Word Count 35,503
My deepest thanks to Sherry and Diana for the beta and to Sam for her advice. Any errors are mine and mine alone as I tend to fiddle too much afterwards.
1st in the Betrayed Series
The chestnut gelding snorted his impatience as Cipriano ran skilled hands over its right rear fetlock.
“The swelling is better, Patron. A day, maybe two, he will be good to ride.” A soft grunt slid between the segundo’s lips as he straightened. Seeing the deep frown on the taller man’s face, Cipriano braced for his boss’ displeasure.
“I asked you not to call me that, Cip.” Scott’s words were quiet but held a distinct edge.
Cipriano met the slate blue eyes steadily. “It has been three months, Señor Scott,” he said softly but with a firmness that befitted his years as ranch segundo. “The men, they need to know they have a Patron; the women, they worry you and Señor Johnny will leave as El Patron did.”
“He didn’t leave… we don’t know…” Scott struggled for words as he fought the confusion and anger that had overtaken his mind for the last three months. “He’ll be back.”
“And he will be welcomed with joy on that fine day,” Cipriano soothed, even as he pressed forward. “But until then, the ranch must have a Patron.”
Scott drew a shaking hand down his drawn features, gazing off to the horizon.
Where are you, Murdoch? Why did you do this to us? Are you in trouble?
When no answers came from the verdant pastures or the distant mountains, Scott sighed, looking back at the faithful segundo. “I’ll talk with Johnny tonight.”
Three months earlier
Scott made a wry face as he swept the shaving brush over the fine shadow of hair along his jawline. Not only would this be the last time he shaved for dinner for several weeks, it was likely the second to last time he shaved for days. They were leaving on a cattle drive to Stockton in the morning. As much as Scott hated wearing a beard or even stubble that reminded him all too uncomfortably of his time in a prisoner of war camp, the long, exhausting days and water rationing on certain legs of the drive meant he would forgo shaving for days at a time.
He carefully scraped his monogrammed, sterling silver razor over his cheeks and smiled, remembering his combined horror and fascination the first time he’d watched Johnny shave with the knife from his boot.
How did he do that without a mirror and without taking off a few layers of skin?
Much to his younger brother’s dismay, Scott had insisted that his finely crafted razor would be a simple alternative to growing a beard on round-up. Without a mirror, even the beautifully balanced instrument had led to nicks, causing Johnny to grab the razor away, lecture him on the dangers of open cuts around filthy livestock, and impatiently demand that Scott “just grow some dang whiskers” for the remaining three days. Neither brother was happy with the other on the ride home.
The Sunday morning after their return, Johnny burst into Scott’s bedroom as he was shaving, a morning ritual the elder brother had come to expect from the younger. Except not on Sunday, the one day Johnny usually slept late, recuperating from Saturday night in town, while the rest of the family went off to church.
Scott’s cat-like reflexes automatically responded as a holster-sized leather case sailed through the air toward him. He caught it, spattering shaving soap off his razor in the effort.
Johnny plopped down onto the bed, his hands behind his head, but his boots carefully off the coverlet. “Something for you to start practicing with before the cattle drive.”
Scott wiped his hands on a towel and opened the finely tooled pouch. Inside was a palm-sized mirror, a narrow bone-handled razor, and a bar of shaving soap.
“Soap ain’t all fancy smellin’ like your usual, but I don’t think the beeves’ll mind.” Johnny’s grin was wide.
Scott turned the items over in his hands. “Did you make this case?”
“Yup, even carved out that silly monogram with the letters all outta order.” Johnny had never paid attention to a monogram before noting the collection Scott had on his toiletries, cufflinks, and traveling bags, and had wondered about the “L” being the middle rather than last letter.
“Johnny, I don’t know what to say,” Scott was deeply touched at how Johnny had turned a bone of contention between them into a special gift. “Thank you. I’ll treasure this.”
“Nah, it ain’t for treasuring, it’s for using to keep your face in one piece.” Johnny hopped off the bed. “You’ll need all the help you can get once those girls in Stockton lay their eyes on me!”
And with that, Johnny was gone from the room, hollering back for him to “Hurry up already, I’m starved!”
Scott smiled now at the memory. It was the first of several spur-of-the-moment gifts that Johnny bestowed upon family members: a delicate and brightly flowered hair comb for Teresa from a street vendor in Modesto; a hand-laced mantilla for Maria that was his sole payment for three Sundays of rebuilding Widow McIntyre’s front porch, chicken coop, and outhouse after the creek flooded; and a beautiful carved pen and ink set for Murdoch that he had bargained out of a banker in partial payment of a poker debt. Johnny was as shy as he was spontaneous about the gifts, typically bowing his head when thanks were given, then fleeing the room.
The longcase clock in the great room chiming the half hour brought a frown to Scott’s handsome features as he dried his face on a hand towel. Murdoch should have been back from the Green River stage depot by now. He was certainly cutting it close returning from his trip to San Francisco. Not that he was going on the drive with them, but he’d been deeply immersed—Scott thought somewhat obsessively so—in the planning of the two previous drives, so being laid back enough to arrive the day before this one was a distinct change.
Ah, but that’s what the love of a good woman could do, Scott chuckled to himself. Murdoch had met Ailith Dunbar at the Cattlemen’s Association ball in San Francisco four months earlier and had immediately been smitten. The distant cousin of one of the newer members, Fredrick Hawks, Ailith was visiting from Nairn, Scotland, a stone’s throw from Murdoch’s hometown of Inverness. The two had fallen into easy conversation between dances, which had led to dinner the following evening, then several long walks, longer talks, and a difficult parting three days later. Weekly letters and three more trips to San Francisco had followed. Murdoch endured much teasing about his courtship, especially from his younger son. The entire family was secretly pleased to see Murdoch so happy and relaxed, and they were looking forward to meeting Ailith after the drive to Stockton when she would visit Lancer for the first time.
Murdoch had initially planned to be home a week ago but had wired that Ailith’s cousin had to travel out of town for a contract, leaving Ailith without an escort to the opera. If all was well, he wished to accompany her and return on today’s stage. Johnny, who had been “dragged like a roped steer” to the opera by his brother and father exactly once, had sadly shaken his head over the telegram and walked away muttering, “not another opera lover”. Scott had laughed at his brother while wiring back that all was well and “J jealous re opera.”
Scott donned a clean shirt and lightly took the stairs down to the great room. The wonderful aromas coming from the kitchen made his stomach growl. Maria and Teresa had planned a feast to welcome Murdoch home and to send the boys off on the long drive with one last home-cooked meal. He heard a burst of angry Spanish along with Johnny’s howl of pain and guessed his brother had tried to snitch food on his way in from the range. He hoped that if the boy had been successful, he’d also grabbed something for his big brother. Johnny came into the great room with a biscuit hanging out of his mouth, clutching another in one hand and rubbing the other hand on his stomach.
“You’re getting slow, little brother.” Scott teased as he handed over a drink and made a grab for the second biscuit.
Johnny’s biscuit-muffled response sounded suspiciously like something he’d get another whacking for if Maria heard. He held tight to the second biscuit, so Scott could only grab half. “Next time you get the biscuits and take the beatin’. I don’t know why they care if we eat ’em now or later,” he groused, leaning a hip against Murdoch’s desk. “So, no word from Murdoch? Ain’t like him not to be here telling us all the things to be sure to do for the fourth time. I hope everything’s okay.”
“The stage is probably delayed. He would have sent word otherwise.”
Johnny frowned. “Hey, you don’t think they up and eloped, do you?”
Scott laughed. “No, I do not. Murdoch wouldn’t do that.”
Johnny handed Scott the other half of his biscuit and popped the remainder of his own into his mouth, chewing with a thoughtful smile. “Murdoch’s done a lot of things since meeting Ailith that ain’t like him, getting all blushed up talking about her, running up to San Francisco every few weeks, writing love letters. I dunno, Boston, I think he’s hearing wedding bells.”
Scott chuckled. “I don’t disagree with that, brother, but he’s put so much planning into Ailith’s trip here in a few weeks, I just don’t see him getting married without family around.”
Johnny smiled that uncomfortably happy smile that Scott noticed was triggered whenever they talked about how far they’d come as a family in the last year.
They were interrupted by a knock on the door. Johnny, being the closest, answered it, finding Billy, the son of the mail and telegraph office operator, standing there with a large envelope in his hands.
“Hey, Johnny, is Miss Teresa in? I got a package here for her. My Pa said it had to be brought out tonight, I guess on account of you all leaving in the morning for the drive. Well, she’s not leaving on the drive, of course, but I brought it anyways.”
“Come on in, Billy. A package, not a telegram? We were expecting Murdoch back from San Francisco today, but he musta got hung up. Hey, Teresa!” Johnny called over his shoulder, enjoying how Billy blushed right up to his hairline as Teresa came into the room from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. Johnny was sure it hadn’t taken much persuading from his father for Billy to make the trip out to the ranch.
“Hi, Billy, what brings you out to the ranch?” Teresa’s cheeks went a bit pink as well. Johnny smiled to himself as Billy handed the package to Teresa, regretfully declined her dinner invitation, then promptly walked directly into the door jamb as he left, generous tip in hand. A lot of lovesick folks around Lancer these days.
“Mercy, what could this be?” As Teresa opened the large envelope, a smaller one fluttered to the floor. Johnny bent to pick it up. As he went to hand it to her, he noticed the writing on the front.
“Huh, this is to Scott and me.”
“I think they addressed this wrong.” Teresa looked back at the envelope that was marked “Deliver at 5:30 pm on September 8th” as she handed a several-page contract over to Scott. “It looks like a copy of the partnership agreement you all signed with Mr. Richardson.”
“It does indeed,” Scott said, scanning it.
“What the…” Johnny’s exclamation made both Scott and Teresa look at him. He had opened the letter and was staring at the contents, his features ashen.
“What is it, Johnny?” Scott asked, concerned.
Johnny took a moment to answer, quickly rereading the familiar handwriting.
“It’s… it’s from Murdoch. He’s not coming home.”
“What???” Scott and Teresa’s exclamations came as one.
The Madrid mask slammed down over Johnny’s features. His voice was hard and flat as he read:
“Scott and John:
For 27 years, I put everything I had into making the ranch prosperous for my children’s future, sadly costing me your mothers, your childhoods, and my own happiness. Now that you are both at Lancer, where you belong, I have decided it’s time to do something for myself. By the time you receive this letter, Ailith and I will be sailing to our new lives together in Scotland.
Honor the amended partnership agreement and take care of the ranch and each other.
There was a deadly silence in the room, broken a moment later by Johnny’s hiss, “That witch did something to him! I’m goin’ up there to knock some sense into him!”
Scott grabbed Johnny’s arm as the younger man tried to storm past him. “Wait! No one is going anywhere alone.”
“Scott, we’ve got this drive in a few hours; we don’t have time to sit around. You gotta stay here now that he’s not coming home and without Jelly being here. I’ll go by Aggie’s and tell Jake he can’t sit this drive out after all…”
“Johnny, please,” Scott’s words, in contrast, were very quiet, pleading, “Don’t do what he did and make a unilateral decision without giving the rest of us a choice.”
That stopped Johnny in his tracks. He met his brother’s tormented eyes for a brief moment before pulling out of Scott’s hold, striding over to the picture window, where he bowed his head and took several deep breaths. He turned.
“Yeah, you’re right.”
Scott slumped slightly with relief. He needed his brother.
Now more than ever.
He needed his father, too. But that clearly wasn’t happening any time soon.
He glanced down at the new partnership agreement to see if Murdoch’s share was being held in trust for his eventual return or if he’d decided to divide it between the sons. The words that materialized instead made him draw in his breath sharply.
“What?” Johnny asked in a cynical drawl, “Does it say he’s gonna still call the tune from Scotland?”
“No,” Scott said slowly, raising his eyes to deep brown ones already swimming with tears, “It says Murdoch’s share is now in trust to Teresa. Victoria Barkley is to oversee it, as well as to assume Teresa’s guardianship.”
Teresa’s hand flew to her mouth. “No! He always said the ranch was for you boys. He wouldn’t… I don’t want it.” Her eyes desperately searched each of theirs as she vehemently shook her head. “I’ll give it back. Mrs. Barkley will know it’s a mistake. She knows he always wanted it for you. She…” The sudden realization of the rest of Scott’s words knocked her back onto the settee behind her. “Murdoch doesn’t want me anymore?”
“He doesn’t seem to want any of us anymore!” Johnny snapped, then seeing the look on her face, he sat beside her, put his arm around her shoulder, and drew her close. “We don’t know what’s going on with him, querida, but something’s not right. We’ll figure it out. But no matter what, you’re still our little sister, right, Scott?”
Scott felt the torment in both sets of eyes that were raised to his.
“Of course you are, Teresa,” he answered gently.
“I never asked for any of the ranch, never thought I should get any. Murdoch taking guardianship of me alone was more than I ever expected,” Teresa pleaded amid sobs of anguish, “I’ll give it all back. You have to believe me.”
“We do.” Johnny drew her head against his chest, rubbing her back in comfort. Scott perched on the arm of the settee to add his comfort and assurances to Johnny’s. He hoped he’d hidden his reaction to the rest of it, but Johnny’s cocked head and raised eyebrow as he looked up over Teresa’s shoulder told him he hadn’t been successful.
Maria came into the room, wringing her hands, looking fearful.
Scott stood as Teresa jumped up and flung herself into the older woman’s arms, sobbing hysterically.
“No, well, yes it is about Murdoch, but as far as we know, he’s alright,” Scott explained as Maria immediately set about comforting Teresa. “He isn’t coming home…for a while… We don’t have much information, but if you could take Teresa up to her room, she can explain what little we do know while Johnny and I attempt to make heads or tails of this.” He helplessly hefted the contract, which Johnny quickly snatched from his hands and began reading.
“Of course, Señor Scott.” Maria lovingly guided Teresa up the stairs, crooning to her in soft Spanish.
Scott bent his head, pinching the bridge of his nose, waiting…
He didn’t have to wait long.
“What kind of bullshit is this?!?” Scott was impressed that Johnny kept his reaction to a soft hiss. “Teresa can’t sell her share back to us? She can only pass it on to her daughters or Mizz Barkley, who can’t sell it to us either? What the hell, Scott?”
“I have no idea.” Scott crossed to the sideboard to pour hefty drinks for both of them. He caught sight of the envelope that had fallen to the floor by the edge of the carpet. He picked it up after handing off Johnny’s drink and turned it so Johnny could see the writing on the front. “This was clearly timed to throw us into chaos with the cattle drive looming.”
Johnny’s gaze went from the envelope to Scott. “Do you think it’s an attack on the ranch and Murdoch is in trouble?”
“I just don’t know, Johnny. At the least, it’s very uncharacteristic of Murdoch. Giving up his share of the ranch, something he told us on day one that he loved more than anything on God’s green earth? And to Teresa. Not that I have a problem with her having a share, but he was clear when we first talked about the partnership that it was for just the three of us, not Teresa, not our future wives, just us and any children.”
“It’s like he suddenly doesn’t trust us any more. Not with his share of the ranch or even with Teresa!” Johnny threw the agreement onto the seat beside him. “Giving her guardianship and her say on the ranch over to Mizz Barkley? How wrong is that? Does he think we wouldn’t look out for Teresa? What the hell kinda thoughts did that Ailith lady put into his head without even knowing us?”
Scott sat in the upholstered chair opposite his brother, downing a good amount of his scotch, then staring into its depths. “It doesn’t make sense. If she wants his money, why get him to give up his share? Maybe she wanted to go back to Scotland and would only agree to marry him if he gave up everything here and went with her?”
“Sounds like it. It sure didn’t take much for him to forget about us all over again!” Johnny snorted. “She must be some lady.” He, too, looked into his glass but didn’t drink any. “Do you really think they’re already on a boat to Scotland?”
“If you’re asking practicalities, even if they went the fastest way, they may still be on a train to New York to pick up a ship there. But if this is truly about Murdoch giving everything up for Ailith, then yes, they are probably already headed to Scotland as the note says.”
“But the timing of this, just hours before the cattle drive, and the stuff with Teresa, makes you think that’s not all it’s about, right? I gotta agree with you there, brother. I still think I need to get up to San Francisco and look around.”
“I would argue that I’m the better one to go, knowing San Francisco as I do and having contacts there. Plus, if they really are already on a train toward a port on the east coast, I have a lot more influence to have them intercepted when they get there.”
“If he went willingly or at all.” Johnny countered. “If he’s in trouble, it’s my kind of contacts and influence that’s needed.”
Scott gave a weak smile at the growl in his brother’s words. “Ideally, we both should go. But we definitely can’t leave Teresa right now and with Walt being laid up, one of us really needs to go on the drive.”
One of Lancer’s top hands, Walt had broken an arm and severely bruised one hip three weeks earlier after a random shot had spooked his cowpony while he was checking the northwest pasture fence line. It was just one of several mishaps and tragedies that had afflicted the ranch in recent weeks, the worst of which was Jelly’s sudden passing after he brought home a new friend for Dewdrop. Shortly thereafter all three succumbed to what Sam thought was a rare form of bird-borne botulism.
“We can’t wait two weeks until the drive is over if Murdoch is in trouble!”
“Agreed,” Scott sighed and thought for a moment. “Maybe one of us can escort Teresa to the Barkley’s in Stockton on our way to San Francisco while the other goes on the drive. Walt is recovered enough to keep an eye on the ranch while we’re gone. We can plan to meet back in Stockton to talk things out with Mrs. Barkley and bring Teresa home again.”
“I’m okay with that, as long as I’m the one doing the escorting and head-bashing in San Francisco.”
Scott gave his brother a look, “Head-bashing is not on the agenda…”
He was interrupted by the sound of a buggy arriving. The brothers exchanged looks, dreading what else was coming their way. They hurriedly crossed the room and opened the door as one.
Both froze on the threshold like mismatched bookends.
“Please tell me Murdoch has dropped all this nonsense and is inside where I can give him a piece of my mind!” Victoria Barkley stood, gloved hands on hips, petite frame ready to pounce, staring up at the brothers with fire shooting from her eyes. Her youngest son, Heath, was behind her, a rueful look on his face.
Scott recovered first. “Mrs. Barkley, Heath, welcome. This is a pleasant surprise.”
“Is it? A surprise, I mean?” Victoria took in the boys’ expressions as she gave them each a quick kiss on the cheek. “Are you as dumbfounded by all this foolishness as I am?”
“That is one way to put it,” Scott replied with the ghost of a smile. A mad Victoria Barkley was a force to be reckoned with. Still, her commanding presence was an undeniable comfort. “Please come in. We are honestly delighted to see you.”
“Yeah, delighted,” Johnny muttered as Heath gave him a less than gentle backhand to the stomach in greeting as he passed.
The following hours passed in a flurry of activity as the guests’ belongings were settled, stories were exchanged, plans made, and the dinner that had just been put away was quickly reheated and served. The stress ruined everyone’s appetite except Heath’s, who stated he needed to fill up on good home cooking as he’d be on the cattle drive for the next two weeks, allowing both Scott and Johnny to travel to San Francisco, if that’s what was decided.
Victoria, as she insisted everyone call her, explained that she, too, had received a copy of the new partnership agreement and a note from Murdoch that was almost identical to the one Scott and Johnny had received, with the exception that it requested she accept Teresa’s guardianship and stewardship of her share of the ranch, or that she assist in identifying a suitable female guardian for the girl. Teresa was beside herself, clearly fearing she was somehow to blame for Murdoch’s indecipherable choices and especially distraught that some action on her part had led Murdoch to distrust the two men she thought of as her brothers. Everyone took special pains to comfort and reassure her, then breathed a sigh of relief when, exhausted by all the emotion, she went right to bed from the dinner table, with Maria promising to sit with her until she fell asleep. Dirty dishes and leftovers could wait when Maria’s niña needed her.
Heath opted to sleep in the bunkhouse, as the hands would leave before dawn, but more, to give the family some privacy to deal with the turmoil the letters had created. Johnny thanked him profusely for doing this for them. Heath just grinned and gave him a second too-hard belly smack. “You are gonna owe me big, my friend.” His eyes, though, were compassionate as he added, “I hope everything works out well and quickly… although I wish I could be here when my mother catches up with your father. Boy howdy, that’ll be some fancy fireworks!”
Johnny gave a dark laugh. “That’s only if there’s anything left of him when Scott and I get done with him. And don’t count out Teresa’s reaction. She’s quite the hellcat when she gets fired up.”
Johnny then moved on to privately update Cipriano, trusting the segundo implicitly, not only with the responsibility of the drive but with the family’s personal situation. The older man’s reassurances and comforting squeeze on his shoulder almost brought the hardened ex-gunfighter to tears. He took a few extra moments on the veranda, staring up at the stars, to settle himself before going back inside.
The love between him and Murdoch, missing for most of his life, had struggled to take hold in those early months, like a match trying to light damp kindling. But slowly, it had built to a warm and steady flame. And now Murdoch had smothered it as easily as kicking dirt over a campfire. It left him chilled to the bone and made him wonder if the love had ever really existed.
He almost wanted to believe that Murdoch was being held against his will, that this was all some devious plan of revenge or greed. He certainly did not want his father to be harmed in any way. But, bad guys Johnny could deal with, even with his gun hand tied behind his back. These feelings of loss and betrayal—as much for Teresa and Scott as for himself—were beyond his sphere of competence. He didn’t want to believe that the father he’d begun to look up to could do this to him, to them.
He took a deep breath, then shaking off the mantle of despair, he went back inside.
Victoria and Scott raised their heads from the pile of papers they’d been studying. Two sets of eyes scanned him. He felt the warmth of their concern yet clearly read the toll this had already taken on Scott. He slumped into a nearby chair, one leg hanging off the arm.
“You find any answers in all them papers?”
“More like more questions,” Scott sighed, rubbing his burning eyes. “If someone is after Lancer or out to hurt Murdoch for some reason, what do they gain from giving his share to Teresa?”
“I was wondering the same thing. Do you think it could be Angel, putting one of her girlfriends up to somehow trick Murdoch into giving Teresa what she ain’t never had to give her?”
Scott raised his eyebrows. “That hadn’t occurred to me but is certainly a thought. It would make sense as to all the conditions around Teresa. Although I can’t imagine how she’d do it.”
“Or if it would hold up legally.” Victoria took a sip of brandy, her slim fingers nearly hidden by the oversized snifter. “Jarrod is looking over the copy of the agreement Murdoch sent to me. He would have come with us but has a case at trial.” She tapped one of the two documents lined up side by side on the coffee table with her free hand. “This clause in the original that says that if any of you sell, it can only be—evenly—to the other two partners may prevent him from giving his shares to Teresa, although there is language here safeguarding her right to live on Lancer.”
Scott leaned forward, turning his head to see where she was pointing. “But if you look at this next paragraph, I believe that clause only refers to if Johnny or I was to sell.”
“Who cares?” Johnny’s booted foot slamming back to the floor made both of them jump. “Leave the legal mumbo-jumbo to Jarrod. We need to figure out how we’re gonna find Murdoch, whether he’s in trouble or if he just got snookered by this Ailith bit…woman, and if Angel is involved. Then you’re gonna have to try to stop me from shooting at least one of them!”
Emotionally battered and exhausted, Scott could only laugh at his brother. Victoria, who wasn’t in much better shape after the hurried and worry-filled trip to Lancer, joined him. Johnny stared at them.
“What’s in them glasses anyway?”
“Only some very nice brandy, little brother.” Scott raised his glass in a mock toast. “Somehow drinking Murdoch’s Taliskers lost its appeal when I thought about him possibly being on his way to Scotland with his bride to be… or perhaps even his new wife.” He frowned into his glass. “I guess you had it right about them eloping… Why would he do this to us? And this way?”
“I don’t think he did, Scott,” Johnny countered. “It just doesn’t add up. He was so excited about us meeting Ailith, and you know how he feels about the ranch and about Teresa. I don’t see him giving Teresa up, even to a good woman like you, Mizz Barkley. And I don’t think Angel was your biggest fan that she would’ve picked you as Teresa’s guardian, if you don’t mind me saying.”
“Of course not, Johnny, but I do mind you not calling me Victoria.” She smiled a kind smile at him. “I’ve known your father since the year he bought this ranch, and I absolutely agree that this behavior is entirely out of character for him. Murdoch Lancer is renowned for his love of this ranch. That love is only exceeded by his love for his children, Teresa included. Honestly, my first thought when I got his letter was that he was dying and trying to settle things before his time came.”
Johnny paled. “Do you think that’s it? There’s lots of specialists in San Francisco. Maybe he found out something about his health up there, and it’s not been a woman he’s been going back and forth to see.”
After pondering that onerous scenario for a moment, Scott shook his head. “I don’t think so, Johnny. You saw the letters from Ailith yourself, even teased Murdoch pretty mercilessly about the one she sealed with a lipstick kiss. Besides, why the bizarre conditions of the agreement? I can see that he might hesitate to transfer Teresa’s guardianship to either one of us, given our ages and the fact that we are unmarried. But why that, frankly hurtful, clause that she could only sell her share to her daughters or Victoria? He has to know Teresa has no interest in running the ranch, and to give her no way out? It would be a cruel thing to do to her—and to us— especially if it was on top of us needing to cope with his passing.”
“Maybe he has a brain tumor, and it’s messin’ up his thinking…”
“Except that the precise timing of his letters, on the eve of the cattle drive, seems to point to a more calculated plan,” Victoria put in. “My letter wasn’t supposed to arrive before tonight either. But it was accidentally mixed in with urgent mail that Jarrod picked up for his case. It was intended to be delivered after it would have been too late for me and Heath to come here to free you boys up to go looking for him.”
“We are so grateful you came, Victoria,” Scott leaned forward to take her hand. “We certainly couldn’t leave Teresa alone here, even with Maria’s kind care. She is so devastated by all this.”
“As I know you both are,” Victoria added gently. She patted his hand and smiled at Johnny, who had nodded in agreement with Scott’s words. “I’m glad I found out in time to help. Now, morning is going to come terribly early, and I need to help Maria with kitchen clean-up while you boys pack for your trip. Let’s meet back here in half an hour to finalize our plans and finish our drinks. With any luck they’ll help us get at least an hour or two of sleep tonight.”
“Don’t count on it,” Johnny muttered as he followed his brother upstairs.
Scott felt his stomach flutter with anxiety as he heard Johnny enter the front door and systematically hang up his hat, jacket, and rig. The rig was always last, even after a pause to first remove his boots and spurs. Scott was reminded of the early battles between Johnny and Murdoch over Johnny wearing his gun in the house. At the time, Scott had thought he’d scream if he had to relive that argument one more time. Now, he’d give anything to have Murdoch home, even if it meant the resumption of hostilities.
He forced his voice to cheerfulness as he greeted his brother. “You made it home before dark. Are you getting lazy without me out there to keep an eye on you?”
Johnny gave him a tired smile. “The creek was a little cold once the sun started to set, so I gave up on swimming and decided to trade it for a warm bath.”
Johnny’s mud-caked pants gave evidence that he’d indeed spent the day in the creek but had hardly been enjoying a pleasant swim.
“You’re lucky Teresa and Maria aren’t here to see you tracking mud into the foyer.
“Maria’s gone already?”
“Yes, but don’t worry, she left dinner warming for both of us. I’ll grab the laundry basket so you can take your clothes off down here with no ladies to worry about. You don’t want to know what Maria will do to you if you leave a trail of that,” Scott gestured toward the clumps of dried mud and swamp grass that had collected at Johnny’s feet, “up the stairs.”
Johnny blinked at the mess, then up at his brother blankly. Concerned, Scott took his arm.
“Hey, are you feeling alright?”
Johnny visibly shook himself. “Uh, yeah, just beat. I’ll go out and up the backstairs. Don’t want you hobbling about on that ankle, especially carrying the laundry basket with that cane and all. I’ll be quick so you’re not waiting more on me.”
“Take your time, Johnny. You deserve a good soak. I can wait; Maria made me a sandwich to tide me over before she left.”
Despite his obvious exhaustion, Johnny caught Scott’s wording. “You checking up on me, or is something up?”
“It’s not enough that I want to have dinner with my little brother for the first time in three or four days?” Scott’s attempt at levity withered under Johnny’s stare. He let his air out tightly. “Yes, there are a few things I want to talk over with you, but if you’re too tired…”
“Nah, I’ll be down in ten.” Johnny was back out the door in his stocking feet before Scott could finish.
With a sigh, Scott bent down to pull the brass dustpan and brush from its hiding place under the platform of the hall tree and proceeded to clean up the mess Johnny had left behind. He brushed each of Johnny’s filthy boots over the pan, then carefully stood up. Johnny was probably right that he couldn’t have managed carrying the laundry basket, Scott realized as he struggled to balance with the cane while taking the dustpan outside to empty.
Damn this ankle! As if things aren’t bad enough, being unable to ride or work the ranch beside Johnny makes everything so much worse. And how did I manage to tear everything up so badly, just stepping in a stupid gopher hole?
He made his way into the kitchen, checked on the pans Maria had left to warm, then set up coffee to boil. The table was set, but Scott removed the two plates, returning them to the shelf beside the icebox. When it was just the two of them, they ate right out of the warming pans to save on cleanup. The scarred and weathered kitchen table could handle the pans being set down without protection, unlike the highly polished dining room table that was easily marred even through tablecloths, trivets, and hot pads.
Johnny was down the stairs within his ten-minute time frame, his hair still damp and spots of wetness visible on his hastily buttoned shirt. He rolled up his sleeves as he watched Scott carefully set the pans on the table.
“The coffee still has a few minutes. Do you want milk?”
“Nah, I’ll wait for the coffee if you want me to stay awake while you’re talking.”
“That certainly would be helpful,” Scott answered wryly as he sat across from his brother and handed over a thick slice of bread. “Send over the butter when you’re done with it.”
“How’s the ankle?” Johnny carved out a large scoop of butter before passing the crock across the table.
“Damn slow to heal,” Scott replied with disgust. “Dusty stepped in a hole a week ago, and Cip says he’ll be ready to ride in a day or two. It’s been almost a month for me, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.”
He waited for a flippant remark from his brother, but all Johnny said was, “I think you ought to go see that specialist in San Francisco that Sam was talking about.”
“I just don’t think it’s a good time, Johnny, with Christmas coming and all.”
Johnny made a criss-cross design in his mashed potatoes with his fork. “Right, because it’s going to be such a festive holiday. Maybe we can even convince Teresa to come back from the Barkley’s and recreate the joys we celebrated at Thanksgiving!”
“Dammit, Johnny, at least I’m trying!” Scott snapped. “I could use some support.”
As he watched his brother’s dark head bow further over his untouched plate, Scott’s remorse over his reaction was intense. In recent weeks, he’d often found himself overreacting to small frustrations with unfounded anger.
His rage over the devastation Murdoch’s actions had caused their small family grew exponentially with each instance he witnessed. Teresa’s depression was already in full swing when he and Johnny returned from San Francisco with empty hands. While many people had seen the easily recognizable Murdoch with a red-headed woman matching Ailith’s description, not a single person reported seeing anything but a very happy couple taking in the sights and cultural offerings of the city. Several small “gratuities” had assisted the brothers in tracking Mr. and Mrs. Murdoch Lancer from passenger list to passenger list as they ferried to Oakland, then boarded the first leg of a transcontinental railroad trip east on September first.
“Guess they didn’t like the opera any more than I did,” Johnny had muttered, “And so much for caring how things were going on the ranch; they were halfway to Wyoming before we even got the wire about the opera.”
“Murdoch must have left a pre-paid telegram before they left San Francisco to be delivered to us on the first.” The premeditated nature of that deception moved Scott from worry about his father to fury with him.
It had virtually broken Teresa, who was so despondent over Thanksgiving that the brothers felt they had no choice but to send her up to the Barkley’s and away from the constant, oppressive reminders at Lancer. But her absence left one more jagged gash in the quickly shredding fabric of their family.
Now, Scott feared his anger would cause the final rent between him and Johnny. It wasn’t even anger at Johnny; not really. He just missed his cocky, fun-loving little brother so terribly. Where Scott was consumed with rage, Johnny was just terribly sad. It wasn’t overt like Teresa’s despair, but the boy carried it in his eyes. Johnny rarely smiled, and their brotherly banter had all but disappeared. Scott honestly couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard Johnny laugh.
Johnny had been hit hard by Jelly’s sudden death. While Scott had never fully warmed up to the curmudgeon, Johnny had easily gleaned the older man’s affection from beneath the constant complaints and grumpy digs. Scott may have frequently been the peacekeeper between Murdoch and Johnny in those early months, but it was Jelly, playing the crotchety grandfather, whose unconditional acceptance gave Johnny the ballast he needed to remain afloat amid those stormy waters. His painful death was brutal proof to Johnny that love was a powerfully fragile thing that could drive you to your knees in a silenced heartbeat.
They’d all worried about Johnny, Murdoch seemingly most of all. It had almost kept him from going to that fateful Cattlegrowers Association meeting.
And then he blithely goes and does this? Damn him!
But it wasn’t Murdoch who had bowed Johnny’s head this time. As Johnny looked up, an apology on his lips, Scott put his hand up.
“Johnny, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean what I said. I know you’re doing both our jobs and more. And I do feel your support in this nightmare. I’m just so damned angry at Murdoch that I can’t see straight. But I have no right to take it out on you.”
Scott could actually feel Johnny’s eyes search his. They seemed to be pleading for something, something a big brother ought to know how to give.
But Johnny just slumped back in his chair.
“Ain’t no one else left to take it out on,” he said softly.
“No! I’m not going to do that! We were kept apart for nearly our entire lives by people who were too self-centered to put our needs above theirs. We aren’t going to do it to each other!”
Johnny flipped his knife over twice on the table.
“So we’re gonna pull a Murdoch and run away to do something just for ourselves?”
Scott’s temper flared at the cutting remark.
Until he saw it.
What he’d longed to see for months now.
That smirk, the sparkle in the sapphire eyes.
He leaned across the table to whack Johnny’s arm, a grin a mile wide across his worn features. “I think we can stop ourselves short of that level of selfishness.”
And the two brothers talked, long into the night, eschewing dinner for coffee and the chocolate cake Maria had left them. Scott’s throbbing ankle drew them to the great room where he could put it up on a pillowed ottoman. Brandy and tequila further drew down the barriers that the stress of recent months had built up between them.
Scott was surprised when Johnny agreed with Cip about Scott assuming the Patron role. “We’re equal partners, brother; I don’t want to hold a title over you.”
“…says the man who wears his ‘Big Brother’ title like a crown, loving to order his “Little Brother” around all day long.”
“Well, that’s different,” Scott laughed, so delighted to have his insolent brother back, he could have cried. “I have years of missed opportunities to make up for, and heaven knows you need a lot of Big Brother guidance.”
“Pftt!” Johnny picked up Scott’s brandy snifter on his way to refill his drink. “Seriously, though, there can only be one Patron and both here and in Mexico, it’s the oldest son who’s it. I ain’t saying we ain’t gonna decide stuff together or that I ain’t gonna push back if you start doing stupid shit, but there can only be one person with the final say, and I trust ya.”
Scott looked past the refilled glass that Johnny was holding out to him to his brother’s face. “I appreciate that, Johnny. I promise to be a good steward of your trust.”
“Does that mean you won’t let it go to your head?”
Scott chuckled. “I’ll try my best.”
He was surprised when Johnny didn’t return to his chair but instead carefully sat on the ottoman by his injured foot. Johnny’s gaze was on the fire, but Scott sensed his brother had something important to say. He had to bite his tongue not to prompt; Johnny would get to it in his own time.
“I want you to get your ankle checked out in San Francisco. It ain’t healing right, and you’ve been too busy taking care of the rest of us and not taking care of yourself.”
The quiet statement brought back the memory of another night when his short temper had caused a rift between the two of them. Johnny’s renowned voracious appetite had disappeared along with Murdoch. Scott had been shocked two weeks earlier when he’d walked in on Johnny hastily changing his shirt in the backroom to be allowed into Maria’s kitchen for supper and saw how much weight his younger brother had lost. Instead of expressing concern or understanding, he had unceremoniously dragged Johnny to the kitchen table and ordered him to eat, like he was an errant toddler. Worse, he had punctuated his tirade by saying he already had enough to worry about without having to take care of Johnny, too. Johnny had hung his head in embarrassment while Maria—who was no less concerned than he—glared at Scott with an intensity that nearly drilled a hole through him. From then on, the brothers’ meals together, scarce as they were, were decidedly uncomfortable affairs.
Good God, he’d taken to following in Murdoch’s footsteps when the man had been at his worst with Johnny in those early days.
Although tempted to finally offer a much overdue apology for that night, Scott held back, watching the fire’s reflection in his brother’s dark eyes, knowing there was more.
“Okay.” When only silence followed, he added, “I know it’s unfair that you’ve had to carry my share of the workload.”
Johnny shook his head, his gaze drifting to Murdoch’s desk. “You take on the bookwork that would have me climbing the walls after a day. It ain’t that. You’re the only brother I’ve got, and I don’t like that you’re hurting. You and Murdoch… you were always after me if I didn’t do just what Sam said when I was laid up. Sam says you need to see a specialist, so you need to do it.”
“Even if it means you’ll have to cover the bookwork while I’m gone?” Scott teased.
“I’m going with you.”
“I’ll be fine on my own. I don’t need an escort.” The look on Johnny’s face was so pained Scott had a flash of wondering if Johnny was afraid San Francisco would swallow him up the way it had Murdoch. “When I get back, maybe we can make a visit to see Teresa for Christmas.”
Johnny rubbed a callous on the side of his thumb.
“You ain’t gonna like why I wanna go with you.”
Scott raised his eyebrows.
“Because you don’t trust me not to get diverted to the governor’s ball? Although, it would be quite the sight to have me hobbling around with my cane on the dance floor…”
Johnny jumped to his feet. “I still think there’s something we missed up there! It didn’t feel right, like someone was watching us, leading us around on this false trail they laid for us…”
“Johnny…” They’d been over this a dozen times or more. Scott couldn’t blame his brother for not wanting to believe that Murdoch had abandoned them with such callousness, but neither could he support Johnny’s false hope that Murdoch was being held as a reluctant prisoner up north.
“I know, I know. Your Pink’s report confirmed that a Mr. and Mrs. Murdoch Lancer booked passage to Glasgow from New York on the Anchor Line Steamer. But anyone could have bought those tickets using Murdoch’s name.”
“But why would they have? It’s been three months, Johnny. There’s been no play for the ranch, no ransom request, nothing that suggests foul play of any sort. The Pinkertons ruled out Angel, who hadn’t left Abilene in a month and clearly has never given a second thought to Teresa since the day she left here. Not to mention that Angel has neither the brains nor the money to create such an elaborate scheme. Plus, they located the marriage license for Murdoch and Ailith.” Scott got to his feet to block his brother’s pacing. “I know it’s hard to accept that Murdoch would do this to us….”
“He wouldn’t, Scott, I know he wouldn’t!” Johnny paced in the opposite direction, running his hand through his hair. “After Jelly died, we talked… about Mama and how it was after she died.” He turned back, dropping his hand limply to his side. “He promised me, Scott. He promised it would never be like that again now that we were a family. Even though Jelly was gone, he and you and Teresa were still here and weren’t going anywhere. That was only three weeks before he disappeared. He couldn’t have just left. He wouldn’t have lied to me like that! Not with him knowing what Mama’s lies did to me.”
Scott could find no words in the face of Johnny’s anguish. He couldn’t bear to point out that, even if Murdoch hadn’t left willingly, the chance of him still being alive three months later was nearly nonexistent. The big brother instinct flooded Scott’s being so intensely all he could do was pull his trembling brother into his arms.
“We’ll leave in the morning.”
Johnny stared out the hospital window at the Christmas decorations that trimmed the street lamps and storefronts of the city. Last year, their first Christmas as a family had been one of the best days of his life. Everyone was so happy. He enjoyed learning about the various traditions that each family member cherished. Although there had been no money for presents or parties in his childhood, he and his mother would join in Las Posadas or make spicy hot chocolate or churros, whatever they could do to mark the holiday.
Murdoch had made Christmas day extra special by unveiling three stunning portraits hung side-by-side along the wall over the dining room table in the great room. Catherine’s portrait had once held pride of place over the mantle. After Murdoch’s second marriage, her portrait had been discreetly stored away and replaced by Maria’s. But following months of fruitless searching after Maria’s disappearance with Johnny, Maria’s portrait had joined Catherine’s in the attic. An iron rendition of the Lancer brand took up residence over the fireplace.
The unveiling of the final painting brought the most gasps and tears. Murdoch had secretly had a portrait of Teresa’s father commissioned from an old photograph, “so all my children can share dinner each night with the whole family here.” After the emotion and surprise had settled, the family members took great delight in noting which features each child had inherited from their parent. Teresa had clearly inherited her aquiline nose and high cheekbones from her father, but had luckily escaped taking on his protruding ears. Scott indeed had his mother’s eyes, but his smile was clearly from Murdoch, which was a blessing as Catherine’s was sadly reminiscent of Harlan’s. Johnny was a dead ringer for Maria, except for his eyes which were all Murdoch’s.
Murdoch’s touching gift made their first Christmas together even more magical, further cementing their togetherness as a family. How could things have turned around so badly in less than a year?
Johnny just wanted this holiday season to be over. The festive atmosphere of the city only intensified his grief; the weight pressed so heavily upon his shoulders that he could barely move. Sometimes he’d feel as if he were suffocating, only to realize he’d simply forgotten to breathe.
He glanced across the room at Scott, who thankfully seemed to be still sleeping soundly. The trip to San Francisco had been uncomfortable for his brother, and the exam of his injured ankle even more so. The specialist had determined that several tendons and nerves had become pinched as the ankle “healed” in an unnatural position. Dr. Morgan had manipulated Scott’s ankle under a heavy dose of laudanum and then casted it to hold it in the proper alignment. Johnny had stayed by Scott’s bedside that first night, ignoring hospital rules and a rather militant nursing supervisor, fearing Scott might react to laudanum the way he did, with nightmares. But Scott’s exhaustion from the grueling trip, and months of stress and worry, had allowed him to sleep quietly, with only some amusing loopiness during his brief awakenings.
The following morning, Scott awoke pain-free for the first time in over a month. Johnny had been so relieved to see his brother released from his physical torment he’d had to swallow a lump that rose in his throat. Scott was ready to jump out of bed to join Johnny in pursuing their other reason for the trip. He’d been horrified to learn that he needed to remain in bed in the hospital for three days. Of course, Scott had argued against the restrictions, but Johnny and Dr. Morgan had won out, made a bit easier by the absurd bulkiness of the leg cast, which resembled a massive white elephant’s foot. Morgan had found that “freezing” the joint in an extra-weighty cast for three days reduced swelling and aided healing. Unlike the casts for broken limbs, this one would be replaced by tight bandages once removed, allowing Scott to walk on his ankle—albeit gently with the support of a cane—later that same day. With all good luck, he could be back to normal by the following week. While delighted by the news that the recovery could be so quick and complete, the enforced bed rest and dependency on others for even his most basic needs frustrated and irritated Scott. In his less charitable moments, Johnny thought it apt payback for Scott’s conspiracy with Sam, Murdoch, and Teresa to keep him in bed for way too many days after Pardee’s bullet.
Johnny watched as an open hack of hungover party-goers took a too sharp corner onto the street opposite the hospital, disgorging one limp-limbed occupant onto the street. The man rolled a bit before catching up against the curb, where he blearily sat up, staring morosely at the departing hack. Johnny figured the man was too inebriated to be seriously hurt but at least had been dumped at a convenient spot if he required medical attention. The man pulled himself up with the help of a lamp-post, decided upright was not a good position, then slid down to nap against it.
“I hope you’re going to tell me it’s terrible weather out there, not fit for man nor beast…” came a grumpy voice from the bed.
Johnny let the curtain fall back against the spectacularly shining sun and gentle coastal breeze with a grin. “A propah’ Nor’eastah’,” he said in his best Boston accent—which was quite terrible.
“You can’t have a proper Nor’easter on the west coast, brother,” Scott grunted as he tried to sit up but was knocked off balance by his elevated and top-heavy casted leg. Johnny rushed over to help, adjusting the pillows behind Scott’s back, then using the folding hand crank at the bottom of the bed to lever the head up. “Thanks anyway. When did you sneak back in here?”
Johnny turned the purposely uncomfortable visitor’s straight-backed chair around to straddle, folding his arms loosely over the back. “Lucy told me Supreme Commander Reynolds makes her last rounds at six a.m. sharp, so I’d have a window of time to hide out in here until morning rounds start in…” he pulled out his pocket watch, “exactly twelve minutes. How’s your ankle?”
“Twenty pounds heavier than it should be, but otherwise completely without pain. Which is more than I can say about my ass after two nights in this bed with no ability to turn onto my side.”
“I’m really glad to hear that, Boston,” Johnny said with a surprising intensity, broken a moment later when he added, “…about your ankle, not your ass.”
Scott laughed with affection over Johnny’s concern and his humor. “I knew that’s what you meant.” He adjusted his position slightly. “Did you find out anything at the ferry station last night?”
“Yup. Ya can’t buy a ticket on the Transcontinental until you get to Oakland.” Johnny played with the turquoise beads on his wrist.
Scott frowned. “But the ticket clerk showed us the ledger where Murdoch bought the tickets.”
“The ferry tickets, yes, but not the train tickets. Remember how he got all shifty after you gave him the second tip and slid off into the backroom to check because he’d “be fired in a heartbeat” if anyone saw him sharing the confidential records?”
“Indeed I do.” Scott raised an eyebrow. “So he lied to keep the money he wouldn’t have gotten if he admitted he didn’t have that information. He probably figured we’d do exactly what we did, give up and go home, never the wiser.”
“Or…” Johnny scratched at a bit of dried dirt on one of the beads. “…someone had already given him an even bigger tip to tell us a story that would support Murdoch’s letter. How else would he know the exact train and date Murdoch and Ailith would have taken to New York?”
“I would think most of the ferry passengers are going to the train station.”
“Maybe, but they’ve got trains to San Antonio leaving from Oakland and ones just going as far as Sacramento. I intend to make a little private visit to that ticket clerk today, see if he’s a bit more informative with my type of encouragement.” Johnny pulled his back-up gun from under his jacket at the small of his back. He’d acceded to Scott’s example of not wearing a visible gun while in San Francisco, but he’d be damned if he would go around unarmed, especially when he still had the neck-hair-raising feeling they were being watched.
“Can’t you wait one more day? The cast comes off tomorrow, and I’ll be up and around….”
“The cast comes off tomorrow, and you will be allowed to get from the bed to a chair,” Johnny corrected sternly. “Ya ain’t gonna be hobblin’ around the docks down by the ferry station and up and down these hills. I think I can handle this one myself, brother. In fact, I suspect our rather bigoted clerk might be extra talkative if he knows I don’t have my well-heeled brother to rein me in.” The blue eyes sparkled with mischief.
“That’s just what I’m afraid of.”
“That he’ll be talkative?”
“That you won’t have your well-heeled brother to rein you in.” But Scott was smiling as he said it.
Voices in the hallway made Johnny stash his gun under his jacket and hotfoot it over to the hinge side of the door. A moment later, the door opened with Dr. Morgan leading in a cadre of medical students.
“This is Mr. Lancer, 25 years of age, undergoing casting stabilization status-post a hyperextended…. “
As Morgan droned on, with his followers hanging on every word, Johnny slid around the door, gave his brother a quick wave, and disappeared into the hallway.
David Brumley watched from the corner of his eye as a young Mexican couple, juggling two children and several suitcases, weaved their way toward the ticket booth he manned through the thick crowd of people waiting to board the ferry. He surreptitiously checked his pocket watch. The ferry didn’t leave for another 42 minutes, and boarding didn’t usually start until 30 minutes before departure, but a small smile touched his lips as he picked up the megaphone and announced,
“Boarding of the 2:00 ferry to Oakland will now commence at Pier Two. Kindly collect your belongings and proceed in an orderly fashion to the boarding gate.”
He repeated the announcement, then set the megaphone down on the ticket counter, unable to hold back a grin as the anxious crowd of travelers immediately moved en masse toward the pier, forcing the young family to swim upstream against the current of bodies.
Just as they finally reached the counter, Brumley snapped the “Ticket Window Closed” rolling shade down.
“No, por favor!” The man shouted, knocking on the window. “Tickets! Silver, have silver por tickets!”
Now that was interesting news, silver? Deciding that having some extra coin to line his pockets would be even more pleasurable than simply shutting out the Mexes, Brumley waited a timed minute before rolling up the shade.
“Thank you!” The young man breathed with relief. “Four tickets por favor… please.”
Brumley tapped the sign overhead with his pen. “No tickets after boarding has been announced.” Then with a sigh and a very loud voice. “No ticketos… boat go bye bye!” He made a wave-like motion with his hand.
“Please, mi familia…we come far… I have silver.” The man spread a handful of silver coins onto the counter, more than twice the cost of four tickets.
Affecting a sympathetic frown, Brumley murmured. “I wish I could help but….” He tapped his chin thoughtfully. “There is one thing I could try, although I could get fired for even asking,” he leaned forward to dramatically check out the area around the family to be certain he couldn’t be overheard, “but for a few silver dollars, I can go talk to the stationmaster. The coins aren’t for me, of course, but the stationmaster has been known to…” he realized the Mex probably couldn’t understand a word he was saying, so jerked his thumb over his shoulder at his imaginary boss, then mimed taking three silver coins to plead their case. “…for ticketos.”
The man smiled gratefully, shoving four more coins in his direction. “Si, four tickets.”
Brumley greedily scooped up the additional coins and whipped the shade down, barely holding back a cackle of glee at the windfall. He would make them wait an agonizing fifteen or so minutes, then give them a “special handwritten pass” to get them aboard the ferry after regular boarding was finished. In reality, it would be a coded note to his friend Mel at the pier. If he held the family back until it was too late for them to board, then shooed them away from the dock, there’d be two dollars in it for him. He and Mel had worked this scam on many a Mex or Chinaman over the years. Of course, Mel would literally crush Brumley to death if he ever found out his take was typically less than a quarter of Brumley’s. Good thing the size of the man’s brain was inversely proportional to the size of his muscular arms. Brumley picked up his pen.
“You better reopen that there shade and give that family their tickets, or they might miss the ferry. We wouldn’t want that now, would we?”
Brumley jumped a mile at the quiet, almost soothing voice from behind him. He swung around to see another of those darn Mexes, right inside his ticket booth, leaning casually against the wall as if he had every right to be there! “How did you get in here? Get out or I’ll call the police!”
“No, I don’t think you’ll do that.” Brumley’s eyes followed as the man used a cloth to polish the barrel of a pistol. “I think you’re going to roll up your shade, give that family four tickets on the ferry—round-trip, in case they need it—and all their money back. You tell them that you sweet-talked the stationmaster real good, and they don’t have to pay.”
“But… but my sales won’t add up. I could get fired!” Brumley sputtered.
“We can fix that. Take out your wallet.”
Good God, that family must be part of one of those Mex gangs, I’ve heard about. This kid is going to rob me and probably shoot me dead!
“You… can take the money in the till, just please don’t kill me.”
“I don’t want the company’s money.” The tone of the man’s voice never changed, but the eyes that snared Brumley’s made a chill run up his spine. “You can pay for the family’s tickets. Then I want you to give that nice young family out there the ten dollars my brother paid you three months ago to give us information on Murdoch Lancer’s travels. Afterward, you and me are gonna have a quiet little talk.”
Brumley thought his heart would stop as he finally recognized who the man was. “You…he…I….”
The dark eyebrows raised a notch at the stammering, then the gun twitched, just the slightest bit, pointing at the chain to Brumley’s wallet.
“Now would be good. Tell them the stationmaster thinks their children are adorable and wants them to have some money to buy the kids candy when they land in Oakland.”
Brumley fumbled with his wallet, took out the money, added it to the pile on the counter, then pulled out four tickets from the till. Lancer leaned over his shoulder. “Round-trip?”
“Oh, yes, yes, of course, s… sorry. Round-trip”
He slid open the shade and handed the treasure trove to the family, frantically trying to catch the eye of Mel, who unfortunately had his back to him as he accepted tickets down on the pier. The astounded family accepted the gifts with effusive thanks and quickly ran off to board the ferry. A dark hand darted in front of Brumley to pull the shade down again.
Brumley’s legs could barely hold him as he stumbled into the back room, desperately wondering if he could make an escape. Lancer was pretty lazy about how he held his gun, probably didn’t even know how to use it. Whereas, if Lancer were to find out anything other than the scripted scenario about his father, Brumley was a dead man for sure.
He decided to play it cool, or as cool as he could with sweat dripping into his eyes and creating huge ovals of stain under his arms. He straightened to his full five foot four height.
“I don’t have the combination to the safe.” It was true and gave him a bit of confidence that he could bluff Lancer out. Everyone knew Mexes weren’t known for their brains any more than Mel was. “But the till is free for the taking.”
Lancer hitched a hip onto the corner of the desk. A casual pose, but one that conveniently put him between Brumley and the door.
“Told ya once, I don’t want the company’s money. Where is the ledger showing the tickets people have bought for the Transcontinental?”
“They don’t buy those tickets here…er….” Brumley caught himself, remembering the lie he was supposed to hold to. “I mean, usually they don’t. Um, Murdoch Lancer arranged for the tickets he purchased for himself and his wife to be sent here. That’s, uh, why I remembered the name when you and your brother asked.” Proud that he’d thought of such a good answer so quickly, Brumley puffed out his chest. “If that’s all, I really need to get back to work. In trade for your… discretion over the mistake with that lovely family, I won’t mention your trespass into my office to the stationmaster.”
“I bet you won’t.” Lancer leaned back and idly began rifling through the desk’s ledgers and piles of papers.
“That’s confidential information; please don’t touch.”
“You didn’t seem to think it was too confidential when a ten-dollar bill was waved under your nose.” Without looking up, the young man asked, “Who paid you to lie to us?”
“I…uh…no one. I didn’t lie” The sweat began in rivulets again.
Lancer frowned. “Now there you go again, Davey. You don’t mind if I call you that, do you, being as we’re gettin’ to know each other so well? You see, I happen to know that Murdoch Lancer never set foot on the ferry and certainly never bought tickets on the Transcontinental. What I don’t get is why you’d lie about it.” Those ice-cold eyes stabbed his again. “Unless someone paid you to lie. And it must have been a good bit of money, seeing as my pistol typically trumps most ‘gratuities.’” The pistol was now evenly leveled at Brumley’s stomach. “So, who is it you’re willing to die to protect?”
“Please, Mr. Lancer, I have my mother to support.” Tears now joined the sweat streaming down Brumley’s cheeks.
“Ah then, so you understand the importance of family. And why I wouldn’t take very well to someone keeping me from finding my father. A name, Davey….”
“I’ll be killed if I tell you….” he sobbed.
Again the gun waved. “And killed if you don’t. The difference is, if you tell me what I want to know, you’ll have several hours and a till full of the company’s money to get you and your Mama somewhere safe. If you don’t….” Lancer pulled out a pocket watch. “I reckon the final boarding whistle will blow in about… six minutes. It’ll do a good job of covering the sound of a gunshot.”
Lancer began strolling around the room, picking up objects one by one and setting them down again. Brumley eyed the door.
“I guarantee you won’t make it.” Lancer didn’t even look at him as he said it.
Desperate, Brumley struggled to think of a way out. He could make up a name, send Lancer on a wild goose chase, then take the till money and run. He doubted they’d go after his mother, and anyway, she was a shrew.
“I’ll know if you lie to me, just like I knew you lied about Murdoch buying the train tickets.”
The man can read my mind! Wait! There’s a gun in the desk drawer. I can pretend to be getting out a ledger…
“You’re wrong if you think you can get to your gun before I shoot you,” Lancer gave a grim little smile as he, too, looked over at the desk. “I’ve been told I have pretty quick reflexes.”
Brumley nearly fainted dead away.
“The name, Davey.” Lancer picked up the cushion Brumley used for his bad back from the desk chair and tapped it against the muzzle of his gun. “Nice pillow like this, and I don’t need the ferry whistle.”
“Castile!” Brumley shrieked. “Avery Castile!”
“Now, was that so hard?” Lancer smiled but did not put down the cushion. “And where would I find this Mr. Castile?”
“Uh, I don’t know. I received my instructions by messenger.”
“How do you know Castile’s name?”
Brumley glanced anxiously at the clock. Only four minutes until the boarding whistle, and that’s if stupid Janssen didn’t blow it early as he did half the time. “He’s known, you know, in society. Very rich and very demanding. He spends most of his time in Europe.”
“Is he here in San Francisco now?”
“I… I don’t know. He’s very reclusive when he’s here, doesn’t like to be seen. He only does private parties. He’ll rent out the opera house for a private show.”
Brumley saw something flash across Lancer’s face and worried he’d said something wrong.
“How would you get word to him, say to let him know that one of Murdoch Lancer’s sons was back, and asking questions?”
“I would never….”
“Yes, you would, because before you run off with the ferry company’s money, I want you to get word to him that Johnny Lancer wants to meet with him. How would you do that?”
Brumley took an unconscious step back as he said in a timid squeak, “He probably already knows….”
Lancer’s head shot up at that. “How?”
“He has people, like me, at the train depots, stage offices, hotels, who send word to his people anytime a Lancer is in town.”
Something horrible passed across Lancer’s face, and Brumley knew he was about to die.
“I don’t know, maybe….”
Brumley’s last word was swallowed by a loud bang.
He didn’t use the cushion or wait for the whistle!
Brumley’s hands clutched his chest, afraid to look down and see his life’s blood draining from his body. He was surprised there was no pain as he crumpled to the floor, crying out feebly for help he knew would come too late.
When the ferry whistle came three minutes later, he was still lying there, waiting to die, not realizing the bang he heard was the door slamming behind Johnny Lancer as he ran for the hospital.
Scott was startled into dropping the book he was reading as Johnny burst into his hospital room, gun drawn.
“What, what is it?” He struggled to sit up further, the massive cast challenging his balance.
Johnny quickly scanned the room, his chest heaving as he drew in gasps of air.
“You’re…okay?” he panted, bending over, hands on his thighs, trying to recuperate from his mad dash up and down the hilly streets from the ferry landing, a quarter mile away.
“Yes, I’m okay, far better than you, as a matter of fact.” Scott leaned over to turn the guest chair in Johnny’s direction. “Put your gun away and come sit before you pass out and accidentally shoot someone.”
Two nurses and an aide who had seen Johnny sprint past them hurried into the room. Scott reassured them that all was well, even as he eyed his brother worriedly. Johnny only moved as far as the window to look down at the street, although he had hidden his gun before the others entered.
“It’s not visiting hours; you’ll need to leave, sir.” The taller of the two nurses stated.
Johnny simply shook his head. Scott, thinking quickly, said, “I’m afraid we’ve had a bit of a family emergency. Could you please give us a few minutes? As you can see, my brother is quite distraught.”
The nurse clucked with sympathy, indeed seeing how distraught Johnny looked. “I’ll have Andrew bring in some fresh water and another glass.”
“Thank you for your kindness.” When the threesome had left, Scott commanded, “Sit, brother, and tell me what’s going on.”
Johnny sat in the chair, his head bowed, his shoulders heaving with his effort to breathe. “I thought…he got you…too.”
Scott poured water into his own glass and handed it over to his shaking brother. “Who, Johnny?”
“Avery Castile… he’s the one who…took Murdoch.”
“You know Murdoch was taken?”
“Dios, Scott…” Scott felt his stomach lurch as Johnny’s haunted eyes caught his. “He has people watching for us. I shouldn’t have left you alone. I thought… I thought I’d lost you too!”
Scott laid a gentle hand on Johnny’s knee. “I’m okay, Johnny. I’m sorry you were worried. But I’m right here and not going anywhere anytime soon.” He tapped his cast, attempting to ease Johnny’s anxiety with humor. “Give yourself a moment to get your wind back, then tell me what you learned.”
Scott could see that this latest threat to their family on top of the strain of Murdoch’s disappearance, Teresa’s despondency, and Scott’s own injury, had wrung every ounce of strength out of Johnny. He gently moved his hand up to the back of Johnny’s neck and rubbed the tight muscles.
It was another few minutes, and a drink of the cool water Andrew brought before Johnny could recount what he had discovered.
“Castile’s name is vaguely familiar,” Scott searched his memory, “A while back, The Morning Star posted a call for a sketch or photograph of Castile, as he’s rarely seen. If I remember correctly, he spends most of his time in France. His business, I believe, is wine and textiles exports. What could he possibly want with Murdoch?”
Johnny had taken to pacing the hospital room, constantly checking out the window. “Maybe he’s some relation to Ailith and doesn’t like how close Murdoch was getting with her?”
“That’s a thought.” Ever the tactician, Scott took notes while they talked and mapped out possible next steps. “So we definitely need more information on Castile, to circle back to Ailith’s cousin Fredrick Hawks, and, of course, more on Ailith herself. After I get this cast off in the morning, we’ll head to Mitchell’s office, see if he’s heard anything back about Scotland from the Pinkertons or if Barnet has had any luck.”
“How long have you known Mitchell?” Johnny didn’t look away from his surveillance of the city below.
Mitchell Desmond was an attorney friend of Scott’s who had been helping them in their search. With their permission, Mitchell had engaged the services of Steve Barnet, a private detective he trusted to take on investigations that required a more varied and streetwise manner of getting information than the staid approaches the Pinkertons typically employed.
Scott respected Johnny’s cautious nature. “I only met him face to face when Murdoch and I made the trip up here last year for the meeting with the railroad, but he’s the cousin of a friend I’ve known since day school.”
“It was someone’s long-lost cousin who got us into this mess,” Johnny muttered, noticing that a private carriage that had passed by that morning was now stopped almost directly in front of the hospital. While the carriage itself was nondescript, especially from the third floor, one of the bay horses had a unique white lacing across her back, something that had interested Johnny when he’d seen it the first time.
“True, but I don’t think we need to be worried about Mitchell. I sought him out, not the other way around.”
The door to the hospital room opened, causing Johnny to spin around, his hand going to his hip, where Scott was glad there was no gun. The young aide Andrew brought in Scott’s supper tray. The look he gave Johnny reminded them that they’d been warned that Johnny would have to leave for the night when the meal was served.
Apparently, the hospital cook thought all patients could only eat plain dumplings, ground chicken, and something that looked like mashed peas. Despite the dismal fare, Johnny’s stomach growled loudly, reminding him that he’d had nothing to eat since breakfast. Scott laughed at him.
“You are welcome to it, little brother!”
“Me steal food from my poor invalid brother? What kind of man do you take me for?”
“The kind who would eat a roof shingle if someone put salsa on it.”
Now it was Johnny’s turn to laugh. “True. Let me go grab you something off one of the tamaleros and sneak it back in.”
“Don’t bother.” Scott picked up the napkin to lay against his chest, a dismal compromise as the food tray didn’t allow room for it in his lap. He scooped a few crumbles of chicken onto his fork. “You go find yourself something spicy while I give my stomach one more night of bland. Just promise me we’ll go straight from here to Harrington’s Steakhouse for lunch tomorrow.”
“Deal, and I’ll even bring you a pair of pants to go with your nightshirt.” Johnny grinned.
“You’d better bring me more than a pair of pants if you know what’s good for you, brother,” Scott warned. He noticed that Johnny made no effort to head to the door. Softening his voice, he added, “I’ll be fine here, Johnny. It’s not as though someone could easily spirit me out of here with this horse trough on my ankle. Besides, if even you can barely sneak by Supreme Commander Reynolds, no one else stands a chance.”
Johnny hesitated, then pulled his back-up gun out from the small of his back. “Keep this, just in case.”
“Johnny, I don’t need a gun.”
“I bet Murdoch thought the same thing.”
Seeing the worry on Johnny’s face, Scott relented. “You’ll get your other gun from the hotel?”
“You bet I will. Enjoy your dinner, Boston.” Johnny waved good night and then hustled out to check out the carriage, but it was gone by the time he got outside.
He strolled down the block, looking into the now-closed shop windows, his peripheral vision perpetually watching the people and the carriages around him. He bought three tamales off an older tamalero’s push-cart at the edge of the park, chatting amiably with the man in Spanish, his eyes never moving from the entrance to the hospital. He asked Paco if he’d noticed the carriage with the horse with the unusual markings. Like most street vendors, there was little that escaped the man. The carriage was from Tomlinson’s Coach and Livery on Chandler Street, an enterprise that catered to the exclusive resorts and estates on the city’s edges. Johnny tucked that and other helpful tidbits from Paco away for later use.
The approaching holiday brought more than the usual vendors to the park and kept them open into the early evening. Johnny visited a few, bypassing the aggressive hawkers and the ones who dismissed him with their eyes the second they assimilated his mixed heritage. He bought three colorful silk scarves from a grandmotherly Chinese woman, aching as he thought of how much Teresa would love the green one, her favorite color. From a bladesmith, he bought a well-balanced throwing knife and holder, settling them at the small of his back, where he really wished he had his gun.
He wasn’t ready to leave sight of the hospital yet. Although he no longer had the sense he was being watched, he strongly suspected the carriage was somehow connected to Murdoch’s disappearance. The customers started to dwindle as the sun did; several of the vendors, including Paco, began to pack up for the night. Johnny returned to the tamalero cart. He presented Paco with the scarves.
“I’m such a sucker for a pretty lady; she talked me into buying these scarves that I have no one to give to. Perhaps your wife and daughters would like them?”
Paco laughed heartily, knowing the exact old lady Johnny had bought them from. Pretty was not a word to describe the wrinkly elder, but she was a hard-working and kind woman who struggled to make ends meet, as many city slickers either wouldn’t buy from a Chinese vendor or cheated her with little payment for her carefully woven wares. Paco was pleased Johnny had patronized her cart. Although he chided Johnny for spending his hard-earned money on people he didn’t even know, inside, he rejoiced, knowing the joy such beautiful extravagances would bring to his beloved family. He tried to entice Johnny to come home with him for a proper dinner, but the young man declined politely, his eyes traveling anxiously back to the hospital.
“If I may ask, is someone in your family ill? I see how you watch the hospital.”
“My brother is there, but he is much better and should be able to get out tomorrow.”
“And yet you worry for him….”
Johnny considered his answer for a moment before speaking.
“Something terrible happened to our father when he visited here a few months ago. We don’t know exactly what or why, but I worry the same thing could happen to my brother. Scott is all I have left….” Johnny let his voice trail as a wave of emotion and dread washed over him. Then he shook himself. “Don’t let me keep you from your family, Paco.”
“You are staying here tonight?”
“I’ve slept in far worse places than a pretty park.”
Paco thanked him again for the scarves and pushed his cart off toward home. Johnny noticed that one of the wheels had two broken spokes and was liable to collapse completely someday soon. He made a mental note to check the wheel size and get a new one made at the wheelwright’s when they reopened.
Making his way back to the hospital, Johnny tucked himself into a building corner, watching the comings and goings as the day shift changed into night. A few carriages arrived with patients, and a couple of young men basket-carried an older woman inside. From this angle, he could see the dim light from Scott’s reading lamp through the window but nothing else. He was tempted to slip back inside the hospital, especially when he saw Lucy arriving for her shift. But he knew Scott would be furious at him if he did, and the weather was not too terribly cold, so he settled in for the night against the still warm brick of a dressmaker’s shop.
A vendor of libations pushed his cart by, the various bottles clinking together as the wheels bounced over the cobblestones. Johnny was tempted to stop him for a bottle of tequila to keep him warm but was already so tired he knew he’d struggle mightily to keep watch under the influence of alcohol. The man paused to sample his own wares, and a stab of pain lanced through Johnny, seeing a familiarly shaped bottle of scotch make its way to the vendor’s lips. It wasn’t Talisker’s, Murdoch’s favorite, but another brand Murdoch commonly drank when they were traveling.
He missed his father so terribly, he felt the burn of it, like a too harsh whiskey, down his throat and to the pit of his stomach. It seemed incomprehensible to him that he’d so quickly grown attached to a man he’d hated all his life. His mother had failed him with her senseless lies; now, he felt as though he had failed his father in return. Why had he waited so long to come back to look for Murdoch? What if Murdoch was suffering somewhere, wondering why no one cared enough to rescue him? Or worse, if they finally found him just days too late.
Johnny went over Scott’s diagram of names, connections, and points to investigate in his mind. It kept him awake and focused, even as he began to shiver from exhaustion and the chill air. He got up to move around, swinging his arms to bring his circulation back. It was going to be a very long night.
For a while, there were no carriages, no passers-by, but then two sets of footsteps approached from the direction of the park. Moving soundlessly, Johnny drew back into the shadows, pulling his new knife from its holder as a precaution.
Before the footsteps were on him, quiet conversation in Spanish alerted him to at least one of the owners. He smiled, replaced his knife, and stepped forward enough to be seen.
He still startled Paco, who cried out and grabbed dramatically for his heart, chastising Johnny for nearly scaring the soul out of him.
“That’s what you get for sneaking around so late at night.” Johnny laughed while patting Paco amiably on the back to settle him. “Why aren’t you home with those lovely girls of yours?”
Paco held up a basket of aromatic treats, one of which Johnny instantly recognized as sopaipillas. “Guadalupe was very mad you would not come home with me so she and the girls could thank you for your gifts. She almost did not send you any dessert. But I told her you were far too skinny….”
Johnny couldn’t resist digging into the basket for one of the doughy cinnamon delights. As he took a bite, he closed his eyes. “Ah, these are so good,” he moaned in Spanish. “Please tell her she has captured my heart forever with her kindness.”
“You can tell her yourself when you and your brother come for dinner tomorrow. But for tonight, chico, you go home and get some sleep. Mi hermano, Raul, and I will watch tu hermano. Tell us about him and what we should watch for.”
A ten-minute argument ensued, which Johnny had no hope of winning. Feeling completely drained, but comfortable that Scott would be in good hands, Johnny trudged the six blocks back to the hotel and fell asleep, fully clothed, sprawled across the bed, one hand still protectively clutching the handle of Guadalupe’s basket of sweet gifts.
The following two days repeated the series of frustrating dead ends and false leads the brothers had encountered in September. They met in person with Fredrick Hawks, who had been out of town on their last visit but had readily relayed information through Mitchell. Johnny, in particular, wanted to be able to read the man as they posed questions to him.
Fredrick was a tall and well-composed man in his early forties for whom cattle-ranching was a new venture. He had already made his fortune speculating and investing in the Compton silver mines and the less-touted mercury mines in San Jose. His wife, Dolores, hated the crowding, mania, and bigotry that ruled the rapidly expanding city of San Francisco and wanted to buy land to start a small ranch like her grandparents had owned. Fredrick adored his wife and made it happen. The ranch was far too early in development to be even close to prosperous, so Fredrick traveled frequently to San Francisco to manage their other business interests, which supported the fledgling ranch. He willingly met with the brothers in the office of the small but nicely appointed home they still maintained in the city.
They settled into plush leather chairs surrounding a low mahogany table where an etched glass decanter had just offered a rich cognac. Fredrick reiterated that he had never met—nor even heard of—his cousin, Ailith Dunbar, until a telegram arrived from his grandmother’s niece, another relative he hadn’t realized he had in Scotland. Cousin Ailith would be visiting San Francisco over the summer but had lost her traveling companion to a wealthy banker who wanted an immediate wedding. Might he and his wife kindly take her in for a few weeks until new traveling arrangements could be made? Admittedly a bit put out by the imposition at first, Fredrick described Ailith as a lovely, well-read woman of mature years, hardly the simpering young thing Fredrick had feared would be dumped on his doorstep. He and his wife, Dolores, had thoroughly enjoyed their time with her and with Murdoch, who had quickly become a frequent visitor after the couple’s initial meeting at the Cattlemen’s Ball.
It made both boys’ hearts ache to hear of the joyful times Murdoch and Ailith spent together, believing as they both now did that their father had been lured into danger by this woman who had appeared from nowhere. Fredrick came across as believable, even to Johnny’s cynical ears, as he agreed he’d been flummoxed by the couple’s abrupt decision to leave for Scotland.
“Did they tell you directly what they were planning?” Scott asked, pausing his glass on its way for another sip.
“No, which was also strange,” Fredrick admitted. “Ailith left a note in her room. We awoke one morning, and all her things were gone. She’d left a small thank you gift for Dolores and a note saying that Murdoch had proposed, she’d accepted, and they were sailing to Scotland.”
Scott and Johnny exchanged looks. “And you’ve heard nothing more from or about her?”
“Nothing.” Fredrick looked chagrined. “I’m sad to admit that I was quite suspicious of your father after that. It seemed so…abrupt. Ailith is a mature woman in years, but she lived a very sheltered life with her brother in Scotland. She told Dolores that she’d never even stepped out with a man there. I thought he might have taken advantage of her.”
The brothers honestly couldn’t be angry at Fredrick’s thoughts when they thought the same, if not worse, things about Ailith’s influence on Murdoch. Not that he was sheltered by any stretch, but he’d had a tragic history with women, which left him vulnerable to a whirlwind romance that held the strong promise of a joyful future with Ailith.
Fredrick seemed genuinely worried about his cousin and even Murdoch, saying Murdoch talked of little else besides his ranch and his reunited family. “They were both so excited for you all to meet Ailith. Yes, Murdoch confided that he had strong feelings for Ailith and could see a future with her, but I never got the impression they were mere days away from getting married and setting sail for Scotland.”
“Did Ailith seem to miss Scotland and her brother?” Scott asked. “What reason did she give for making such a long trip here?”
“She was quite homesick, which was another reason spending time with Murdoch was such a pleasure for her. Apparently, her brother convinced her to hire on as a traveling companion for a female business acquaintance of his. Roland’s recent business dealings had done poorly, leaving them strapped for money. He told her it would be a fun, all-expenses-paid adventure and a good way to make some money. Sadly, Ailith was dreadfully seasick most of the way; the woman, Elizabeth something-or-other, was standoffish and clearly only out to find a husband, which she did, promptly abandoning Ailith near penniless outside of San Diego. Poor Ailith was an absolute wreck by the time she arrived.”
“And you’ve heard nothing from Roland Dunbar or your grandmother’s niece either?”
“Not a word.”
They left Hawks with little new information and even more confusion over Ailith’s role in everything. Was it possible that she was as much a victim in whatever had happened as Murdoch was?
When they visited Mitchell the following day, they learned Murdoch Lancer and Ailith Dunbar had been married in a small chapel on the outskirts of the city on August thirtieth. Mitchell’s friend, Steven Barnet, had been unable to speak with the pastor, who only rotated through the area once a month. But he compared Murdoch’s signature on the marriage license with the copy of one that Scott had given Mitchell and felt it to be a match. Mitchell had already researched Ailith’s traveling companion. She was listed as Elizabeth Compton on both ships’ manifests, but there was absolutely no trace of her once she disembarked in San Diego.
More troubling still, the Pinkerton reports showed that Roland Dunbar sold his business and the family homestead for a pittance three days after Ailith embarked upon her voyage to the States. He, too, seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth immediately afterward.
Was it sweet, unassuming Ailith creating this trail of vanishing people, Murdoch perhaps only being the latest? Or was something, or someone, far more sinister following Ailith’s travels, destroying all links to her past, present, and possibly her future?
Barnet knew a bit about Avery Castile. Someone once tried to hire him to catch Castile out at one of the high-profile events that he never seemed to attend, yet always managed to have inside information about. His habit of sending messages to reporters with tidbits about the previous evening’s events that only an attendee would know made people speculate that he was either a master of disguise or had a network of social scene spies. As the tidbits often revealed secrets that the wealthy elite would rather had remained secret, it was natural that some were willing to pay a pretty penny to unmask, oust, or otherwise put an end to Avery Castile. Barnet had been uninterested in the case back then, but he promised to look into Castile for the brothers now.
Each frustrating afternoon, Johnny insisted they return to the hotel so Scott could rest his ankle. Dr. Morgan had been adamant that any swelling from too much walking could set Scott’s recovery back by weeks. Scott was dismayed to find he grew ridiculously tired and sore after being up for only a few hours, the consequence of having spent four days with absolutely no movement of his lower limbs and most of the last six weeks behind a desk. His right calf had shrunken alarmingly in the cast—completely normal, according to Dr. Morgan—so even the smallest amount of swelling was noticeable, firing up Johnny’s overprotective little brother instincts. Scott let him have his way on the enforced rest periods as he not only needed them but found Johnny was more amenable to leaving him alone during the day while still refusing to let him out of his sight in the evenings. The younger man would take long walks to the seedier and far more informative areas of the city, where he spoke with street workers, busboys, livery drivers, people so invisible to the wealthy and self-absorbed they were privy to the most vile secrets; plans for takeovers or romantic liaisons, even details of crimes committed, simply because they were too inconsequential to be noticed.
Of course, Scott had no idea that Johnny had hired Raul to watch the hotel while he was gone.
After measuring the broken wheel on Paco’s cart and looking closely at the other one, Johnny decided he should replace both. The wheelwright was conveniently located just a few buildings down from Tomlinson’s Coach and Livery on Chandler Street. He’d checked out the stables and corrals as he’d passed on the way to the shop but hadn’t spotted the bay with the white lacing. Now, juggling the heavier-than-they-looked wheels, he approached the boundary of the livery. The groom, a dark-skinned man whose right-sided limp suggested he’d taken a horse kick or two in his day, noticed him immediately. Johnny nodded a greeting.
“You’ve got some real beauties here, my friend, the conformation on that dun gelding is just spectacular. I hope he got to pass on those strong traits to some babies beforehand.”
The older man grinned, hobbling to where Johnny leaned against the corral fence. “He managed to sire a beautiful filly and a couple of handsome colts before he got too full of himself and had to be gelded or risk being sold off. You know your horses, lad. You worked with ’em somewhere?”
“A place or two around the border. Name’s Johnny. I see you take real good care of the horses; you don’t always see that in the city. These cobblestone streets are murder on their hooves and hocks, even well-shod.”
“My name’s Reese, and you got that right. We rotate the horses between street work and the longer trips into the country. We’re lucky we have customers for both. Plus, the boss is a good man, doesn’t overwork the horses, and listens if one needs to rest.”
Johnny’s practiced eyes scanned the livery. “That’s good to hear. I’ve seen a bay with some lacing on her rump. Is she one of yours?”
Reese’s demeanor darkened in an instant. “Lacing ain’t always scarrin’ from bad treatment. It can pass down!”
“My friend Felipe taught me that,” Johnny replied with a casual smile. “In fact, he’d always buy a laced horse at auction if he could. Said people run from ’em wrongly thinkin’ they must be stubborn or lazy to have the whip laid to ’em to make the marks. He could usually get them on the cheap for that reason and found they often have the best temperaments.”
Reese laughed heartily. “Yer friend is right on that! My Missy is just that way. Sweetest thing this side of the Mississippi! I hafta be real careful though who I rent her out to.” He leaned in to speak quietly. “Some people judge anything less than pure in a horse’s coat the way they judge those of us whose skin color don’t match theirs.”
“Mmm, I’ve seen that myself. But the person renting the carriage she pulls this week doesn’t mind?”
“I’d say it’s more they don’t even notice. Quiet type from some fancy place across the ocean who’s staying out at the Richmond estate. Just has Jeremy ride them around town, never gets out, sometimes has him sit watching places.”
“Now that sure sounds strange. Do you think it’s one of them princes or opera stars or something?”
“Darned if I know or care. Jeremy don’t share much. They tip him good money to keep quiet whenever they’re here and he don’t want to ruin a good thing.”
Johnny watched a small roan filly rub out an itch her tail couldn’t reach against her stall wall. “If I wanted to rent a horse for a run out in the country, can I do it here, or do you only do carriages?”
Reese quirked an eyebrow. “Hoping to catch a glimpse of a prince, eh?”
“Not a prince, but a princess or pretty little ballerina.” Johnny gave a wink and a smile to his new friend, who chuckled.
“I hate to break your heart, my friend, but Jeremy said he has an early night tonight as his customer is entertaining some lovely female company at six. I suspect your pretty little ballerina is fat, bald, and smokes cigars.”
“Just my luck. Well, I’d best get these wheels off to my amigo’s tamalero cart. You wouldn’t by chance have an old bridle I can buy off you for the reins? I didn’t realize how heavy these devils are, and it’s a long nine or ten blocks to the park uphill all the way. I need to make a harness so my shoulders can take some of the weight off my hands.”
And so my gun hand is free.
“Sure enough do, but I won’t take yer money for it.” Reese disappeared into the stable and came out with the requested leather strips. “You headed to the park by the hospital?”
“That’s the one.” Johnny quickly braided the reins into a passable shoulder harness for the wheels. “But ya gotta let me give ya something for the bridle as I ain’t sure I could return it not all stretched out and twisted.”
“Don’t need it back. It was just tyin’ some grain bags up off the ground. But I tell you what, Jeremy ought to be drivin’ that customer right by that park in an hour or so. Not that I think you’ll be able to see nothin’ with the curtains pulled. But if the guy is either fat or bald, you’ll owe me a dollar.”
“Now that’s a deal!”
Paco was almost tearfully grateful for Johnny’s gift of the wheels. After he had packed up for the day, Paco steadied the wagon as Johnny carefully changed one wheel and then the other, his gaze frequently shifting to the street.
As he worked, Johnny deliberated how to handle the carriage’s passing. Should he conceal himself in the copse of trees nearby and try to catch sight of its occupant? Or follow the carriage out to the estate to watch the person disembark? A huge part of him wanted to roll Paco’s cart into the street in front of the horses, jerk the door open, and choke the whereabouts of his father out of the rotten bastard.
In the end, he did none of those things. He glanced up as the carriage approached, noted the drawn curtains, and returned to work on Paco’s cart. He knew he needed to talk to Scott about what to do next. As much as Madrid wanted to go at this alone, he’d learned over the past fifteen months that being part of a family demanded something different from him.
Johnny saw Paco off to his home and headed toward the hotel in the opposite direction, his arms laden with not only tamales from Paco but with a dozen hojarascas, Mexican shortbread cookies, wrapped in a bright red bandana, yet another gift from Guadalupe. He carefully maneuvered two cookies out of the wrapping, unable to wait until he got back to the hotel to start enjoying the melt-in-your-mouth treats. As he turned the corner onto Gardener street, he stopped dead in his tracks.
There, parked on the far side of the street, was the carriage with Missy and her bay partner in its traces. A young man that Johnny assumed was Jeremy sat atop the carriage, staring straight ahead, one more invisible servant to the wealthy. Rage boiled through Johnny’s veins. He dropped the food, pulled his gun from its hiding place, and started to run across the street, intent now on his previously discarded plan of confronting the occupant. He didn’t like being played with.
Halfway across the street, Johnny saw the curtain move slightly. He dove to the cobblestones and rolled, expecting gunfire. He came up ready to return fire but froze as he saw the face that peered out at him.
It couldn’t be!
His shock was so complete, he uncharacteristically dropped the muzzle of his gun as he stared back.
Even a novice gunhawk could have taken him, any number of kill shots laid bare in those desperate seconds.
But it was a smile, a knowing, evil smile that drove him to his knees.
There was shouting as a second carriage came barreling around the corner, heading directly for him, its driver and several onlookers calling out urgent warnings. He felt the impact as he was hurled to the curb, the image of that drunk being tossed out of the carriage visiting itself upon him for a brief second before his head hit the stone surface.
Then there was nothing.
The voices were back. Muffled by the buzzing in his ears but insistent. They wanted something from him, but he had no idea what. Or, for that matter, who was pestering him.
He just wanted quiet. The inside of his skull felt fired by a smithy’s forge, red hot and searing into the hollows of his eyes. He pressed his palms to his temples, trying to smother the flames, a weak gasp of utter torment passing his lips.
His hands were drawn away, replaced by a cool cloth that immediately soothed the worst of the inferno.
“Rest easy,” a familiar voice coaxed. “The cold should help the headache but keep your head still.”
“Right here, brother.”
“In the exact bed in the hospital I left not four days ago. I know you thought Lucy was very cute, but this is not the best way to get her attention.”
A quiet giggle told Johnny that Lucy was the holder of the soothing cloth.
“What happened?” Even as he asked, snatches of memories started to come to him; talking with Reese, helping Paco with the cart, seeing the carriage… As that face drifted into focus, Johnny’s eyes shot open, and he bolted upright. “No!”
Almost immediately, nausea hit him as hard as the bystander who had pushed him out of the way of thundering hooves.
“No you don’t!” Scott’s strong arms caught him and pushed him down and onto his side as his stomach threatened to empty all over the pretty nurse who shoved a basin under his lips.
“You need to stay lying down, Mr. Lancer,” she cautioned gently, again maneuvering the cloth to the exact spot where the pain drilled into his temples. “You have a severe concussion. But it sounds like you are lucky that’s your only injury. The men who brought you here said you were almost run down by a carriage. One of the street vendors pushed you out of the way just in time.”
Johnny squeezed his eyes closed tightly, the resultant shooting pain telling him he shouldn’t do that again. He swallowed against raging nausea. “He okay?”
“Yes, he’s fine,” Scott’s voice reassured him. “They said you’d fallen crossing the street? It sounds rather…clumsy of you, brother. As there’s no smell of liquor on your breath, was something else happening?”
I can’t tell him. Dios, what am I going to do?
A moan of anguish seeped between his clenched teeth, having little to do with his pounding headache. “Damn cobblestones,” he muttered.
“Ah yes, they’ve tripped me up a time or two,” Scott commiserated.
Lucy was called out of the room, so Scott settled the basin on the bed just below the pillow and took up running the damp cloth over Johnny’s unusually pale features.
“Lucy’s gone now, so you can drop the line about tripping over a cobblestone and tell me what really happened.”
No, I can’t, Scott. Please don’t push me. I have to figure out what I’m gonna do. And I can’t even think straight.
After a long silence, he muttered, “I’m an idiot.”
Scott gave an affectionate chuckle. “I’ve known that for over a year now, brother. You’re just realizing it?”
Johnny groaned, half in humor, half in torment. “I thought someone was shooting at me, I dropped and rolled… not the best thing to do when a carriage is coming straight at you.”
“No, definitely not.” Scott rewet the towel, gently stroking away a few locks of damp hair before he replaced it. “Who did you make angry enough to shoot you today?”
“Hell, I don’t know, Boston. I’m getting so jumpy with all this stuff, I’m drawing on the Christmas decorations hanging from the lampposts.” Johnny risked opening his eyes. He found himself staring at the dark blue of his brother’s shirt as Scott continued to hold him on his side, absently rubbing his back to soothe the nausea that still churned in his belly. The memory of whom he’d actually drawn on made him whisper, “I just want to erase these last three months.”
He felt Scott’s hand stutter slightly before resuming the gentle pattern across his back. “I know, brother. Me too.”
Silence lasted between them for a few minutes until something suddenly occurred to Johnny.
“Hey, you shouldnt be standing all this time on that ankle of yours! And how did you get here?”
“Don’t worry, I grabbed a cab at the hotel. And I haven’t been here that long for you to be worrying about my ankle. Settle yourself down or your headache and stomachache are only going to get worse.”
The cloth was removed, rinsed, and replaced without a break in the stomach-calming back rub.
“You’re pretty good at this, you know,” Johnny murmured, “Lucy should be worried for her job.”
“Oh no, I already have a fulltime job looking after you, little brother. Lucy’s position is safe.”
Presently the doctor, whom Johnny vaguely remembered from when he’d first arrived at the hospital, came in to re-examine him. He deemed Johnny fit for discharge, which Scott firmly disagreed with. Johnny wasn’t so sure himself after sitting up finally caused him to lose the two bites of Guadalupe’s cookies he’d managed to eat before his run-in with the carriage.
Both carriages, actually.
And it wasn’t the one that nearly ran him down that caused him the most damage.
They let him take the cleaned-out basin with him, and Lucy kindly tucked several wet cloths inside it. He was determined not to lean on Scott, who himself needed to lean heavily on his cane, as they made their way down the familiar hall, which tonight seemed to have grown exceptionally long. His brother had to direct him away from walking into walls several times on the way to the waiting cab, as he kept needing to close his eyes against the pain.
The ride to the hotel seemed endless. The rattling of the carriage wheels worsened both his headache and the nausea while disjointed images and thoughts ricocheted through his head. The hotel lobby was far too bright, bringing Johnny to painful alertness that fled him the instant he collapsed fully clothed onto the bed.
“Drink some water.” Scott lifted his pounding head for him, pressing the cool glass against his lips.
“It’ll come up again,” he moaned as he felt the liquid plunge into his roiling belly.
“That’s okay, there’s more.” Scott reassured as he struggled to get Johnny’s boots off.
Johnny didn’t think he liked that response but didn’t have the energy to figure out why. He drifted into a swirling void of confusing thoughts and terrifying images that only allowed one sane message:
The sound of a key in the door lock stirred Scott from his too-brief slumber. He was on his stomach on the far side of Johnny’s bed, one arm flung protectively over his brother’s chest so he’d know if Johnny tried to get up again. Johnny had spent a horrible night of confusion, crushing headaches, and vomiting almost any time he moved. Which was often, as his confusion made him believe that Scott was in trouble, so he continually tried to get up to “protect Scott.”
A few quiet words or a cool cloth would usually settle Johnny back, but Scott had to physically restrain him twice until he could get reoriented.
A glance told Scott that Johnny was still sleeping, albeit with grimaces of pain seeping through his slumber. In the same instance, it registered that no one should be using a key to get into their room. It was too early for maid service, and he hadn’t ordered food, not to mention that there had been no courtesy warning knock.
Even as Scott reached for his gun, a hushed voice came through the door crack.
“Johnny, Scott, es Raul. Is okay?”
Scott hurriedly moved into the sitting area to fully open the door. “Yes, Raul, come in.” He knew Raul from dinner with Paco and Guadalupe the evening after his own release from the hospital.
Hat in hand, Raul barely stepped into the room, his eyes going over to the open bedroom door. “I wish to see how Johnny is doing but no wish to wake you.”
Scott closed the door quietly behind him. “He’s had a rough night but he’s finally sleeping. You heard what happened?”
“Si.” Raul looked decidedly uncomfortable. Scott wasn’t sure if it was from being in the opulent room or the question itself.
Then he put two and two together, with Raul having what he realized now was Johnny’s hotel key. He sighed. “Let me guess, Johnny has been having you watch over me while he’s out making his rounds.”
“He has worry for su hermano, after tu padre es gone.”
Scott raised a surprised eyebrow. “He told you what happened to our father?”
“He tell Paco. He fear the same will come to you.”
Scott glanced over at Johnny, who was shifting restlessly in the bed. He hated how, after months of worry for Murdoch and then Teresa, Johnny was now so worried about him that he was hiring a bodyguard. The fears had even plagued his concussion-driven dreams throughout the night.
“I know.” Scott scrubbed his drawn and whiskered cheeks with his fisted hands as he crossed the room to the bell pull. “I’m going to order us some breakfast, and coffee, lots of coffee. Then if you don’t mind keeping an eye on Johnny, I’m going to get washed up before we talk more.”
The bellhop was already wise to the Lancer brothers’ morning routine and brought a tray with coffee, cups, and biscuits with jam to answer the bell. Seeing Raul there, he immediately offered to fetch a third set-up.
“Just bring it along with breakfast, if you would, Michael, my brother isn’t even up yet.” He nodded toward the open bedroom door where Johnny, on cue, rolled onto his side, his back to them, with a muffled groan.
Assuming the younger Lancer was suffering from a hangover, Michael brought his finger to his lips to belatedly shush himself, then virtually tiptoed out of the suite to fill Scott’s request for two full breakfasts and a bowl of broth.
Feeling much revived after the luxury of a quick bath, hair dunking, and shave, Scott hobbled into the sitting area, clad only in a pair of pants, a damp towel around his neck. “The one cup of coffee I brought into the water closet with me wasn’t anywhere near enough,” he told Raul as he poured himself a second and topped off Raul’s.
Michael returned with the breakfasts, and Raul made to leave. “Johnny would not like to see me here.”
“I won’t tell him if you don’t,” Scott reassured. “Sit, have some breakfast. It looks like he’s finally getting some rest. If he wakes up, you can sneak back out. You must be hungry after a long night of watching out for me.” A raised eyebrow made Raul duck his head, but then he smiled and joined Scott at breakfast.
“So, Raul, did your nightly surveillance of me start while I was still in the hospital?” At Raul’s confused look, Scott clarified, “Did Johnny have you watching out for me while I was in the hospital?”
“The last night. Paco and me, we did not want him to be the long night awake on the cold ground. He is not happy. But we es two, he es one. He sleep here that night.”
Scott hung his head.
I thought he gave up a bit too easily that night.
“And have you seen anything that warranted…that seemed worth his worry?”
“Just the carriage two times here, one time by the park.”
Scott caught himself a split second before blurting, “What carriage?”. He knew Raul would clam up if he realized Scott knew nothing about this carriage.
“Did they just pass by or stop and watch for a while?”
“Go slow…” Raul quietly tapped out a plodding beat on the table, then motioned back and forth with his hand. “One way… diez minutos, autre way.”
“Can you see inside?”
Raul shook his head as he stuffed a heaping forkful of eggs into his mouth. “Nunca…never.” After chewing for a moment, he asked, “It was this carriage that run over Johnny?”
“I fear it was. The question is why? What does this Avery Castile fellow have against our family?”
And why would Johnny want me to believe that nearly getting run over by the carriage had been an accident? What is he protecting me from? Johnny’s frantic murmurings of ‘protect Scott’ from the previous night echoed in Scott’s mind.
“I didn’t get to talk to Johnny before he got hurt yesterday to see if he found out more about Castile. Did he say anything to you?”
Raul shook his head. “Maybe Paco. Johnny help Paco with…” he made a circular motion with his hand, “for tamalero.”
“Wheels. I remember now that Johnny said Paco’s cart needed new wheels.”
Raul set down his fork, his expression very serious. “Wheels much money. Johnny very good man to Paco. He only know Paco for cinco dias.” He spread his five fingers.
Scott smiled. “Yes, my brother is indeed a very good man. As are you and Paco. I know it has been very reassuring for him to have friends he can trust here.”
“He can trust,” Raul nodded, patting his chest. “We find bad Castile and tu padre. No more bad por tu familia. Happy familia.”
Scott’s eyes drifted to his brother. “Happy familia,” he echoed longingly.
While Johnny slept, Scott sent a message to Mitchell, asking him to swing by the hotel so he could update him on recent events. He watched the street below for any carriage moving slowly or lingering in front of the hotel for too long. He wished he’d been able to glean more details about the carriage from Raul but hadn’t wanted to give himself away with too many questions.
He wrapped his ankle as well as he could, but it fell well short of Johnny’s precise bandaging. Johnny had joked that wrapping a brother’s leg wasn’t much different than wrapping a horse’s, and he’d had plenty of experience doing that!
Scott was pleased and relieved at how well his ankle was—at long last—healing. It only pained him when he’d been on it too long, and even then, the discomfort was nothing compared to what he’d been enduring for the last month. He realized just how much the constant ache had contributed to his irritability with Johnny. It made him think of Murdoch and the frequent pain their father still felt a year and a half after Pardee’s bullet. Perhaps that explained Murdoch’s grouchy countenance in those early months after their arrival home.
He wondered if Murdoch was suffering now, either from his back or from other injuries he might have incurred wherever he was being held.
If he was being held.
If he was still alive.
Scott swallowed heavily. He vacillated so wildly on what he believed had happened. As angry as he was when he thought Murdoch had abandoned them for a selfish life with Ailith in Scotland, he now almost wished that was the case. At least Murdoch would be alive, free, happy.
Having been held prisoner himself for nearly a year, the last three months in deplorable, soul-sucking conditions, Scott couldn’t bear to think of their father suffering a similar fate. Especially when he had ignored Johnny’s repeated pleadings over the last three months for a second trip to San Francisco to search for more answers.
He’d been sure he knew the answer. Murdoch had given up on them. As easily as he’d given up on his newborn son twenty-five years ago.
Scott had been unable to wrest that thought from his mind these last months. Perhaps he’d been too quick to forgive Murdoch’s absence from his childhood and to blame it all on his grandfather. Maybe Murdoch had been as selfish back then as he was acting now. It could have even been what drove Maria to run away with another man and two-year-old Johnny.
That’s the story Scott’s anger had written for him.
Now, he had to rewrite the story into one he didn’t want to acknowledge.
The tale of an elder son, too quick to write off a father who needed him to have faith, to fight for their family, to refuse to give in when times grew hard.
Scott squeezed his eyes closed, nearly freeing tears that had welled.
“Scott!” Johnny’s shout brought him out of his chair and to his brother’s side in an instant.
“Right here. I’m okay.” It was the same mantra he’d repeated throughout the night and morning, and it had its effect, allowing Johnny to fall back with a grunt, throwing an arm across his eyes to block out the afternoon sun. “Do you want me to pull the curtains?”
Johnny tried to peer out beneath his elbow. “Yeah.”
Scott drew the curtains, poured water into a glass, and sat back at his brother’s side. “We need to get some fluids into you. Move your arm and I’ll help lift your head.”
“Already got to go,” Johnny muttered, not moving.
“I bet you do. It’s been a long time. At least it’s a short trip. I’ll help you up.”
“Okay.” Johnny remained motionless for a long enough stretch that Scott wondered if he’d fallen back asleep.
“I won’t ask about the headache, but how’s your stomach?”
“I wouldn’t be standing too close when I go to sit up.”
“That good, huh?” Scott chuckled with sympathy. “You’ve managed to hit the basin every time thus far. I think we’ll be okay.”
They made the trip without incident. Johnny refused to go back to bed, dropping bonelessly into one of the overstuffed chairs, his elbow propped on the arm, his head in his hand. Scott hovered overhead, glass in hand.
“You do need to drink. Water first to see how it goes, then the doctor said coffee could help the headache, if your stomach can handle it.”
“The doctor came here?”
“No, at the hospital last night. You don’t remember?”
“Nope, don’t remember much.”
But a moment later, Johnny clearly remembered something as he suddenly looked up and at the window.
Looking for a certain carriage, little brother? Or maybe trying to ascertain if the bodyguard you put in place is still on watch? It seems you’re the one who could have used a bodyguard last night.
“Do you want me to get the curtains in here?”
Johnny started to shake his head, realized his mistake, and uttered, “Unh uh.”
Scott got similar responses to offers of coffee, a biscuit, broth, or a cold cloth. Johnny seemed only to want to remain perfectly still, even his breathing carefully measured to not disturb the quietude.
“Let me know if I can do anything for you,” Scott offered softly before taking the newspaper served with each morning’s breakfast to the furthest corner of the room. He pulled the drapes until only a sliver of sunlight fell across the table by the window, dimming the glare in the area where Johnny was sitting. Settling in with a fresh cup of coffee, he read the paper folded as if he were on the train, trying to keep the inevitable crinkle of turned pages to a minimum for Johnny’s headache’s sake.
The only interruption in the room’s quiet was Scott periodically making Johnny drink until a crisp knock came on the door nearly two hours later.
“A Mitchell Desmond requests to call, Mr. Lancer. He says he is expected,” Michael announced.
“He is. Give me a moment please to check where we should meet.”
Scott moved to Johnny’s side. The younger man spoke without moving or opening his eyes.
“Up to you, Boston. He can come up or you can take a break and go downstairs. I’m going back to bed. You can fill me in later.”
Scott turned back to the bellhop. “Please show Mr. Desmond up and send up a bottle of bourbon, a pitcher of water, a bucket of ice, and a bottle of headache powder.”
As Michael left, Scott went ahead to resettle Johnny’s bed and clean the used cloths from the bedside table. He then helped guide Johnny back to bed. “Don’t go to sleep yet. Wait for the headache powder and I’ll make you an ice pack.”
Johnny patted Scott’s arm as he lay back. “You’re a good brother. Tell Mitchell I’m sorry I missed him.”
And Johnny was out.
“So much for waiting for the headache powder.” Scott murmured, gently covering his brother with the blankets and stroking an errant lock of hair from his cheek. “Sleep well. I hope you feel miles better when you wake up.”
Johnny lay in the darkness of his room, listening to the muted voices as Scott and Mitchell talked in the next room. If he concentrated hard, he could pick out most of the words, but it made his head pound even more ferociously than it already did. So he gave up.
He had only one concern.
That meant figuring out a way to get to the Richmond estate alone and eliminate the threat. A monumental task when he couldn’t even sit up without feeling as though his head was splitting open. At least the nausea had abated.
He’d just have to push past the pain as he’d done dozens of times before. His brother needed him.
He sat up to the side of the bed, then held on for dear life as the room spun worse than a bucking bronco. Once things settled, he made his way carefully to the window and pulled back the edge of the heavy velvet drape. Sunlight pierced his brain like an ice pick, and he pulled back, hissing his air out through his teeth. After a few panting breaths, he tried again.
No carriage, no Raul.
Neither thing surprised him. Raul was only asked to maintain watch when Johnny was away from the hotel. Even then, he was careful to stay out of sight. Sadly, a Mexican loitering near this class of hotel was quickly suspected of evil intent and hurried along or arrested.
Now that the face of Avery Castile had been seen, would the daily carriage rides stop? Would the recluse become even more reclusive, or bold and brazen? The gruesome smile that haunted Johnny’s memory from the night before certainly seemed to indicate the latter.
He needed to act soon.
If Murdoch were still alive, his life would depend on Johnny’s next move. Scott’s surely did.
And Johnny Madrid Lancer would not let his family down.
The private art exhibition—a vernissage as it was so pompously promoted—was unusually grand for a mid-afternoon event. The line of gilded and canopied carriages flaunting the wealth of their occupants snaked down the street and around the corner. Only Nob Hill residents were allowed onto the inner drive that wound to the base of the museum’s grand marble staircase, where guests were formally announced with all due ceremony before disembarking.
Scott watched the pageantry with an odd combination of nostalgia and distaste. Oh, how he’d loved preparing for this type of event before the war. Speculating on who would attend with whom, how political rivals would ever so politely knife each other in the back, what new dalliances would be revealed, and whether any of the lovely young ladies in attendance would be interested in more than a few formal dances and a chaste kiss goodnight. He knew how to play the social scene to his advantage in a sophisticated and charismatic manner, was rarely disappointed in his company for the evening, and never needed to—nor would—press his advantage. But this art exhibition reminded him only too keenly of the negligent rogue he’d become after returning from Libby. He’d bounced from bed to bed, caring little for decorum and nothing at all for his reputation, desperately trying to feel anything other than fractured and empty. It was a private gallery opening similar to this afternoon’s event that had preceded him scrambling from Barbara’s bed and off her balcony to drop in front of the Pinkerton agent who had changed his life forever.
No, he didn’t miss the shallow flaunting of wealth and power through invitation-only events. But he was secretly glad that Scott Garrett could easily acquire invitations for himself and a guest to the vernissage and that Mitchell Desmond could do the same. The excuse to wear the beautifully tailored waistcoat he’d bought for last year’s opera was simply a bonus.
It was their best hope yet for spotting Castile. They were following a tip from a street vendor that Raul had passed on to Johnny. Avery Castile, a known art lover, would possibly be attending this afternoon’s vernissage. The vernissage name and practice of inviting select guests to preview paintings before they were varnished for a public exhibition had started in Paris. With many of Castile’s massive business interests centering around the French city, the tip seemed too promising to pass up.
A cocktail hour in the museum’s courtyard had been a perfect opportunity for Mitchell and Scott to mingle among the guests, listening for any hint as to Castile’s presence. Their “guests”, Johnny and Barnet, kept low profiles around the perimeter of the gathering, watchful and protective.
Ringing chimes signaled the guests that it was time to proceed into the exhibit hall. As Scott moved back to Johnny’s side, he frowned with concern. The young man’s face was ashen, his eyes narrowed with pain.
“Johnny, you look like you are about to keel over,” Scott admonished, pulling his brother off to the side of the line of people moving toward the entrance. “Go back to the hotel. Both Mitchell and Barnet are here to watch over me.”
“Nope. If Castile might show up, I’m damn well gonna be here to have your back.” Even as he said it, a bout of dizziness knocked him back a half step. Scott quickly shot out a hand to steady him.
“You’re as liable to put a bullet into me as to protect me from one when you can barely even stand up!” Scott used his grip on Johnny’s arm to propel the younger man toward the line of carriages that had discharged their passengers, then moved off to a staging area to wait the three hours for the event to finish. He spotted one with a brass livery plaque above the door frame and approached the coachman. “Are you available for hire?”
“Yes sir!” The driver’s top hat was off his head as he gave a quick bow and opened the carriage door. “At your immediate service, sir.” He was delighted by the prospect of having a fare to break up the long wait.
Scott turned to Johnny. “You have a choice. Get in the carriage, go back to the hotel and let me handle this, or we forget this whole thing and I drag you back there myself.”
“I ain’t leavin’ ya!” Johnny protested. “I’m fine. I…” He blinked twice, and for a terrible instant, Scott thought he would pass out. The grip tightened.
“Please brother,” Scott said with quiet intensity. “Trust me that it’ll be okay. I need you to take care of yourself the way you made me take care of myself by seeing Dr. Morgan. Even if Castile does make an anonymous appearance here, he won’t be expecting to see me, and isn’t liable to try anything with all these people around. Besides, Barnet is an ex-US Marshall. I believe I’m in very good hands.”
Johnny’s gaze went to the precise spot in the crowd where Barnet was standing. Scott knew that Johnny had quickly taken Barnet’s measure when they’d first met and liked what he saw. Indeed, Barnet had held back from going inside and was watching them nonchalantly.
Scott was surprised and immensely relieved when Johnny dropped his head and muttered. “You tell both those Barnets standing over there that they’d better not let you get even a scratch or I’m coming after them.” One of the tests Scott had done before letting Johnny come today was holding up two fingers and asking Johnny how many he saw. While Johnny had given the correct answer, it hadn’t been immediate. Scott had strongly suspected that Johnny was suffering from double vision. At the worried look Scott gave him, Johnny sighed, “I’m kidding about seeing two of him, but not about what will happen if he doesn’t watch your back. Go on and get inside before they lock the door.”
Johnny reluctantly climbed into the carriage. Scott watched the exhaustion with which Johnny slumped onto the seat.
“The headache powder is on the table by your bed. Make sure you drink a lot of water when you take it.”
“Yes, Doc, I will.”
Scott smiled, closed the carriage door, and gave the driver the hotel’s name along with a generous tip to ensure Johnny got up to the room safely. Then he turned his attention back to the museum, falling in line as the last of the guests filed inside. Mitchell had gone in ahead, but Barnet hung back to follow Scott at a discreet distance.
Scott surveyed the occupants of the large hall. Barnet’s sleuthing had uncovered a pattern of carriage rentals emanating from the Richmond estate on the northern edge of town, which matched the days and times Raul had spotted the carriage Johnny had him watching for. The consensus among the surprising number of people willing to speculate about Castile was that he was at least fifty, possibly much older, given how long he’d been firing cannonballs of scandal at unlucky targets. Beyond that, there was absolutely no agreement on a description from those who claimed to have caught glimpses of him or intuited his identity. One account described him as relatively short in stature and bearing a heavy French accent. Another claimed he was a full six feet tall and spoke in a very cultured eastern voice. A third swore it was a young female server who inconspicuously slid into various events to raise havoc by spreading rumors and innuendos about her “betters”. The third accusation had led Preston Fellows to fire all his female serving staff after the rumor flew that he was seen in an amorous embrace with Mrs. Clive Descartes at the party he threw to announce his candidacy for councilman.
Yet another hypothesis was that Avery Castile was simply a pseudonym for one of the many well-known power mongers who periodically visited the city, like Winston Mansfield or Charles Baker. The cloak of anonymity of such a ploy would allow a man to ruin business and political rivals one by one with nary a smudge to his own reputation.
Scott leaned toward the latter theory. For Castile to have targeted the Lancers in general and Murdoch in particular, there had to be powerful motivation. As past president of the Cattle Growers Association, Murdoch had successfully lobbied against Mansfield’s attempts to pass legislation to limit which ranches could sell beef to the mining camps. That loss thwarted Mansfield’s dreams of political office in Aurora. Scott couldn’t remember the whole story of the conflict between Murdoch and Charles Baker but was reasonably sure it involved Baker’s investment in the Western Pacific Railroad, which had been absorbed by the Central Pacific Railroad the year before.
Both men were present. Mitchell surreptitiously pointed them out as Scott had met neither. Luckily, they were standing on opposite ends of the hall from each other. Scott made his way toward Baker, who was closest, with the plan to introduce himself as Scott Garrett, Harlan Garrett’s grandson. Castile would certainly know Scott Garrett and Scott Lancer as one and the same, and his keen eye should spot that moment of startled connection. If there was no visible reaction, Scott was still confident he could glean useful information from each of them. Harlan Garret was a master at drawing men to reveal business and personal secrets to him in such a way that they rarely even realized they were doing so. Until Garrett turned those secrets against them in devastating fashion.
Not unlike Avery Castile, Scott mused. Well, luckily, Harlan had taught his grandson well…
Johnny leaned his head back against the velvet seat back of the carriage, closing his eyes against the clanging hammer strikes to his temples. He hadn’t needed to resort to play-acting to convince Scott he wasn’t feeling well. He’d simply not hidden the misery the way he ordinarily would.
He allowed himself a brief respite before opening his eyes to use the bell-pull to summon the coachman. A small front window near the ceiling flipped down, allowing the driver to lean down to speak with him.
“At your service, sir.”
“A change in plans, the Old Ship Saloon, please.”
“Uh, the gentleman paid me generously to bring you to the Occidental, sir. He appeared concerned you were unwell.”
“Yeah, that’s my big brother for ya. I had to kinda pull one over on him, making him think I drank too much at that stuffy party. There was no way I was gonna spend another three hours around those stuffed shirts when all my amigos are gonna be at the saloon. Don’t worry, I tip even better than he does, plus I’ll get in a couple of hours of fun and still beat him back to the hotel. You’d do the same thing, wouldn’t ya?”
The coachman chuckled. “Yes sir, I believe I would. Old Ship Saloon it is!” The window clicked shut.
The plan had come together quickly; so quickly Johnny prayed it didn’t contain life-threatening flaws. He needed a reason for Scott, Mitchell, and Barnet to be together somewhere far from the Richmond estate while he took care of Castile. He’d initially thought to have the rumor of Castile’s imminent clandestine appearance be at the opera, but the next show wasn’t for five days. It had to be a high-profile event to be believable, but it had to be in the next day or two.
Then he saw the art exhibition’s announcement on Scott’s newspaper’s society page. He had no idea what a vernissage was, but given the names of the wealthy rumored to be attending the invitation-only event, he’d rightly guessed it would do. He’d had confidence that his well-connected brother and Mitchell would be able to score tickets and hadn’t been disappointed.
When Paco stopped by to check on Johnny, Johnny convinced Scott to take a break from watching over him and meet Mitchell and Barnet for dinner. Now that Johnny knew Castile’s true identity, he understood he needed a special kind of backup for the confrontation. Paco and Raul knew just the right kind of people, one of whom was Raul himself, who had served as a sergeant in the Mexican war.
The carriage pulled to a stop outside the Old Ship Saloon, an aptly named establishment made out of the hull of a ship that had run aground during a storm off Alcatraz. He gave the coachman the promised tip, and a friendly wave as the carriage drove off. Then he walked past the saloon entrance and several blocks down to an alleyway where Raul and three friends waited for him. The men kept watch as he quickly changed out of his fancy clothes and into the ones he’d given, along with his rig, to Paco the night before. He grimaced as he shoved the expensive, tailored outfit into a bag that would be left in the alleyway and probably never seen again. It was the least of the offenses that Scott would want to shoot him for. He’d be lucky if his brother ever spoke to him again after today.
But at least Scott would be alive if all went well. And maybe, possibly, hopefully, Murdoch would be too.
It was the littlest thing that sent Scott’s nerve endings jangling. After ruling out Baker—not smart enough— and Mansfield—too arrogant to do anything anonymously—as being Castile’s alter ego, Scott casually joined Barnet at the bar toward the back of the room where a cluster of men uninterested in paintings, gossip, or political gain had gathered. A few were distantly watchful, making him suspect they, like Barnet, were there as bodyguards.
“Fun night, eh?” He made a face as he took a sip of an excellent burgundy.
Barnet grinned. “At least I’m being paid to attend this shindig.”
“Smart man. You’d do best to get yourself a new glass of champagne, though, unless you want to be the subject of a few rumors yourself.” Scott nodded to a faint lipstick smear on the outer rim after an already inebriated young lady tried to make a pass at the rather handsome ex-Marshall by drinking from his glass. Like other agents on the job, Barnet had tried to hide the fact that he wasn’t indulging by keeping a drinking glass in his hand. He hadn’t noticed the lipstick stain on the far side.
Barnet quizzically followed Scott’s gaze, groaned, quickly set the glass on the bar, and ordered a scotch. “I need some true fortification about now, anyway,” he grunted as he took a large swallow.
Scott smiled, noticing Barnet’s poorly concealed weapon under his jacket. He should encourage Mitchell to give the man enough of a bonus to have his suit properly cut to accommodate the shoulder holster. After reluctantly agreeing to have a suit made for the opera the year before, Johnny had insisted on it. He’d joked that he’d be dead before he could get his gun out of “that dang fool contraption”. Scott understood that he hadn’t wholly been joking and appreciated his brother making the concession to Murdoch by leaving his regular gun under the pillow in his room in favor of the smaller backup piece that fit the shoulder holster. He had to admit that his younger brother made a quite dashing figure in formal clothes, as long as he wasn’t scowling or constantly trying to loosen his collar and tie.
Scott was glad he’d been able to talk Johnny into going back to the hotel. Three more hours “in a cloth coffin”, as Johnny called his suit, would definitely not have helped Johnny’s headache. He smiled a little at his brother’s impertinence as he brought his drink to his lips.
Then, he froze.
Something was wrong with that.
He swore as it came to him, making Barnet look at him sharply.
“His gun. Damn him!” Scott slammed his glass down on the bar, nearly breaking the stem. “Barnet, come with me!” He simultaneously motioned to Mitchell to join them as he pushed his way through the crowd to the door.
“What’s going on?” Mitchell asked as he and Barnet followed him down the marble stairs at a run.
“Johnny, he’s gone after Castile on his own! Castile was never supposed to be here. This was all a ruse to keep us away. I should have known that Johnny would never admit to feeling bad enough to leave if he had any thought at all that Castile would be here! Damn that boy!” Scott ran his hand through his hair, trying to figure out where Johnny would be headed.
“How do you know that?” Mitchell asked, struggling to keep up with Scott’s long strides.
“His gun. He always keeps it under his pillow. I noticed it was gone when I straightened up his bed. He always leaves his bed looking like a stampede went through it. I just thought that he wanted to have it here tonight and I wasn’t going to take him to task for that. But it doesn’t fit in his shoulder holster. He complained about that loudly enough last year. He probably gave it to Paco while we were at dinner the night before last.”
Scott scanned the waiting cabs. “Let’s see if the cab I sent him back to the hotel in is back. Black with gold trim. Beldon or Belfor Livery. Tall middle aged coachman in a red waistcoat with black and gold braid.”
It took them less than three minutes to locate the right one, as it had just arrived back in line. Once the coachman was convinced that Scott wouldn’t have his job or his head for not bringing Johnny to the hotel as directed, he quickly agreed to take them to the Old Ship Saloon.
“How are we going to figure out where he went? I can’t imagine that he expected Castile to be at the saloon.” Mitchell perched uneasily on the edge of the seat. He was an attorney, not a Marshall; he normally didn’t even carry a gun. The thought of going up against an apparent mastermind like Castile made his stomach do nasty flips.
“My bet is the Richmond estate,” Barnet supplied. “The carriage rentals matched the times Raul said he saw the carriage Johnny had him on the lookout for. But he wouldn’t go out there alone, would he? That would be suicide, the security around these estates is massive, no one man could get through.”
“You don’t know my brother, Steve.” Scott sighed, clenching his fists and imagining how they would connect with his little brother’s jaw once he caught up with him. “Johnny used to go by another name, Johnny Madrid.”
Barnet’s mouth made a little “o”.
“Yes, I see you’ve heard of him. For your benefit, Mitchell, my little brother used to be a gunfighter, and a damned famous one at that. If you believe even half the stories about him, he could take on that entire estate of security with one hand tied behind his back. I’ve seen him in action and I can tell you that I’d almost believe it myself. Almost. If he was a 100%, which we all know he isn’t. You can’t fake that kind of ashen coloring, especially on his dark skin.” Scott stared out the window at the quickly darkening cityscape. “But he’s no fool. Even he knows he can’t do this alone.” A short silence filled the carriage before Scott abruptly turned and used the bell-pull. “And I know exactly who he asked for help.”
He gave the coachman Paco’s address.
Johnny stood outside the library’s heavy oak door, steadying his breathing. He could ill afford a repeat of his first sighting of Castile. Freezing now could be fatal. His emotions and focus had to be solidly under control. It would be Madrid who entered the room; Johnny Lancer, son of Murdoch, brother of Scott, could be nowhere around.
Access to the mansion had been nearly seamless. Raul’s army friends were good—quiet, professional, efficient. The guards, two on the perimeter, one at each door front and back, were subdued, gagged, and bound with minimal effort.
Raul had followed Johnny into the house while Perez kept watch on the guards, and Ruiz and Castro searched the out-buildings and cellar. Johnny and Raul quickly assessed the main and upper levels, looking for occupants, especially for any room that might be guarded with Murdoch inside. A young maid and a cook were huddled together in the kitchen, eyes wide with terror at the sight of them.
“We won’t hurt you,” Johnny reassured them gently. “Is anyone else here besides Castile and the four guards?”
They shook their heads as one.
“We’ll be killed,” the younger one pleaded, “Castile is…wicked. Please let us go.”
“We’ll protect you. Just tell us where Castile is. Raul will stay with you until our other men are done searching the grounds. I promise you’ll be safe.”
The two exchanged uncertain looks, then the elder said in a hushed tone, “The library.”
Johnny could hear Castile through the door using a sing-song voice to address an animal of some sort. Johnny imagined it was a cat or small dog, thinking it unlikely one would use that tone with a mastiff or that a guard dog would have allowed him to get so close without a single warning bark or growl.
There might be another guard or two inside the room that the women didn’t know about. Johnny wasn’t worried about sizing the situation up quickly and taking any guards out, if needed.
Inhaling deeply, his drawn gun was steady as he burst into the room. He took in the interior in an instant.
Castile and Murdoch.
The sight of his father, bound and gagged but very much alive after all this time, set Johnny’s heart racing. But his gaze held on Castile, sitting behind a massive desk, calmly petting an extremely fluffy cat, no weapon in sight.
Using his peripheral vision, he surveyed his father quickly, relieved to see no sign of injury or starvation.
“It took you long enough, young man,” Castile chided. “I expected Madrid three months ago. It’s quite rude to have kept me waiting so long. Your father was so sure you and your brother would figure things out and come to rescue him. I told him he was a fool for putting his trust and beloved ranch in the hands of a gunfighter and a naive Easterner. It took almost a month for him to realize I was right. Oh, he had such faith in you boys… at first. But after you ran back home with your tails between your legs in September, well, he saw the truth of it then. He moped about for a couple of weeks, but then realized I was right. You boys gave up on him so damn easily, after all those years he prayed to have his sons home with him.”
We did give up too easily, Johnny chastised himself.
He glanced at his father, fearing he’d see disappointment, hurt, and anger in Murdoch’s eyes. What he saw there instead steadied his emotions and his gun hand. He turned his steely gaze on Castile.
“What do you want from us, Catherine?”
Catherine Garrett Lancer’s blue-gray eyes shone with delight as she laughed at him. She wore a sharply tailored black satin jacket over a rich green silk shirt. The long, flowing hair he remembered from her portrait was pulled into a severe bun at the nape of her neck, not a single strand out of place, nor a gray hair in sight. But her eyes and her smile were instantly recognizable. No jewelry adorned her neck or the hand she continually stroked along the cat’s back. Her other hand was out of sight; Johnny strongly suspected there was a gun pointed at him or Murdoch beneath the desk.
“What do I want? Why, everything, my dear boy, absolutely everything. Lancer is only the start. It should have been mine, at least half of it anyhow. Now, put that silly gun away. With how fast you can draw, there’s no need for you to be pointing it at me. It won’t make a difference anyway.”
Catherine stared at him expectantly as Johnny cast a quick glance in Murdoch’s direction, then re-holstered his pistol. He needed time to figure out her game. She certainly couldn’t be as unarmed and unprotected as she seemed.
“Very good. I like a man who can respect a woman’s direction. Your father was like that once, or pretended to be at least. It was what drew me to him, as unsophisticated and sophomoric as he was otherwise. After years of living under my father’s thumb, Murdoch treated me like an equal, asking my opinion instead of telling me what it should be. I was so hopeful that he was different from every other man I’d ever met.” Her voice became almost dreamy in its recollection. “You see, he promised me this grand adventure. ’We’ll make a home and a life in California’, he said, ‘far from Harlan’s oppressive control. We’ll build a beautiful ranch, the grandest in the San Joaquin, our own little piece of paradise, our own exquisite empire.’
“We found the perfect spot. Oh, the hacienda was in shambles, there wasn’t an intact fence or outbuilding, and only a smattering of cattle. But, with a small down payment from our tiny nest egg, money he had saved, money I inherited from my grandmother, and if we worked it for a year, it would be ours. We had almost nothing at the start, but inch by inch we sacrificed and built and toiled. Then finally, finally, a year to the day after we filed our homestead paperwork, we had done enough to earn the deed to the ranch.”
The cat jumped down from Catherine’s lap and crossed the room to rub against Johnny’s leg. He pretended to ignore it, but the intimate contact with the creature that Catherine had stroked so lovingly gave him the creeps. Catherine didn’t seem pleased with the cat either, given the narrowing of her eyes as she watched the animal’s defection to Johnny.
As she turned her gaze to Murdoch, Johnny did too. Murdoch’s posture was slumped, his jaw working at the cloth gag in his mouth. His eyes met Johnny’s briefly, then dropped away. Johnny thought of what Catherine said earlier about Murdoch losing faith in him and Scott, and the pain lanced.
“That should have been one of the best days of my life. I’d just told Murdoch he was going to be a father a few weeks before. Now we’d have our family, our ranch, our dream. We drove into town, later in the day than I expected, but he said he planned a special dinner for all we had to celebrate. I thought we’d go from Mr. Richardson’s office to the inn but as we rode by, I saw that the lawyer’s office was closed. Before I knew it, we were inside the inn and seated at a table in the back corner. ‘So much to celebrate’, Murdoch said, ‘our first big cattle contract, a baby on the way, and now a home to call our own’. Those were his exact words, ‘a home to call our own’.” Her eyes grew hard and cold. “And then he laid the fully executed deed down on the table in front of me, signed and filed. With only his name on it. Our home, and my name nowhere to be found on the deed.”
Johnny read her furor and Murdoch’s dismay. He ventured forth carefully. “I don’t know too much about these things but ain’t a wife’s property held in her husband’s name?”
“Not when half the money it was bought with was mine!” Catherine slammed her hand down on the desk so hard that the cat skittered out of the room. “There was no dowry. My father refused to give it—one more attempt to control me—and Murdoch said he didn’t want it, that he didn’t need money to want to marry me. Yet he took my money, my maternal grandmother’s money, inherited from her grandmother. No men involved at all. Until he got his hands on it and used it to put his name on our ranch! There are laws that allow a woman to keep property or money she owned before marriage, but he and his male lawyer just ignored all that. By the time I found out what he’d done, it was too late to undo it. He got his dream but I lost mine… all of it! The happy marriage, perfect family, beautiful ranch, growing dynasty, a birthright for our daughters… all gone with a careless swipe of a pen.”
Murdoch’s words tried unsuccessfully to escape around the gag. He looked stricken. Johnny could imagine that Murdoch was as shocked by all this as he was, perhaps even more so. Murdoch had honestly believed he’d had a happy marriage with Catherine and had been devastated by her death.
“So you faked your death and gave your son away to the father you despised?” Johnny asked incredulously.
“It was the only way I could be free.” Catherine’s voice, so angrily passionate a moment ago, now turned flat and emotionless. “I arranged for a friend of mine to cause some trouble on the ranch. She hired men to cut a few fences, start rumors of land pirates. I was close to my time by then. I knew Murdoch would send me away, being the big, tough, overprotective guy that he was. Poor little frail me couldn’t possibly hold her own on his big, bad ranch.”
She tapped a rhythm on the desktop with her fingers. “So I planned a new future for me and our daughter, one that didn’t involve a single man. My friend, who had also been betrayed by her husband, would join us. I had built a ranch up from nothing before. I could do it, or something far more grand, again.”
Frowning as her hand stilled, she shook her head. “But, the child was a boy. The absolute last thing I needed, another man in my life. I almost sent him back to Murdoch as the man so dearly wanted one.”
Murdoch blinked several times with the realization of how close he’d come to have been able to raise Scott.
“It’s funny how you don’t notice things when you think you’re in love with someone. But after the incident with the deed, I realized that he always talked about Lancer as a birthright for his sons, never his children. Oh, he claimed he’d welcome a little girl, but it wasn’t a daughter he wanted beside him on the range. No, his perfect daughter would dress in ribbons and frills and help her Mama cook and clean and sew.” Catherine shook her head with a “tsk, tsk” and pointed a slender finger at Murdoch. “Exactly what you have that ward of yours, Teresa, doing. Or had. Now she’s a full third owner in Lancer and doesn’t even carry the Lancer name. How’s that for a turn of events?”
Catherine laughed sharply, then let a deep breath out in a sigh. “So, things didn’t exactly turn out as I had planned twenty-six years ago, but I made do. I realized how fun it would be to give the boy to Harlan and watch the two power hungry men battle it out for him.”
“Scott was an innocent baby!” Johnny was horrified by her callousness.
Catherine shrugged and came around the front of the desk. She did indeed have a pistol in her hand, but she made no move to point it at either of them. Johnny was surprised that she wore a long, black skirt; he’d expected pants to complete her rather masculine outfit. “All men start off that way, as seemingly innocent babies. It doesn’t take long for them to grow into arrogant power mongers.”
“Wow, you are one warped lady,” Johnny spat, drawing his gun instantly. “I’m not interested in hearing any more of your crazy story. Put your gun down on the desk. We’re done here.”
Catherine smiled that same evil smile that had poleaxed him three days earlier. He forced himself not to react, even as a chill ran up his spine.
“Now, Johnny, do you really think you can just walk in here pointing that fancy six-shooter of yours at me and make this all go away? When I’ve been preparing for your arrival for months… preparing for the downfall of the mightily Murdoch Lancer for decades? Well, I suppose you do,” She sighed as she struck a match to light a lantern at the edge of the desk. “I am only a woman, after all. Like most men, you always underestimate us.”
“Oh, I never underestimate a woman,” Johnny replied coldly. “Some of the smartest ranchers and keenest business owners I know are women. In fact, one of the gunfighters I’d least like to face is a woman named Rosie Amaro de Fernando. But those women are strong and fight for what they believe in. What did you do? When something didn’t go your way, you ran away, faked your own death, and used your son as a weapon. Did you even tell Murdoch you were upset about the deed, give him a chance to make it right?”
“He should have known! We talked about it almost every day of our lives. It was to be our ranch, not his.”
“Maybe he thought you wanted to share things in the traditional way most husbands and wives do. It ain’t wrong that you wanted something different, but if he didn’t understand that, he could’ve just made a mistake. Maybe it could’ve been fixed.”
Thin lips curled up at one end. “Oh, he’s a smooth one, Murdoch. You’ve got that boy right on your side, don’t you?” Catherine bent slightly to look at Murdoch’s face. “Is that what you’d say if I took off that gag? That it was all a big mistake and you’d have done anything to make me happy?”
Murdoch nodded frantically, trying to tell his side around the gag. Johnny used the time she was focused on his father to scan the room more closely. Truth be told, he had felt it was far too easy getting into the house. She clearly had expected him, not just someday soon, but at the exact moment he entered the room. What was he missing? His head pounded mercilessly, making it almost impossible to concentrate.
He had told Raul to give him ten minutes with her before gathering Castro and Ruiz to advance on the room, unless they heard gunshots. Now, he feared they’d come charging in and set off whatever backup plan Catherine had up her sleeve.
He glanced at Murdoch for any clue that he was aware of a trap. His father’s eyes held a combination of fear and warning, but there was no direction to it. The light blue eyes simply flicked back and forth between him and Catherine.
Taking a chance, Johnny moved toward the window, never fully taking his eyes off Catherine, but feigning disinterest in her. It threw her off, and she swung the pistol toward him.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“Just wanted to check out the sunset. Seems a fancy house like this ought to have a real pretty view.” He scanned the grounds and saw nothing. “Nope. Lotsa trees, can’t see too much sky.”
“Come back here and sit down.”
“So you can truss me up like you did my Old Man? I don’t think so.” Johnny sauntered around the back of the desk so Catherine had to turn to see him. He wanted to view things from her perspective. Was there one of those fancy call bells under the desk that she could use to signal someone? Were there more guards in the house than the four they’d found? From this angle, the desk appeared like any other. A bullet would have to pass through drawers to hit Murdoch if fired from the desk chair.
Catherine pressed her gun barrel against Murdoch’s temple. “I said, sit down.”
“Ah, you have more stories to tell?” Johnny moved toward the couch but via the far side of the desk, opposite from how Catherine intended for him to go. He caught her glancing anxiously at something over his shoulder. As he sat, he scanned the massive bookcase behind the desk. Maybe there was a secret panel she planned to escape through.
Keep her talking.
“So why now, Catherine? From what I’ve heard, Avery Castile is filthy rich and is both feared and respected here and in France. You’ve had twenty-five years to get back at Murdoch. Why’d you pick now to do it?”
Catherine snorted, crossing to a silver bar-cart to pour herself a glass of wine from a crystal decanter. “Avery Castile is feared and respected because people believe he’s a man.” She offered Johnny a glass, but he shook his head. “Because of that, I have to live like a damn recluse, while Murdoch, and Harlan, and even my own son can negotiate deals over a bottle of scotch, or lobby a councilman for favorable legislation, or make friends with a judge by inviting him and his wife to share a box at the opera. It’s a man’s world. My friends and I are tired of it, so we’re turning things around a bit.”
The lantern light reflected in her wine as she extended the wick to brighten the room.
“Friends like Ailith Dunbar?”
“That meek little mouse? Hardly. She was a means to an end. Her brother tried to cheat a friend of mine. Now his business and house belong to my friend. Ailith was a convenient way to draw Murdoch away from his precious ranch and to set up a story for why he was giving up the ranch.”
“Are you holding her prisoner here, too?”
“No need, my boy. She did as she was told and now has enough money to set herself up in a little house somewhere until the real man of her dreams comes along to sweep her off her feet.”
Johnny snorted in derision.
“You complain about men using their power against women, then what do you do? Use your power to threaten and manipulate a woman to suit your needs. How does that make you any better than them?”
“Ah, see, there’s where you’re wrong, dear Johnny, I didn’t use Ailith because she’s a woman, I used her because she’s weak. I’ve used weak men the same way. Gender isn’t the issue. I despise weaklings.”
“Yet, you hide behind a man’s identity and let someone who isn’t even real take credit for all you’ve done and the wealth you’ve acquired. Don’t seem too strong to me.”
“Maybe, unlike most men, I don’t feel the need to take credit for my greatest accomplishments. Perhaps I’m content to let the likes of Day Pardee, Harlan Garrett, or a certain gambler who thought your Mama was awfully pretty take the blame for poor old Murdoch’s years of misfortune.”
“You want me to believe you hired someone to draw my mother away from Lancer?” Johnny was pleased that his question sounded cynical rather than tortured. The possibility that Catherine had orchestrated all those events boggled his mind.
“I honestly don’t care what you believe,” Catherine replied casually as she systematically lit several other lanterns around the room, including one on the table behind Johnny’s head. She leaned uncomfortably close as she murmured. “But think about some of the other things you know were connected to your father’s disappearance a few months ago. You know of Ailith’s involvement, the ferry station clerk, a traveling pastor signing a marriage license, a very cunning attorney to rewrite the partnership agreement, who else could have driven those things?”
She ran her fingers across his cheek as she moved back to her perch on the edge of the desk. The trail of ice they left behind made Johnny’s eyes water. His vision was blurry enough already. He so wanted to close his eyes against the angry thrumming in his head. Just for a minute. One soothing minute…
She was talking again; he struggled to catch up.
“…make him sign those papers and stay away from Lancer for three months? Oh, you don’t think I’ve had him here all that time, do you? No, I’m far too busy for that. Why, you and Ailith had a lovely fall honeymoon, didn’t you, Murdoch? Once you realized your precious sons had completely given up on you, you were more than happy to spend a few months with your third wife on that private little island…”
Murdoch shook his head frantically, his eyes pleading with Johnny. Johnny nodded slightly at his father, then cast his Madrid stare at Catherine.
“So what if he did? Someone despicable enough to give away her son surely threatened him into doing anything he could to protect an innocent woman who’d been manipulated into marrying him.”
“Oh, Murdoch isn’t as chivalrous as all that, Johnny. They had a true honeymoon, if you know what I mean. Sometimes more than once a night.”
Johnny tried not to notice the flush of color rising up Murdoch’s neck.
“Again, so what? She was either in on your wicked plan or truly in love with him. Either way, she’s a grown woman.”
Johnny wondered where the hell Raul and the others were. It had been far longer than ten minutes.
“How about taking off that gag and giving Murdoch a chance to say his piece. Or are you afraid that it ain’t exactly gonna line up with yours?”
Catherine sighed heavily. “Oh, go ahead, but any move to untie him, whisper with him, or go for your gun, and he’s dead. Believe me, boy, your quick draw won’t help you here.”
Johnny stood up—too quickly—and the room spun. He tried to mask it with a hand to the back of Murdoch’s chair.
“How’s that poor cracked head of yours, Johnny? Seeing your face the other day… oh, did I ever wish there was a photographer to capture it forever. Then when that carriage came flying around the corner! I thought for sure at least one of my problems had been solved for me.”
Johnny concentrated on untying the gag from around Murdoch’s mouth. The knots in the silk scarf had pulled tight with Murdoch’s struggles, and it took a few moments for him to untie them. As soon as the material fell away, Murdoch’s words came in a dry-mouthed jumble.
“I always…. be…lieved in you… and… Scott, son…”
Johnny poured him a glass of water from the carafe on the bar cart, ignoring Catherine’s pistol that followed his every movement. He held the glass for Murdoch to drink, then used his hand to wipe away a dribble and a smudge of purple-blue left behind by the wet silk gag.
“Are you hurt?” Johnny heard the tremor in his voice but didn’t care. It was all he could do not to throw his arms around his father and rest his aching head against the strong chest.
“I’m fine, son. Please believe I didn’t choose to stay away. But after I found out she’d hired the person who spooked Walt’s horse, and killed Clete Hardy, and Jelly, I…”
Johnny stiffened, his pistol instantly aimed back at Catherine’s chest.
“You had them killed?”
Catherine’s smile wasn’t quite as confident as it had been a moment ago. “No, but it was pretty easy to make Murdoch believe I had. Ranching is a dangerous business. People get hurt, get sick, and some die. It’s very convenient if you have someone watching who can relay all the details so you can convince a person that you were responsible. Well, the spooked horse, yes, that I may have had something to do with.” The hesitant smile became a smirk. “It’s so funny that you’re quick to believe I was responsible for things I wasn’t, yet you don’t seem to believe me about the things I was responsible for.
“Your mother… now, that was fun. She loved your father so much… what a blow it was to her to find out they weren’t legally married and that her beloved little boy was just a bastard. She couldn’t leave fast enough. And for good measure, I made sure she wasn’t comfortable staying anywhere more than a few months. A new man, all warm and loving at the start, turning into a monster at the flip of a coin…”
In two steps, Johnny had the muzzle of his gun against her throat. “Think very carefully if you really want me to believe you were responsible for all her suffering.”
“Come now, dear boy, you aren’t going to shoot your brother’s mother, are you?” Catherine’s voice was constricted by the pressure against her windpipe but was calm and composed. “He’ll never forgive you. Do you really want to lose the big brother you waited all your childhood for?”
“I’d rather have him hate me or even kill me than to know what you did to him and our family, you evil bitch!”
“Johnny!” Murdoch’s warning spun Johnny around to see the young maid duck-walking a tied and gagged Raul into the room with a gun at his head. The cook simultaneously entered through a hidden passageway, her pistol aimed at Murdoch’s head, a grin a mile wide across her face.
Catherine pushed Johnny’s hand away and pulled the gun from its clutches. “Sit back down.” She motioned for Raul to be settled beside Johnny on the couch, smiling with pleasure at the two women. “I assume our other guests have been handled as efficiently.”
“And a distressed Miss Judith Carothers will be approaching Scott Garrett Lancer as he prepares to leave the vernissage in another hour or so, pleading for an escort home after that boor of a date of hers abandoned her along with their carriage?”
“Catherine,” Murdoch pleaded, “he’s our son. He’s an honorable, kind young man, nothing like the power hungry men you despise. I can accept your anger and disappointment in me and whatever punishment you feel I deserve, but leave the boys be. They’re innocent.”
“Innocent, you say,” Catherine approached Johnny again, this time running her hand up his arm, which he yanked away. “Johnny Madrid, the innocent gunfighter. Yes, that does have quite the ring to it.”
“We’re so very glad for your protection, Mr. Gunfighter, sir,” the maid mocked. “I don’t know how us weak little girls would have managed without you.”
Johnny ignored the taunting, focusing instead on how each woman held her gun. Catherine had set hers down on the bar cart as she refilled her wine. His, she’d left on the desktop, a mere three steps away. He knew, though, they’d be expecting him to make a move for it. The cook was less than subtle checking him, then the abandoned gun, and back again. Luckily, her focus on her own weapon was negligent. Whenever she looked past Johnny to the desk, the muzzle of her gun followed her gaze away from Murdoch’s head. The maid was no longer training her gun directly on Raul. She had moved over by the window, allowing it to point in their general direction as she scanned the grounds.
Johnny imagined they were waiting until Catherine’s other hired gun arrived with Scott in tow. It twisted his heart to think of the terrible surprise that awaited his brother. He was determined to get them out of this mess before then. He hoped he could figure out a way that didn’t involve him killing Catherine, but if he couldn’t, he was going to be damned sure Scott didn’t have to see it happen or hear the vile insanity that spewed from his mother’s mouth.
Johnny himself was terribly shaken by it. All his childhood, he had believed his father despised him and had thrown his mother and him out and into a life of violence and poverty. When he arrived at Lancer, he learned his mother had lied after running away with another man. For the last year and a half, he had struggled not to hate her.
I’m so sorry, Mama, for those hateful things I said and believed about you. Thank you for protecting me for as long as you could. I promise you I’m not gonna let this monster hurt anyone else like she did you.
The silence in the room felt ominous. Once again, it was time for a distraction.
“So why the name Avery Castile? Didn’t ya like the name your Mama gave ya?”
“Interesting that you should ask it that way, Johnny,” Catherine moved to an upholstered chair to the right of the desk, seeming—perhaps too obviously—to forget her gun on the bar cart. Johnny wondered if it was even loaded, or just a prop to tempt him to go for it. “Catherine is a family name on my grandmother’s side. I’m descended from Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, whom he treated quite despicably I might add, even defying the Pope by annulling his own marriage to her. But Catherine wasn’t the family name my mother wanted to give me, it was Avery. Harlan, of course, overruled her, saying it was a man’s name. So she gave it to me as my middle name. He hasn’t appeared to have recognized it—or Castile, which was Catherine of Aragon’s family name on her grandmother’s side—in any of our business dealings.”
Johnny grinned, “So you’ve been putting the screws to Old Harlan, too, huh?”
Catherine smiled as she sipped her wine, “You could say that. My work in destroying the Lancers should be done in,” a glance at the mantle clock, “say, the next three hours. Harlan’s empire will begin to crumble before the new year.”
“Impressive. Would you mind if I took you up on your offer of wine now? I’m feeling a bit dry.”
Johnny could feel every eye upon him as he casually poured himself a glass of wine from the decanter, his hand not six inches from the pistol lying on the bar cart. Two guns turned on him as he turned back, “Can I get anyone else something?”
Getting somewhat perplexed negatives from everyone, Johnny chose to sit on the ottoman at Murdoch’s feet so he was directly facing Catherine, and now only a step and a half away from his gun and within arm’s reach of the cook’s.
“Now, how is this all gonna go down? Are you just gonna shoot us all in cold blood, or maybe ship us off to that island you sent Murdoch and Ailith to?” Johnny eyed Catherine over his glass as he sipped the expensive wine.
She seemed to enjoy his sarcasm. “A woman can’t reveal all her secrets, now can she?”
“You sure do have a lot of secrets to reveal. But you know one thing I wonder, if you and Murdoch are still married, with you being alive now and all, doesn’t he own half of everything you’ve got?”
“Of course not. It wasn’t Catherine Lancer who earned all my wealth.”
“No, it was Avery Castile… a man who doesn’t exist. I’d love to see how things will go for you, once your secret is out.”
“First, my insolent child, my secret isn’t coming out, and even if it did some far off day, you will not be alive to see it.”
“I wouldn’t be so confident on either score… Mother.”
A flurry of activity accompanied Scott’s quiet words as he entered through the same hidden passageway the cook had used. Barnet, Ruiz, and Castro moved into the room as one, the latter two disarming the cook and maid, while Barnet took up an armed stance at Catherine’s shoulder, having scooped up her pistol as he passed the bar cart. Johnny had grabbed his gun off the desk and, now seeing all the women fully covered by others, immediately went to Scott whose gun was trained at Catherine’s chest.
Taking in his brother’s pallor and drawn features, Johnny stepped between him and Catherine and gently eased Scott’s gun hand down.
“We’ve got this, brother. Can you get Murdoch untied? He’s kinda anxious to see you.”
Scott’s gaze did not move from his mother’s smug expression. The confusion and devastation Johnny saw there tore at his heart.
“Well, well, the fair-haired boy saves the day,” Catherine oozed. “Come and give your mother a kiss ‘hello’, son. It’s been a long time.”
Johnny grabbed the scarf that had been Murdoch’s gag and stuffed it into Catherine’s mouth. “Get her outta here!” he hissed at Barnet as Mitchell inched his way timidly into the room and began to untie Raul. “Don’t be shy in checking her over for weapons, modesty be damned.” He nodded the now-free Raul over to join Barnet in guarding Catherine. “Both of you, keep your eyes and guns on her at all times. Ruiz and Castro, don’t go gentle on them two either, just cuz they’re women. They are as vicious as any man you’ve gone up against.”
He turned back just as Mitchell released Murdoch and found himself drawn into a three-way bear hug with Scott.
“My boys,” Murdoch murmured, his voice tight with emotion.
Johnny allowed himself the luxury of his father’s strong embrace for a moment. Scott’s arms were limp, his gaze following as Catherine was escorted out of the room. Johnny spoke softly into Murdoch’s ear, “I’m so glad you’re safe. Scott needs you. I’m going to tie things up in the other room.”
He left Scott in Murdoch’s compassionate care and went to find Barnet and Mitchell. Mitchell was in full attorney mode.
“We can hold the women on kidnapping and assault charges, I’m sure there are other charges that will apply to her.” Mitchell nodded his head at Catherine who looked nonchalant and very much in control despite having her hands tied, the gag still in place, and two guns pointed at her. “We’ll take her to the police station and send officers out to pick up the others. Did I understand correctly that she’s Catherine Lancer, Scott’s mother?”
“She mighta given birth to him, but she in no way was his mother,” Johnny spat, “And you ain’t taking her nowhere. I have other plans for Avery Castile.”
“Johnny,” Mitchell’s voice took on a warning tone, “I understand the harm she has brought to your family, but I can’t condone vigilantism. She has a right to a trial.”
“Oh, she’ll get her trial, probably more than one,” Madrid’s stare held Catherine’s as he spoke. “But her first one ain’t gonna be here where her money can buy her way outta things. She’s committed a lot of crimes across a lot of states and a few different countries. Raul and one of his friends will take her to a quiet jail with a very respectable sheriff who can keep an eye on her until the circuit judge comes around in a couple of months. By then, we’ll know where to send her first.” He cocked his head and smiled, “I’m leaning toward Scotland…”
Catherine’s expression was stormy, the mumble behind the gag clearly a string of curses.
“If you ain’t comfortable with that Mitchell, I suggest you leave now.” Johnny turned back to the attorney. “If I was gonna shoot her, I had half a dozen chances to do it, and any one of them woulda stood up in a court of law. Don’t mean I don’t want to. And it sure as hell don’t mean I’m gonna give her the chance to hurt my family any more than she already has.”
Mitchell rubbed his chin. “Will you at least tell me where you’re taking her?”
“How about letting Barnet go along?”
Johnny glanced at the ex-Marshall. “Depends. If he wants to hire on to my security team and be paid by me, I’d welcome that, with the understanding that the location remains secret and all contact is to me and only me.” A raised eyebrow sought Barnet’s opinion.
Barnet checked that Mitchell appeared okay with the idea. “I’ll make sure she gets there unharmed and will evaluate both the sheriff and the detention facility.” It was a reassurance for Mitchell and a caveat for Johnny.
Both nodded their agreement.
They had separated Catherine from her staff, and it was Barnet’s idea to make it look like Catherine had managed to escape, leaving them to take the brunt of the charges for kidnapping Murdoch. It was a masterful step that had the two women in particular eager to spill every detail they knew about Avery Castile to anyone who wanted to listen.
Johnny, head reeling and stomach reliving its past queasiness, sat down on a chair in the now empty hallway, trying to regain his equilibrium. He closed his eyes, holding his head in his hands, wishing for one of those cool cloths to soothe the pounding.
Arguing in the library behind him raised his head and drew him unsteadily to his feet. He opened the door to find Murdoch restraining Scott. Seeing Johnny, Scott pulled away from his father’s hold.
“I have to talk to her before you…”
Johnny was worried by his brother’s frantic distress. He caught Scott’s arm as the older man tried to push past him, afraid Scott’s raised voice might alert the women in with Mitchell that Catherine hadn’t escaped after all. “Don’t go out there…”
Scott shoved Johnny into the wall. “You did it already, didn’t you?” His face, inches away from Johnny’s, was a mask of fury. “Madrid couldn’t wait to make his kill. Or did you have one of your amigos take her off to a remote area to mete out your gunfighter justice?”
“Scott!” Murdoch shouted, grabbing the arm that was cocked back and preparing for a punch.
“Let go of me!” Scott twisted away, lunging for the opened door.
It took a moment for Johnny’s ears to stop ringing, both from his head’s contact with the wall and the viciousness of the verbal assault. He tackled Scott, who jabbed an elbow back into Johnny’s side. The brothers rolled on the floor, trading punches, Scott’s wild and furious, Johnny’s defensive and tempered.
“..the door…” Johnny gritted as Murdoch tried to intervene.
Murdoch quickly closed the door and grabbed Scott in a bear hug as he straddled Johnny to land a knock-out blow.
“He killed her!” Scott kicked out as Murdoch manhandled him off his
brother, even his fury no match for his father’s equally determined stronghold.
“Stop it!” Murdoch hissed. “Settle down!”
Johnny lay frozen by the hatred in Scott’s eyes as the older man glared down at him. They’d had a few arguments in their time at the ranch, several in the tumultuous last three months, but never had he seen such a look of contempt on his brother’s face. It wounded him deeply.
Panting, he rolled to his side and unsteadily pushed himself up, struggling to curb his urge to retaliate. Instead, he got as close as he dared to Scott before saying in a low, tight voice, “She’s alive and safe with Barnet and Raul. But we have her hidden downstairs to convince her staff that she ran off and left them to the consequences of her crimes. The cook and maid are talking up a storm with Mitchell.”
“I want to see her!” Scott had stopped struggling against Murdoch, but his expression was defiant.
Johnny dropped his head and sighed, then looked past his brother to Murdoch. In those light blue eyes, Johnny read compassion for both sons’ pain. “I ain’t gonna stop you, Scott. But not here. We gotta get her outta here before the police come.”
“You’re not having her arrested?” Murdoch asked, shocked. “Aside from what she did to me, what she did to Ailith deserves a long time in prison. And I wouldn’t believe her that she didn’t have Jelly poisoned or arrange Clete’s accident.”
“She’ll be arrested, just not here where she’s got access to money and powerful friends to make this all go away.”
“Are you taking her to some hellhole in Mexico?” Scott challenged. “She deserves a lawyer and a fair trial…”
Johnny grabbed the front of Scott’s jacket in a tight fist. “Dios, Scott, of course I want her punished and dead for real with how bad she has hurt us! But I ain’t gonna be the one to rip apart the last shreds of our family by hurting her. I’m sorry you don’t think better of me than that!” He spun away, facing the door, flexing his hands to control his anger and hurt. It was several breaths before he could continue. “But I also ain’t gonna let her get away with what she’s done. If you insist on meeting with her, I’ll talk to Barnet to find a safe place away from here where you can do that.” He moved to the door, then stopped with his hand on the knob. Glancing over his shoulder at his still-fuming brother and white-faced father, Johnny added, “You don’t need to worry about Madrid, Scott. He didn’t have a family to care about. Now Johnny Lancer, you’d best not mess with him because he won’t let anything or anyone keep him from protecting his family.”
It could have been a bright, sunny day or pitch black midnight. In this room, it was impossible to tell. At any other time, the windowless, cramped pantry would ignite Johnny’s abhorrence of tight spaces. Instead, he had sought it out, his aching head craving the darkness, his pummeled heart needing solitude.
They’d spirited Catherine out of the estate in the covered carriage Raul’s team had hidden away for that purpose. Johnny rode along with Raul and Barnet to an isolated but surprisingly well-kept cabin miles north of the nearest city. After Murdoch gave his statement to the police, Perez led him and Scott to the cabin where Scott was allowed his meeting with Catherine. Murdoch insisted on being in the room, Raul and Barnet insisted on being right outside the door.
Johnny kept watch in the trees behind the house throughout the night, unable to bear listening to Catherine’s game-playing, or to feel his beloved brother’s hostility. Shortly before dawn, Barnet signaled that he and Raul were ready to move Catherine to the next location. Murdoch kept a firm hand on Scott’s arm on the porch as Catherine was escorted to the carriage. Johnny watched Barnet lock her padded ankle chain onto the metal seat-support bolted into the coach’s floor.
“Oh, Johnny, you do think you’ve won, don’t you, boy?” Catherine smiled insincerely as she waved at Scott over his shoulder. “Ah, but you have underestimated Scott’s feelings of protectiveness toward his long-lost mother. You are destroying any sense of brotherhood my darling son might have felt for you with your misguided efforts to keep me from a fair trial. He knows I did all this because I was so desperate to get him back in my life.”
Johnny didn’t allow his fear that there was an ominous truth to her words to show in his response. “You forget that he heard your entire confession before he came into the room.”
“You can only wish for that to be the case. What little he heard actually supports my side of things quite nicely. I was finally making Murdoch pay for faking my death all those years ago in order to get the rest of my grandmother’s inheritance. Then he shipped poor innocent Scott off to Boston.”
“He isn’t going to believe that bullshit.”
“No? You believed your mother.” She fluttered her lashes at him in feigned innocence.
Johnny set his jaw as he turned to Barnet. “Don’t hesitate to use that gag again if her nonsense chatter gets too annoying.” He closed the door on them and spoke to Raul and then Perez, who would accompany the others to the next town’s livery so he could leave his horse behind for Johnny. As he stepped back to watch the coach ride out, Johnny watched another struggle erupt between Murdoch and Scott before the door closed behind them.
Johnny stood there a long time, staring at nothing. Tempted beyond belief to grab one of the horses and ride off in the opposite direction, his protesting stomach reminded him that he’d had nothing but the coffee Perez had left with him when he’d refused to be relieved from guard duty at midnight. Reluctantly, he went inside, bracing for an onslaught, immensely relieved to find father and son had closed themselves into the only bedroom.
Blessedly, the coffee pot was still hot, with nearly a full cup inside. They’d left him breakfast warming on the stove, biscuits and bacon. He sat at the table, trying not to listen to the muffled argument from the back room. After half a cup of coffee and a few bites of biscuit, his stomach convinced him not to attempt more, so he toed off his boots and moved over to the battered couch to lie down. The sun seemed deviously aimed at his closed eyes, even turning on his other side didn’t help. He grabbed a blanket, intending to cover the window, then spotted the cracked open pantry door. The inside was narrow and cool, no more than a bedroll in width, with shelves lining both sides. He pulled a flour sack down from the shelf, creating a powdery trail from a mouse-nibbled hole in one seam. He pulled the door closed behind him, used the sack for a pillow, and curled up under the blanket in the much-welcomed darkness.
He wasn’t certain if he had slept, but he was fully awake as footsteps approached the pantry door hours later. He recognized his father’s distinctive footfalls well before the quiet voice accompanied a hand on the knob.
He sat up and prepared his eyes for a burst of light. “Don’t worry, my gun is holstered.”
The door creaked open and was instantly filled by Murdoch’s massive frame. “What are you doing in here, son?”
“Just protecting the flour from the mice.”
“Seems a bit late, given the tiny white footprints along the shelf.” Murdoch chuckled. He lowered his bulk to sit sideways in the open doorway.
Johnny tipped his head to the side so the light that filtered in with Murdoch’s changed position hit the flour sack rather than his eyes. “Hey, as long as they ain’t rats, I’m happy to share Barnet’s flour with them.”
He could feel his father studying him despite the pantry’s shadows. “I heard about the concussion. Why don’t you come out and lie down in the other bed in the back room? Scott’s finally asleep and I think he’ll stay that way for a while. It’s dark in there.”
“No thanks, I’m fine.” Johnny picked up a canning jar cover that had fallen to the floor, running his fingers over the rounded glass surface. “Did you get checked over when you were in town?”
“There was no need. She didn’t hurt me or Ailith, at least not physically. What she did to us by threatening our families…well, that will take a long time to get over, if we even can.” Murdoch’s voice was husky. “Whether or not she was behind Jelly’s poisoning, or Clete’s death, she made me believe she was, and that you, Scott, or Teresa would be next. She ruined Ailith’s brother and then made him disappear.”
“Is Ailith alright? Catherine made it sound like she might have ‘disappeared’ Ailith too.”
“I pray she is. She tried to make Catherine believe she had always despised Roland for his control over her and hated me for taking advantage of her when we were alone together, which of course wasn’t true. Catherine claimed she gave her money and set her up somewhere, but I don’t trust her one bit. Ailith and I had worked out a way to get messages to each other if we ever got free. As soon as we’re done here, I’ll do my part.”
A deep silence fell between them before Johnny asked softly, “Did you think we’d given up on you, Murdoch?”
Murdoch was outlined by the light in the main room, but his expression was hidden in shadow as he turned to Johnny. “Honestly, son, I hoped you had. The things she threatened… I wanted you boys and Teresa to be safe. I’d rather have you go back to hating me than to risk your lives for me.”
Johnny bowed his head, flipping the lid over in his hands. “Scott hates me now, doesn’t he?”
“No, Johnny. He’s shocked to find his mother alive and doesn’t want to believe she is capable of such terrible things. You’re a convenient outlet for that anger, but he’ll come around.”
“Will he?” Johnny dropped his head back to stare at the vague outlines of the cans and jars on the shelves above. “Scott never seemed to judge me about my past, but the way he came at me last night about Madrid… I never thought I’d see him look at me with such…disgust. Like he’d always held that doubt just under the surface about what kind of man I am.”
“Oh, son, I don’t believe that at all. Scott threw some pretty vile accusations in my direction, too. I won’t say they didn’t hurt, but I know he doesn’t truly believe them. He’s confused and angry and he can’t bring himself to point that fury at his mother. As hurt as you’re feeling right now, I know deep down you understand that. I saw the way you pulled your punches with him last night. He didn’t mean any of it.”
“Tell my ribs that,” Johnny muttered, rubbing the spot where Scott’s elbow and later a fist caught him. “You can’t be feeling any less shocked and angry than he is. You mourned her for years and to find out she planned it all…”
“…and gave my son away to a man who both despised me and had the means to keep Scott away from me for twenty four years!” Murdoch gave a humorless laugh. “Let’s just say that Scott’s reaction is mild compared to mine. But I’ve had three miserable months to begin to accept the horror of it. Scott needs time.”
A silence fell between father and son.
“I missed you so much, Murdoch.” Johnny whispered.
Murdoch reached out to squeeze his calf. “Me too you. I hated thinking you all might believe I’d left you intentionally, yet feared you wouldn’t believe Catherine’s ploy and that she’d hurt one or all of you to punish me. I’m grateful you didn’t let either of my worst fears come true.”
“But we did, Murdoch. All of us at one time or another. It was so hard to know what to believe. None of us wanted to think of you being held prisoner somewhere… or worse, so sometimes it was easier to believe that you’d left us.”
“Especially because for you and Scott, it had already happened when you were children.”
“No, it didn’t. We were taken from you, we know that now.”
“Your heads know that,” Murdoch rubbed Johnny’s calf. “But your hearts remember only too well what it felt like to be a child whose father didn’t want him.”
Johnny had to reluctantly admit the truth of Murdoch’s words. Those feelings had made him believe Murdoch was a hair’s breadth away from throwing him out any time that gravelly voice bellowed that first year. They’d lost so many years to Catherine’s treachery.
And now he feared he’d lose Scott over it.
“I don’t think she’s gonna stop hurting us for a real long time.”
“We can’t let her win by tearing our family apart. We have to be stronger than that.”
“Yeah.” Johnny closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, believing it, yet having no idea how they could possibly accomplish it.
Murdoch gave a low groan as he pushed himself up from the floor. “Come out of there. This body was not meant to be crammed into a doorway and I’m sure lying on the floor isn’t doing your headache any good.”
“How did you know I was in here?”
Murdoch smiled as he toed a piece of blanket fringe that had peeked out beneath the closed door. “When you were little, you’d stand in the corner with your blanket over your head, thinking if you couldn’t see us, we couldn’t see you. Your mother and I would pretend to look all over for you then suddenly you’d whip it off, giggling like all get out that you’d tricked us.”
Johnny followed Murdoch into the outer room, wishing he could hide from everything under his blanket. He craved the dark and marginally comfortable bed in the back room, but feared another painful confrontation with Scott. So he sat cross-legged on the bottom of the couch with his back to the window, his head bowed onto his arms across the couch back.
Murdoch drew the thin curtains, then stooped down to straighten Johnny’s boots that he’d haphazardly kicked off by the door. “Besides, I knew you couldn’t have gone too far without your boots and there aren’t a lot of other choices of rooms. If you won’t lie down in back, can I at least get you some coffee?” A new pot was bubbling on the stove.
Murdoch brought over two cups and sat on the opposite end of the couch. They drank in silence for a while. Johnny was facing the bedroom door and couldn’t help but think about the brother behind it.
“Did Scott really not hear anything Catherine said about why she had sent him off to Harlan or… the other stuff she did?”
Murdoch glanced uneasily at the door himself. “I honestly don’t know, he won’t talk about it. I asked Barnet and Mitchell what they heard, but Barnet waited for Scott to get into place before he approached the library door and Mitchell stayed back until after the room was secure, so neither heard much.”
Johnny nodded slowly, resting his coffee cup on one knee. “Will you tell me how everything happened, what the last three months have been like for you?”
Slowly, with a mixture of reluctance and deep emotion, Murdoch described how his relationship with Ailith had quickly grown and then abruptly unraveled during his last trip to San Francisco. Catherine had blackmailed her into pretending to fall in love with him to save her brother’s failing business and their family home.
“I was so shocked to find out Catherine was alive. I couldn’t… couldn’t at all reconcile the woman I married, absolutely adored, and then mourned with this… this monster who had done all those despicable things and was now threatening everyone I loved. She told me in lurid detail how she’d had that gosling Jelly brought home infected with some disease and gloated over Clete supposedly falling into the ravine.” Murdoch’s jaw was clenched in rage. “I believed that she caused their deaths and that worse was in store for each of you if I didn’t sign over my share of the ranch to Teresa. How is she, Johnny? Did Victoria get the message to come for her?”
Johnny blew his air out through pursed lips. “Yes, Victoria came. Heath, too. She actually got her letter sooner than she was supposed to so they got there the same night we got your letter. Heath went on the cattle drive and Victoria stayed with Teresa so Scott and I could both get up here to figure out what was going on. We didn’t do too good with that. Teresa, well, Teresa had a real hard time with things. She’s at the Barkley’s now.”
Murdoch closed his eyes, shaking his head in despair. “I asked Mitchell to wire Teresa, at the ranch, to say that we were all okay. I’ll send one to Victoria when we get back to town.”
“I’m sure Cip passed it on to Victoria. Maybe we can go home by way of Stockton and bring Teresa with us.”
“That’s a wonderful idea, son. I know I can’t wait to see her.”
Their conversation stopped abruptly as the door to the bedroom opened. Scott appeared, looking hungover and ill. His silk shirt was mostly untucked, the cufflinks missing from the cuffs. He barely glanced at them before heading to the outhouse. Neither man said a word as they awaited his return.
“There’s coffee, son,” Murdoch offered when Scott came back.
Without answering, Scott shrugged into his suit coat, then poured himself a cup, standing with his back to them. After a few sips, he turned around, his gaze fixing on Johnny.
“Are you going to tell me where they took her?” His voice was raspy and harsh, his eyes cold steel.
Johnny turned to face his brother fully. “The three of us need to talk and figure this out.”
Scott cocked his head to the side; his chin jutted forward. “I take it that’s a no?” Anger churned at the edges of his question.
Murdoch stood. “Your brother is saying we need to talk this over as a family…”
“A family! Now that’s rich!” Scott’s exclamation was razor sharp. “Maybe my brother can explain why he’s been lying to me for days, maybe weeks for all I know, never thinking I might care to know that my mother is alive?”
“No, Murdoch, I can answer for myself.” Johnny set his cup on the floor and stood, too, meeting his brother’s cold, flat stare. “I only found out she was alive the night I almost got run over. In fact, that’s why I almost got run over. I was so shocked to see her, I couldn’t move. I didn’t tell you because I was afraid for you. She’d already kidnapped Murdoch and killed Jelly and Clete. I couldn’t let her get to you, too.”
“She didn’t kill either Clete or Jelly, and maybe she took Murdoch trying to protect me. Did that ever occur to you?”
It clicked in Johnny’s mind that perhaps Scott had heard Catherine’s self-congratulatory confession after all.
“No, Scott, it didn’t.” Johnny said softly. “If Murdoch was the reason she never reached out to you, she had three months while she had him to do it.”
“Maybe she was afraid of Johnny Madrid. Either you, or one of your hired guns has been on me the whole time.”
Johnny had to take a breath to get past the blow of Scott’s accusation.
“Funny, it didn’t look like she was worried about me at all in that library. She was too busy bragging how she pulled one over on everyone by faking her death. Even if she didn’t murder Jelly and Clete, she admitted to hurting Walt. But you heard that, didn’t you, Scott?” His voice turned suddenly gentle, almost apologetic. He knew this was going to hurt. “You heard all those terrible, vicious things she said about why she did all this. How angry she was at Murdoch, how she made plans to fake her death to get away.”
Johnny took a step closer, seeing the memory flash in his brother’s eyes and the veil of pain that fell across his face. “That’s what I wanted to protect you from, brother. I may not have known the whole of it, but I knew she had hurt our family, and that was gonna hurt you deep. I thought if I could just stop her and get Murdoch home… that he’d know what to do. I’m sorry if I made it worse on you.”
Scott shook his head as if trying to force himself awake after a nightmare. The grief in his eyes burned all the way to Johnny’s soul. Johnny turned to their father, pleading silently for help to draw Scott out of the fiery pit he was drowning in.
Murdoch took Scott by the arm, guiding him to the couch. Scott didn’t resist and didn’t make eye contact. He dropped onto the couch as if cold-cocked, eyes open but unseeing. Murdoch knelt beside him, gripping his ice-cold hands in massive, warm ones.
“She fooled us all, son, me most of all. I’m sorry I didn’t see through her. I swear I loved her with all my heart and had no idea how much I’d hurt her over the deed to the ranch. I would have made it right if I’d known.”
“…she never loved me…” Scott murmured, staring off into nothingness. “All my childhood, I clung to the midwife’s story of how much my mother loved me, holding me, singing to me, right up to her last breath… it was all a lie.”
Murdoch rubbed his thumbs over Scott’s knuckles, his eyes fixed on his son’s ashen features. “What wasn’t a lie is that I loved you from the minute I knew I was going to be your father, and that love never weakened even over the years we couldn’t be together.”
“She used me to hurt you, she drove Maria away…” Anguished eyes met Johnny’s for the briefest moment, reflecting his realization of the cascade of horrors that had resulted from Catherine’s manipulations.
Johnny’s own thoughts ripped through the list: She drove Mama and me away from a man who loved us, then forced us to live with no food, no home. She hired men to threaten, hurt, and maybe even kill Mama. Was Ramon one of Catherine’s men? And with Catherine alive, Mama and Murdoch weren’t legally married. I have no right to Lancer…
His devastation apparently showed in his eyes, for Scott suddenly took in a gasping breath and lurched away from Murdoch’s hold.
“I have to leave!” His back was to them, tight fists tangled in his hair. “I’m going to go…” As he staggered toward the door, Murdoch caught him in a tight embrace.
“No, son, stay here.”
Scott tried frantically to pull away. “I can’t. After all she’s done… I can’t…”
“Yes, you can. They were her lies, her wicked games, not yours. What you can’t do is let her drive us apart. Don’t you see that it would be exactly what she wants? You can’t let her win. We can’t let her win.” Murdoch kept one hand firmly wrapped around Scott’s upper arm while extending his other hand to Johnny, beckoning him to join them.
Johnny hesitated, remembering all too vividly the hatred he’d seen in his brother’s eyes.
Maybe I should be the one to leave. I have no right to this life, to be part of what happens next. Scott and Murdoch need each other, without me around as a painful reminder of how Catherine’s lies led to a marriage and a child that never should have existed.
Murdoch seemed to be pleading with him to step forward; he could feel his father’s need. And Murdoch was still that, still his father. And Scott was still his brother. He might not have a right to the Lancer name or land, but he damn well had a right to love these two men.
As he stepped forward, he forced himself to meet Scott’s gaze, steeling himself for the contempt he might see there. The steel blue eyes met his uneasily, no longer filled with hatred or fury but with a stark vulnerability that Johnny’s brotherly instincts ached to soothe.
Murdoch drew them into a close embrace. “We will get through this together.”
“Together.” Johnny echoed, moving his hand up to the nape of Scott’s neck, squeezing gently to emphasize that the embrace wasn’t just between father and sons but also brother to brother.
Scott wasn’t quite able to manage the word, but as he bowed his head against theirs, his hand slid to the back of Johnny’s neck, returning the gesture of connectedness.
It would be a long, bumpy road, but one they would navigate as a family.
To Reverberations— following the Lancer men through the aftermath of Catherine’s deceptions.
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22 thoughts on “Dichotomy by chrischime”
This was so so good. I love that Catherine was the evil one, not Maria can’t wait for next installment.
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I know, quite the dichotomy, eh? Tee hee. It’s always a pleasure to hear from you! Thanks for commenting.
Wow! Great story. Looking forward to the sequel.
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Thanks, Patricia. Now the poor Lancers have to deal with the aftermath of Catherine’s treachery. It’s going to be rough on them… and rough on me getting it written! I appreciate the comment.
Wauw, this was a GREAT story, I couldn’t stop reading ! Never thought Catherine was alive. Well done.
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Thanks, Caterina. I’m pleased the story held your interest. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.
Wow, Fantastic story. Thank you. bring on the next.
Helen: Thanks for the encouragement! I’ll try to get the sequel pulled together soon. Your kind comment is appreciated.
Catherine being alive is the real shocker in this mystery/adventure-I never thought of that being the reason for Murdoch’s disappearance. Now we’re all waiting on the edge of our seats for the sequel!
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Debra: Yes, Saint Catherine has fallen a bit, hasn’t she? It makes for a fun romp into AR land, lol. Thanks for sending a note!
Chris, this is one of those stories that grabs you by the throat, choking and torturing (in a good way!) until the end- then, when you find out who Avery really is, it makes you want to reach through the computer screen and wrap your hands around her neck, and hope that Scott doesn’t see it! It was a ‘fun’ shock! Great story and thank you for sharing!
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Diana: I love your vivid description of the impact this story had on you, but am so sorry for the bodily harm! Torturing you in a good way, lol! As always I appreciate your support and enthusiasm. Thank you
I enjoyed this story very much. It’s well written, suspenseful and, you were able to catch me off-guard
and guess the wrong person as the evil one tearing apart the Lancer family. Well done!
I can’t wait for the seque!
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MaryAnn: I appreciate you taking the time to comment. It’s like a sweet little treat each time I hear from a reader. Thanks!
This was really good. It was nice seeing the family navigate a world without Murdoch and being determined to find him. Poor Johnny thinks he is illegitimate when he’s not and it wouldn’t matter to Murdoch anyway. Poor Scott having to deal with an evil mother who never wanted him and who hates him and his father just for being men. Can’t wait to read the rest of this in the sequel.
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Charlene: It’s so nice to hear from you. I appreciate that you always take the time to comment. There are surely a lot of emotions circling the family right now. Their world has been turned upside down and recovery is going to take some time and hit some nasty bumps along the way. Thanks for reading!
WOW!!!! Thanks for this great story! Looking forward to the next one.
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Mary, Thanks for the positive feedback.
What an interesting different take on the Lancer story. I enjoyed Catherine being the bad one for a change and not Maria.
I am looking forward to the next installment.
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Thanks, Jill. I’m glad you liked the dichotomy, lol. It’s wonderful to hear from you. Every word from a reader is a treat. Thanks!
I read it in one sitting because I couldn’t put it down. It was intriguing, with so many twists and turns. As someone who has immersed herself in English history for many years, I loved the connection to Catherine of Aragon, one of the most fascinating women in history. I’m looking forward to the next installment, but as it is now after midnight, I will wait until tomorrow.
Cynthia: I’m thrilled you were engrossed, and am so pleased you liked the background on Catherine of Aragon. That was one of several spots in the two stories where I did some heavy research to add a bit of reality to the fiction. I hope you enjoy the sequel. Thank you for stopping to comment!