#1 of a duology, followed by Wine And Words
Word count: 8,807
The smoldering dark-haired volcano jumped down from his palomino, pushed open the door and started his search of the white hacienda. The object of his search was nowhere to be seen, but Johnny knew that Scott had to be home unless he had run off rather than face his brother’s wrath.
The day’s work had been typical with back breaking effort, but about noonday a black cloud had opened up drenching the men working with the youngest Lancer in a cooling shower. For the length of the downpour they had reveled in the refreshing rain as their horses nickered with pleasure at the absence of tormenting flies and bugs. Unhappily, the cloud burst had not lasted long and with its end, the humidity had become oppressive. Shirts dried in the heat, but still felt damp and clinging. More than one of the hands removed his shirt only to regret it later when his skin shone with the redness of the sun’s burn. Used to daily work in the hot sun, most of the men had bronzed skin, but the new men felt the effects of the pitiless sun for days to come until they too resembled the hardened men who lived their lives working in the California heat.
Unlike his brother, Johnny paid little attention to the sun’s effects. To be sure he wore his hat and occasionally removed his shirt, but for most of his life he had not spent his time out on the ranges doing that type of physical labor. It had only been since his arrival at Lancer that the day-to-day work of ranch life had become a part of his routine. His hands had hardened to some extent although of course he wore gloves, his body had adjusted to the demands of dawn-to-sunset work, his wanderlust had calmed in the discovery of a place to call home and the people who made up his recently-found family.
The other side of the coin was the man from Boston, Scott Lancer, whose pale features and blue-gray eyes still spoke of the easterner—a visitor to this harsh land but one who had not quite settled in yet. There was no question that slender blond did his share of the work, but there was still something about him that spoke of mystery.
In fact, in the first months of his stay at Lancer, several members of the town had been embarrassed by their assumption that the elder Lancer son was just visiting his father. They knew the story about Pardee, but many of them had assumed—wrongly—that the man who had stepped off the stage would not stay the course.
On the other hand, Johnny’s name and reputation had caused concerns of another type, even after Pardee’s band of cutthroats had been defeated. There were those of the town fathers who feared that Madrid or Lancer, as he was now known, would become bored with domesticity as the months passed and might return to his former ways. If that happened, no one wanted to take on Murdoch Lancer’s son.
Fortunately, none of their fears came to pass—Scott stayed and made a place for himself and, while Johnny did have his moments of anger and frustration, he never lost sight of what he had gained in coming to Lancer—until the day three men rode into Spanish Wells looking for Johnny Madrid.
Riding through the dusty streets, the three men glanced around the small town. In truth it wasn’t much different than many of the towns they had traveled through on their long journey. Climbing down from their tired horses, they walked into the saloon and over to the bar. Each man drank his beer with enthusiasm. The dust of the trail was not easily vanquished so it took another beer for each before they felt free to indulge in conversation. Unfortunately since they knew only a few words of English, the bartender was not able to understand their question. The only words he did understand for sure were ‘Johnny Madrid.’
For Wilbur Bates the job as bartender was only a means to an end. He wanted to earn enough to get out of the town and go north to San Francisco . He envisioned himself as working in one of the deluxe hotels in the city on the bay where he would be called Mr. Bates and not, ‘Hey You.’ Bates hated it when men slapped their money down on the bar and then began to guzzle the liquor. True, it wasn’t very good whiskey, but he had an appreciation for wine and other fine liquors and hated to see people who saw rotgut as the only drink fit for a man.
The biggest of the men grabbed Bates by the arm and repeated his question in a louder voice, “Donde esta Johnny Madrid?” Those words the barkeep knew.
So did the blond-haired man sitting at one of the tables, sipping at glass of scotch. Standing up slowly, Scott Lancer walked over to the three men. Bates let out a breath of relief as he nervously gestured towards the rancher. “Ask him, he’s Madrid ‘s brother!”
The middle-sized man stepped closer to the newcomer. A flood of Spanish spewed forth. The only words that Scott recognized was ‘su hermano’ so he nodded yes.
Grins crossed the faces of the three men as they started babbling in Spanish so fast that they were tripping over each other’s words. Scott stood there in bewilderment until he looked over at the man who was still sitting at the table he had just left. Gesturing with one hand for the dark-haired man to join in, Scott held up his hand and in a few succinct words asked Cipriano to find out what the men wanted with his brother.
For a few minutes the words flowed back and forth until Cipriano turned to Scott. “These men wish to hire Senor Johnny to help them. They have heard he is very fast with the gun and that he has helped others.”
“I see. Did you explain that Johnny is not a gunfighter anymore?”
“Si, I have tried to explain, but they insist that they wish to speak with him themselves. They are sure that he will help if he hears their story.”
“Try again, Cipriano. Johnny doesn’t want to be Madrid anymore.”
“But perhaps. . . .”
“Try, Cipriano, how is he ever going to find a life for himself if they never leave him alone?”
Cipriano was not comfortable speaking the words. He was a quiet man who enjoyed the trust of Murdoch Lancer and knew that the patron’s older son was speaking the truth about Johnny not wanting to be thought of as a gunfighter, but a man should make his own decisions. Still, he did his best, but to his dismay, the three men were adamant. They definitely wanted to present their case to Johnny Madrid.
Scott could see the answer in Cipriano’s troubled face. “They still want to see him, don’t they?”
“Si. Perhaps it would be wise to let them do so. If Senor Johnny tells them ‘no’, they will have to listen.”
“And what if he doesn’t tell them ‘no’? What if he rides off and gets himself killed? Did they say why they need his help?”
“Something to do with their land. They say that a man is trying to take their land. The older two are brothers and the other man is a cousin. They have a small ranch south of here.”
Scott took a deep breath. Fear shivered its way up his back. Johnny wouldn’t turn these men down. “Cipriano, ask them to come over to the table for a drink.”
For a moment the dark-haired Segundo hesitated but then he did as asked.
An hour later Cipriano rode out to Lancer alone. He had not agreed with Scott’s decision and could not remain in town so he had left the blond Lancer to return alone. During the ride he had argued with himself about what should be said, if anything, to Senor Johnny. Cipriano was not a man to interfere in what was the business of Murdoch or the two sons. He knew Murdoch respected his position and did not demand more from the man than he was willing to give.
Like most of the hands he had been pleased when Senor Murdoch’s sons had arrived to help with saving the ranch. He had developed a respect for Senor Scott during the plan to lure the Pardee gang to their destruction as well as for Senor Johnny’s efforts, but he had no desire to interfere in their lives beyond his job. He had seen other men who had thought to become part of the family and it had rarely worked and usually resulted in unhappiness for all. He had the respect and trust of the three Lancers as they had his and that was all he wanted or needed.
The Segundo shivered in the heat. Should he tell Senor Johnny what had occurred in town or hope that the young man would never find out? Perhaps fate would be kind, but would it be right? Cipriano had seen Senor Johnny practice with the gun at his hip. Surely no one could oppose such a man? And yet, Senor Scott had without Johnny knowing about it. Cipriano shook his head against the thoughts that overwhelmed him and then made his decision.
Cipriano nervously sat on the horse that had carried him home from Spanish Wells. As soon as he had spoken to Johnny, he had realized that he should not have presumed to interfere. The young man could be volatile and never more so when someone interfered in something that he considered solely his business. Cipriano had pleaded for Johnny to discuss Scott’s actions with him before judging his brother too harshly, but the grim look on the sapphire-eyed man’s face spoke of his displeasure.
Now, the Segundo felt it was his duty to confess his presumption to his employer and allow Murdoch Lancer to make peace between his sons. Sighing deeply, he could only hope that the patron was not too displeased with him. Everyone at the ranch knew that the three owners of Lancer had their moments of anger and he sincerely regretted that in his zeal to right what he had felt to be a wrong, he might have caused another crisis for the Lancer family. Shaking his head, he took himself to task for interfering despite his vow never to do so.
Since his head was lowered, he did not immediately see the man approaching but he could not miss the sound of hoof beats. Murdoch’s face showed only surprise when he discovered his Segundo sitting outside the great gate waiting. “Problem, Cipriano? Weren’t the horses suitable?”
“It is not that, senor, the horses that Senor Scott and I looked at were most suitable and are available at a fair price. They should be delivered in the next day or so.”
“Good. I’m glad to hear that. I appreciate your taking my place since I had to ride over to a very dull cattlemen’s meeting at Green River .”
“It was nothing, senor, however there is something I must speak to you about.”
“Of course but do you mind waiting until we reach the house? It was a long dusty ride and I’d like to clean up some. Maybe Teresa will have a pitcher of lemonade we can share on a hot day?”
Cipriano’s face closed over. He was a brave man, but like most men he didn’t relish being the bearer of unhappy tidings, particularly those in which he had played a significant part. “Si, limonada would be most welcome.”
“Good, let one of the hands take care of the horses and we’ll go in and have some.”
The two men had just entered when a dark-haired figure came rushing out of his room. “So you finally decided to come home so I. . . .” Johnny stopped. “You’re not Scott.”
The tall rancher hesitated for a moment and then announced, “Obviously not.”
“Dammit, I should have known he wouldn’t face me.”
“Senor Johnny. . . .”
Johnny held up one hand to silence the Segundo. “Don’t worry, I’m not blaming you, Cipriano. It’s not your fault. It’s that. . .meddling brother of mine.”
“Now, just wait a minute! What the hell is going on here? Cipriano, didn’t Scott come back with you after you looked at the horses?”
“No, senor, that is what I wanted to tell you. We. . .he met up with three men who were looking for Senor Johnny.”
Johnny moved closer to his father until he was only a few inches away. “They were lookin’ for me and Boston tells ’em to leave me alone!” The dark-haired young man almost stabbed his finger into his father’s chest, but then backed off.
“What do you mean they were looking for you?” Murdoch questioned.
“They said they wished to hire Senor Johnny to help them keep their land. Senor Scott feared that his brother would go with them,” Cipriano supplied.
“Don’t that beat all? Who does Boston think he is?”
“He’s your brother and he’s concerned about you.”
Johnny looked up into his father’s eyes. “That don’t give him the right to live my life for me. He didn’t even give me the chance to say no!”
“Would you have said no?” the big man inquired.
For an instant Johnny fidgeted on one foot. “Mebbe. Don’t even know for sure what they wanted. Scott just makes the decision for me!”
“Johnny, I understand why you’re angry, but I think you need to give Scott the chance to explain when he gets here. Perhaps there’s more to it than you think.”
“More to it? He offers them $150 to leave me alone and you think that’s all there is to it?”
Cipriano nodded. “Si, they were just going to the bank when I decided that I could not stay any longer. I told Senor Scott that I did not believe it was wise to do this thing, but he would not listen.”
“Damn, stubborn easterner! He’s not gonna get away with this.”
Murdoch’s back winced in pain after his long day in the saddle. Heading over to have a small glass of scotch to help, he stood there in thought for a moment. “Johnny, I’m not saying Scott was right, but I repeat you need to wait to talk to him about this. You don’t have a monopoly on wanting to protect your family and I suspect Scott thought this would solve the problem. We’ve all been aware of how difficult it sometimes is for you to leave your past behind.”
Johnny sniffed. “All right, I’m willin’ to. . .talk to him, but he’d better come up with somethin’ better ‘n just bein’ worried. It’s not like them fellas were callin’ me out. ‘Sides if he wants to pay somebody $150 not to fight, he shoulda asked me first.” A wry smile appeared on the dark face.
“Fine. Now if you don’t mind, I need a hot bath before dinner. Those Cattlemen’s Association meetings are getting to be pains in the butt!”
“I will go then, senors. I am very sorry to have brought this news to you both.”
“Not your fault, Cipriano. My sons aren’t always known for clear thinking. I’m sure we’ll get this cleared up when Scott gets here. By the way, tomorrow I’ll want to discuss the horses you contracted for.”
“Muy bien. I will be ready whenever you wish.”
“Make it about 8:00 then. No use in getting up too early. Not when I’ve got two sons who can get up at dawn to do the work.”
Cipriano grinned while Johnny scowled and then stomped his way back into his room. On that note the Segundo too departed, his heart lighter than it had been since leaving Spanish Wells.
The mood in the Lancer household was anything but light when Scott still had not shown up by dinner time. Suspecting that Scott had elected to stay in Spanish Wells to avoid seeing his brother, Johnny casually announced over a huge slice of cake that he had business in that town the next day.
Murdoch, his face a mask, only replied that he wasn’t surprised.
Teresa, who had been left in the dark, had merely suggested that she was tired and wanted to clean up the dishes so if the two of them had “men business” to take care of, she’d excuse herself for the night. Truthfully, she sometimes found being in an all-male household almost more than she could bear.
Over silence and brandy, the two Lancers waited as the chiming clock kept its sonorous repetitiveness. When the hour reached 9:00 , Murdoch gave up the effort and took himself off to bed.
Younger and angrier, Johnny didn’t give up so easily, but finally the toll of the day’s work and the knowledge that he would be expected to be up at dawn sent him off to the soft bed where he almost immediately fell asleep. His last thought before the dark waves consumed him were, “Damned coward. Thought he had more to him than this.”
At dawn Johnny walked out to the kitchen where he found coffee and biscuits waiting for him on the table. After buttering one of the hot biscuits, he gulped down part of a mug of coffee, grimacing slightly when the heat struck his tongue.
“Strong today, is it?”
Johnny turned slightly to see his father standing there. “Thought you were stayin’ in bed this morning?”
“I had intended to, but I guess habits die hard so maybe I’ll spend a couple of hours on the books before Cipriano comes in. Did you leave me some biscuits and coffee?”
Johnny’s face went pink. “Sure. I’ll pour you a cup.”
“Thanks.” The taller man sat down stiffly.
“Back botherin’ you?”
“Nothing to worry about. Can’t expect to take a bullet in the back at my age and not feel it from time to time.”
Johnny didn’t respond. In fact, he really hadn’t heard his father’s reply as he took another drink of the black beverage.
“Are you still planning on riding into Spanish Wells today?”
Johnny paused, the cup only an inch from his lips. “Any reason I shouldn’t?”
“On what? Scott’s the one who didn’t come home.”
“I know that, but don’t try to pretend that you’re concerned about him. You just want to tell him off for daring to interfere in something you didn’t even know about.”
Johnny took to his feet. “He offered those men money, lots of money, not to get near me! How much is he going to offer the next man or the next gunfighter who wants to try his luck at Johnny Madrid? Needs to make up some kind of pay scale if he plans to.”
“Do you mind sitting down, Son? My back hurts and I refuse to look up at you.”
Chagrined, the dark-haired man sat down. “Johnny, I know you prefer to handle your own affairs, any man does, but sometimes a man needs help. Do you think I’d have sent for you two boys if I hadn’t needed help with Pardee?”
The younger man shook his head. “Figure it took the scare of dyin’ and leavin’ Teresa at his mercy that you made you see reason.”
“Partly. It also hit me that one day I wouldn’t be here to make sure that Lancer survived. Lying there in that bed, I knew it was time to contact my sons while I still had something to offer you both.”
“What’s that got to do with Scott payin’ those men money?”
“You’re used to handling things with your fists and gun, to not backing down to any man. Scott was raised to respect the law and not rely on the gun to settle things so I suspect he felt that your life was worth more than $150.”
“But mebbe I coulda helped those fellas!”
“Johnny, you can’t help everybody who needs it, just like a doctor can’t help every patient. You say you want to give up the life you had as Madrid , but how is that possible when you run off every time a man asks?”
“Hasn’t been that many times,” Johnny quietly protested.
“I know, but all it takes it one time too many. I’m not asking you to be less than you are, but I think you need to think more about what or who you’re fighting for. A rancher can’t just walk off whenever he wants. Do you want the legend of Johnny Madrid to die only when you do?”
Johnny got up to pace around the room then turned to look at the gray-haired man. “He still shouldn’t have made that decision for me.”
“No, but look at it from his point of view. He lives in the shadow of Johnny Madrid almost as much as you do. He’s the one who has to stand to the side when a gunslinger comes looking for you. Everywhere the two of you go, the legend follows. Maybe he thought it was worth any amount of money to give you some peace. Is that so wrong? If he needed help, you’d use your gun or whatever you had to defeat his tormentor. In this case, he used greenbacks.”
“Shoulda been one of them lawyers.”
“You know how to play that devil’s advocate when you want.”
Murdoch flushed brightly. “I hope you’re not calling your brother the devil. He did what he thought he should. Maybe it was wrong, but I think it does show you how much he cares about you. I just think you’re man enough to cut him some slack just as he’s done for you from the beginning.”
“Can’t argue he’s done that. Figured he wouldn’t want anything to do with me once he realized some of the things I’ve done and people I’ve worked for.”
“Good. Then go into Spanish Wells, have a few beers with Scott and listen to him. Have your say by all means, but remember words said in anger are rarely forgotten. I should know, I’ve done my share of stupid things. You’ve been apart for twenty years, don’t let something like this cause problems between the two of you.”
“Guess you gotta point there. Not likely I’m gonna have another brother, unless you plan to make an honest woman outta Widow Johnson.”
“That will be all of that, John! Muriel Johnson and I talk together at church. I have no intention of marrying again. A ranch and you two are more than trouble enough for me.”
The dark-haired son grinned. “Be back by dinner and I’ll make sure to bring what’s-his-name with me.”
“Dinner? What’s the matter with putting in a few hours of hard work today?”
“Now, now, Murdoch, what’s more important—your sons’ gettin’ along or a few skinny beeves?”
“Skinny? They’d better not be skinny! I’ll have you know my steers. . . .”
Johnny didn’t wait to hear the rest of Murdoch’s rant. Instead, he hustled out to the stable to saddle Barranca for the ride to Spanish Wells.
During the ride to Spanish Wells, Johnny practiced what he wanted to say to his brother. His first reaction at Cipriano’s news had been anger at Scott’s highhandedness, but after listening to his father’s words, he had to admit that maybe he had acted impulsively.
For some time he had carried the burden of his name and legend on his young shoulders. Coming to Lancer had seemed his last hope of finding some kind of normal life along with a family. Naturally, there had been problems among the three Lancers, but there was no question in his mind that his father and brother did care about him as he did them. In his own mind Johnny knew what he would do to protect his family so how could he blame Scott for doing the same, even if it was with money and not a gun?
Still, he wouldn’t be Johnny Madrid Lancer if he just let it slide. He had to make it clear that he would not tolerate Scott interfering again, but maybe there could be some kind of compromise. Compromise was not something he was good at, but maybe it was time he learned the art. Being part of a family certainly called for it at times.
Riding into Spanish Wells, Johnny began his search at the saloon with no success then he proceeded to the cantina, the general store and finally to the livery stable where he discovered that Waterloo was not stabled. In fact, the stableman told him that Scott had ridden south out of town with three strangers. Johnny’s heart began to thump hard.
Deciding to go over to the saloon to see if the barkeep could tell him something, Johnny didn’t hear the high voice calling for him. “Mr. Lancer, Mr. Lancer, stop!”
Feeling the tug on his arm, he looked down to see a boy with a milk moustache standing there. “Mr. Lancer, Scott gave me this note to give to you. He said he knew you’d turn up sooner or later. He gave me four bits to watch out for you. Almost missed you ’cause I was in havin’ some cookies ‘n milk.”
“Uh, thanks. He gave this to you yesterday?”
“Yessir, just ‘fore he rode out. Said you’d be mad as a bull.”
“Appreciate it. Here’s two bits for your trouble.”
The red-haired boy shook his head. “No thanks. Scott paid me for the job.” Then the boy ran off home.
Johnny opened the note. It wasn’t long, but the writing was elegant as always.
I know you’re going to be angry with me when you find out what I’ve done, but if it makes you feel any better, you weren’t the Torres’ Brothers’ first choice. They had contacted someone else, but they couldn’t meet his price so I’ve offered to go with them, pay him the amount he wants and then I’ll return to Lancer in a few days. You can yell at me then. Scott.”
Johnny read the note and then went into the saloon. He ordered a double tequila from Wilbur Bates.
Murdoch Lancer stood leaning against the corral fence talking with Cipriano when his younger son rode up. Since it was obvious that Scott was not with him, the tall rancher started to ask about the blond’s whereabouts when he was interrupted by Johnny handing him a piece of paper and then announcing, “Goin’ out to the north range. Got work to do.” Soon the only sign that the dark-haired man had been there was the cloud of dust left behind by Barranca..
Murdoch quickly read the note and then handed it over to his Segundo. “Did you know what Scott intended to do?”
Cipriano paled slightly under his tan. “Si. The three men said something about another. . .man being asked to help them before they decided to ask Senor Johnny. Senor Scott said he was willing to pay the money to hire this other man, but I did not know he intended to go with them.”
“But you didn’t tell Johnny that?” Murdoch inquired. His back had begun to truly hurt and he wanted to go inside to lie down.
“No, senor, to a man like your son I thought it would be an insult. He has much pride in his skills. To be thought second best. . . .”
“I see. I’m sure you thought you were doing the right thing, my friend, but perhaps it was a mistake.”
“But, senor, what is a man without pride?”
“Cipriano, let’s go inside. I need a glass of scotch to help this back of mine and then we can finish our talk.”
The two men walked slowly into the cool hacienda, Cipriano hovering close by in case Murdoch needed help. Indicating for the patron to take a seat, the Segundo carefully pour a measure of the amber liquid for the man and then took a chair.
The Scot sat still for a moment, savoring the burn of the liquid, before setting the glass down on one of the doilies that Teresa had crocheted as a child. “You’re a wise man, my friend, pride is important to a man like Johnny, well, to any man for that matter. You need pride to keep going when it looks like you’re going to fail. Hell, maybe you even need pride to get out of bed in the morning. I know I did this morning.”
“Senor, there is no need for this. You should be in bed. I am sure Senorita Teresa can bring the hot water bottle to help the pain.” His broad face was lined with worry.
“Don’t worry, Cipriano, the scotch will help and I’ll go lie down in a minute. There’s something I need to say to you. You know I value your loyalty. You’ve done a good job since Paul O’Brien died.”
“Gracias, senor. For you to say that makes me most proud.”
“You deserve the praise, but there’s another reason why I brought up Paul’s name and it has to do with what we’re talking about. You see I let pride stand in the way of common sense that night and it got Paul O’Brien killed. I had no business going off with just one man to hunt down that stallion. I knew Pardee was responsible and yet I let my pride blind me to the fact that we were riding into a trap. It cost me my good friend, a horse, and nearly my life.”
“But senor. . . .”
“No, Cipriano it’s something I have to live with and I’m reminded of my selfishness every time I look at Teresa. I lost a friend; she lost a father. Just as I let my two sons be without their father for over twenty years.”
“That was not your doing!”
“Maybe not all of it, but I played my part in the fact that those two young men were strangers when they arrived here. A man can only fool himself for so long. I had my excuses and some were valid at the time, but I could have taken steps earlier to reconcile our family, but I didn’t because Murdoch Lancer doesn’t bend to any man.”
“That is not a bad thing, senor.”
“In some ways no, but trees need to bend in the wind or they topple over. A man who is rigid and refuses to admit mistakes is much the same. Nobody knows how much time they have on this earth and I don’t want to arrive at St. Peter’s Gate and have to explain why my sons were kept apart for most of their lives.”
Cipriano crossed himself quickly. The thought of Murdoch dying disturbed him greatly. “I believe I understand what you are saying. Sometimes it is best to say or do nothing while at other times some action must be taken. I believe this was one of those times when I should have said nothing and let Senor Scott handle it.”
Murdoch smiled at the other man. “I know you did what you thought was best, but I have no real answer. I think we all have to realize that they are not boys, but men and responsible for their own actions. I know there are times I forget that too, but they have survived for years without Murdoch Lancer or this ranch and I have no doubt that they can work this out together.”
“I hope so, senor. They are fine men and I am proud to work for them and you.”
“Good. Now, would you mind helping me into the bedroom and asking Teresa if she has a hot water bottle I could use?”
“Of course, senor, it is my pleasure.”
Murdoch groaned as he took to his feet. “Well, I’m glad one of us is getting some pleasure out of this.”
Murdoch stayed in bed for the rest of the evening. Teresa brought him a tray later and then the two talked for a bit since she had not been informed about the reason for Scott’s absence.
Johnny returned to the hacienda just before dark. From the closed look on his face, Teresa decided to stay out of the situation, but she was definitely worried when the younger Lancer son didn’t even go in to say goodnight to his father.
By morning Murdoch’s back was better but he elected to stay at home and not go riding around his empire as he frequently did. He knew that Johnny could handle anything that came up and there was no point in suffering crippling pain if it wasn’t necessary. Just the simple luxury of being able to stay at home once again reminded him of how right his decision to send for his sons had been.
In the end Murdoch stayed close to home for three days, relishing a chance to do the books at leisure and even have a few talks with Teresa who had made her displeasure known. The rancher had to admit that he had been remiss in taking her devotion for granted. She was no longer a child and deserved to be treated as part of the family and not left out just because she was a female.
Three days of cosseting made it possible for Murdoch to be out and around on the fourth day so he made the short ride to small creek where he knew Johnny was working. Creeks and rivers were vital to any ranch the size of Lancer so they needed to be routinely checked for any blockage that might cause problems. To his surprise he found his younger son standing in the middle of the creek, but since it was summer the water barely came up to his waist.
Amused by the sight, he called down to the man, “It isn’t Saturday night, Johnny.”
The sapphire-eyed man looked up and mouthed an obscenity, but then smiled and said, “Just thought I’d cool my feet.”
Murdoch looked around and then murmured, “With your boots on?”
“Well, if you want to know the truth, I was checking out what I thought was a dam of some sort so I decided to get closer and this creepy, crawly thing dropped down my shirt and well, I ended up in the creek.” His sigh could be heard at Lancer.
“I see.” Murdoch was well aware of Johnny’s aversion to creepy, crawly things.
“Was down on my butt for awhile then I got some purchase and made it up, but one of my boots is stuck in the mud.”
“Can you pull your foot out of the boot?”
“Probably, but I’m not lettin’ the boot stay stuck in the mud It’s brand new—almost.”
“You’d rather spend the next five years standing there?”
Johnny grinned even as his face reddened. “Guess it does sound dumb.” With a maximum of effort Johnny managed to pull his foot out and eventually was able to pull out both boots as the mud released its captives with a great ‘thwuck’.
“‘Spect I’d better ride back to the ranch, seein’ as how I’m muddy and wet,” Johnny ventured.
“Sounds like a good idea. If that mud dries, you’re going to look like one of those statues in the museums.” Murdoch waited while Johnny climbed on to Barranca’s back for the trip home.
Johnny blinked. “But Scott says most of ’em don’t wear clothes!” The dark-haired young man shuddered as a breeze hit his wet body.
“I guess that’s true. Never had much time to go to museums.”
“Me neither. ‘Course I never had the kind of money to do the things Scott’s done either.”
His father nodded. “Money does have its advantages. I know there are lots of things I wish I could do now that the ranch doesn’t need every cent sunk back into it.”
“Why don’t you do ’em? Scott and me can take of the ranch.”
Murdoch pulled his horse to a halt. “I wasn’t sure you’d still be talking to him when he returns.”
“Oh, I plan to do lots of talkin’ when he gets back!” he assured his father.
“Mebbe. Guess I should give him a chance.”
“Glad to hear it. We can all use a second chance.”
“S’ppose so, but I want your word you’re gonna stay out of it. This is between the two of us.”
Murdoch grinned. “Me interfere? You must be thinking of Teresa. You’re grown men and I’m sure you’ll both do what’s right.” Then the tall man kneed his horse into a canter leaving his startled son behind to catch up.
Three more days passed without a sign of the middle Lancer. Since all they knew was the name Torres, there didn’t seem to be much chance of finding out exactly where Scott might have journeyed to, leaving the three inhabitants a bit short on temper. So it was most unfortunate that the youngest Lancer was not at home when his brother finally did make his return, his arm in a sling and sitting next to a young man in a wagon.
When he saw how careful the young man was in helping the blond down from the wagon, Murdoch immediately asked one of the hands to ride out and bring Johnny back to the ranch.
Stepping back so that Scott could enter without disturbing his arm, Murdoch could barely refrain from asking what had happened, but the blond could see the worry in his father’s eyes. Trying to summon a smile, Scott said, “No need to worry. It’s just a small wound. Miguel got a doctor to look at it. I’ll be fine in another couple of days. I’m just tired from riding in that wagon.”
“I can see that, but to be on the safe side why don’t you go lie down? I’ll have Teresa bring you something cold to drink and then you can sleep.”
“Sounds good. I’m sure Miguel would like a drink too. Oh sorry, this is Miguel Renard. Miguel, my father, Murdoch Lancer.”
The young man, who was only a couple of inches shorter than Murdoch, shook the older man’s hand. “I am happy to meet Scott’s father. He has told me much about you and your other son as well as Mlle Teresa.”
“Miguel is going to stay overnight, if you don’t mind. He has a long ride ahead of him tomorrow.”
“Of course. I’ll ask Teresa to make up a room for you.”
“Merci. I will just make sure that Scott is comfortable. I am afraid the wagon ride did not help his shoulder.”
Murdoch watched with puzzlement as the tall man followed his patient into Scott’s room, followed by a worried Teresa who already was holding a pitcher of some kind of liquid. Five minutes later Renard came back into the great room and took a seat. “Mlle Teresa is taking care of him. Already he is almost asleep. I thought perhaps I should come to tell you what has occurred since you last saw your son. Scott told me all he left was a short note for his brother.”
“I would appreciate it, Mr. Renard. How was Scott wounded?”
“Helping me, I regret. He is a brave man and would not let me face death alone.”
“I. . .I don’t understand. In his note he said that some men named Torres needed money to pay a gunfighter and that he was going with them so that he could pay this man $150.”
“Quite true but you see I am the gunfighter.”
Murdoch blinked. “You? But you can’t be more than eighteen!”
“Again you are correct. I turned eighteen a few months ago.”
“But you don’t look like a gunfighter!”
The youthful face broke into a grin. “That is my secret. Most men look at me and see a skinny child who is no danger to them. Alas, they soon discover they are wrong.”
At that moment Teresa entered the room, wiping her hands on her apron. “Scott’s asleep. I’ll bring in some lemonade and cookies in just a minute.”
“Teresa, this Miguel Renard. He’s going to be staying overnight.”
“Welcome, Mr. Renard.” Teresa couldn’t help smiling at the dark, good-looking man.
“Merci Mlle, please do not go to any trouble. A man such as myself can sleep anywhere.”
“No trouble besides it’s nice to have company. Have you been in this part of California before?”
“I have been to San Francisco , but not this area. It is beautiful.”
“Well, I’ll be right back with the cookies. Guess I’d better make a big plate full since I suppose Johnny will be here soon.”
“One of the hands went to get him,” Murdoch informed her. “I thought he’d be glad to see that Scott is home safe.”
For the next couple of minutes Miguel and the Lancer patriarch talked about the ranch, even though the older man wanted to find out more about what had happened at the Torres’ ranch, he’d decided to wait until Johnny arrived so that everyone could hear the tale at once.
As expected, it didn’t take Johnny long to ride in once he knew that Scott had returned. Jumping off Barranca’s heaving flanks, he burst into the great room and demanded to see his brother.
Teresa glanced up at him, said that Scott was asleep and offered him a cookie.
With the wind taken from his sails, Johnny reached over and started to munch a cookie. It was then that he noticed the tall stranger looking out the French doors.
Being a polite host, Murdoch called over to Miguel so that he could introduce him to his younger son.
Miguel turned to face the other man, his face a study in calm. “But I need no introduction to your son, M. Lancer. There is not a man in my business who does not know Johnny Madrid. . .Lancer.” There was just the slightest of hesitations before the last name. He held out his hand to the other dark-haired man. “I am Miguel Renard, senor. I am pleased to meet you at last.”
Johnny just stood there for a moment and then blurted out, “I’ve heard of you too.”
“It is a small world, senor. Names and legends grow in the bordertowns.”
“Johnny, Mr. Renard was just going to tell us what happened with Scott. I assume you’re interested?”
The sapphire-eyed man sat down, prepared to listen.
Miguel’s long, slender fingers wrapped themselves around the glass of lemonade, wet with drops of condensation. “It is a story that neither your son nor I almost lived to tell. The Torres Brothers are fine men in their own way, but they did not tell Scott the whole story. You see they had come to me to ask for help against a man named Fuentes. This man was notorious for taking small ranches either by the gun or intimidation. I told my would-be employers that I would not do it for less than $200. Of course, they had not so much money and I thought that was the end of it.”
“Charge everybody that much, senor?”
Miguel looked over at Johnny. “Not usually, senor, but I knew it was very dangerous. Fuentes had three brothers who were killers in their own right plus other men. I decided that I was not willing to die for $25.”
“But you’d consider it for $200?”
“Mr. Lancer, you are part owner of a large rancho. I do not have that advantage. $200 is a fortune to me, and I was willing to take the chance because I want something better for my life.”
“Go on, Mr. Renard.” Murdoch flashed Johnny a glare.
“I had assumed, of course, that the Torres Brothers would not wish to pay so much, but then to my shock they returned to the small town near their ranch where I was staying. Scott was with them and offered to make up the difference in the money. Still, I almost refused because I knew the reputation of the Fuentes family and the odds were not in my favor. I sincerely wish to reach the age of nineteen.
“Then Scott offered to stay and help in the fight. He also urged the Torres to fight at our sides. They are not the bravest of men, but he pointed out to them if we were killed they would be at the mercy of Carlos Fuentes. That stiffened their spines.”
“Wait a minute! You got paid $200 and Scott helped you? What the hell kind of deal is that?” Johnny demanded.
“Easy, senor, I did not ask Scott to help me. Once I took the money, I knew it was on my shoulders, but he said that he didn’t want my death on his conscience since he was offering the money for a selfish reason.”
Johnny’s mouth opened, but he said nothing.
“In the end there was much blood, all of the Torres men were wounded as was Scott, but we had killed all of Carlos’ relatives, except the man himself. The pathetic man stood outside the house and demanded that someone come out to face him. Naturally, I could not turn down the challenge. The blood of the dying was everywhere and I could see that this once strong man only wanted to join the fallen. He had risked all for a small ranch and it had destroyed him.”
“Did you kill him, Mr. Renard?”
“No, Mlle, I did not. He insisted on drawing upon me, knowing that I would put a bullet in his heart or at least that is what he believed. I chose to shoot his pistol instead. I fear his hand will never be of much use but at least he has his life.”
“Isn’t that dangerous? Leaving an enemy like that alive?” Murdoch inquired.
Renard gave a gallic shrug. “Perhaps but I have lived with danger all my life. My mother died when I was born and all I knew of my papa was a name. He had come to Mexico from France to fight during the war and stayed. He never married my mother and in fact I believe that is why he left her when he discovered that she was carrying me. It has been an interesting life. I was fortunate enough to meet up with another Frenchman who took me in after some years with a family. He taught me about fighting. Alas, he was killed in the last days of the Emperor. So as you can see danger is not a stranger.”
“So what do you plan to do now?”
“With the $200 I hope to find someone who will teach me about winemaking.”
“I am part French. A love of wine flows in my veins. One day I hope to find someone who will teach me what he knows, but for now I plan to return to the Torres ranch.”
“Why would you do that?” Johnny shifted in his chair.
“As I have said, those three men are not true ranchers, but perhaps with my help they can keep themselves alive. My mother was a Torres, not truly a close relation, but enough to make me their first choice as a protector. I’m afraid I disillusioned them when I turned them down, but perhaps it is time for me to stay in one place for awhile. I can teach them and learn at the same time.”
Silence filled the room as Miguel’s broad shoulders slumped. “Would it be possible to have a hot bath while I am here? The Torres ranch does not have an abundance of water and washing in a bucket does not satisfy.”
“Of course. We have a bath house. Johnny, why don’t you show him where it is?”
Johnny gestured for the man to follow him. “You’ll find towels, soap ‘n stuff inside.”
“Gracias, I am grateful.” The two men stopped just outside the bath house. Miguel glanced around. “You are most fortunate, Senor Madrid . This is a beautiful ranch.”
“Scott told me it was so, but frankly I thought he exaggerated.”
“Real good friends with my brother, aren’t you?”
“Friends? He paid me money, but I suppose you could say that any two men who have fought together in such a desperate manner are friends. He is a fine shot with a rifle.”
“He is that.”
“Scott told me he is worried that you are angry with him.”
“Don’t think that’s your business.” Johnny’s scowl deepened.
“No, it is not,” Miguel agreed, “but he is a fine, honorable man who would not let even a paid gunfighter face the Fuentes alone. I would be proud to call him friend.”
“Like I said, the towels are in there. Take your time. Lots of hot water can wash anything clean.” Johnny stalked off.
Making his way back to the house, Johnny was relieved to see that there was no one in the great room. Moving quietly, he opened the door to Scott’s room and walked in.
“Wasn’t sure you’d come to see me,” a weak voice called from the bed.
“Didn’t know you were awake. Teresa said you were asleep.”
“Was for a bit, but I need the chamber pot. Could you give me a hand getting up?”
The operation took only a few moments and then Scott was back in bed.
“You sure the doctor said you’re all right?”
“Just need time. Not the first bullet wound I’ve had in me. Did. . .Miguel tell you how it happened?”
“He’s real talkative. Made himself look real good.”
“Johnny, he is good! I like him. For a young man he has a great deal of confidence in himself. You should have seen him with Fuentes. He could have killed him so easily, but he didn’t.”
“Dangerous to humiliate a man.”
“That’s why he’s going back to help the Torres Brothers for awhile. Just in case Carlos wants revenge, but I don’t think he will. I looked in the man’s eyes when we were bandaging his hand. There was nothing there. He’d lost everyone he cared about.”
“Hope you’re right.”
“Anyway, that’s his business. Lancer is mine.”
“Remembered that, did you?”
Scott pulled the blanket up to his chin and took a drink of the water on the table. “Alright, let’s hear your speech. Get it over with so I can sleep.”
“No speech. Just don’t want you makin’ my decisions. You wouldn’t like it if I did the same thing.”
Can’t argue that. Just seemed the right thing at the time. Can’t help being a coward I guess.”
“You may be a pain in the butt at times, but I can’t imagine watching you die when I could stop it with a handful of greenbacks.”
“No reason to think I’d have been killed.”
“Johnny, it took five of us to defeat the Fuentes bunch. What chance do you think one man—even the legendary Johnny Madrid–would have had?”
“Don’t know and I s’pose we never will.”
“Exactly. Johnny, I don’t want to play Father Protector. I understand your need to make decisions about your life, but I can’t promise that I won’t do whatever it takes to keep you alive. Twenty years without a brother was enough. Your life is worth more than money.” The cerulean eyes blazed with determination.
“Okay, okay, I guess I’ve overstepped myself at times too. How about a truce? I won’t just fly off the handle anymore and rush off tryin’ to save the world if you talk to me ‘fore payin’ out them greenbacks.”
“It’s a deal. I’ll keep the money in a special safe so no one can get to it, except in an emergency.”
“Uh, well, uh, maybe that’s not such a good idea. I mean it is your money and if you want to use it. . . .”
“How much do you want to borrow?”
Johnny’s face lit up. “$25 should do it, well, better make it $50 since I spent my wages a week ago. I’ll pay it back in a month or so.”
“Don’t worry about it brother, I’m keeping track of all the loans. When it amounts to your share of the ranch, I’ll let you know.” Scott stretched and then smiled, “‘Night, Johnny. See you tomorrow. Be nice to Miguel. Now, I’ve got two gunfighters to take care of.”
Johnny’s mouth dropped open to erupt in a furious protest, but there was no point. Scott Lancer had already started to snore.
To Wine And Words —>
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