestiges of the dam that Buck tried to build and cut off water to the rest of the valley, particularly Lancer. The thought still sickened her heart. She knew she had made a mistake, had, in fact, tried to rectify her mistake, and still, she felt so horrible for her lapse in judgment. How many times had Murdoch told her she had atoned for whatever she thought she’d done wrong? But the fact was, the sting was still there. Maybe, perhaps in a year or so, when the scars of the dam faded away from her land, so would her guilt. It was the best she could hope for, just fade away.
The morning sun graced the sky with soft, soothing rays and buttered the landscape in a warm glow that comforted like a mother’s love. Aggie thought it was time she let go of those troubling thoughts, but those ugly memories gave her a run for her money and kept popping up as fast as she pushed them away. A distraction! She would concentrate on a distraction; yes, that was it. And she knew what it would be.
Friends. Aggie needed her friends; a small dinner party would be just the thing to keep her busy. And she began to plan what she hoped would occupy her wandering mind and keep her guilt at bay. Hmmm, Murdoch, Scott, Johnny, and Teresa, of course… Oh! I’ll invite Charlie and Molly Poe! That will make such a nice party!
The Poe’s had lived in the valley for almost five years now, but it was a close call when that scoundrel Marks came near to stealing their land, claiming it was illegally purchased. The Poe’s and a few more in the valley nearly lost everything due to Mark’s greed. Just like Buck… Stop thinking about Buck Addison!
Scott! I must remember to talk with Scott and get his thoughts about the horses…
Turning her bay gelding toward home, Aggie took the bull by the horns and focused on her friends. As she rode back to the Circle C, she began to appreciate the morning and relaxed in the warmth it provided.
Will Hall met her at the gate and took her horse to the barn. His youthful smile split his face, showing a few slightly crooked teeth, but Aggie thought they seemed to add to his character. Crooked teeth ‘fit’ him. She held her snicker in check, thinking that when he removed his hat, the perpetual strawberry blond cowlick on the top of his head combined with those teeth made him seem childlike. His eyes danced when he smiled, and Aggie could not help but smile back.
“Thank you, Will,” she responded and headed into the house.
Once at her desk, Aggie wrote two invitations, one for the Lancers and the second to Charlie and Molly Poe, inviting them to dinner that Saturday evening; she found that thinking about these dear people set her in a better frame of mind and eased away unsettling thoughts. There was nothing like spending time with cherished friends, and Aggie would make the most of it and enjoy herself.
Taking the envelopes in hand, Aggie went to the front door in hopes of catching one of the hands and asking them to deliver the invitations. Old Hank Snow had ambled out of the barn, and Aggie called him over. She watched as his bowed legs carried him across the yard, wondering how they supported the barrel-shaped body without snapping in two. Hank had been at the Circle C for many years, hired by Henry Conway, Aggie’s first husband.
“I’m just fine, Hank! How are you doing? Does this weather agree with your rheumatism?” She didn’t notice the pronounced limp that usually accompanied him at this time of year.
“Oh, it’s doin’ jus’ fine taday! That ol’ sun sure does keep them aches an’ pains away! What can I do fer ya?”
“Is Richey around? I need these notes delivered to Lancer and the Poes.” Aggie shaded her eyes from the sun with her hand.
“Yup, he’s out behind the barn. I’ll shag his lazy butt over ta see ya pronto!” The raspy laughter slipped out the gaps where teeth used to reside, and he turned, giving Aggie a wave with his calloused hand.
“Thank you, Hank!” Aggie smiled as she followed his path back to the barn.
Sausage-like fingers tented as the rotund man pondered the letter lying faceup on his desk. Neat flowing writing cascaded across the page; impatient words threatened termination of the deal so carefully crafted if things didn’t start to move and move fast.
Up to this point, there was no connection, no proof he would be involved in what was to happen, but if rushed, it would have the potential to blow up in their faces. No, they had to go slowly, cover their tracks, and be sure the scapegoat would take the blame. This was the difficult part of a silent partner; although the man financed most of this venture, he was not the one responsible for covering their tracks— tracks that could lead the law right to their door. No, it would take time to do this right and have the outcome they wanted.
Anthony Alexander knew what he had to do. His partner stipulated only one thing, but there was a possibility that ‘one thing’ might not happen. Well, Alexander would deal with the situation as it came along. If the stipulation could not be met, the man would just have to accept what was… and wasn’t.
The full lips pulled in a smile. Yes, things were going fine, just fine!
Why was she nervous? These were her friends; they had all stood side by side through tumultuous times and celebrations. Relax Aggie! She told herself. The table, set in the good china, was beautiful; the crystal sparkled, and the silver polished to a high sheen. And Aggie had to admit everything looked perfect.
Giving the table one last critical inspection, the soft knock on the door announced the arrival of her guests. Teresa, carrying a basket, pushed the door open, Murdoch right behind her, and Scott and Johnny brought up the rear.
“Oh, it’s good to see you, dear,” Aggie greeted the young girl with a hug.
“I brought a cake, Aggie. Should I put it in the kitchen?” she asked, already heading in that direction.
“That was so thoughtful, Teresa! Yes, thank you, that would be fine!” Aggie turned to the Lancer men. With hands on her hips, Aggie gave them all the once over, and a smile lit up her face. “My, don’t you all look so handsome!”
“Thank you, Aggie, and might I say that you look beautiful this evening?” Murdoch took her hand and gave a gentle squeeze.
“Murdoch, you’re going to make me blush like a schoolgirl if you don’t stop that flattery!”
Scott stepped forward and placed a kiss on the back of Aggie’s hand. Then he raised his head to look into her face. “He’s right, Aggie! You look beautiful!”
Now, Aggie did blush!
Johnny stepped forward and didn’t stop at taking her hand. He wrapped his arms around her and hugged her, then whispered that she was indeed beautiful and that his father and brother had spoken the truth. He stepped away, gifting her his sweet smile and sparkling eyes.
“My goodness! You men are spoiling me!”
“We only speak the truth, Madam!” Scott said and bowed gallantly at the waist.
Aggie showed them into the parlor and offered them a drink. Charlie and Molly Poe arrived less than ten minutes later, and Molly held a basket.
“Aggie, I made a peach pie. I hope that was alright!”
With a hug to the gentle woman’s shoulders, Aggie thanked her, knowing that pie would be delicious. No one in the valley made a better peach pie than Molly Poe!
Johnny was in heaven! Teresa’s chocolate cake and Molly’s peach pie! It didn’t get any better than that!
After a few brief moments of conversation, Aggie announced that dinner was ready. They took their seats, and the wine was poured into Aggie’s beautiful crystal glasses that set off the elegant table.
Scott took the initiative and stood. “I’d like to make a toast, everyone…” When he had their attention, he began. “I want to toast our gracious hostess and dear friend Aggie!” They all raised their glasses. “To her kindness and generosity, to her friendship and her success! And here’s hoping that Johnny doesn’t spill anything on her white tablecloth!” A chorus of “Here, here!” rang out around the table, and they drank to the lady of the evening and hoped the tablecloth would remain stain-free.
The meal was taken in good company, humorous stories, and the love of friends. Conversation was pleasant, the food delicious, and laughs were abundant.
“What’d ya grinnin’ about, Charlie?” Johnny asked as his friend smiled ear to ear. Charlie had not overindulged with his drinking, and curiosity had Johnny gripped in its clutches.
“Oh, nothin’, really, but I was just thinkin’ that Aggie an’ my Molly could almost be sisters! They kinda look alike, don’t cha think?”
Murdoch sat stunned, wondering why he’d not seen the similarity before. “I’d never noticed, but yes! They do look like sisters!”
Johnny grinned to himself. Both Aggie and Molly were special ladies, and their kindnesses had touched his heart and had welcomed him when he returned home from his wanderings as Johnny Madrid. Aggie had known him from birth, and Charlie and Molly Poe had become fast friends upon his first visit to their modest ranch. They were all special friends— special friends with special ties.
The evening progressed, and it was only a matter of time before the explosion and subsequent death of Virgil Thomkins were broached. There hadn’t been any trouble; the incident came out of the blue, and there were no suspects. Lancer was at a loss to know anything. What could Murdoch tell them? The subject left them all with questions. Who? Why? And, could it happen again? Where? Val hadn’t turned up any clues, motives, and no explanations. Ideas were tossed around, and with no specifics to lead them, they all agreed to stay alert.
“Well, let’s not ruin this wonderful evening talking business! So, Aggie, what about it? Are you going to the horse auction over at Richard Stanley’s next week?” Murdoch asked with a sparkle in his eyes.
“Well, I don’t know… Is there any particular reason you are asking, Murdoch? Or will you just happen to be there and start a bidding war… again?!”
Laughter thundered around the table as they all anxiously anticipated the upcoming auction. Johnny smiled as he caught Aggie’s eye in secret conspiracy. He had to hand it to her. Aggie played the game well and gave as good as she got.
Charlie chuckled, enjoying the game Murdoch and Aggie played as Molly winked at Aggie across the table.
“Hey, Charlie, ya need help with that roof? I can help ya soon’s I’m done checkin’ out that stream tamorrow.”
Charlie’s eyes brightened with the offer. “I’d be much obliged, Johnny! Never been one ta turn down help, don’t see me stoppin’ that now!”
“Oh, Johnny, I planned on making more pie tomorrow. Anything, in particular, I can make when you come over?” Molly couldn’t help it. She spoiled Johnny, plying him with the sweets he could not resist and had done without for most of his life. She felt her heart warm when he turned ‘that’ smile on her.
“Whatever ya make, Molly is just fine with me!” The twinkle in his eyes was thanks enough and left her happy knowing he took such pleasure in these small things.
Aggie nodded at Scott across the table and got his attention. “Say, Scott, I found a book of Henry’s the other day and wondered if you would like to borrow it. It’s over here on the shelf.” She motioned him away from the table.
“Excuse me, everyone! Aggie mentions the word ‘book’, and now my curiosity is piqued!”
He left the table as Murdoch beamed; Scott’s education and his interest in books and the arts was a source of great pride; Johnny’s generous offer to help a neighbor had been a surprise when he returned home. Where had this benevolence come from? Given Johnny’s background, it was truly uncommon!
Teresa and Molly laughed over Johnny’s sweet tooth. He would do just about anything for the promise of a cake or pie!
Scott couldn’t help but marvel at the books Henry Conway had accumulated and was anxious for Aggie to continue, but he was surprised when she began to talk and pretended to fuss over the tomes.
“Scott, I needed to talk to you about the horse I bought, the stallion that Murdoch wanted.”
Scott couldn’t wait to see the surprise on Murdoch’s face when Johnny presented the horse to him on Christmas morning. “Yes, Murdoch will be speechless when Johnny gives him that horse!” And he couldn’t help the grin that stretched across his mouth, but his smile faded when he met Aggie’s eyes.
“Well, maybe, Scott. Do you know why he wanted that horse so badly?”
“We are in the breeding business…”
“No, Scott, he wanted that horse for Johnny for Christmas… and he thinks I bought it. But I’ve been giving it some thought, and I might have a solution. Do you remember those three mares that I bought out from under him last summer…”
They finished their conversation, and Aggie handed him several books from the shelf. She was happy to lend Scott volumes from Henry’s collection, knowing that the young man would enjoy reading them. They joined the rest at the dinner table, and both had a difficult time with the smiles that threatened to give their secret away.
It was nearly midnight before they bid their goodbyes and left Aggie alone.
But, Aggie wasn’t alone. The eyes watched her through the window as she tidied up, made sure the doors were locked, blew out the lamps, then went upstairs. No, she was not alone.
Although he thought Aggie seemed fine as she entertained them at dinner, Johnny wondered how she was doing when she was by herself; the still, long, dark hours of the night could be a private hell no matter how hard you tried to shove those haunting thoughts away. To lay in the dark and reason, examine every detail, and wonder if you could have done something different than what you did could make one insane. He knew. He’d been there, doing that same self-examination, making himself crazy.
He turned to look at the elegant home growing smaller in the dark, the lights in the rooms flicked out; Aggie was settling in for the night, and Johnny smiled. Hopefully, she would get a good night’s rest.
The black-clad man eased his way into the house through the back kitchen door. The described floorplan appeared accurate— the pantry off to the left side, straight ahead, a hallway that led to the dining room, so recently full of guests. He watched as they left for home, watched as the lights went out in the house, the last room at the end of the hall, her bedroom. Yes, he knew the house.
He wanted to see for himself what he would possibly face when the time came; it was coming, and he had to be prepared. Oh, yes, the time was coming.
He silently walked through the house, gathering the information should he need it. He was always prepared, and he did his job well. He would not fail.
Buck Addison could hardly believe his luck, but then he always thought he’d made his own luck. If you saw something you wanted, take it because no one was going to give you anything in this life. And he wanted Lancer and the Circle C, but more, he wanted Aggie Conway and Murdoch Lancer to pay for what they did to him. If Anthony Alexander benefited from the deal, well, that was fine, but Buck wasn’t about to let Alexander dictate the rules for this game. Buck would let him think he was calling the shots, but Buck would play by his rules, not Alexander’s. And the silent partner be damned!
It always amazed Buck how easy it was to get someone to ‘finesse’ the details, to get their hands dirty, and do what was necessary. Wave enough money under their nose, and they would do just about anything you wanted or needed to have done. And Buck wasted no time in his quest for such willing ‘employees’. He had men planted at Lancer and the Circle C— he knew what was happening at every moment at both ranches and what was about to happen at both ranches. They had better get ready, Buck thought, as he grinned cold and evil. All hell was about to break loose.
“Aggie looked better’n I’ve seen her look for a while now.” Johnny paused as he refilled his coffee. He held the pot up in a silent gesture to his father.
Murdoch smiled, then shook his head no, and contemplated his younger son’s statement. “Yes, Aggie is a strong woman, alright. She’ll be fine; I’ll guarantee that! Not to change the subject, Johnny, but did you finish clearing out the stream by Stoneyrun Creek yesterday?”
“Not quite; there’s still a few tangles of underbrush that I should be able ta get done taday. Goin’ up there when I finish breakfast.” After another mouthful of eggs and bacon, he washed it down with a gulp of coffee, then Johnny was on his feet, grabbed two biscuits, and reached for his hat and coat.
“If you’re not home for lunch, I’ll send Isidro to help you,” Murdoch called as Johnny went out the back door.
Johnny turned with the smile Murdoch cherished. “Thanks, Papi!” Then he was gone.
He sat at the table, grinning from ear to ear. Papi! Damn, it was good to have the boys home! Murdoch finished his breakfast then found himself drawn to the corral. The horses Scott and Johnny rounded up three days ago were there waiting for Johnny to break. And they were beauties! They would bring top dollar; the thought made Murdoch regret his opposition to raising horses. His sons had the right idea, and now, it was a part of Lancer and made a tidy profit.
He leaned on the top rail of the fence, watching as the skittish mustangs contemplated their confinement.
“Buena carne de cabalo, ¿no, Señor?”
The voice was soft at his side. Murdoch turned to find Isidro Torrés admiring the horses, and he smiled. Isidro had been working at Lancer for nearly ten years, and he was not only a trusted hand but also a friend.
“Yes, they are fine horses! And they’ll be worth a lot of money when they’re broken. Has Johnny said when he’ll start working with them?”
“He has been very busy, Señor, but I know it will be soon.”
Murdoch smiled, then he asked. “Isidro, could you give Johnny a hand at Stoneyrun Creek? I think he’ll need a little help this morning. It’s colder than I thought it would be today, and I don’t want anyone working in the water longer than they have to be. No sense in any of you getting sick!”
“Sí, I will go!”
Was he being overprotective? Well, if he was, it was his prerogative!
The morning was damp and cold; steam rose in a wispy fog off the water as Johnny rode past the small lake where he and Scott had often swum in the hot days under the summer sun. He smirked, thinking that a dip in the lake now would likely kill him! He struggled with the cold, glad the day would warm up and chase the shivers from his body.
With only two miles to go, he thought back on the night before and the conversation around Aggie’s table. The explosion and the death of Virgil Tomkins: the incident was out of nowhere, no provocation, no warning, but it was intentional. No one should have been up on the cliff; nothing was there that needed attention or clearing. So that left only one reason, and that was intentional. Well, he’d better keep his wits about him.
Once at Stoneyrun Creek, Johnny surveyed the area, taking in what was around him. He wanted to get this part of the creek done before any rain fell; he left Barranca loose on the bank, then slid down the decline to the water’s edge. Removing his hat and hanging it on a branch, Johnny got to work pulling branches and underbrush that clogged the flow out of the water. A chill tore up Johnny’s spine. Damn! Mexico was never this damp! I’m freezin’!
The scream of a horse in trouble sent Johnny racing up the steep incline, ready to tear into anyone or anything that dared to hurt Barranca. With his heart in his throat, the muscle pounded strong as thunder; he ran past a pile of boulders before he felt the stout branch make contact with the side of his head. He fell, slamming into the ground as a shower of stars erupted behind his eyes. His arms were pulled back behind him, then rolled fists pounded into his belly like multiple kicks from a vexed mule, a very angry mule. A blow to his jaw snapped his head sideways, and he tasted blood in his mouth.
And then, he got mad. It boiled over, filling him with fight, the fight that chased away the fog, and he rebelled. Johnny slammed his head back into the face of the man that held him, and he heard an audible snap; the arms loosened, and Johnny pulled free; he staggered before he got his feet under him, then launched himself toward the man bent in half, hands to his face as blood poured from the broken nose, but Johnny never made contact.
A blaze of fire slashed across his back as the blade cut through his hide and scored over ribs. Johnny fell to the ground to land on all fours. White-hot agony cloaked him in a suffocating grip; he struggled to stay conscious and force his body to work as he commanded, but it wouldn’t. Legs that of minutes ago held his weight, buckled, leaving him vulnerable and defenseless. The first man who had used Johnny as a punching bag drew back and, with a mighty kick to Johnny’s unprotected side, sent him sprawling into the grass where he rolled face up. The hiss in his ears told him to either get up and start fighting or prepare for unconsciousness. The second kick was the deciding factor; it propelled him onto his belly then sent him over the bank to the creek below.
He made contact with several rocks on the way to the bottom. The icy water revived him enough to know he couldn’t stay where he was; he fought to drag himself clear, then the pain in his back, head, and ribs flared, and that was the last he knew. The light faded, and Johnny Madrid Lancer was out as the mighty explosion of sparks ignited and his brain shut off thought and reason.
“Go get ‘im , Carson, an’ let’s finish what we came ta do!” Preston ordered as he warmed to his task.
“You go get ‘im! He busted my nose!” Carson panted as the pain spread over his face and made his eyes water. Already, brilliant color blossomed across his eyes and cheeks; red and blue replaced the flesh-toned skin.
But further actions were stopped when a sound reached their ears.
Pounding hooves of a galloping horse alerted the two men they’d better leave. They weren’t getting paid that much money to stick around and get caught.
Isidro Torrés hadn’t realized anything was wrong until he saw two men galloping away from the spot where Johnny was working. He nudged his horse into a breakneck pace to the trees alongside the creek and found Barranca prancing along the bank.
Isidro approached the horse with caution then looked around. “Where’s our amigo, Barranca?” He then stepped to the dropoff and peered below; there, half in the water, lay Johnny, bleeding and unconscious in the chill of the morning.
Wasting no time, Isidro slid down the bank and hurried to Johnny’s side. He assessed the damage as much as possible without moving him, then gently dragged him out of the water. A groan, more a growl, made it to Isidro’s ears.
“Amigo, Johnny, can you hear me?” Isidro ripped the bandana from his neck and soaked it in the creek, then turned back to the prone Lancer on the ground. Blood from the wound on Johnny’s back saturated the blue-flowered shirt and pooled under him. There wasn’t much he could do to stop the bleeding other than to wrap it tight until he could get Johnny back to Lancer.
“Amigo? I need to get you out of the mud; can you help me?” Talking more to comfort himself, Isidro looked up the bank. It was a long way to go if Johnny couldn’t help him.
Johnny groaned louder, vaguely aware he was not alone. But he didn’t know if the person with him was friend or foe.
“Johnny, can you hear me, amigo? It is Isidro; I need you to help me get you home.” The Lancer hand spoke softly, doing his best to assure Johnny he was safe.
“H-home?” The voice next to him was familiar. “’sidro? Didja see ‘em? There’s t-two of ‘em…” Johnny desperately tried to focus his eyes as he fought to clear away the fog that settled around his brain and held it prisoner. He tried to roll on his back, but Isidro stopped him.
“Easy, Johnny, stay there. I have to find some bandages and stop the bleeding; stay there, amigo.” When Johnny settled, Isidro scrambled up the steep bank and slowly approached Barranca. The scent was familiar, and Barranca allowed the man’s closeness as he dug through the saddlebags for the supplies he sought. Collecting what he needed, the Lancer hand returned to Johnny’s side.
Johnny struggled to gather the scattered happenings of what had transpired, then tried to sit up. And that was a mistake. The slash along his back pulled, sending more fire racing through his body and more blood draining down his back.
“Johnny, let me wrap this around you; stop moving!” Isidro began to secure the bandage and stem the flow of blood. He watched as Johnny shook off the fog as he became more and more aware. He checked for broken ribs, but the deep bruising prevented him from making a determination. He’d have to leave that for el medico. All he could do was get Johnny on his horse and get him home. Isidro talked while he worked, trying to keep Johnny lucid and prevent a slip into unconsciousness. The cut on his head spoke of a concussion, and the effort to keep Johnny talking could prove valuable information for Doc Jenkins.
“What do you say, Johnny? Think we can get up ta the top of this bank?”
“I can make it.”
No slurring words; that was good. When he was done with the wrap, Isidro eased Johnny to his feet, then stopped. He looked up the bank— Could they get to the top?
“What’d ya waitin’ for? Le’s go,” Johnny murmured.
“Hold on, Johnny, it is steep here; your ribs, I do not know if there are any broken. We cannot risk it. Over here, it is not as steep over here…” But it was a longer route.
It was a physical and mental battle as Isidro fought to get Johnny up the bank. Although semi-conscious, Johnny helped as much as he was able; shrouded in pain, he did his best to push it aside and concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other to reach the top onto dry ground. Both men were covered in mud; they were panting, drawing air in and pushing it out in raspy breaths.
“Almost there…, amigo!” And Isidro dragged Johnny over the top. “Amigo, we have made it to the top. Are you still with me?” he asked, getting a read on Johnny’s condition.
His breaths began to even out as he lay in the grass; he closed his eyes and tried to concentrate on what had happened. For now, he would keep the scrambling pieces to himself until he could think more clearly.
“F-fine, ‘sidro, ‘m fine. B’rranca, where’s B’rranca?”
“He is here. Can ya help me, Johnny? I need ta get you home.”
Johnny struggled to roll on all fours, then pulled his feet under him, and with a mighty shove upward aided by Isidro, he stood as a ragged groan escaped his throat. Barranca stood close, knowing he was needed and nickered softly.
He lacked the usual grace of getting into the saddle; the hiss of pain couldn’t be suppressed when his butt hit the seat, sending a jolt through his bruised body. Johnny’s head pounded, and flames seared from the slash on his back. Dizziness flooded over him, and he swayed as he fought against it.
“Amigo, are you with me?” Isidro whispered.
The soft words penetrated the fog, pulling him toward the safety of friends, toward Lancer.
“Yeah, ‘m with ya, le’s go home.”
“You did what?” Buck Addison quickly lowered his voice and glared at the two men sitting at his table. Carson and Preston sat looking confused.
“Ya said ya wanted us ta cause some trouble. So, we did what ya asked!”
“You idiot! You were supposed to take care of it permanently! Not ride off and leave him still breathing!”
“There was someone comin’…” Preston argued.
“Someone? You couldn’t stay around and take care of him too?” Buck interrupted.
“How’s we ta know? We didn’t wait around ta find out if it was just one man or not! We didn’t know till we made it ta the top of the bluff an’ watched ‘em ride off!”
“Then why didn’t you go after them? Why didn’t you finish them off like you were supposed to do in the first place?” Addison reached in his pocket for money, then threw half the agreed-on price their way. “Get out of here! Get out of my sight!”
“Wait! We kin go back…” Carson protested, his bruised face painful when the frown creased his forehead.
“Just stay out of sight! With that face bruised as it is, someone will put two and two together and start asking questions! Stay out of sight! If I need you, I’ll be in touch!” Buck Addison left the table; the scowl marked displeasure on his face.
Buck would not tolerate any failures. It was unacceptable. Those fools, Carson and Preston, had come very close to getting caught, and they hadn’t carried out their orders. They should have shot Johnny Lancer where he stood, but they didn’t. Stupidity overshadowed their orders resulting in the target still alive and breathing. They would have to try again, but Johnny Lancer would be cautious this time.
Would Lucas Morgan disappoint him? No, Morgan was a professional. He would know how to get things done right the first time.
Anthony Alexander did not look up when Buck Addison approached his table.
“You have to do better in your planning, Buck. I need to know that I can rely on you.” Anthony chewed a dainty portion of steak and sent waves of vibrations through the flabby jowls. He dabbed his thick lips with the white linen cloth and satisfied his thirst with a drink of rich red wine from the crystal goblet.
“I know what happened; I have eyes everywhere, and nothing happens without my knowledge. I thought you would be able to handle this job; I thought perhaps you wanted to handle this job. Maybe I was wrong because you haven’t proven to me that you are capable of seeing this through.”
Addison stood riveted to the spot. He’d like to put Alexander in his place, alright. The arrogance had always been bad, but now, it bordered intolerable. Alexander demanded results. Well, Buck had had it with those damned demands! He didn’t need Alexander! Whoever was behind getting him out of prison hadn’t made any demands, only Anthony. The condescending attitude and rude demeanor, the egotistical arrogance all wormed their way into Addison’s brain, eating away like maggots. The need to put a bullet between the fat man’s eyes was near to physical pain.
Alexander could read the hatred on Addison’s face. Oh, Buck, you are so easy to play! All Anthony had to do was keep Addison furious, keep Addison mad enough to make the mistakes, and soon, Anthony could reap what Buck had sown. It wouldn’t take long, no, not long at all. Anthony began to laugh as he watched Buck leave, red-faced and very angry. He only hoped Buck wouldn’t get caught too soon.
The slash was wicked, extending from the middle of his back, running at an angle over the shoulder blade to the lower left side, but fortunately, much of the slash wasn’t serious. The deepest part, a four-inch section at the top end, with some of it crossing over the shoulder blade, took several extra stitches to keep it closed; the score across the scapula would be closely watched. The last third of the cut at the end was shallow and would heal without the coarse threads to keep it together. Sam sighed as he finished tying off the last stitch, then washed his hands in the basin of clean, warm water. With a tight wrap of bandages to support the slash and bruised ribs, Sam was finally done with his patient.
The words spoken into the pillow were barely discernible, and the doctor was ready for the resistance he was sure would follow.
“Thank you, Teresa; I’ll finish up here, and please tell Murdoch and Scott they can come up now, and I’ll answer any questions they might have.”
Teresa nodded, then went to Johnny’s side. “Johnny, don’t you give Sam a hard time, alright?” It was more of an order than a question, and she smiled.
A muffled “mmm” drifted to her ears, and she didn’t expect any more conversation from Johnny. Not yet…
“I’ll send them right up, Sam.” Teresa paused at the door and turned to look at Johnny, lying so still, bruised and bleeding. Why had someone tried to hurt him?
“I thought you were sleeping, Johnny.”
“Kinda hard ta sleep with you pokin’ holes in my hide,” Johnny murmured through the pillow. Then he attempted to turn onto his back.
“No, Johnny, don’t roll over! Not yet; give it a day or two, son, you’ve got a nasty gash, and I want you to stay off your back for a while.” Sam kept a steady hand on Johnny’s shoulder, not letting him move. “There are no broken ribs, but there is deep tissue bruising, and you need to stay still. I know you’ve got pain, so I don’t want to hear that you are ‘fine’, young man!” The statement was firm; Sam would not accept anything but the truth, but he huffed, knowing his patient wouldn’t cooperate. “Now, how is your pain?”
“’ M fine, Sam, just tired.”
The doctor shrugged; though he thought highly of Johnny Lancer, there were times the young man tried the patience of a saint.
The door opened, and Murdoch, with Scott close behind, entered the room.
“Sam, how is he?” Murdoch asked as he went to the bedside and watched his son.
“Ask him, Murdoch; he’s awake,” Sam said as he finished packing his bag.
Father and brother took in the dark bruises spreading over Johnny’s back that began their travels from under the bandages. Both Murdoch and Scott cringed; they knew that Johnny would be miserable for a while and knew they would be, as well. A confined Johnny made everyone miserable.
Murdoch sat on the edge of the bed and leaned close, not wanting to startle him.
“Son, can you tell us what happened?” His tone low and gentle, Murdoch waited, giving Johnny time to clear any cobwebs.
He knew they would ask, and he would evade their questions as long as he could. But, he needed to corral his scrambling thoughts before he talked to anyone, and right now, that wasn’t going to happen. The pounding in his brain made him dizzy and sent his belly rolling over and over. Nope. No talkin’, not taday.
The blue eyes never opened, and Johnny sighed, then his breathing evened out, and he was asleep.
A sliver of bright moonlight tracked across his bed; he watched it move until it was out of sight. Damn, he needed to get up. Johnny carefully maneuvered to the edge of the bed; his body protested as he moved, sending shards of pain from the top of his head to his toes. He took his time, then swung his legs out from under the blankets and set his feet on the floor. He gently pushed up with his right arm and slowly sat up. When the room stopped spinning, Johnny raised his head and looked around him; thankfully, he was alone.
Testing the tightness in his back, Johnny was pleased it wasn’t any worse than it was. Though the stitches pulled and his muscles and head ached, he was glad he could move at all. He took stock of himself and came to a few conclusions. Time; he needed time, but there wasn’t any to spare.
What was he going to do about the men that attacked him? Why had they jumped him? And who were they? And more than anything, how would he track them down? Johnny never got a good look; the initial blow to his head came near to rendering him unconscious. When his mad kicked in, along with the need to fight back, he hadn’t seen anything he could be certain of; it happened too fast. The man Johnny intended to pounce on had his head lowered with hands to his face, making any chance to identify him impossible. But one thing was for sure— one of them was sporting a pair of black and blue eyes. He knew that, as hard as he hit the man behind him, the nose was broken, which would leave severe discoloration, making him easy to identify… if he was still around. Then, Johnny felt the slash cut through his skin, and he fell; seconds later, a booted foot made contact with his ribs, and he was rolling down the embankment, crashing into and over rocks and roots. That was all he could recall.
He would have to think of something quick. The longer he waited, the harder it would be to track them down. Men that resorted to ambush generally weren’t of… what did Scott call it? Oh, yeah. High moral fiber, that was it! They generally weren’t of high moral fiber. Having some experience with that kind of scum, Johnny had a few ideas of how to handle the situation, but that was only if he could escape the scrutiny of Murdoch, Scott, Teresa, Maria, and Doc Jenkins.
His head began to pound. Maybe he’d have to wait a day; he didn’t want to waste the time but might not have any choice in the matter.
Johnny wasn’t fooling himself, though. He was stiff, and he was sore, and he knew that he would have to overcome his hatred of laudanum because he wasn’t doing anything or going anywhere without it. Well, ‘m stubborn, but I ain’t stupid, and he had to smile. Yes, Johnny Madrid Lancer was a very stubborn and driven man. He would find those responsible or die trying. And he would have to bide his time.
Buck Addison rode out to meet the two men who had infiltrated the Lancer and Conway ranches. The secluded spot ensured they would remain undiscovered and allow the reports that Buck desperately needed to stage further incidents on the people that caused his untimely collapse and time in prison. In the end, Buck would ruin both Agatha Conway and the Lancers.
The rage was consuming; the need to watch their demise was great. To see the mighty Murdoch Lancer grieve for his sons and to realize his ranch meant nothing now without Scott and Johnny was something Buck had dreamed about when locked in that tiny, filthy cell. But that was only part of the horror Murdoch would endure. He would also have to bear Aggie’s death. Would he fold and throw in his cards? Would Murdoch give up, having no sons to run the ranch and keep Lancer going? Buck could hope that the man’s heart would break and stop pumping blood through his body. Would he die? Buck could only hope.
But, if Murdoch Lancer lived, there was always Lucas Morgan to ‘tie up the loose ends’. And Lucas was very good at what he did. Buck grinned, and with a cold curl of his lip, a growl-like sound rasped from his throat. Yes, Buck thought, the Circle C and Lancer would soon crumble to dust… along with their owners. And he waited for his men to come and make their reports.
There was no sound coming from Johnny’s room. Murdoch tapped lightly on the door and did not get a response. Silently, he turned the knob and pushed, and the door swung into the darkened room. Thick, unruly hair sticking out from the blankets mounded over his son assured him that Johnny was sleeping. Murdoch crossed the room, then stood quietly by the bed. The blankets, neat and straightened over the young man, told of a calm night, and that was good news. Usually, it looked like a barroom brawl was fought in Johnny’s room with the sheet and blankets untucked and dragging on the floor.
He was surprised that Scott was not sitting in the chair next to his brother as he slept. During the night, Murdoch checked on Johnny and found Scott sitting there, finally convincing the older brother to take his bed, that Johnny would be fine. Murdoch sighed in great relief, then turned to leave and let his son sleep. He would have to wait until Johnny woke to find out what had happened.
When Murdoch came down the back stairs into the kitchen, Maria was at the stove, stirring something in a large kettle. A pan of bacon sizzled, lending its aroma, along with the fresh, hot biscuits just out of the oven, into the cozy room.
Sensing she was not alone, Maria continued stirring but turned to see Murdoch settle into his chair at the table.
“Juanito, how is he this day?”
“He’s sleeping. But I don’t doubt for a minute that he’ll be wanting out of that bed when he wakes up,” Murdoch replied.
“Sí, he won’t stay there long. I make caldo (broth) for him,” and she smiled.
Maria set the spoon aside, then reached for the coffee pot, and going to the table, she filled Murdoch’s cup. He sat and mulled the situation over, wondering what had happened, why had someone attacked Johnny?
Maria filled the tray and was about to take it upstairs when Murdoch stood and took it from her hands.
“I’ll take it to him, thank you, Maria.”
He thought it was almost time… Someone would be there soon, then the door opened, and Murdoch stood silhouetted against the lighted hallway.
“Hey,” Johnny managed as he tried to sit up and lean on the pillows stuffed behind him.
“Son, how are you feeling this morning?” Murdoch asked as he set the tray on the dresser and lit the lamp on the bedside table, turning it low.
“’ M fine, just gotta take it slow for a day or two.” Johnny knew what was coming and rolled his head over the pillow to face his father.
Making sure Johnny was stable on the mountain of cushions, Murdoch brought the tray laden with broth and a few biscuits for him to eat.
“Murdoch, I can go down to the kitchen…”
But Murdoch’s response cut him off. “No, Johnny, Sam wants you to take it easy for a few days, and I will see that you follow his instructions. So, get used to the idea that you will be a good boy!” Though the smile was there, Murdoch meant what he said.
No sense in makin’ him too mad… yet. Just go along an’ let him think he’s callin’ the tune.
“Yeah, sure, Murdoch.” Johnny picked up the spoon and prepared to eat.
“Son, what happened? Did you see anyone?” Murdoch questioned as he watched Johnny chew a biscuit and drink the soup.
He chose his words carefully, not wanting to cause any further distress for his father.
Shaking his head no, Johnny kept his eyes on the bowl in his lap. “Didn’t see anything. After I got smacked on the head, it was pretty fuzzy for a while; then I got pis-, sorry, I got mad an’ slammed my head back an’ hit the guy holdin’ me from behind. He fell, but before I got to him, the other one used his knife on me. When I hit the ground, he kicked me over the bank an’ down ta the water. Then everything went black an’ didn’t know anything till Isidro got there.” A frown creased his brow.
“Johnny, are you alright? Do you have any pain?”
“Got a helluva headache. Nothin’ a little sleep won’t cure, though.”
“I want you to take some laudanum.” It wasn’t a request; it was a demand.
He’d promised himself he wouldn’t cause Murdoch any undue stress. He hated the thought, but he had to give in, and, with a brief nod, Johnny consented.
Surprised but happy, Murdoch picked up the little brown bottle and couldn’t stop the smile that snuck across his face.
“Well, ya don’t hafta look so happy about it,” Johnny grumbled.
“I’m not happy, son, just relieved that we’re not arguing over it. Here, open up!” Smiling again, Murdoch felt a modicum of sympathy for his son as the creased brow, and squinted eyes lent credence to the vile tasting stuff as it settled in his stomach. Then he handed Johnny a glass of water as the involuntary shiver worked its way over his son’s body after he swallowed the dreaded medicine.
“Hey, do me a favor, ol’ man, will ya?”
Murdoch took the tray from Johnny and stopped. “Yes, what do you need?”
“Get word ta Val that I wanna see him?” Johnny asked as he settled his head to lay back on the pillows and closed his eyes.
“I think that’s a good idea, son. I’ll wake you when he gets here.”
Murdoch took the tray, left the room, then closed the door behind him.
Gloved hands deftly snipped the wire and avoided the barbs that could cause a serious injury. When the man was done, the large opening gaped, beckoning the cattle through. With a little help from the gloved figure, eighty head of beef were ambling toward open range. The man smiled and rode away.
It was early evening when Val knocked on the heavy wooden door.
“Val, come in! You’ll stay for dinner, won’t you?” Teresa chirped with a pretty smile.
How could he say no? “Thank you, Miss T’resa! Yeah, I’d like that. Hey, how’s Johnny doin’?” he asked, his brow creased with a worried frown.
Val’s concern always touched her heart. He and Johnny were as close as brothers, had been brothers in their days before Johnny came home to Lancer.
“Sam said he’s not too bad. His ribs are badly bruised, and the knife wound needs to be watched for infection. He’ll be very sore for a while but should make a full recovery. Come and eat; I’m putting food on the table now, then you can see Johnny.”
How could he resist?
The meal passed in pleasant conversation once the preliminary questioning by Murdoch was over. No, he hadn’t seen anything peculiar; no, he hadn’t seen any strangers, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. He was anxious to talk to Johnny but would bide his time until dinner was over.
“That was a mighty fine meal, Miss T’resa. Thanks. Think I’ll see if ol’ Johnny’s awake. ‘Scuse me.” Val scooted his chair back and left the table.
“I think I’ll go with you, Val. I need to exercise my parental authority and make sure he takes the next dose of laudanum,” Murdoch said as he, too, left the table.
“Yes, I’d like a chance to see my brother; I think I’ll accompany the two of you!” Scott also left the table, suddenly leaving Teresa alone.
Damn! I need ta talk ta him alone, Val thought, then picked up his hat as he walked by the side table where he’d put it when he sat down to take the evening meal.
His headache wasn’t as bad as it had been earlier in the day, but then, he’d just woken. The stretch started of its own volition but suddenly stopped when muscles pulled over the scored shoulder blade in his back. Damn! Ain’t gonna do that again!
The door opened, and Johnny found himself face to face with the three most determined men he knew.
Murdoch lit the lamp, then sat beside the bed. “How are you, son?”
Johnny looked from one to the other. “Dunno. What’d I do, now?”
Scott chuckled. “Nothing… yet. We thought you might be able to tell us about what happened. Do you remember anything more?”
“No, nothin’ ya don’t already know.” Johnny wanted to talk to Val alone. How was he going to let Val know that? He met his amigo’s eyes, then turned back to Murdoch and Scott.
Val hung his hat on the back of a chair. “Sorry I didn’t get here sooner, Johnny. I got called out ta the Circle C.”
At the mention of Aggie’s ranch, Murdoch turned his attention to the Sheriff.
“Is everything alright with Aggie, Val?” There was concern in the slate-blue eyes.
Val sighed. “Yeah, ‘cept one a her fences was cut an’ her cattle are wanderin’ all over. Had ta check it out, didn’t find nothin’ though; then I came over here.”
“That’s very coincidental, don’t you think, Val? First, there’s a man killed here in an explosion, two men attacked Johnny, and now you’re telling me that Aggie’s fence was cut. Something’s going on here, and we need to find out what it is!” Murdoch’s ire was running.
The tone slammed home in Johnny’s brain, and he cringed. He closed his eyes, then lifted his hand toward Murdoch to get the ol’ man’s attention.
“Ya gonna yell any more? Cause if ya are, can ya do it downstairs?” Squinting eyes and creased brow told of pain.
“Ya want I should come back, Johnny?” Val asked.
“Yeah. Gimme a minute, though.”
“No, I think that’s enough, Johnny. Val can talk to you later.” Before any more could be said, Murdoch shepherded Val and Scott out of the bedroom.
They stood in the great room as Val’s fingers curled around the whiskey glass in his hand. “Well, I need ta get back ta town.” He took a step, then hesitated. “Be right back. Left my hat in Johnny’s room.” And he took the stairs two at a time.
There wasn’t much time, and Sheriff Val Crawford had to make it fast. He turned the doorknob and slipped into the room.
“Expected ya before this. Almost fell asleep,” Johnny said as a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.
“Well, yer ol’ man’s a little upset tonight what with you gettin’ beat up an’ Aggie havin’ trouble, too.” Val took his hat from the chair, then sat down.
“What’d ya wanna say ta me that ya couldn’t say in fronta them?”
“Don’t know if it means anything, but if ya see a man with a bruised face, hold onta him til I get ta talk ta him. He had a holda me an’ I slammed my head back inta his face. Should be some pretty colors by now.”
Val’s face paled. “Johnny, I saw that man last night. Now that I think about it, he was actin’ mighty peculiar…”
Reports on the Circle C and Lancer ranches prompted Buck to act. No amount of waiting would produce a better outcome. It was time for them to pay. Aggie Conway was about to learn her place. No one would make a fool of Buck Addison, and no one would take advantage of him. It was time for Buck to reap his rewards. It was time.
Scott Lancer made his way to the barn in hopes of getting a few chores done before dark. He informed Murdoch that he wanted to check out the last of the fence line and would be back before dinner.
“Hey, Scott! How’s Johnny doin’?” Young Bobby Brown asked as he walked out of the barn.
“He’ll be alright in a few days. Johnny has a remarkable way of recovering, I have to say! Thank you for asking!” Scott smiled at the young man.
“I ain’t been here but a coupla weeks, but I sure like him. Tell ‘im I said hello, would ya?”
“Thank you, Bobby. I know Johnny will appreciate it. I’ll tell him when I get back!” Scott turned and continued on his way, saddled Remmie, then rode off.
Lucas Morgan had to laugh. Buck Addison was a fool, but, Lucas thought, the man would find that out for himself pretty damn quickly. Addison had failed the first of his duties of getting rid of the youngest Lancer son. Rumor had it, Johnny was the notorious gunfighter, Madrid. Maybe it was a good thing the effort failed; Lucas wouldn’t mind calling the kid out. But for now, Morgan pushed all thoughts aside. Someone was coming, and he knew who it was. This was his lucky day. Murdoch Lancer was about to receive another in a long line of ‘accidents’, and it would be against his family. But Lucas knew he’d better make it quick. Dusk was settling in fast, and soon he wouldn’t be able to see.
Morgan hunkered down behind the boulder; the spot was perfect, putting Morgan above, aiming downward. Then he waited until his target was within range, aimed, and pulled the trigger. The shot echoed in the still night as Lucas whooped his success. Yup, this was his lucky day.
Scott felt Remmie tense; then the horse tossed his head. Anticipating the sidestep, Scott went with the motion and, unknowingly, saved his life. The bullet slammed into the back of his shoulder and splintered the collarbone as it passed through Scott’s body. Slumped in a precarious balance across the horse’s back, the weight of his hips off to the left and upper body to the right, he stabilized, unconscious and helpless. Remmie snorted, then turned back to Lancer; no commands from his rider left him free to go at will, and right now, that was a skittery pace toward his stall.
Remmie stopped at the barn door, the weight on his back shifted, then plummeted to the ground. The spirited gelding stomped and whinnied, then sniffed the blond hair and snorted. He lipped the slack cheek and whinnied again.
“What’s all the racket out here…” Jelly grumped as he stepped out of the tack room and went to the door. There, he was met face to face with the distressed horse.
“What’re ya do…” The rest caught in his throat when he saw Scott lying unconscious in the dirt.
“Scott!” Dread washed over him, but he didn’t give in, and he raced to the bunkhouse, the orders quick and sure, sending for someone to get Sam Jenkins and Sheriff Crawford and to do it now! Frank and Walt shot to their feet and followed him out the door.
Once at Scott’s side, Frank and Walt took charge, gently lifting him to carry him into the hacienda while Jelly went ahead to alert Murdoch.
Although he appreciated the quiet, Murdoch knew something was going on with Johnny. He’d been too passive, doing what he was told and not raising a fuss about the confinement to his bed. Well, maybe he’s… and the musings were interrupted when Jelly barged through the door, instructing Walt and Frank up the stairs with their burden.
“What happened?” Murdoch bellowed as his belly flipped over and the blood drained to his feet.
“Already sent fer Sam, Val, too!” Jelly said, informing his boss the order was already carried out.
Murdoch charged ahead, leading the way down the hall to Scott’s room. Once there, he pulled the bedclothes down as Walt and Frank gently laid Scott on the mattress.
“Did anyone see what happened?” Murdoch questioned as he tended his son, noting the blood on Scott’s shirt.
“No, I jus’ heard Remmie at the barn door; when I went out, Scott was layin’ on the ground.”
Murdoch peeled away the jacket to reveal more blood. When he pulled the shirt away from Scott’s chest, he saw ragged bone had pierced through the skin; the bullet went straight through Scott’s shoulder, breaking the collarbone in its path. Scott was ambushed— shot in the back.
Soon, it would be soon. Somewhere deep inside, Johnny knew he couldn’t wait much longer. Murdoch was right; Aggie’s cut fence, along with everything else that happened, weren’t accidents. If he was going to make a move, Johnny would have to do it quickly before anything could go wrong.
Then he heard Murdoch’s bellow downstairs and knew he was too late. Something else already happened.
As fast as his bruised and stitched body allowed, Johnny rolled out of bed, pulled on pants, and grabbed the first shirt he touched out of the drawer. Right arm through the sleeve, leaving the left side draped around his shoulders, Johnny left his room. No sooner than he opened the door, he saw across the hall into his brother’s room. Scott was on his bed as Murdoch and Jelly tended the obscene-looking injury.
“What happened?” Johnny demanded.
“We don’t know, Johnny, Scott was shot..” Murdoch suddenly looked at the man standing by his side. “What are you doing up?”
“Stayin’ with my brother.” The statement would not be challenged. Johnny ignored the harsh glare as he studied Scott’s ashen face. His blood boiled in his veins; someone was going to pay. Dearly. He would see to it. But he kept his thoughts to himself and concentrated on his brother.
“Johnny, I don’t need to tell you…” Murdoch began.
“Then don’t,” Johnny murmured. “Just do what ya can for Scott an’ don’t be worryin’ about me.” Johnny took a dampened cloth, eased down next to Scott on the bed, and gently wiped the dirt off his brother’s forehead and cheeks, staying out of Murdoch’s way as he did what he could for Scott.
“Anyone see anything?” he asked without addressing either Murdoch or Jelly.
“Nope,” Jelly volunteered. “I was in the barn an’ heard Remmie outside. Come out the door, an’ Scott was on the ground. That’s it.” Jelly waited, but no conversation was forthcoming. “I’ll get more bandages an’ wait for Sam; Val, too. Get some coffee goin’. Gonna be a long night.”
Murdoch was numb. First, an explosion killed one of their hands and injured two more; Johnny was beaten, now Scott was shot. What was happening, and why? Two men had attacked Johnny; was it because Johnny had interrupted them, and what were they doing on Lancer land? Now, here was Scott with a bullet hole clear through his body! Why? And were these incidents related? Murdoch couldn’t make any connections, but whatever was happening, Lancer was under attack.
Val arrived and began his questioning. But until he could check out the site where Scott was ambushed and look for tracks or shell casings, there wasn’t much he could do. This was becoming a bad habit. Three trips to the ranch to investigate incidents of murder and injuries was too coincidental. Like his amigo, he didn’t believe in coincidences.
The man Johnny described with the bruised face had disappeared; Val missed the opportunity to question him, and neither had he found any clues as to why these attacks were happening. But at dawn, he was riding out to pick up Scott’s trail in hopes he would turn up something to give him a direction to go in— something that would lead to answers… and the bastards that were waging war on his friends.
“Mr. Lancer, can’t do nothin’ here tonight, but come daylight, I’ll check out where Scott was ambushed an’ letcha know what I find. Till then, well ain’t nothin’ ta do.”
“Alright, Val, if you need someone to go with you, Cipriano will be here; he’s a good tracker.”
“Thanks, but I don’t think it’ll be necessary.”
Aggie Conway was exhausted. She spent a long day keeping up with reports from her foreman, Tuck McKay, as the men rounded up cattle that strayed through the cut fence and attempted to make sense of the situation. All the cattle were accounted for; it wasn’t rustling. So, why had it happened? Very few tracks were found, no solid facts, nothing to identify who did the deed. There was nothing to go on, no leads to follow, and they were at a dead end. Other than questions, that was it.
Once in her bed, Aggie leaned on the pillows, mulling over the events that robbed her of rest. Although sleep called out and tugged at her weary brain, her eyes wouldn’t stay closed. The minute the comfort settled around her, and she felt the relaxation beckon her toward slumber, restless thoughts tumbled around and pulled her into full consciousness.
Turn out the light, Aggie! You’re not going to sleep with the light on…
She extinguished the flame, then snuggled down, pulled the blankets around her, and… lay wide awake. Ten minutes passed, then twenty.
This is getting me nowhere… She threw the blankets aside, lit the lamp, then padded barefoot to a small table between two chairs in front of the window. A decanter of brandy and glasses awaited her attention; she poured a generous amount, took the glass, and returned to bed. Once again, she settled and pulled the blankets around her as she drank. Alone in bed, Aggie, she thought to herself. Did she miss him? No! Draining the glass in several large gulps, Aggie, now disgusted, huffed through her nose and turned out the light. Just for good measure, she punched her pillow, then punched it again and finally laid down and closed her eyes.
The light from the window went out. He would give it another hour, maybe two, then he would go to work. He would earn his money tonight, every cent of it, and the thought made him smile.
Sam knew nothing he said would make any difference and could not persuade Johnny to leave the room. He was not about to waste his breath chastising and knew Johnny would be there until Scott was tended. Though the younger Lancer should not have been out of bed due to the injuries suffered yesterday morning, all the doctor could do was watch— if he saw Johnny begin to falter, he wouldn’t hesitate to have Murdoch take him from the room, dose him with laudanum and toss him, though gently, into bed. There was enough to worry about removing pieces of splintered bone from Scott’s shoulder without Johnny forcing a relapse and setting himself back in his recovery.
Johnny was silent during the procedure but helped to keep the area clean and dabbed away any stray trickles of blood as Sam performed his surgery. He appeared to concentrate on assisting Sam, and he did, but other thoughts invaded his mind— thoughts of finding out what the hell was going on and getting those responsible for shooting Scott. Unfortunately, he knew he would have to go about it lawfully, that Madrid justice wouldn’t be enforced… maybe.
Would he wait for Scott to regain consciousness, or would he leave before he could talk to his brother? At the moment, Johnny wasn’t sure of anything, only that his blood boiled and his mad thundered through his brain. But he did not doubt that he would come up with some plan and get to the bottom of the trouble that plagued Lancer. He owed it to Virgil Tomkins, and now, his brother.
Jelly was right. It had been a long night, and they were stretched to their limits. Scott had lost a considerable amount of blood, but he would eventually be alright. The broken collarbone would heal in time, but it would be a painful process, and Sam knew that Johnny would be by his brother’s side, helping him through as only Johnny could do. Not for the first time, Sam was amazed at the bond between the two men. They had grown inseparable, and Murdoch Lancer was a lucky man.
But now, Sam shrugged. He had to deal with Johnny. The young man needed to rest, and convincing Johnny to return to his bed was never an easy thing to accomplish, that the ‘order’ would be met with resistance was a given.
“Johnny?” But the question remained unanswered. “Johnny, Scott will sleep for quite a while now. Why don’t you do the same? You’re not able to keep your eyes open, son. Come on; I’ll help you back to your room…”
“Stayin’ here. ‘ M fine.” It was not open for debate, and Johnny would stay where he was.
Sam was expecting the stubborn streak to kick in, and where he didn’t approve, he wasn’t about to engage in a battle of wills with Madrid’s insistence that he stay put.
“Will you at least sit in this chair and relax?” Sam indicated the comfortable overstuffed chair next to Scott’s bed.
Well, it was better than returning to his room, so Johnny resigned himself to chair duty— at least he would be close to Scott. Hiding his discomfort, Johnny slowly eased himself from his brother’s side and settled into the cushions. Once there, Sam tucked a blanket around him, then proceeded with the lecture he knew would roll off the young man’s shoulders if he paid attention to it at all.
“You’re not going to do him any good by making yourself sick, Johnny. You know better…” Sam’s words may have well been uttered in the wind for all the attention that the young man paid him.
Johnny kept his eyes on Scott, paying the doctor no heed as the man continued the one-sided conversation. Plans were running in his head, plans that would find out who was behind these attacks and why.
“… and given enough time, your brother will be just fine.”
“Yeah, sure, Sam,” Johnny said, unaware of what he had just agreed to, but nodded for good measure. The acting could have been more convincing, but at the moment, he didn’t care.
“I’m going to bed; call me if you need me.” Sam made one last check on Scott, adjusted the blankets over the sleeping man, then left the room.
“Yeah, sure, Sam,” he mumbled again, not aware the doctor had already out the door.
Johnny watched the pale face, the muscles relaxed in sedated sleep.
What happened, brother? Tell me what I need to know…
Bobby Brown lit the fuse. His prior experience as a demolitionist was coming in very handy. By the time he lured the Circle C crew away from the ranch, Lucas Morgan would have completed his part, and their job would be done. The fiery sizzle quickly devoured the fuse, and Bobby ran for his horse. Jumping into the saddle, Brown made his way back to the Lancer bunkhouse and would resume his place in his bed.
The explosion lit up the night sky, sending rock and debris scattering in all directions and causing a small fire to ignite dead grass and brush.
The bunkhouse came alive in seconds; Tuck McKay gave his orders as the men pulled on clothes, boots and grabbed their firearms. In minutes they were on their horses and racing in the direction of the blast.
Aggie roused in a brandy-induced haze. What had awoken her? What noise? Was there any noise? No more drinking for you, Aggie, she thought. She turned over and closed her eyes.
It was time. The black-clad man moved from his cover and slipped through the shadows to the house. The long steel bars he carried were wrapped in canvas and held securely in his hands. It wouldn’t serve his purpose to risk any noise if they hit against furniture and alerted the lady of trouble.
He quietly walked through the house and mounted the stairs. Almost there— the last door on the left. An evil grin crawled across the hard face as cold dead-like eyes took in all around him. It was clear from here on.
Carefully, he unwrapped the bars. A slight bend had been fashioned in one bar to fit behind the doorknob to prevent the door from opening, effectively locking the woman inside in her room. A notch on one end of the other held the locking bar in place while the other end was fitted tightly against the floor, preventing the bend from slipping off the knob. The fit was perfect, and now, he had to finish the job he was paid to do. This time tomorrow, he would be a rich, rich man.
Returning to the first floor, the man stopped and looked around as much as the dark would allow. The house was beautiful, but not for long. In the moonlight that streamed through the window, he could see quite well and helped himself to a drink from the decanter on a small table. The alcohol was excellent, some of the best he’d ever had, and he continued to peruse the room.
It was then he spied the gun on the fireplace mantle. It was an old handgun, a dueling pistol, and he took it from the stand. The balance was perfect; it was a fine weapon, and he doubted it would be missed. He slipped the gun into the deep pocket of his greatcoat, then carried out the final step of his plan.
He picked up the kerosene and liberally splashed the accelerant over furniture, walls, and drapery throughout the lower level. Before he left, he opened a window at the back of the house, then slipped outside, to the rear where the open window would allow him to toss the lit match into the beautiful home.
The tiny flicker blossomed into a torch-like blaze; then, the room was engulfed in flames, the fire quickly spread.
From up on the hill, Buck Addison’s wicked laugh pierced through the night. Justice was being served. Justice, dear Aggie!
The flames grew larger, first flicking out the opened window, then soon licked up the back of the house, reaching higher and higher. Buck watched as smoke billowed into the sky and could not stop the grin from sliding across his face. It was a shame to lose the house, but he would build a better one. A house fit for the king he would be, and fitting it was that Agatha Conway had taken her last breath in the ruins among the flames. He turned his horse and rode away.
McKay took in the scene before them. His men put out the fires burning the grass, but that was all the damage. What had happened here and why? But his musings were answered when he turned his sight up the ridge. Bright flames reflected in the night sky. The Circle C ranch house was burning…
The dream vanished when she choked. Aggie sat up and tried to clear her throat, but her nostrils and throat seared as she tried to draw breath. Smoke! Her room was filled with heavy smoke. Dropping to the floor, Aggie crawled to the door, desperately clawing at the doorknob, but it wouldn’t budge! She looked out the window as bright orange-yellow flames flashed outside the glass in the night. Racing to the table, she picked up the washbasin, and with all the strength she could muster, threw it at the window. The glass shattered, sending slivers and shards into the night sky. Then she screamed as loud as she could! Dear Lord, please let someone hear me!
The chair proved a sufficient bed, and Johnny slept for a while. He would talk to his brother when he was awake but knew a response to his musings would have to wait. Scott was deeply unconscious and wouldn’t wake for hours, but there wasn’t any more time to waste. The sleep he’d gotten would have to get him through the next day or two. That sleep and a little help from the laudanum bottle were all he could rely on. Well, there was Madrid to back him up, and Johnny figured that was as good as it was going to get. Madrid had gotten him through many times before, and he would yet again. Bide your time, Johnny-Boy.
Once again, he mulled over what he knew, and it wasn’t much. But there would have to be tracks or signs where Scott was ambushed. Shell casings from the rifle bullets, maybe. Just anything to put him on the trail of some answers. And he wouldn’t stop until he knew what those answers were, and more, who was behind these attacks.
Thunderous pounding on the front door brought the hacienda to life. It was after midnight— and there was trouble… again!
Johnny threw the blanket aside as he heard Murdoch run the length of the hall toward the stairs, then clamber down the risers in a noisy stampede. As Johnny reached the stairwell, he heard the raised voices.
“Doc’s here! Bring her in!”
The hacienda came alive in seconds as sleep was disrupted, and Sam bolted down the stairs at the commotion. Oh, dear God! No! He quickly gathered himself together and rushed into the downstairs guestroom.
“What happened?” Full doctor mode took over as he demanded answers.
“Someone set the house on fire, an’ Miz Conway was in her room- she busted out the window an’ screamed. We found out you were here, Doc, so we brought her over quick as we could. There wasn’t much left of her house when we left an’ there’s less of it now…”
Murdoch listened as Tuck McKay told the facts as he knew them to be. There had been an attempt on Aggie’s life. An explosion lured them out of the bunkhouse and over the ridge. While the hands were there, someone set a fire in the house; a fire meant to kill Aggie Conway!
“Sam? What do you need?” Murdoch shook himself clear, then made sure Sam had what he required to look after Aggie. With Teresa there alongside Sam and soon Maria, he knew Aggie was in the best possible hands.
Turning back to Tuck, he shepherded the Circle C men out into the great room.
“Have you notified Sheriff Crawford?” Sharp eyes peered into McKay’s face. Murdoch’s craggy features, creased in worry and consumed with emotion, held the Circle C foreman fast.
“Yes, sir! Sent for him right away. The rest of the men are tryin’ ta put out the blaze.” Tuck lowered his voice. “Mr. Lancer, someone was in the house— they locked Miz Conway in her room. This was a murder attempt…”
Aggie! Johnny made it down the stairs, intent on finding out what was going on. He knew it was serious and that Aggie was hurt. No, not again… He stood just inside the door and watched those around him tend the woman in the bed. This was too coincidental; too many things had happened, and Johnny knew that it wasn’t only Lancer under attack. Who else would go to this extent to ruin the two ranches? There was only one man that Johnny could name, and he was in jail.
Steam billowed from a kettle that hung over the flames in the fireplace, filling the air with the strong, sharp vapors of herbs. Smudges of ash on Aggie’s face and the singed nightgown told of fire at the Circle C. A fire at the Circle C… He knew he had to move. And it had to be now.
Tuck McKay was deep in conversation with Murdoch as Johnny approached, but he stopped in his tracks when the foreman said, “They locked Miz Conway in her room. This was a murder attempt…”
Over Tuck’s shoulder, Murdoch saw Johnny head up the stairs. He paid no mind, believing his younger son would either be going back to his bed or sitting with Scott.
He never believed in coincidences, and Johnny Madrid Lancer was not about to start now. He made it to his room and didn’t waste any time getting ready. He was hurting; the stitches in his back pulled, feeling like flames searing his skin, and his muscles protested with every move he made, but he kept moving. A single thought pierced through his brain, and he didn’t want to believe it; he wanted to push it aside, thinking it couldn’t be the case. But stranger things had happened, and he would know very soon. Someone had tried to murder Aggie Conway, and Johnny would find that someone and make him pay.
Dammit! He was taking too long; if anyone saw what he was up to, they would alert Murdoch, and he would never get out of there! Johnny didn’t want to use precious time defending his actions, so a quick exit was his only option.
He discarded the sling that held his arm immobile and eased the strain on his back, and with great difficulty, he tugged on his boots, hissing as pain burst into a fiery blast across his back; then pushed it aside as he wrestled his left arm into the shirtsleeve. The buttons were hastily fastened, then he strapped his Colt around his hips and snugged it tighter. He slipped into his coat and ignored the pain that radiated through his body. There was no time for pain. Johnny grabbed his rifle, and extra bullets then went to the door. The hallway was clear. Mierda! He almost forgot! Turning back into his room, Johnny retrieved the bottle of laudanum from the bedside table, quickly took a swallow, then dropped the bottle into the pocket of his coat. The outside stairway was clear, and Johnny slipped into the night.
The journey went according to plan until he got to the barn and saddled Barranca. The stitches pulled a little too hard as he tossed his saddle onto the golden back of the horse, certain a few tore out, but he gave no quarter; there was no time left. The drug covered most of the pain, and he would deal with repercussions later.
In minutes, he and Barranca were down under the adobe Lancer arch.
The sun had just cleared the mountains when Johnny reined Barranca to a halt in front of the remains of Aggie Conway’s house. The charred west wall stood, a crippled, grotesque ghost of what had been. The north and east walls were gone, leaving the front of the once welcoming house in partial ruins. The fresh paint now blistered and burned like ruptured, open sores on a dead carcass inviting disease. The missing roof left the impression that the house screamed in horror at its demise and gasped, belched out smoke. Decay.
The Circle C men stood exhausted, dirty, and shocked.
Hank Snow was the first to spot the young Lancer and called out, waving a hand above his head. Johnny nudged Barranca toward the crew as they stood around the water trough, scrubbing the soot from their faces.
“Miz Conway… How’s she?” Hank asked as the rest stood listening.
“Doc was with her when I left. Didn’t find out anything. Do any of ya know what started this fire?” Though these were men he knew well, had played poker with on Saturday nights, Johnny’s bearing was cold, but the men understood. They knew the friendships between Lancer and The Circle C ran deep. Johnny was as shaken as they were over the attempt on Miz Conway’s life and the loss of her home.
“No, but Tuck said that Miz Conway’s door was locked from the outside, so someone got in the house. Johnny, that’d be murder! Who’d wanna kill her?”
“Dunno, but I’m gonna find out. Val been out here yet?” Johnny questioned.
“Not yet, but we just sent for him a little while ago. Couldn’t spare anyone ta go lookin’. We needed every able-bodied hand we had ta fight that blamed fire. Tuck prob’ly sent someone after they got Miz Conway over ta your place, though. He should be here real soon. Johnny, them bastards set off dynamite over that ridge! They wanted us all gone so’s they could set that fire an’ kill Miz Conway!”
Sickened at those words, Johnny looked at the men. Everyone was shaken; they were all loyal to Aggie and would not hesitate to lay down their lives to keep her safe. “No one saw anything, then?”
Answered by muttered ‘nope’s and shaking heads, Johnny sighed, then slowly dismounted. He would look around; maybe he could turn up something, anything that would clue him in to the who had attempted to murder Aggie Conway; the why would come later after Johnny caught them. And he would watch the men; he wondered if one of them knew something. Right now, every man there was not only exhausted, but they were mad. Even after battling the blaze, there was fight in their eyes and sorrow in their hearts. And Johnny knew revenge was there, as well. They all worried for Aggie. A young man, a new hand, Johnny was sure, looked like he would be sick at any second.
As Hank took Barranca to the barn, Johnny began his investigation, not bothering to wait for Val. There should be a sign… somewhere in the burned ruins of the once-grand home, there would be a sign.
The northeast back corner of the house sustained the worst of the damage, and chances were that was where the fire was started. If Johnny had to guess, Aggie’s room had been right above. Looking at the charred remains of the house, Johnny knew it was a miracle that Aggie escaped.
Smoke filled the air in a choking, cloying shroud and made it impossible to breathe without the protection of a bandana tied around his face. He searched the ground for tracks, but he quickly abandoned the task; the ground was covered in tracks made by Aggie’s hands as they fought to put out the fire. He would find nothing distinctive there now.
Cautiously stepping through the remains of the house, Johnny stopped and looked around what used to be the parlor. A thick coat of soot covered every surface, creating a dead, ghostly appearance. Singed and half-burned drapery hung in tatters on the glassless windows, the carpet littered with debris and dirt lay charred to the floor. Wallpaper hung in brown-black sheets as if weeping. Even the ‘judgment seat’ had not been spared, the fine leather cracked and blistered in the heat of the fire. Aggie purchased the chair for her husband, Henry, after they moved into the house, and it remained a prized possession after he passed. Well, not anymore…
The massive mahogany desk suffered the same fate— no longer functional and scarred from flames. Johnny scanned the seared mess, remembering the good times spent in this very room, the most recent being the dinner Aggie prepared for them and Charlie and Molly Poe. An enjoyable evening with friends, and Johnny’s mad boiled over again. The ache in his head began to rumble and prompted Johnny to discreetly reach for the laudanum bottle in his jacket pocket; he took a sip, then returned the opiate to the safety of the coat. The drug worked quickly, but it also brought a fog, a cloudy film that would wrap around his brain if he took too much, but he only needed enough to take the edge off the pain. Johnny had to be careful; until he had some answers, he would take care. In that case, he’d better get moving.
He turned to leave, but his eyes locked on the ruined fireplace mantle— something wasn’t right. Henry’s guns were still there, the once beautiful guns, all charred and scorched… except one… There was one missing.
Anthony Alexander was a happy man. His plans were working splendidly! Buck Addison walked right into the role Alexander planned for him with a reckless vengeance that played into Anthony’s hands. Lancer would soon crumble, he was sure. The rancher lost one son last night, although it hadn’t been confirmed, the shooter claimed victory for the deed, then struck the match that burned Aggie Conway’s house. The woman’s fate was unknown at present, but how could she escape the burning house if locked in her room? Alexander was pleased with the rapid pace of the tragic events. Weaken the enemy, and they will eventually break.
The attack on the younger son had not gone as planned, but that would be corrected very shortly. Soon, Murdoch Lancer would fold, give up, or— die alongside his remaining son. It was only a matter of time.
But for now, he would stoke the rage burning inside Buck Addison, adding bits of kindling a little at a time until Buck completed his mission. The fool blindly rushed into this ‘deal’ without much thought; his main concern was focused on revenge, not how it was achieved. But whatever happened, Buck would take the blame, and Alexander would reap the rewards.
“Hey, Johnny! Heard ya was hurt. Looks like ya been scrappin’, boy. Ya alright?” Old Hank inquired. The boy’s movin’ too slow; he’s hurtin’.
Johnny didn’t need anything to take up time, but ol’ Hank deserved his respect; he was a good man. Meeting the keen eyes, Johnny smiled. “Yeah, ‘m fine, Hank, thanks. You sure no one saw anything last night? Hear anything unusual?”
“Nope, ‘cept when we got back ta the ranch, Miz Conway busted out the winda an’ screamed. Then, we all heard, but nothin’ b’fore the explosion. Val should be on his way out here soon. ‘Tween the two a ya, ya kin come up with somethin’, huh?”
Johnny nodded. “Sure gonna try, Hank. Sure gonna try.” Taking one last look at the corpse that used to be Aggie’s home, he turned to scout out beyond the yard.
Attacks on Lancer and now Aggie’s ranch… What the hell’s goin’ on? Were the attacks connected some… The questions suddenly stopped as a thought resurfaced and blazed in his brain. He’d thought of it earlier but had shoved it back, thinking it wasn’t a possibility. Now, he wasn’t so sure. Was it possible? At this point, anything was possible.
Johnny extended his search up the ridge behind Aggie’s house; there, he stopped under the big oak and looked around. A horse stood here last night; the prints left their marks on a bed of moss, tearing the growth from the earth. The tracks led off to the north.
Distant pounding hoofbeats drew his attention to the road below as Val Crawford pulled Amigo to a halt and dismounted. Johnny made his way down the hill and into the yard of the Circle C.
Acrid smoke filled the air and made Val’s eyes sting and water. He walked to the men, asking questions none could answer.
The exhausted Circle C crew stood, giving their account of the horrific night, but could not give a clue as to why the fire happened or who it was that did the evil deed. It was plain that it was a murder attempt when Tuck McKay presented the steel bars used to secure Aggie’s door.
Val reached for the bars, the cloth wrap at the ends protected his hands from the heat as his scowl settled into place. Murder was ugly, and when an attempt was made on a friend, it was worse. And an innocent friend to boot!
Val raised his eyes when Johnny approached, and he snorted, shaking his head in disbelief. “Now, just what the hell’re are ya doin’ here, Johnny? Murdoch know yer out…”
“Same’s you, Val, an’ no, well, maybe by now Murdoch knows I’m gone.” Johnny’s eyes fixed on the steel rods, and his belly flipped over. The fire in his belly ignited his mad in a rolling boil. Bastardos!
“Val, I found some tracks up the hill. We need ta see where they go.”
With a deep sigh, Val handed the bars to Tuck. “Might need ‘em, don’t toss ‘em out.”
“I’ll keep ‘em safe, Val,” then Tuck grabbed the soot-covered bars and turned away, headed to his room in the bunkhouse. The bars would be safe there if they were needed later.
Val followed Johnny up the hill, all the while mentally lambasting Johnny for putting himself in jeopardy… again. He shouldn’t be out traipsin’ around after the fight with two cobardes that ran when Isidro rode up. Two against one— well, what could be expected of assholes like that? Scott was ambushed, shot in the back, and Aggie was almost murdered in a fire. Just what the hell was goin’ on?
“Trail goes off over that way. Val, I’m thinkin’ all these attacks are related. It’s just too coincidental these things happenin’ so close tagether.”
“Ya got any ideas, amigo?” Val asked, already knowing Johnny had something skittering around in his head.
Johnny turned to face the sheriff and nodded.
“Well, let’s hear it…”
Ten minutes later, Johnny and Val came off the hill and waved to Tuck. The foreman hurried toward them; they talked over their plan, then Val and Johnny set out to search the spot where Scott had been ambushed, while Tuck took the message given to him by Johnny and headed into Green River.
Anthony Alexander seethed. The success he’d felt earlier suddenly turned to bitter acid in his ample belly. The report in front of him bore bad news, very bad news, indeed. Apparently, good help was hard to find, and he would have to go about this venture another way. The only successful attack was the explosion that killed a Lancer hand, which was useless to him. Ranch hands were plentiful; what was one less? Had one or both Lancer sons been injured and possibly succumbed to said injury, he would be much farther ahead. As it was now, he might as well be starting from scratch. The difference was that now Murdoch Lancer and Agatha Conway knew their ranches were under threat.
Alexander would have to resort to… extreme measures. Buck had outlived his usefulness; he’d fumbled and failed one too many times, and Alexander could not abide the fool any longer nor risk exposure of his part in the takeover of the San Joaquin Valley. Addison would soon meet with an accident; then, it would be only the silent partner to worry over. The silent partner with the potential to bring Alexander down. And he wouldn’t let that happen, either.
Will Hall was scared and began questioning what he’d gotten himself into. Suddenly five hundred dollars didn’t seem worth a murder charge. First Johnny Lancer, then Scott and Aggie Conway in the same night. It sounded profitable when Addison first approached them, an easy job that paid well. Now, it wasn’t worth it for them to be involved with any murders. The explosion was bad enough, but the attempts on the lives of the Lancers and now Miz Conway, well, Will wanted out.
Bobby tried to talk sense into Will, to overcome the second thoughts rambling around in Will’s head that could ruin this deal with Addison. “He weren’t no big name that we killed, ‘sides they can’t pin that on us. No one saw anything! Glad I knew what I was doin’ with the dynamite; otherwise, we mighta blowed ourselves up!” It was a game, a well-paying game that Bobby was warming to.
“But, Miz Conway, she’s a nice lady an’, well, I don’t think I wanna stick around. This ain’t the kinda job I thought it’d be. We was just ‘sposta pass along information, now cuz a what we did, Miz Conway… ” he couldn’t finish. It had been too close.
Bobby listened to Will’s confession and knew how he felt about Mrs. Conway. Bobby liked Johnny Lancer too, but Bobby liked the five hundred dollars more.
“Well, I can’t make you stay, Will. Guess this’s where we part ways, huh?”
“Wait! Ya mean yer gonna go through with this, Bobby?” The shocked eyes held Bobby’s, and the boy wondered if Bobby was out of his mind. This was murder they were helping to commit!
“Yeah, I’m stayin’. Ain’t never gonna make this kinda money workin’ for wages, an’ when it’s done, I’m movin’ on. ‘Sides, all I’m doing is passin’ along the information Addison asked for. Ain’t like I’m pullin’ any triggers. So, I’m in the clear. But you go, if ya wanna. Me, I’m stayin’.”
Then, Bobby mounted up and rode back to Lancer, leaving Will with more questions than answers. It wasn’t worth his soul to be tangled in this vile plot. Nope, Will planned to live to be an old man with nothing on his conscience, but he had to question Bobby’s reasoning. No, passing information wasn’t as if he’d pulled a trigger that took a man’s life. But, lighting the fuses of dynamite was, and Will was getting out, now, before anyone else was hurt or worse…
Murdoch stormed down the stairs and out the back door. The air around the man was thick with tension and worry. Throw in a little, no, it was a lot of angry temper and ire, kick in a touch of fury, and Murdoch’s behavior was spelled out in no uncertain terms. Where the hell is Johnny? Chickens scattered out of his way as he stomped to the barn, suspecting that Barranca would not be in his stall. But he had to check.
Johnny’s injury had been bad enough, but when Scott’s horse came in, bringing the wounded elder son with him, then the murder attempt on Aggie and the illness from the smoke, it was all Murdoch could handle. But now, Johnny was probably gone. He was in no shape to be out doing whatever it was that Johnny was doing, and Murdoch knew it wasn’t good. He had an idea of what his recalcitrant son was up to, and it sent his mood spiraling out of control.
The stall was empty. When had Johnny left? How did Johnny leave? Murdoch Lancer felt the tremors race through his body. When he saw Johnny next, he’d… he’d… he didn’t know what he would do, but it wouldn’t be good.
The trail led north, then cut west. There was no attempt at hiding tracks, and the rider didn’t appear to be in a hurry. Questions scrambled through Val Crawford’s brain. He took a subtle glance at his amigo and wondered how he was doing. Johnny sat straight in the saddle, but Val knew better than to think he was alright. Madrid could hide pain better than anyone he knew but denying it wouldn’t help their situation; however, Johnny was the best option for help at the moment. There wasn’t time to find Russell Westin to track; Val hadn’t known there were any tracks until his amigo found them, and if he and Johnny didn’t turn up anything soon, he would have to go back, get a posse organized, roust Russel out of his cabin in the hills and ask for his help.
“What’d ya figger, Johnny? Think ol’ Cody can find anything that’d be useful?” Get ‘im talkin’, need ta find out how’s he’s feelin’.
The deep breath hitched in Johnny’s chest as the bruised muscles stretched and stitches pulled against the tender flesh across his back. The exhale was slow in coming, but Johnny gathered himself together, knowing that he couldn’t hide much from Val’s knowing gaze.
Johnny hoped that Scott’s friend, Cody Justice, an attorney in San Francisco, could find the information he needed. If anyone could, it was Cody. He knew the situation and knew what was at stake, and he had a way of ferreting out information like no one else. If there were answers, Cody would get them.
“Dunno. But he’s pretty good at what he does, an’ he knows what’s happened in the past, knows what’d be important an’ what wouldn’t. All we can do is trust his judgment ta let Murdoch know if there’s somethin’ ta worry about. That an’ keep trailin’ this bastard… This’s one sick sonuvabitch, Val! Ain’t feelin’ any too charitable towards him, not after what he tried ta do ta Aggie an’ it wouldn’t take much for me ta send a bullet through his brain…” Johnny let the words fade away, but the rage in his belly boiled over, filling him with cold, black vengeance.
“Me neither, amigo, but we hafta bring ‘im in alive an’ get ta the bottom a this.” Val knew that Johnny thought much of Miz Conway. Hell, Val did, too, but Val was also the sheriff, which reminded him…
“Say ‘I do’.”
“Jus’ say it, dammit!”
Johnny knew he was caught. If he’d gotten away without being deputized, he would have found a way to deal with the bastard in his own way, but that wasn’t an option anymore. Val was good at sheriffin’, and a smirk tugged at the corner of his mouth.
He let enough time pass to make Val not only nervous, but it sorely tested his patience, too.
Pain lanced through her head, and breathing was difficult. The sharp odor of herbs permeated the air, strong and overpowering. Aggie Conway forced her eyes open and tried to focus. Where was she? What had happened? She heard a groan— did that noise come from her?
“Aggie, can you hear me?”
A voice, a familiar voice, but she couldn’t place it.
“Aggie, it’s Murdoch. Can you hear me?” His voice was soft and his touch gentle as he caressed her face. “Take your time, Aggie. Here, here’s some water. Can you drink a little?” Slipping a hand under her head and across her shoulders, Murdoch raised her body enough to keep her from choking while she drank.
The glass was cool against her lips, and the water was liquid heaven as it trickled down the parched, dry throat. Watery eyes suddenly went wide as the cough erupted in her chest, sending shards of pain through her body. Voices— there were more voices now, she could hear people moving, orders were sharply spoken as she was levered forward, and she was breathing steam, heavily scented with peppermint and eucalyptus.
“Teresa, get a towel and put it over her head to keep the steam in!” Sam added medicine to a glass of water, and while Murdoch held Aggie steady, Sam managed to get her to take a few swallows. Teresa hurried into the room and draped a cloth over Aggie’s bowed head, ensuring the maximum amount of vapors got to where they should go. In a few minutes, Aggie’s breathing was clearer, and Sam settled her back onto the mountain of pillows.
Murdoch looked shaken, drained… and angry. Sam knew the man spent a sleepless night, more like two. The incidents that had occurred lately were taking their toll on the rancher, and the discovery of Johnny’s absence had stretched Murdoch’s patience to its limit. Johnny was in no condition to be out gallivanting to who knew where and if Murdoch didn’t knock some sense into that boy when he returned, Sam would consider it an honor to do it! But Sam couldn’t and wouldn’t waste his time if Johnny couldn’t take any better care of himself than this. There was Scott’s injury and Aggie to watch over now. Sam could only hope that Johnny wouldn’t cause any more harm to himself. Well, when Johnny finally did make it home, at least all of Sam’s patients would be under one roof.
“Thought ya should know, Will backed out. Ya got anything for me ta do, I’ll be at Lancer, but don’t try an’ contact Will.”
Addison’s eyes narrowed and pierced through Bobby, causing a chill to run the length of his spine. “Backed out? How do we know he won’t talk?” Buck demanded.
“We don’t. Want me ta take care of things? It’ll cost ya extra.” Bobby was warming to the game. A violent streak began to grow and was taking him down a path where there was no return.
“You make sure he doesn’t talk, and I’ll make it worth your while. But if you get caught, you’re on your own, understand?!”
“Yeah, sure, I understand.” A feral smile slithered across his lips as Billy turned and rode away.
Buck stood rooted to the spot, thinking he needed to get this over with and be quick about it. His thoughts scrambled and wouldn’t settle; they rambled in his head as a sudden pain erupted, making it difficult to focus his eyes. He blinked rapidly to clear his vision. The more pain he felt, the more the rage for Aggie and Murdoch grew. He had to finish this before he drove himself crazy.
Lucas Morgan dismounted and grabbed the dry brush. In no time, he’d wiped the trail clear of tracks. He hadn’t spotted anyone following, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t. He’d been successful in his life in considering every angle, and that’s why he was still alive. Morgan always watched out for himself. And now, it was time to get paid for his work. Kicking his horse into a gallop, Morgan headed for his meeting with Anthony Alexander.
Will Hall mounted his horse and rode away from the Circle C Ranch. Never before had he made such a bad decision, and there was no fixing it now. He would leave and not come back; he couldn’t face what he’d done and the consequences of the act. No, the best thing for him was to get on his horse and get out of the territory just as fast as possible.
The trail between the Circle C and Lancer ranches wasn’t but ten miles long, then his plan to take the road north to Stockton and lose himself in a big city would serve him well.
His head jerked back, and he knew nothing more; the crash to the ground went unnoticed, unfeeling and sightless eyes, though open, saw nothing of the beautiful blue sky.
Bobby Brown mounted his horse. Funny, he didn’t feel anything; there was no remorse, no guilt. Was it like this for all murderers, he wondered? Hey, ‘Bobby’ didn’t seem like a fit name anymore. Maybe I’ll go by ‘Bob’, it sounded more like a man ‘stead of seventeen-year-old. Yeah, I like ‘Bob’ a lot better…
The hooded, washed-out blue irises were cold as they stared at the man standing in front of his desk. He sighed deeply, loudly, his displeasure evident.
“What do you mean ‘you want your money’?” Alexander said in disgust.
Lucas Morgan stood rigid and straightened his slouch. “I want my money! The money I got comin’ for doing your dirty work!”
Alexander huffed. “If you had done the work, I would pay you. But you failed!” How do I get reliable help these days? He wondered.
“Failed? What’d ya mean, failed?” Morgan was furious; he’d done what Alexander asked of him! “I shot Lancer an’ I took care a the woman at the Circle C!” he railed.
“You shot Lancer, but you didn’t kill him, you idiot! And the woman lived! Now they’ve been alerted to trouble! So, you get out there and finish the job I hired you to do! Oh, and now, you have one more thing to finish…” Anthony glared at Morgan with icy eyes.
“An’ what’s that?”
“Another person to take care of, if you can manage!”
“Who?” Morgan asked, his suspicions growing.
“Buck Addison. And if my sources are correct, you will find all of them at the Lancer ranch! Perhaps then you won’t fail in your job! Now get out of here!”
Morgan was stunned but kept silent. He spun on his heels and left the office.
The door slammed shut, leaving Anthony alone in the room; he sighed and closed his eyes in disgust. With any luck, they’ll kill each other!
“Well, amigo, them tracks faded out. What say we get back an’ see if there’s anything ta find where Scott was ambushed. If not, then I’ll get Russell Westin and pick up where we left off.” Val didn’t like their chances; this was their only lead, and it faded out.
Johnny remained silent. They were wasting time, and if they were going to catch the pendejo responsible, they’d have to come up with something pretty damn quick. He didn’t want to turn back but knew it was useless to try and go further. With a growl, he reined Barranca around, and together Val and Johnny rode toward Lancer.
Aggie Conway was troubled. Her sleep was interrupted by wild, ridiculous dreams, feelings that sent her belly into spasms and caused her mind to imagine things that couldn’t possibly be true. What is wrong with me? She desperately wanted sleep and could fall asleep, but it wouldn’t stay to provide her the rest she needed. She was hungry, but when food arrived, she couldn’t eat. Lying still felt wonderful, but she couldn’t stay still.
The crease in her brow told Murdoch volumes.
“Aggie, tell me what’s wrong,” Murdoch coaxed as he took the chair beside her bed. He reached out to take her hand in his; perhaps his closeness would ease whatever was tormenting her mind. Their friendship had weathered many storms; it was strong, as they were strong, sharing their troubles, their grief.
Murdoch thought the woman looked frightened and confused, and he was right.
Aggie met his eyes and tried to sit up. Murdoch stood and gently adjusted pillows behind her shoulders to raise her head.
“I don’t know, Murdoch.” Her whispery voice strained from the smoke damage to her throat. “I can’t put my finger on it. I feel so… so anxious like I’m waiting for something to happen.” Sighing deeply, Aggie accepted the glass of water Murdoch held to her lips and drank. The lightly honeyed water slid down easily; it cooled and refreshed the parched tissue. Closing her eyes, she tried to relax.
“Well, I can tell you one thing, Aggie, nothing is going to happen to you in this house!” He let his reassuring smile cloak her in the comfort it provided.
Then, she met his gaze again, piercing his with the need to know. “Murdoch, is there anything left of my house?”
He took a deep breath, held it, then exhaled. “No, I’m afraid not, Aggie.” His heart ached as he watched her eyes fill with tears. “But, we are right there with you; every step of the way, Lancer will be there and help you get back on your feet. The Circle C house will reside where it was and forever will be. You’ll see, Aggie, you’ll see!”
No one is going to make a fool out of me! No one! Not Alexander, not Aggie or Lancer! Buck would get his revenge and reap his rewards. And the only way he was going to do it was if he took care of Aggie himself. No incompetent this time. This time, Agatha Conway was going to die at his hand. Buck Addison hadn’t spent all his time at the top, he’d done his share of dirty work and hadn’t forgotten the subtle art, but it had been many years since he’d had to work at that level. But good help was increasingly hard to find, and now he couldn’t wait any longer. He would dispose of Aggie and Murdoch Lancer himself.
How would he do it? Maybe he would catch them together; that damn Lancer was probably sharing her bed right now! Buck envisioned the knife blade piercing the rancher’s hide, sliding between Murdoch’s ribs as his large body pressed her against the bed! That’s my wife, Lancer! Then, when Murdoch was dead, he would laugh at Aggie! Tell her it was her fault Lancer was dead, and then she would pay with her life! Buck couldn’t help but grin as he imagined her eyes glazing over as his hands wrapped around her throat and squeezed the life out of her! No one makes a fool out of me!
Lucas Morgan toyed with the idea of putting a bullet in Alexander’s brain. The man was a pompous, arrogant son-of-a-bitch! But Lucas also realized his mistakes. He was so sure that his shot ended the life of Scott Lancer. He knew he hit the target- had the man dead in his sights! And he couldn’t figure out how Agatha Conway made it out of her house. How had his plans gone so wrong? Well, he would take care of the loose ends, collect his pay from Alexander and get the hell out of the valley. Once he was done here, the money he would earn would be enough to support himself for a long while. All I gotta do is get ta that ranch an’ get done what I do best…
The late afternoon sun warmed the telegraph office, too much so, and Billy lazed in his chair, unable to keep his eyes open… until the key began to tap on the pad. Instantly awake, he wrote down the message as it came across the wire.
Urgent- Murdoch Lancer, Morro Coyo, CA
Confirmed- Stop- BA released- Stop- Suspected coverup- Still investigating- Stop-
More to follow- Stop.
Billy read the message over. Damn! Sealing the note in an envelope, the agent ran out the back door to the livery. He paid Sonny Walker a generous tip, then watched Walker as he vaulted on his horse and galloped out of town toward Lancer.
This isn’t good! No sir, not good at all…
Murdoch watched as Aggie opened her eyes and tried to focus. He reached for the water glass, helped her drink, and then settled her back on the pillows but knew she needed something more when she put her hand to her throat.
“What is it, Aggie? Do you want honey for your throat?”
“That would be fine, Murdoch, thank you,” she whispered.
Murdoch rose from the chair, “I’ll be right back, Teresa’s in the kitchen, and she’ll have it for you pronto!”
Walking into the kitchen, he was greeted with wonderful aromas from the supper preparations that were well underway.
“Darling, would you bring the honey in to Aggie? Her throat’s troubling her again.”
Teresa came from the pantry; her pretty smile lit the room. “Yes, of course, Murdoch! I’ll be right there!” And she turned back to the pantry.
Murdoch resumed his place in the chair by Aggie’s bed.
“Murdoch, I know you’re busy…” A cough made her halt the statement. “You don’t have to sit here with me all day! Besides, you should be sitting with Scott!”
“I’ve spent the morning with him, and Maria is with him now. There’s nowhere I’d rather be!” he said with a wide smile.
“Murdoch, what’s happening? Why would someone want to see me dead? Why set off dynamite and lure the hands away, then set fire to my house?” Confused worry shaded her face, and she couldn’t help the frown that creased her brow or call back the tears that filled her eyes.
Murdoch sighed. “I don’t know.” The conversation was interrupted as Teresa brought the honey but continued as the girl gathered the glass, filled it with warm water, and added the sweet substance.
”I don’t know, Aggie. I wonder why someone lit the charge that killed Virgil Tomkins. I wish I knew…”
Teresa suddenly stopped in mid-step. A flash of memory sparked in her mind. “Murdoch?” she said, a strange expression covered her young face.
Turning his gaze to his ward, he asked, “Yes, Teresa, what is it?” Murdoch noticed the frown the girl wore.
“Murdoch, I… I don’t know if this means anything, but a few weeks ago, I saw that new boy, Bobby Brown, I think is his name. He was coming out of that vault-like place you built in the rocks in the hillside- you know, where you stored the dynamite left from clearing those stumps. It looked like he was carrying something in his arms. I swear it was him… I’m not saying he did anything wrong, but I know I saw him when I was outside the chicken coop. He didn’t see me, but I saw him.”
Murdoch jerked upright like he’d been stuck with a red-hot poker. He didn’t know anything about Bobby’s background and hired him almost two months ago. The boy seemed to be a conscientious hand, but Murdoch would now have a word with him.
“Do you think he…” Teresa began.
“Teresa, I don’t know.” He turned and faced her. “You’re absolutely sure it was him that you saw?”
Teresa blinked. “Yes, he was wearing that green shirt and the dark-colored bandana he always has around his neck. It was him! I’m sorry, Murdoch! I didn’t think it was important!”
Murdoch pulled the girl into his arms, “That’s alright, Darling,” he comforted.
“Murdoch! I’ve got this horrible feeling! Attacks on Virgil, then Johnny and Scott, and the fire… it makes me think that… that…” Aggie shrugged. She hesitated to put to voice what was in her mind and risk Murdoch thinking she was crazy. It couldn’t be… Could it?
Murdoch watched Aggie, wondering if she was getting herself riled for no reason. What could she be thinking to provoke that anxiety? “Aggie? What is it?” he asked softly.
Aggie blinked, then shook her head. “Oh, nothing, Murdoch. It was nothing.” But she didn’t meet his eyes.
Murdoch wasn’t fooled. “Something is on your mind, Aggie; what is it?” he coaxed.
She raised wary eyes to meet his, hoping he wouldn’t think her insane. “What if Buck’s behind this?” she whispered.
Murdoch was stunned; he sat back in his chair and turned to face Aggie. Was it possible? How…? He shrugged and said, “Then we know what we’re up against.”
“Val, let’s head back ta the hacienda. I wanna see how Scott’s doin’ an’ we can find out where he was goin’ when he was ambushed.”
“Doc said he’d be fine, amigo, but I think it’s a good idea for you ta take it easy for a while. Yer lookin’ a little green around the gills,” Val said, not entirely joking.
“I like green. Been told it’s a good color for me…” Johnny shot back. In truth, he would like nothing better than to crawl back into bed. The pain was pounding in his head, and he knew the laudanum would help ease it, but he also knew if they were going to catch this bastard, they had to keep moving quickly, and he couldn’t be hampered by the opiate.
“Ya might wanna take another swallow from that little bottle in yer pocket before Murdoch sees what a mess ya are. Don’t think he’s gonna be willin’ ta let ya go traipsin’ all over hell knowin’ that yer hurtin’. I know yer hurtin’ an’ your ol’ man’ll know it, too.”
“’ M fine.”
Val snorted. “Sure ya are. Ya fall outta that saddle, I’m gonna let ya lay there.”
Johnny caught a few of the words Val mumbled, ‘stubborn’, ‘ornery-ass’, and a very distinct ‘jackass’ reached his ears. And he wouldn’t argue the point. But he kept going as his back and ribs screamed out for him to stop and rest.
The Lancer arch came into view; Johnny and Val headed to the barn for fresh mounts before they headed out again.
Jelly’s grumbles echoed out of the backroom and signaled that the old handyman was once again upset about something. Johnny hoped that it wasn’t anything to do with his brother.
“Jelly! C’mon out here; I need some help!” Johnny called as he led Barranca to his stall and directed Val to put Amigo in the stall on the other side of Remmie.
With a speed that belied his age, Jelly was at Johnny’s side airing his grievance to the younger Lancer.
“’ Bout time ya got here!”
“Why? Is Scott alright, Jelly?”
“Oh, Scott’s fine as frog’s hair! It’s Murdoch ya oughta be worryin’ about!”
Johnny’s heart skipped a beat. “Murdoch? Jelly, what’s wrong? Where’s Murdoch?” Johnny grabbed the older man’s arms to keep him still until he got the answers he needed.
“T’resa said she saw that new hire, that Bobby fella comin’ outta that cellar in the rocks where Murdoch stored that leftover dynamite last summer. It was right b’fore that rockslide that kilt Virgil, an’ now Murdoch’s lookin’ ta question ‘im!”
Johnny’s heart plummeted to his feet. “He didn’t go out alone, did he?” Worry filled him as he waited for the explanation from the old man.
“No, Cip’s gone with ‘im. Boy, ya ain’t fixin’ ta go out there, are ya? Looks like ya need ta be upstairs…”
“Get Dusty outta the corral, an’ the black gelding, too. Where’d they go, Jelly? We’re goin’ after him,” Johnny fired his questions, and Jelly gave him the answers as he complied with the younger Lancers commands.
Jelly brought the two requested horses into the barn while Johnny and Val removed their gear from Barranca and Amigo and switched their mounts.
“Jelly, ya see where they went?” Johnny asked, hoping for a close destination.
“They rode northeast, up toward the old Creek road, but don’t know where ’xactly!”
The two men thundered out of the barn, down the road, and under the Lancer arch.
Sonny Walker pounded on the massive front door. It opened to reveal a wide-eyed Teresa, but she recognized Sonny and turned a sweet smile his way.
“Got a telegram for Murdoch, Miss Teresa. He here?” Walker’s eyes scanned the empty room over the girl’s shoulder.
“No, but I’ll see he gets it when he comes in. Thank you, Sonny!”
“It’s urgent; he might want it now…”
“I’ll take it to him, thank you, again!” Teresa held out her hand for the wire.
He placed the missive in the waiting fingers and mumbled his thanks. Then he mounted his horse and rode away.
It was marked ‘urgent’, but Murdoch was not there. Teresa held the wire and felt her hand turn cold. This is bad news! But if it was urgent, Murdoch needed to know, and she would send Jelly to find him. She ripped open the envelope with shaking fingers, read the message, and wanted to scream! The wire had to be wrong! How could Buck Addison have been released from prison?
Teresa O’Brien ran to the door, threw it open, and hurried to the barn.
“Now, what’s wrong? Ever’one calls for Jel…” he groused as he came out of the back, again interrupted in his chores.
“Jelly! I need for you to find Murdoch! He just got a telegram from Cody Justice in San Francisco, saying that Buck Addison is out of prison! With all the things going on, Murdoch needs to know immediately!”
Lucas Morgan rode like a madman. How had Buck Addison gotten past him in the night? But he did. Now, Morgan had to make the right call. Where was Addison headed? Alexander filled him in on the details, but it was up to Morgan to read between those vague lines and figure out what Addison would do. And he had a good idea.
Buck knew he was being followed. He slipped out of the shabby hotel room during the night, gathered his horse, and left town. If he could escape undetected, he would be able to finish what he had started two years ago. It had taken a little time to get Aggie where he wanted her, but thanks to the Lancers, Johnny, in particular, the plans went awry; ruined by incompetents who could not do their jobs, and now, Murdoch and Aggie stood a good chance of knowing who was behind all the ‘accidents’. But that fact didn’t concern Addison anymore. All he wanted now was their blood. They would pay, all of them! And Buck was ready to exact his justice.
The dense growth of trees shielded his presence at the top of the ridge, and he watched as Murdoch and the Lancer Segundo rode out of the yard. Biding his time, he waited for the opportune moment, but twenty minutes later, two riders galloped up to the barn, and it wasn’t Murdoch coming back. It looked like the halfbreed, and in the dimming light, he made out the sheriff. Buck’s evil grin stretched across his lips when they rode back out after changing mounts. He wouldn’t get another chance like this. He knew Aggie was in that house, and with most of the men gone, his chance was there, waiting for him with little to no defense. He was so close to his goal, and no one was going to cheat him out of what was his!
As he contemplated his move, a man rode up to the hacienda, then left in a matter of minutes. Buck grinned as yet another man left Lancer. Would there be anyone left except for the ladies? If he could get Aggie in the hacienda, he would wait for Murdoch to return. Buck was a fair shot; he could pick off Murdoch Lancer from his cover on the ridge above the house.
Buck Addison kept to the trees and eased his way down behind the house, thinking this might be easier than he thought.
Bobby Brown heard the noise again; he was startled as he waited. Addison was to meet him here, and he was late… Maybe that was him coming now? But it wasn’t Buck standing there, and shock filled him when he saw the person, not twenty feet away; he wondered if he could talk himself out of the trouble he knew was waiting for him.
“What are you doing out here, Bobby? You were to be helping elsewhere on the ranch, and now I find you wasting time doing nothing!” Murdoch spoke, his voice rising with every word.
The authority with which Mr. Lancer spoke had unnerved him, it always had, and now, Bobby’s thoughts scrambled for a reasonable explanation. Perhaps he could get out of this yet.
“Oh, Mr. Lancer! No, Cipriano changed his mind and sent me out here. I was ta wait for…” if he talked long enough, Bobby was sure he could convince the boss he was here on orders and catch him off guard, then he would draw his gun…
“You are lying.” And Cipriano stepped out of the brush.
Johnny and Val watched the scene play out from their cover in the rocks and let Murdoch and Cip take control unless the kid did something stupid. But, they knew he was up to no good from the nervous stance and how the kid acted. Johnny had seen hundreds of situations like this; the kid knew something… But unless he was needed, Johnny would let Murdoch handle it.
Bobby’s hand strayed to his pistol. His eyes grew frantic as he was caught in a lie and knew that now it was two against one. Could he take them both down?
There it was, the signal that prompted Johnny to intervene. “Get your hand away from that gun, pendejo, or I’ll drop ya where ya stand.” Johnny drawled as he and Val came from around from opposite sides.
The boy’s body jerked; the scare was more than he could handle.
Murdoch was shocked. How had Johnny and Val gotten into their position without him knowing? But he focused on getting the answers he needed, the answers that only this boy could give him.
Bobby’s heart hammered in his chest, and he knew he was caught. Either he would spend the rest of his life in prison or hang. It wasn’t much of a choice. There was no other way, and he let his hand drop to his gun.
A single shot rang out as Bobby crashed to the ground; blood spurted from the wound in his chest. Murdoch raced to the young man’s side, and Johnny holstered his Colt as the familiar guilt wrapped around his shoulders.
It was a kill shot; the boy was dying; the young eyes were losing focus as the heart began to give out and the brain shut down. Murdoch had seen it before but couldn’t waste any more time; he had to ask, “Bobby, did you use that dynamite that killed Virgil Tomkins?” He held the boy gently in his arms and felt the tremors race through him.
Bobby knew he had little time left. If Lancer hadn’t shot him, Addison would have. The man was crazy in his revenge. Blood filled Bobby’s mouth, but he gave a nod. Then suddenly, he felt the need for redemption.
“Ad… Add-son after you… Miz Co-Conw…” The gurgle ended, and that was it. Bobby died in Murdoch’s arms.
The rancher tensed. Had he heard right? The admission of Buck Addison’s freedom spurred him to let the boy lay where he was. But Addison was in prison! Wasn’t he?
Needing no other words to move out, Johnny and Val ran for their horses and vaulted into the saddle, leaving Murdoch and Cipriano to follow them back to Lancer.
They ran the horses full out, not sparing the mounts. Johnny’s earlier suspicions had been correct- Buck Addison was behind the attacks, and briefly, he wondered if Cody Justice had notified the ranch yet. Well, they were about to find out. If Addison was free, those at Lancer would be in jeopardy, and he thought of the women and Scott there… like sitting ducks.
Johnny’s hand drifted to his side— up ahead, a rider was approaching quickly, but he recognized Jelly riding recklessly. His belly suffered another agonizing roll, wondering if they would be too late in getting back to the hacienda.
Reining the horses just enough for Jelly’s quick explanation of “Addison’s outta prison!” Johnny and Val again raced for Lancer while Murdoch and Cip stopped, horses nervously side-stepping and anxious as Jelly confirmed what young Bobby had just divulged.
“Boss! Addison’s been released! Who’d do a thing like that?” The older man questioned in a breathless rush.
Murdoch’s face was stormy when he answered. “Let’s go find out!” And the three men moved out, following the trail so recently traveled by Johnny and Val.
All his instincts told Lucas Morgan that his search would find Addison at Lancer, but he didn’t have any idea about how to get at the man when the place was crawling with ranch hands and the Lancers themselves. All he could do now was watch, maybe form a plan as he observed the comings and goings, and wait for his chance. Alexander had been adamant, though, in wanting Buck dead. Well, that’s what he was getting paid for, so he hunkered down to watch, biding his time until Addison would show his face, then Morgan would blow it off his head.
Dusk began to blanket the land, making it harder to see, but Morgan was ready for it. How many times had he sat alone, waiting for the target to show? Many a night, he’d waited and watched for his quarry to put a bullet in their brain. And tonight, he would do it again.
It wasn’t long before he saw the shadow of a man slip through the trees at the back of the house. The target had arrived, and it was time for Morgan to earn his pay. He moved down toward the house but was stopped when the cold order of “Don’t move or it’ll be the last move ya ever make!” knifed through his brain.
He had only been in the Lancer hacienda a few times before; social visits with Aggie and the back of the adobe home was unknown to him. After spying through the windows, he witnessed the cook disappear into a small storeroom, prompting Buck to enter the warm, aromatic kitchen. On the stove, kettles bubbled as preparations for the evening meal were well underway. He looked into the room where the woman had gone; it was a pantry and the perfect spot to detain the cook.
Addison stepped across the kitchen and listened, then cautiously, quietly came into the pantry. The woman stood, her back to the door while reaching for the pitcher of milk in the cooler. The blow to the back of her head rendered her helpless, and she slumped forward as Addison guided her body to a soundless topple to the floor.
He was close, now, so close to his revenge. Oh, he wanted so badly to take more time, make Aggie suffer, make her pay for the embarrassment he endured during that sham of a trial, then taken away in chains to serve a sentence in prison! Well, Buck Addison would get his satisfaction now, albeit too brief! Tonight! She was here, in this house, and he would find her, and God help anyone that would get in his way.
He stopped and listened for voices and a potential threat that would disrupt his plans. Muffled conversation from a room down a hallway prompted Buck back to the kitchen, where he took a coiled rope that hung on the coat rack by the back door, then he retraced his footsteps and stopped outside the room. The women behind the door conversed in worried tones… Had they been warned of his release? How wouldthey know anything? Then he slowly opened the door.
Aggie watched, suddenly tense, as the door inched open and her eyes widened as the monster from her nightmares, pistol aimed at her head, stepped into her room. Teresa screamed as loud as she could and sent a piercing shriek echoing through the house.
He turned to the girl, “Shut up!’ He snapped, then motioned her into a chair. “Not a sound out of you! You’ll get your turn when I’m finished with her!” and he nodded to Aggie. Buck tied Teresa to the chair, then gagged her, successfully eliminating another call for help.
His bright, mad eyes fell on his former wife, and a leer spread across the insane face. “Hello, Aggie… dear! It’s time for you to pay for what you’ve done!” Buck advanced on Aggie as she lay helpless in the bed, his hands reaching out, and his fingers twitched as they went for her throat.
“No, Buck! Nooo!” Aggie’s panicked pleas scratched through her seared throat, knowing her chances of survival were none, and the threat to Teresa, innocent Teresa, was real; the girl had nothing to do with any of this!
Teresa squirmed in her chair, struggling against the rough rope on her wrists. Her muffled cries for help went unheard except for those in the room. She kicked out; her foot caught the door and slammed it shut, igniting another resounding noise that erupted through the hallway.
What had awoken him? Scott struggled to sit up as the pain assaulted his body when he moved. Slowly he inched out of bed and fought to stand. His legs were shaky, too shaky, but he got to his feet, then heard the slam of a door. Something was not right… He reached for his robe and threaded the right arm through the sleeve, wrapped the other side around his body, then grabbed his pistol and staggered to the stairs.
“You so much as twitch, he’s gonna blow yer head off, so ya best stand right where ya are!”
Morgan’s brain scrambled to come up with a plan that would keep him alive, then get him out of the volatile situation that crashed around his shoulders. There were two of them, and once he pinpointed their exact locations, he would take them out.
“You’re on private land, pendejo— what’re ya doin’ here?”
The drawl behind him wasn’t friendly but, it was antagonistic. Morgan now had their locations. He made as if to shrug but went for the pistol on his hip. Now, Lucas Morgan was a fair hand with a gun, but the knife that pierced his hide was faster, and the gunhand went numb and lost its grip on the weapon. He fell to the ground and tried to stop the groan of agony that did its damnest to crawl up his throat and out into the darkening air.
Johnny crouched alongside the gunman and searched for more weapons. There was something in an inside coat pocket, and Johnny pulled it out. In the dimming light, he recognized the dueling pistol from Aggie’s fireplace mantle.
“You bastard! I oughta fuckin’ slit your throat!” He grabbed the man by the front of his shirt and hauled him to his feet, then threw a punch at the man’s head that downed him, making him crumple in a heap.
Val jumped in and pulled Johnny away; he knew how Johnny felt regarding the fact someone tried to burn Aggie Conway alive, and where he had a good notion to look the other way and let Madrid deal the justice, he wasn’t going to risk the chance of a murder charge against his amigo.
“We got ‘im, Johnny, settle down! We’re gonna let the law handle this!” Val went to his knees and slapped the slack face to bring him to consciousness. “Wake up b’fore I let him,” Val’s head jerked in Johnny’s direction, “beat the hell outta ya!” A groan was issued from the man lying in the grass, and he began to stir.
“I ain’t gonna ask ya again! What’re ya doin’ here?” Val persisted.
“Ugh! Watchin’ Addison… he’s… he’s in the house…”
At that very second, a shot came from the hacienda.
Johnny instantly turned cold, and his belly rolled; he reached down and pulled his knife from the man’s shoulder, disregarded the groan of pain, then he ran as fast as his legs could move to get him to the back of the house. He slipped into the kitchen and slammed into a barely standing Scott as he rounded the corner.
Taking Scott’s weight, Johnny guided him to a chair, relieved when he saw no new injury.
“Scott, we heard a shot! Where… “
Scott, ashen-faced, pointed to the closed door of the downstairs guest room.
With no more time to waste, Johnny kicked the door open.
“You’re going to pay for what you did, Aggie!” Buck’s eyes flashed, glazed in his madness, and his face flushed red.
Aggie’s agonized whisper forced into more than what it was capable of delivering, a screech at best, begged him to stop. “No, Buck! Don’t… don’t make me…”
Then he was beside her on the bed as his fingers snaked around her throat and squeezed. Teresa sobbed; tears ran unchecked down her cheeks and soaked the gag tied around her face.
“No, Buck… don’t…” And Aggie pulled the trigger.
His eyes went wide, filled with shock and disbelief as the bullet entered his chest and blew his heart in two. The limp body slid off the bed and fell into a sloppy, bloody mess on the floor.
Seconds later, the door burst open, and Johnny stood ready to wage a battle; Colt pointed and ready for him to tighten his grip on the trigger. Taking a blanket from the back off the foot of Aggie’s bed, then covered the still body on the floor, his hand rock-steady.
“Aggie, ya alright?” he asked in the quiet of the room.
“Yes, Johnny! Thank you!” she whispered and leaned back into her pillows, breathing harshly. She straightened the blanket over her, inspected the hole from the bullet, and then handed the gun to Johnny, grateful she had asked for one when they heard that Buck was out of prison.
Johnny stooped to check the body and was satisfied Addison wouldn’t be a threat ever again; he stepped to Teresa and untied her. She pulled the gag from her mouth, then stood and threw her arms around Johnny’s neck, making him groan in discomfort. The last two days of tension, travel, and no rest had taken their toll, and his body exploded with searing pain from the top of his head to his toes. He was beyond tired, beyond… anything.
The rumble of hooves outside brought him a brief moment of clarity, and Murdoch thundered into the house, followed closely by Sheriff Crawford, and Johnny prepared as much as he could for the commotion.
“What happened?” Murdoch bellowed as he looked around and the reality set in. The body of Buck Addison was sprawled on the floor, Aggie looking paler than when he had left the hacienda, covered with a tattered blanket, Teresa was sobbing as she clung to Johnny’s arm, and Scott out of bed leaning against the wall all spelled out the need for Sam. The scene was topped by Maria as she stumbled into the room, holding a bloodied towel on her head.
“I’ll send someone for the doc, Boss!” Jelly scrambled through the hacienda and out the back kitchen door; the resounding slam signaled he’d made it into the yard. Seconds later, a galloping horse was heard pounding down the road to Green River.
After Sheriff Crawford left with the prisoner, Murdoch carefully steered his family to their beds, insisting they all rest as they waited for Sam.
Teresa opted to stay with Aggie and Maria; the ladies huddled as if in conspiracy and together would come through as they leaned on each other for the strength they needed.
Murdoch shepherded Scott back to bed and got him settled, then went to Johnny’s room, hoping there wouldn’t be an argument with the recalcitrant young man and his disregard for Sam’s orders two days ago. But Murdoch needn’t have worried. When a quiet knock prompted no answer, Murdoch eased the door open to find his younger son fully clothed on the bed and sound asleep. Murdoch didn’t know whether to be happy with no confrontation or concerned that Johnny didn’t rouse at his urgings. He hoped Johnny hadn’t aggravated his injuries when, as Val got Morgan down off the ridge, Johnny’s temper exploded, and he landed a mighty punch to the man in Val’s custody. Murdoch wrapped his arms around Johnny and physically restrained him while the sheriff took his prisoner to jail.
“Johnny, come on, son, I’ll help you get undressed and into bed…” There was no response, so he tried again in a slightly louder tone. “Johnny, wake up, son.”
“Huh? What… wha’s wrong?”
“Nothing, son, I just want you to be comfortable. Let’s get you out of those clothes so you can rest in bed.”
It was a struggle, and Murdoch became alarmed when he pulled the bolero jacket from Johnny’s shoulders to reveal the bloodied and soiled bandage that had not been changed since before Johnny left the hacienda after Aggie was brought to Lancer. Heat radiated from Johnny’s body; Murdoch knew the stitches were probably torn out, and infection had set in. Sam would be there soon, but for now, Murdoch cleaned the wicked slash and stayed at Johnny’s bedside.
Doctor Sam Jenkins put in a full night and sagged in an exhausted slouch on the kitchen chair. The cup of coffee was soothing, and when he finished, he was going to bed. Scott and Johnny were asleep; both threatened with force if they didn’t take the laudanum the doctor ordered.
“Well, Murdoch, I’m going to bed. It will be a full day tomorrow battling with your sons, and I’ll need to be at my best in dealing with them.” Then, as an afterthought, he continued. “It’s been quite a day for you! How did all this come about?”
Murdoch sighed. “Teresa remembered seeing Bobby Brown coming out of the cellar where I kept the leftover dynamite, and we went after him for some answers. The next thing I knew, Johnny and Val stepped out of the brush, and Bobby went for his gun. Before he died, he said that Buck Addison was behind it, then Johnny and Val were heading for Lancer when Jelly rode up saying there’d been a telegram from Cody Justice with the news Addison was out of prison.
“Thank God they got back there! There was a man, apparently waiting to take care of Buck after he arrived here, but Johnny and Val were able to overpower him. Sam, Johnny found that dueling pistol Aggie kept on her fireplace mantle on him. He started the fire…
“But Buck got into the house, and Aggie shot him as he tried to strangle her… That telegram scared her enough to arm herself after Cip and I were gone.”
Sam’s head was starting to ache. “That’s one hell of a story, Murdoch, but it could have turned out so much worse!”
“Yes, I know.” And Murdoch pushed those thoughts out of his mind, thankful that things had turned out as well as they did.
“Murdoch, how are the boys doing? I haven’t seen them this morning.” Aggie whispered, doing everything Sam had told her to do to rest her throat.
“Scott’s doing better this morning. Getting out of bed and coming downstairs last night didn’t do him any good, but he’s fine.” Murdoch smiled, relieved Scott hadn’t caused serious damage to the wound.
“And, Johnny, how is he?”
Murdoch shrugged. How many times could Johnny disregard himself and survive? How long would his luck hold before he killed himself doing something he shouldn’t be doing? “Right now, he’s still sleeping. I think he wore himself out, not to mention reinjured that wound on his back and aggravated those ribs. I don’t know what I’m going to do with him, Aggie…”
“Just love him, Murdoch.”
The whisper was soft in the room, but the message was loud and clear, and Murdoch knew she was right. With Sam’s confirmation that both Scott and Johnny would be fine after sufficient rest, a huge load was lifted from his shoulders.
He met her gaze and smiled. “Yes, you’re right, Agatha Conway! You are right! Now, if only I could figure out what to give him for Christmas, I’d be in pretty good shape!” A chuckle escaped him, and he took the chair next to her bed. The devilish grin on her face warned him that something was on her mind.
“What are you grinning at, Aggie?” he asked suspiciously.
“I have your answer, Murdoch Lancer! Do you remember those three mares I bought out from under you at the auction in Cross Creek last summer?”
Murdoch’s face turned sour. “Yes, I remember them! How could I forget? Why?” She’d already embarrassed him twice in front of the horse-trading community over that stallion; did she now want to rub his face in it again?
Aggie couldn’t help but look a little smug but quickly reined in those feelings and replaced them with compassion. After all, he had extended the Lancer hospitality while she recuperated from the smoke inhalation and during the reconstruction of her house.
“Murdoch,” she whispered, “did you know that every time Johnny comes to the Circle C, he has to go see those mares? He will lean on the fence rails and watch them as they graze… I know he’d love to have them. Would you like to make a deal, Mr. Lancer?”
Murdoch’s glare began to dissolve, and he warmed to the game. “Well, that depends what you have in mind, Mrs. Conway.”
Aggie smiled. “Well, Murdoch, it’s not a deal, really, but I am going to sell them.”
“How much?” he asked, determination filled him.
Aggie tilted her head as if in deep concentration, then looked Murdoch in the eyes. “One hundred dollars.”
“One hundred! Aggie, that’s less than half of what you paid for them!”
The smug attitude was back. “Take it or leave it.” There was to be no dickering. One hundred dollars, firm.
And Murdoch Lancer exploded in laughter.
Rain drummed against the windows as Anthony Alexander sat in his comfortable home on the outskirts of Mantica. The news of Buck Addison’s death had not surprised him; he expected it, and Anthony had to smile with the thought that the arrogant man was no longer a problem. But much time and opportunity had been wasted in repairing the damage he’d done in his blind quest for revenge.
Alexander sighed, swirled the brandy in the glass, then stared into the flames of the warm fire that burned in the hearth. Well, Anthony was a patient man, and the San Joaquin Valley was not going anywhere; he would have to start over. And with his wealthy partner, he knew they would be successful, sooner or later. They would think of a new plan, and then the world would be theirs! They just had to be patient and shrewd in their business dealings.
A knock at his door interrupted the thoughts swirling in his head, thoughts of taking over the valley and the untapped wealth that waited to be developed. Anthony heaved his bulk from the chair and went to the front door, wondering who was braving the weather on a night such as this. He swung the door open, and his eyes went wide as the gun exploded in his face, and he died while still on his feet. The body fell to the floor and lay still as the rain soaked his clothes and the assailant melted into the night.
It was a special morning, and breakfast was taken in the dining room. Anglo and Mexican dishes graced the table while the Lancers, with guest Aggie Conway, indulged, enjoyed, and appreciated Maria’s unequaled talents in the kitchen. As Maria was about to return to the stove, Johnny insisted she take the meal with the family, for she was, indeed, part of the Lancer family. At the insistence of all around the table, she acquiesced and joined them as she blushed in her thanks.
The dishes were passed, and laughter rang throughout the hacienda, although a bit subdued due to Scott’s healing shoulder and broken collarbone, and Johnny still not up to his normal rowdy self after the injuries to his ribs and knife wound. But they would heal.
Murdoch looked around the table at the faces of his family and friends and felt a warmth he had only recently come to know. Memories of bitter years without his sons now washed away with the here and now. And he relished every second, pushing away the old nightmares and sequestering them into a place where they would remain unvisited and would expire as he enjoyed the new life with his sons.
Today was Christmas Day. Today would be filled with love and giving. And Murdoch couldn’t have picked a finer group of people had he a lifetime to do it. Later in the afternoon, they would be joined by Charlie and Molly Poe, Sam Jenkins, and Val Crawford for dinner, and he couldn’t have been happier.
Aggie Conway had made remarkable progress in her recovery, despite the stress of losing her home in the fire. Very little had been recovered— her life with her husband, Henry, was destroyed. But she was alive, and with the strength of Lancer, she would start over.
Aggie looked around the table at her friends, her family. They’d seen each other through good times and bad and had come out of the trials and tribulations stronger, the bond strengthening at every turn. Even the bidding contests at the horse auctions had contributed to their growing connection.
When Murdoch’s sons returned home, she watched as they developed into a powerful and tenacious family unit, but not without incident. It was an adjustment for all of them to meld together into what and who they were at this moment. And Aggie had a hand in settling a few differences between them, mostly with Murdoch and Johnny. But it was good now and getting better.
Breakfast was finished, and after the small talk at the table, the family joined together in the great room to exchange their gifts.
Jelly’s usual gruffness was replaced by a scratchy voice and eyes that fought against the tears that filled them. There were many “Awww, ya shouldn’ta done that!” comments, and he was genuinely touched with each and every gift that came his way.
Remarks from the family ranged from:
“Hey, how’d ya know I wanted that?”
“Oh, thank you! I’ve always wanted one!”
“I don’t know what to say!”
The comments filled the room, along with the laughter, and a few snuffles of emotional ‘thank you’s’ drifted through the air.
Then, Murdoch cleared his throat, and all eyes turned to him. “There are a few gifts yet that I need to give, if I may have your undivided attention!” The smile lit up his face, and he didn’t think he’d ever felt this… giddy! Wait! Did men feel like that? He wondered… Well, whatever it was, it felt good!
He walked behind the massive desk, pulled a large box out from its cover, and then pushed it across the floor to sit at Scott’s feet.
With a question in his eyes, he turned to his father. “What is this? You already gave me something, Murdoch!”
“Well, I’m giving you this, too! Open it!” Murdoch said with a grin. “I hope you like it.”
Scott tore the paper using one hand, making Johnny huff with impatience, and Scott laughed, taking more time to unwrap the gift. But, finally, sitting at his feet was a crate. Jelly, ready with a pry bar, removed the top and revealed packing material. What is in the box? Scott wondered, then he began to explore. The first thing he pulled out was a bundle of papers. Words, handwritten, crossed out, and blotted, covered the pages.
“Hey, Scott, ya musta been bad! Ya got a box of used paper! Is that anything like getting’ coal instead of a present?” Johnny joked, producing a chorus of chuckles around the room.
But Scott kept digging, and the more he pulled from the box, the harder his heart pounded in his chest. Is this what I think it is? One item after another sparked his excitement. And then, he knew! His fingers closed on a book, a very special book, and he looked into Murdoch’s face.
“Where did you find this treasure?” he asked in utter disbelief. “Murdoch, do you have any idea what this is?”
Murdoch smiled and nodded.
“Well, what is it, other’n book?” Johnny asked, wondering why Boston was so shocked at a… book.
“Johnny, this is a first edition, signed copy of Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’! This is…, Murdoch, this is fantastic! There are his notes, as well! Murdoch— you didn’t go into debt buying this… did you?”
Go inta debt buyin’ a buncha used up paper? Is Boston crazy? Johnny wondered.
Murdoch laughed. “No, son, and apparently, the owner of this box didn’t know or didn’t care what it was. Keep looking, Scott. There are other things, too. I didn’t get to see everything, but there are a few things by Emerson and a copy of Thoreau’s ‘Walden’.”
Scott was stunned as he inspected the wealth of literary treasures in the crate.
“I’ve always admired Whitman’s book, even though it was controversial. Did you know that he lost much of his popularity because of this book? Murdoch, where did you find this?” Scott asked another question before Murdoch had the chance to answer them.
“Well, you can thank James Harper for this. In his search for a treasured book, he came across this, and after talking with you last year when he was here with Melissa,” and the mention of James Harper and his daughter, brought a snort from Jelly, and another huff from Johnny.
“Murdoch! Here is a collection of first drafts of Emerson’s essays! I… I can’t believe this!”
Johnny didn’t get it. What was so great about a box of used paper and a few books? So, he asked.
Scott drew in a deep breath, then let it out. “Johnny, you and I are going to have a long, long talk someday about famous literary works.”
“Someday, Boston, but it ain’t gonna be taday!” And he turned to wink at Aggie. “So, there’s still a present that needs an owner! C’mon, everyone! Murdoch! C’mon out here!” Johnny called as he went to the front hall. When everyone had assembled, Johnny opened the door and stepped outside; all the while, he kept watch on Murdoch’s face.
There, standing peacefully, were three mares and a stallion. Johnny’s smile was replaced with shock as he looked at the horse he’d bought for Murdoch and saw the mares! Murdoch’s face reflected the same expression. And together, they quickly put the pieces into the proper semblance and burst out laughing. He’d purchased the stallion for Murdoch, and Murdoch bought the mares for him! And Aggie was in on both surprises! He looked at her innocent face as she fought to keep the laughter at bay.
It was worth the wait, the aggravation, and the secret! And both Johnny and Murdoch dissolved into laughter, taking the rest of the family with them.
“Thank you, Murdoch! I ‘ppreciate it! Them mares’re gonna make some pretty babies from that stud!”
“Yes, son, very pretty babies! And thank you, Johnny, I have to say that I was… angry with Aggie for buying that stallion, but he’s in the family now!”
After spending time with the newly acquired horses, Cipriano took them to the barn, and the Lancers returned to the hacienda, all chuckling at the lighthearted nonsense that flowed around them. But Scott spelled it in no uncertain terms when he pointed out that Aggie seemed to have outsmarted both Murdoch and Johnny in the game of who gets what horse!
Aggie grinned in satisfaction as she enjoyed the holiday with her adopted family. She thought of her home as it was now under construction, and again, she hoped that living here at Lancer was not putting a burden on the running of the household. Her thoughts were interrupted when Johnny excused himself from the group and left the room. She busied herself admiring Teresa’s gifts of two new dresses, a shawl to match one of them, new hats, and assorted pieces of jewelry given to her by Murdoch and her brothers.
Johnny’s soft voice drew her attention, and she turned to see him at her side.
“Yes, Johnny? What is it?” She smiled into his face as she casually reached for his hand and took it in hers.
Johnny always thought the woman had a beautiful smile, and that smile was enhanced this day knowing that she appreciated those at Lancer and held them dear.
“Uh, I have something for ya. It ain’t much, but I think you should have it.”
“Johnny, you didn’t have to…”
“No, but I wanted to. Close your eyes, Aggie…” Johnny waited until her hands covered her face, then he stepped out of the room and tossed another warning for her to keep her eyes closed. He carried the gift and placed it in front of her.
“OK, you can look now.”
Aggie hesitated, her hands still secure over her eyes. “Is it going to bite me?” she asked with a giggle.
Johnny returned the laugh. “Ah, don’t think so…”
Aggie slowly lowered her hands and gasped! Her eyes filled with tears that she made no effort to hide. There, sitting in front of her, was Henry’s ‘judgment seat’! It had been rescued from the fire! The leather seat and back had been replaced, and the wood restored to near perfect condition.
Aggie reached out with a tentative hand and touched the finely carved arm as her fingers shook, tapping on the polished surface. The wood had been restored to look almost new, but left was a burn made by the cigar that Henry had accidentally held too close and scorched the wood. That burn, now precious, a piece of the chair’s history, a part of Henry. This chair was the single item that survived the fire. A survivor, like Aggie. Her heart pounded as it shattered with loss and, at the same time, filled with love and gratitude for this incredible family and to the young man whose kindness touched her soul for this extraordinary gift.
Aggie stood, threw her arms around Johnny’s neck, and sobbed into his shoulder as he held her tight.
Christmas dinner was the best at Lancer yet. Never had Murdoch been as happy as he was at this moment. It doesn’t get any better than this! Murdoch thought as he gazed around the room. Friends and family. The arrival of Charlie and Molly Poe, Sam and Val brought yet another level of the beauty of Christmas. The ladies chatted and laughed as they drank sherry, and as the evening progressed, brandy and perhaps something a bit stronger passed their lips.
Under the watchful eye of Doc Jenkins, Scott and Johnny took it easy on the liquor, but hey, who needed much alcohol when Scott, Johnny, and Val began with their outrageous stories and once the ‘one-up-manship’ began, well, no one could drink for all their laughing anyway!
Val waited until he was leaving before he slipped Johnny the letter he received from Cody Justice. Johnny would see that Murdoch and Scott would read it later after the women retired for the night.
When the last of their guests had gone to bed, Johnny took the letter from his pocket to hand to Scott.
“Here ya go, Boston, this’s somethin’ for ya ta read; it’s from Cody.”
With a puzzled look, Scott took the letter, opened it, and began to read in his pleasant baritone voice.
I hope this finds you all at Lancer enjoying the holiday with friends and family. Marcy and I are doing well, and we hope to see you all very soon.
Enclosed is an article from the Stockton paper that I thought you might find interesting as it involved you. I will send along further information as it comes to me.
Marcy sends her love, and we wish you the best,
Then Scott continued with the attached article.
Anthony Alexander Murdered In His Home
On Tuesday evening, Anthony E. Alexander was found dead in his home. He died from a bullet wound to the head. Mr. Alexander had no family and lived alone. He was a new citizen in Manteca.
There is no one in custody and no suspects in this heinous crime. If anyone has information on this murder, they are encouraged to contact the law.
“Who’s Anthony Alexander?” Johnny asked. Murdoch shook his head and wondered why Cody would send them the article.
That was it. Scott frowned, then turned the article over. Written in Cody’s hand was an attached note:
Though it was not published, I have it on good authority that Alexander’s office had been ransacked; however, there were papers on his desk stating that Buck Addison was on his payroll…
Murdoch, Scott, and Johnny had more questions now than they had before… and none of them had any answers. But now, the thing on all their minds was, who the hell was Anthony Alexander?
It’s done- Stop- Nothing to worry about-
The neatly manicured fingers clutched the urgent wire. It was done. Alexander’s failings had secured his death, and there was no connection to his door. There was no link back to him at all. Playing the part of a silent partner had been a clever way to keep an eye on things and even guide events to a degree, but it had not worked in his favor; the way it ended was unacceptable. He was not all that interested in investing in the San Joaquin Valley; no, all Harlan Garrett wanted was to ruin Lancer and get Scotty back to Boston. Scotty had almost been killed! That wouldn’t happen again! Couldn’t happen again!
Now, he would have to think of another plan…
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