VickieN and Sammi: If We Make It Through December

Part 01 of 04

Written jointly with SammiQ
DISCLAIMERS: Standard disclaimers. Lancer and the characters are not ours, but the story is.
SUMMARY: December 1870 turns out to be full of unexpected events.

Word count: 114,100

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Thursday, December 1, 1870

Cross Creek Railroad Station

Overhead, the sky was gray with fluffy clouds that threatened neither rain nor snow, seeming content to simply block out the sun’s warming rays and make life just a little too dreary. Johnny opened the door to the train depot and stood to the side, holding it open for Teresa to enter. Scott and Murdoch followed behind her, and Johnny slipped in behind them as the tiny procession made its way through the depot and out onto the loading platform.

Murdoch was carrying his large carpetbag in one hand, while his other hand was laid protectively on Teresa’s shoulder. Scott was loaded down with both his and Teresa’s bags, again refusing Johnny’s offer of help as he had when it had come to loading the baggage before leaving the ranch.

“I only sneezed,” Johnny grumbled.

“Which means you’re still sick,” Scott countered quickly. “Besides that, if you’re too sick to accompany us to Denver, then you’re too sick to be lugging our baggage around.” His furrowed brow accentuated his next point. “You shouldn’t even be here. We could have driven ourselves, and one of the hands could have picked up the surrey tomorrow.”

Rolling his eyes, Johnny refused to be baited. Well, not too much, anyway. “I’ll miss you, too, Brother.”

“Oh, Johnny, I do wish you were coming with us. It’s not going to be the same without you. This would have been our first real family trip.”

Teresa’s disappointment was enough to make Johnny turn away before he could be caught by those sad brown eyes. He hated her eyes. Well, he hated how they could make him feel, anyway. Not one had he been able to deny her anything once she turned on what he called her ‘doe stare’. This trip was his first successful attempt at countering that look, but even then he had managed only with official help. “Sam’s the one who said it wouldn’t be a good idea,” he argued.

Scott’s arm snaked around Johnny’s shoulder and gave a playful squeeze. “And we all know how well you follow Sam’s orders, Brother Johnny.”

“Scott, Teresa, let your brother be,” Murdoch interceded, but his eyes sparkled with his held back amusement. “Sam did say traveling in the mountain air would not be wise, what with Johnny trying to fight off that persistent cold. I’m sure neither one of you would want to make him suffer needlessly.”

Ever quick on the uptake, Johnny elbowed Scott away and then plied Teresa with a pouty look of his own. He had discovered early on that she had a weakness for a certain look of his, not to mention the fact that he stood a better chance of winning her sympathy than he did his brother’s. “Yeah, you don’t want to see me sufferin’, do you, Teresa?”

It was Scott’s turn to roll his eyes, but any verbal response he might have uttered was cut off by the conductor’s loud cry, “All aboard!” A small group of passengers emerged onto the platform and began making their way onto the train.

“Johnny, we’ll be back on the early train a week from next Monday.”

“I know, Murdoch,” Johnny sighed as he headed off the next lecture. “I heard you the first few hundred times. I’ll do just fine. The ranch’ll do fine. The cows’ll do fine. Heck the grass’ll do just fine, too. Quit your worryin’.” His lips twitched just enough to give away his teasing intent. “You ain’t gonna be gone long enough for me to sell the place out from under you.”

“John Lancer.” Murdoch’s glare carried even more of a warning than his tone, which in itself was enough to have a older woman who happened to be walking by gawking at them with eyes wide enough to prop open with a couple of twenty-dollar gold pieces.

Teresa and Scott both laughed, but Johnny could only groan. Ever since it had been decided that Johnny would not be accompanying the family to Denver, Murdoch had been painstakingly reminding him of everything that needed to be done in their absence – and how to do it, and when to do it, who should do it, and for how long it should be done.

The previous night, in a final act of desperation, Johnny had threatened to up and sell the whole ranch while they were gone. His claim was that he would take the money and buy a nice little bordello in Albuquerque, or maybe Santa Fe. He’d call it the Murdoch’s Manor. Then he would track down a few very dear friends – Chastity, Cherry, Cierra, Cassandra, and Calypso.

They were a few gals that were very familiar with Johnny Madrid. All were extremely pretty, and oh so talented; everyone knows you can’t run a decent bordello unless there were some mighty fine ladies around. And if he played his cards right, he might even be able to sweet talk Madame Vicki into giving Murdoch a few pointers on how to keep things up, like the profits and such. Needless to say, the Lancer patriarch had not been the least bit amused.

“Oh, Johnny, don’t forge-“

“I know, I know; don’t forget to make sure the front door is shut good an’ tight before I turn in,” Johnny sighed. Over Teresa’s shoulder, Johnny saw the conductor looking at his pocket watch before casting an impatient stare in their direction. He quickly seized the opportunity provided by the man’s impatience. “You all better be getting on board, or that train’s gonna be pullin’ outta here without you.”

The next thing Johnny knew he had his arms full of Teresa. “We’ll be back before you know it,” she cried on his shoulder. As usual though, her youthful exuberance was able to overcome her dismay. When she pulled away, her face was bright with excitement. “I already know what I want to get you for Christmas,” she declared excitedly, “and I’m sure I’ll find it in Denver.”

Johnny smiled. “You do that, Teresa.”

“Watch that cold, Brother.”

All teasing was forgotten, and Johnny found himself feeling uncomfortable under the genuine concern and regret in Scott’s sad smile. “Don’t worry, Brother. I’ll have this thing licked by the time I pick you up next week. And don’t you go havin’ too much fun without me.”

The two brothers shook hands, which Scott turned into a quick hug. An earnest ‘Take care of yourself’ was whispered in Johnny’s ear, then Scott slipped away to escort Teresa towards the train. Longingly, Johnny watched as his brother helped Teresa up the stairs, then both of them disappeared into the train car.

“John-“

Raising his hands in surrender, Johnny automatically began reciting the words he knew by heart. “Don’t worry, Murdoch, the barn roof’ll get checked, too. I’ll do it myself, first thing tomorrow.”

Although Murdoch nodded, his expression was neither stern nor worried. He simply smiled and placed a steady hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “All I was going to say was for you to take care of yourself, but I know you will. I have complete faith in you, Son.”

The sincerity in both word and look had Johnny swallowing at the lump that suddenly made his throat feel uncomfortably tight. He tuned his head and put his hand to his mouth, trying to cough the stubborn lump away.

When Johnny looked back up at his father, he began his own lecture. “You take care of business, too, Old Man. Don’t let that brother of mine get so used to that big city that he takes a hankerin’ to head back to Boston. An’ you both better keep a real close eye on Teresa. Can’t have her bein’ sweet talked into marryin’ one of them city dandies. Don’t think Lancer could handle any more culture and refinement.”

The large hand on his shoulder gave a gentle squeeze before pulling Johnny close to his father’s chest. “We’ll miss you too, Son.”

The two men parted somewhat awkwardly, and Johnny found himself unable to watch as his father walked away. He toed at a loose board on the platform, his keen hearing telling him every step of Murdoch’s progress; the clunk of boot heels against wood, followed by the more high-pitched clop of soles treading on metal stairs, then the almost deafening sound of clink of the door closing between them.


On the train headed for Denver

As the train pulled away from Cross Creek Station, Scott looked out the window while Murdoch and Teresa discussed their itinerary in Denver. He gazed out at the mountains, his mind wandering to Boston. He felt a momentary pang of homesickness. Not that he regretted his decision to stay at Lancer. He had been totally lost from the first moment he had laid eyes on the land, when Teresa had announced to him and Johnny that this was the most beautiful place in the whole wide world.

Ever since coming back from the war, the former cavalry officer had been searching for something. It had taken a letter from his father and a trip to visit him to find it. He had felt trapped in the offices of Garrett Enterprises; he assumed this to be a result of his imprisonment in a confederate prison camp.

There were times, though, when he missed the city life of Boston, and Christmas was turning out to be one of those times. Back East his grandfather’s servants would be trimming the tree, going all out to decorate the house for the holidays. Harlan Garrett prided himself in having the best decorated home in all of Boston.

Then there were the parties. It was hard to keep up with them all. Men and women alike would be dressed up in their finest clothes. There would be plenty of food, wine, and dancing. Eventually, someone would mention a sleigh ride and everyone would grab their winter apparel and off they’d go.

He also missed the theatre. Scott’s thoughts turned to an article he had read in a newspaper his grandfather had sent him about a new play that had just come out, ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’. The description had sounded intriguing and in checking he had found out it would be playing in Denver while they were there. He was hoping that once they arrived, he would be able to obtain tickets so that he could take his family to see it. Teresa in particular had mentioned more than once wanting to experience a live production.

Hearing his name mentioned by Murdoch, Scott pulled himself away from his thoughts and concentrated on what Murdoch and Teresa were talking about.

“So,” Scott commented smiling. “Do you have our trip all planned out?”

“Yes,” Teresa replied, a twinkle of mischief in her eyes. “We’re going to a Christmas Party at a friend of Murdoch’s. He just volunteered you to take me shopping on Monday for a dress to wear.”

Scott groaned loudly. “Murdoch! It takes Teresa hours to find a dress! Why can’t you take her?”

“I have some appointments on Monday,” Murdoch reminded him firmly. “And on Tuesday, there is a ladies tea to attend. You want your sister to look nice, don’t you?”

“All right,” Scott conceded grudgingly. “I need to purchase some dress clothes anyway.” Though the dark brown pants, with the white dress shirt he was wearing, combined with the tie were considered dress clothes in Morro Coyo, they would not be suitable in a big city like Denver.

“Good!” Teresa said happily. “I can help you shop.”

“I am quite capable of picking out my own clothes,” Scott protested.

“Yes, we’re quite aware of your taste in clothes,” Teresa teased. “I seem to recall a certain pair of plaid riding pants.”

“They were very popular in Boston.” Scott replied defensively.

“I’m sorry,” Teresa said, laughter in her voice. “I’ve just never seen a man wearing those type of pants before.”

“They were pretty awful, weren’t they?” Scott admitted, smiling at her. “And if you ever tell Johnny I said that, I will deny it.”

Teresa turned to Murdoch and mentioned a particular store she wanted to go to while they were there to purchase Johnny’s Christmas present. Murdoch asked her advice on a present for Johnny and they were off into a discussion as to what to buy for whom.

Scott looked out the window once again, feeling an unusual pang of loneliness. He wondered what his brother was doing right now. Probably sitting in the great room basking in the solitude. He had not fooled Scott one bit. Oh, it was true that Johnny was not well enough to be traveling in the mountains with his lingering cold, but Scott was also well aware that Johnny had not been looking forward to spending a week in a big city, shopping, or going to a bunch of cattlemen meetings.

The blond-haired Lancer thought about how much his younger brother hated it when anyone coddled him. He was not used to having someone look out for him and Scott knew he had been wearing on his younger brother’s nerves ever since Johnny had come down with this cold.

Scott smiled as he looked across at Murdoch. He wondered what his father would think if he knew that Scott had almost backed out at the last minute and told him to take Teresa and go. The former Bostonian frowned. He hated leaving Johnny behind. For the better part of his life, his younger brother had been alone. He fully intended to make sure the former gunfighter was never in that position again. He shifted in his seat, leaning his head on the window, closing his eyes as darkness settled over the train. He was disappointed that Johnny was not making the trip. He had been mentally making a list of places he wanted to take his brother ever since they had first started talking about going. Now that Johnny would not be there to share in those plans, his enthusiasm had waned, though not to the point that he would not enjoy himself. It just would not be the same.

This would have been there first trip as a family. Having a family was something he had always longed for. His grandfather had done the best he could by Scott, but it still wasn’t the same. Finally, he had come home. As he drifted off to sleep, Scott mentally thanked God for blessing him with the family he had found.


Lancer

It was about an hour after the sun had disappeared behind the San Benito Mountains when Zanzibar pulled the surrey under the Lancer arch. Johnny shuddered as the chilly night air blew under his jacket, but it lasted only a moment. Every time he made his way up this road, the feeling of belonging warmed him. This was his home.

So many years ago he had yearned for this, desperately prayed for a home to call his own, and a family to share his life. It seemed like an eternity ago that he had pushed aside those childhood fantasies as useless and unnecessary. Johnny Madrid had no need for a home, a family, or anything else that could take away his edge, making him easy prey for any gunhawk wanting to make a name for himself.

Johnny Madrid.

Taking a deep breath, Johnny listened to the familiar name echoing in his mind. He was not ashamed of Johnny Madrid, but he found comfort in the fact that he no longer had to wear that mantle. Johnny Madrid had seen him through some very rough times, had made him strong and had been his source of strength at times when Johnny Lancer might have given up.

It was strange how, even then, he saw Johnny Madrid as someone other than himself. It was like he had always been Johnny Lancer, but at the same time, he had not. Lancer had been a name he had hated; yet it had been a name that he had never been able to leave behind. It was always there, sitting in the back of his mind, having more patience than Johnny Madrid could ever possess.

Shaking off those confusing thoughts, he pulled Zanzibar to a halt near the barn. No good would come from going over old ground. Lancer was his life now, and the name he freely chose as his  own. He had never regretted either choice.

In an instant he was on the ground, making the transition from the seat to the ground as easily as he took a breath. He made quick work of unharnessing the buggy and rigging, and Zanzibar eagerly followed him towards the barn,  where a nice ration of grain was waiting.

The surrey could stay under the shed until next Saturday, when it was time to pick up his family. Afterwards, it would be stored away in the buggy barn until next spring, when the weather would be more accommodating for the open-air seating. Any trips to town this winter would be made in one of the buckboards, where the slated sides would provide some measure of protection from the elements for everyone except the driver.

Nimble fingers pulled his jacket closed as another gust of wind brought more chill to the night air. The breeze had blown by the house on its way to the barn, and Johnny caught a whiff of something that brought a broad smile to his face.

Tamales.

These were not the same tamales that normally graced the Lancer dinner table, though. These were Maria’s special tamales, the ones she made for him on the side on very rare occasions. She had whispered to him at breakfast that tonight would be one of those occasions. These tamales were made like they were well south of the border, where their worth was based on the degree of their hotness, and where very few gringos dared to tread.

Eager to sink his teeth into those delectable morsels, Johnny quickly, but efficiently, bedded down his father’s favorite buggy horse for the night. His spirits were so high that he gave Zanzibar a little extra helping of grain before heading for the house, his stride quick and his stomach growling loudly in anticipation of the meal it was about to receive.

He entered through the kitchen door just as Maria was finishing cleaning up. She had him a plate all ready, and the remaining tamales warming in the oven. Tortillas and salsa rounded out his perfect meal. Johnny told her she was an angel from heaven, and when Maria departed, her eyes were bright with pride as she blushed under the fanfare of Johnny’s praise.

Although the meal was even better than expected, Johnny still left the table feeling less than content. He carried the empty dishes over to the sink where he quickly washed them up in the bucket of soapy water Maria had left for him. By the time he had finished cleaning up, he had also figured out what had him feeling so down; his family was missing.

With a chuckle, he doused the candles and headed for bed, amused by his own feelings of longing. If someone had told him a year ago that he would be fretting over people who weren’t even around, he would have laughed in their face. A year ago he was still wearing the face of Johnny Madrid, while Johnny Lancer hid in the shadows. Things were different now, and for that he would always be grateful.

His foot had barely touched the bottom step, when he made an about face and headed in the other direction. His smile broadened as he checked the latch on the front door, making sure it was securely in its cradle. “Sure don’t want no unexpected visitors in the morning,” he said aloud, laughing to himself. “Not after the last time.”

Visions of that fateful Sunday morning filled his mind as he climbed the stairs to bed. It had actually started the night before, when he and Scott had gone to town for some beer and a few hands of poker. It had only been a few months since they had become partners in the sprawling ranch, and they were both still getting accustomed to the rigors of ranch life. The end of the week break from work had been a much-welcomed relief to them both.

Undressing in the dark, Johnny climbed between the crisp sheets on his bed. Staring up at the ceiling, he continued his musings. On that night he had learned a couple of valuable lessons about his newly found brother.

First off, he learned that Scott didn’t particularly care for tequila. After a couple of shots had Scott looking a little green around the gills, Johnny fetched up a cup of coffee and a few tortillas, making up some excuse about Scott missing dinner because of some ornery calf, or something like that. The food and coffee solved Scott’s problem and the night continued without further incident.

That was when Johnny learned the second lesson of the night; when his Boston-bred brother got annoyed, he was a damn fine bluffer. The incident with the tequila had bothered Scott an awful lot, despite Johnny’s assurances the fiery liquid took a little getting used to. Scott had spent the remainder of their night on the town taking his frustrations out at the card table.

Winning all but three of the pots, Scott had taken Johnny for over seven dollars and the privilege of having his horse bedded down for him when they got home. Although Johnny would never admit it, getting to see Scott in action had been worth the money he had lost, as well as the extra time of taking care of his brother’s horse.

It was well after midnight by the time they got back to the ranch, and Johnny must have been a little more tired than he thought. After he finished bedding down their horses, he had somehow managed to leave the front door unlatched. It was the only way to explain how the rooster ended up perched on Murdoch’s windowsill when the morning sun began to glow in the east. The rooster belted out his usual boisterous cock-a-doodle-doo, sending Murdoch rolling off the side of the bed and landing on the floor with a loud thud. Since then Johnny had been constantly reminded to latch the front door whenever he would be the last to turn in.

Pleasant or not so pleasant, his happiest memories began when he accepted his father’s offer to become a Lancer. He had found the home he had always dreamed of, the brother that he had never dared dream of, and a life that he could be proud to call his own. Three strangers had become everything to him, and he wouldn’t trade any of them for all the gold in the world. These comforting thoughts settled his restless mind, and Johnny slipped into a contented sleep.

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Friday, December 2, 1870

East Bound Train

Murdoch stared through the dark window. He guessed it to be about three in the morning. Scott was sleeping in the seat across from him, while Teresa was seated beside her guardian with her head on his shoulder. He shifted slightly in his seat, trying to get comfortable without waking up the young woman. Ever since Day Pardee had shot him in the back, he could not sleep sitting up without experiencing quite a bit of discomfort.

He looked over at Scott, smiling to himself. When his son had come through the door that first day, he had not known what to say to him. He simply looked at Scott and said, ‘You’ve got your mother’s eyes’. What he had wanted to say was, ‘Welcome home,’ or ‘I am so glad you came,’ but he was scared.

Yes, he could admit to himself that he was scared. Afraid that Scott would look into his eyes and say he was there for the money, or to tell him he hated him, or that he didn’t need him in his life. He shifted again, his back beginning to ache a little more.

Nothing could have surprised him more than what happened. Once he had offered him a third of the ranch, Scott had agreed immediately, not even taking a minute to think it over. Since that day, his older son had been out on the range every day, working side by side with the hands, learning to be a rancher.

It had not been easy for him. He had experienced a lot of problems at first. Murdoch laughed silently when he thought about how long it had taken Scott to learn to rope a cow. In the end, however, Scott had succeeded in becoming one of the best ranchers he had ever seen.

Murdoch frowned. When he thought of the past twenty-five years he had missed with his elder son, of all the things he could have shared with Scott while his son was growing up it made him mad. There were times when he had to fight the urge to head straight for Boston and wring Harlan’s neck; an effort he made only because he knew such an action would only hurt his son.

Harlan had raised Scott since the day he was born, and though Scott turned out to be a son to be proud of, he did not give one bit of credit to his former father-in-law. That man was cunning, manipulative, and downright evil in Murdoch’s eyes. All the traits that Scott did not possess.

His blond son did however remind him of Harlan from time to time. Scott was a take-charge sort of person, well organized, always liked to have a plan of action, and was polite to a fault. Not that these were bad qualities, but at times they reminded him so much of his former father-in-law he could barely stand it.

The Scotsman closed his eyes, knowing he needed to get some sleep yet he could not turn his thoughts away from the past. He knew Scott must have many questions he would like to ask, but his older son was just like him. He did not like to discuss anything personal; it made him feel uncomfortable. As he drifted off to sleep, he knew that one day they would have to have that discussion.


Scott quietly approached their seats on the train. The sun had been up for quite some time now, but Murdoch and Teresa continued to sleep. He had a covered tray in his hands. He carefully sat down in his seat and nudged Teresa, placing the tray in the empty seat next to him.

“Teresa,” Scott whispered. “Teresa. Wake up.”

Teresa blinked, slowly picking her head up off Murdoch’s shoulder, yawning. “What time is it, Scott.”

“Shhhhhh,” Scott answered, holding his finger to his mouth. “I don’t think Murdoch got much sleep last night.”

“He didn’t,” Murdoch replied, opening his eyes. “I’m getting too old to sleep on these train seats.”

“I talked to the conductor,” Scott explained, handing his father and Teresa each a cup of coffee from the tray. “There is a hotel car with a room available. I arranged for us to be moved. The porter will come for us when it’s ready. The room sleeps four and has a curtain that can be pulled across as a divider at night.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” Murdoch protested. “I would have managed.”

“You barely slept last night,” Scott commented. “Another night like that and you’d end up spending your time in Denver flat on your back.”

“Scott’s right,” Teresa agreed, looking at Scott. “We wouldn’t have had any fun in Denver.”

“Okay, okay.” Murdoch smiled slightly, raising his hands in defeat. “You win!” He yawned, stretching his legs out to try to ease the cramps.

“It wasn’t just for you,” Scott admitted quietly. “I noticed Teresa woke up quite a few times and I didn’t sleep much better.”

“He’s right,” Teresa confirmed. “I just couldn’t get comfortable.”

“Are either of you hungry?” Scott inquired, indicating the tray beside him. “I brought back a ham omelet for each of you.”

“Yes, I am,” Murdoch replied, realizing just how hungry he was. “Teresa?”

“Oh, yes, I’m starved,” She replied hungrily.

Scott removed the cover and handed them each a plate of food with silverware. He sat back, his mind drifting once more back to Lancer. Johnny was probably up at the first sign of daylight, eating a breakfast of scrambled eggs with chorizo wrapped up in fresh homemade tortillas.

He hoped Johnny was not overdoing it. His younger brother had told him he would be out herding strays, but had promised Scott that he would take it easy and if he felt worse he would stay in bed. Scott smiled at the thought. There was no way his younger brother would stay in bed.

“He’ll be fine, Scott,” Murdoch said, interrupting his son’s thoughts.

“I know, Murdoch,” Scott conceded sighing. “I just wish he could have come with us.”

“We all do,” Murdoch admitted quietly. “But think of all the fun we’ll have shopping for him.”

“That’s true,” Scott replied, with a huge grin on his face. “I have a feeling, Johnny will be like a little kid, anxiously waiting for Christmas Day, shaking every present under the tree with his name on it and trying to guess what it is.”

“And when he’s not shaking it,” Teresa agreed giggling, “he’ll be driving you crazy, Scott. Trying to get you to tell him.”

“All right you two,” Murdoch said, a twinkle in his eyes. “Johnny’s not that bad!”

“Yes he is, Murdoch!” Teresa declared. “I’ll have you know, he’s not only been trying to bribe me into telling him what you two get him for Christmas, but for his birthday, too!”

“Oh, he did, did he!” Murdoch stated, a devious look in his eye. “We’ll just have to find a way to outsmart him then.”

“It will have to be a good one,” Scott emphasized. “It’s not easy to fool Johnny.”

“We’ll have plenty of time to think of a plan while we’re in Denver,” Murdoch commented. They all laughed as the porter walked up, informing them that their hotel car was available.


Later that evening, Scott was sitting in a chair near the window reading a new book, Great Expectations, which his grandfather had sent him, at his request, a few weeks ago. Murdoch was sitting on the sofa, reading a newspaper while Teresa was sitting beside him, knitting a sweater she planned to give to Jelly for Christmas.

The young woman paused for a moment, glanced at Murdoch who was nodding off to sleep, and then at Scott who was buried in his book. She sighed when she thought back to when she first found out Murdoch’s sons were coming to Lancer. At first, she was nervous, not knowing what to expect.

Murdoch had explained to her that Scott had lived his entire life in Boston. He told her that his son might seem a little lost when he got there and possibly a bit snobbish, expect to be waited on. She could tell from her guardian’s tone that he was unsure of what to expect when Scott arrived. And that he was afraid he would not like Lancer, or worse that he would not like his father.

She had decided right there and then that if he even gave her a hint that he was going to treat Murdoch badly, she was going to tell him to get back on that stage and return to Boston. She would not allow anyone to hurt the man who had stepped in and became a parent to her when her father had been murdered so suddenly.

When he had arrived in Morro Coyo, she thought all her worst fears were going to come true. However, on the way to Lancer, and after the initial meeting between father and son, Teresa realized things were going to be okay. Over the next few months, Scott became one of two brothers to her, something she had always wished for, but thought she would never have.

Her thoughts turned to Johnny. When Murdoch had told her some of what he read in the Pinkerton’s report, she thought she was going to faint. His younger son was a famous gunfighter named Johnny Madrid. At first, she was determined that if he decided to stay, she was leaving. There was no way that she would live under the same roof with a man who made his living the same way as the man who had killed her father.

But once Johnny had settled into Lancer that first day, she sensed that he was not the cold-hearted killer that she had been imagining in her darkest dreams. On that day she had watched as the infamous gunfighter fought side by side with his father and older brother to stop a field from being burned. The fire had won, but not before she had decided that she needed to give the man a chance to disprove that Pinkerton report.

The next day, Johnny had watched Scott’s fight in town, not stepping in to help out even after she begged him to do so. Later he explained that he could not risk letting Day know of his connection to Lancer; not if he was going to stay on the inside of land pirate’s gang in order to gather information. She knew in her heart Johnny would have stepped in if it had looked too badly for his brother.

In the end, both brothers had their own ideas of how to beat Day Pardee; their plans had come together and they had won. Over the next few months, Teresa had formed a bond with both brothers. Oh, in the early days of them living there she had fantasized about one or the other of them falling in love with her and vice versa. They would get married and raise a family. She soon realized that her feelings for both brothers were anything but romantic, which was a good thing, because both men seemed to look upon her as just a sister.

“You’ll never get Jelly’s sweater done that way,” Scott observed, shutting his book.

“I think I’m getting tired,” Teresa admitted, laying her knitting in her lap. “I didn’t sleep very well last night,”

“You’re not the only one,” Scott replied, nodding toward Murdoch, who was sleeping, his newspaper had fallen to the floor. “I have to admit to being a bit tired myself.”

“I miss Johnny, too,” Teresa confessed, smiling sadly. “If only he could have come with us.”

“I know,” Scott responded quietly. “But we both know that the mountain air would have only made his cold worse.”
“I know, but I worry about him all alone at home not feeling well,” Teresa complained worrisomely.

“He’s not alone,” Scott reminded her. “Jelly promised to keep a good eye on him for us. You know how he likes to mother Johnny.”

“He will drive Johnny crazy!” Teresa laughed.

“And don’t forget Maria and Cipriano,” Scott remarked. “They will both be checking on him, also. By the time we get home, he’s going to wish he had come along.”

“You’re right,” Teresa agreed, yawning. “I feel much better now.”

“Why don’t you head on to bed,” Scott suggested. “I’ll be headed there in a little while.”

“Okay,” Teresa said, her eyes drooping. She kissed Scott on the cheek. “Good  night.”

“Night, Teresa,” Scott murmured.

Scott watched her pull the curtain shut to divide off the room. He then carefully picked up Murdoch’s legs, putting them across the sofa so that he would sleep more comfortably. Scott covered his father with the blanket that was draped over the back of the sofa. There was a bed above the couch Murdoch was sleeping on, but you had to slide a board into place and make the bed up. He did not want to wake up his father, so he decided another night in a chair would not hurt him any.

He walked over to the window and sat down in the chair that Teresa had recently vacated. He stared out at the mountains, which were visible from the light of the moon. He hoped he was right, that Johnny was feeling better, not worse. As he fell asleep, he thought about how much he already missed his brother on this trip. In such a short time, Johnny had become a very important part of his life. He hoped that once they arrived in Denver and started doing things that he would feel a little less lonesome for his brother’s company.


Lancer (earlier that day)

“Dang it!”

A year ago, Johnny would not have been the least bit successful in resisting the sudden urge to draw his gun and eliminate the source of his most recent annoyance. Then again, a year ago he would have been sitting at a table in a saloon in some border town, maybe with a pretty gal at his side who would eventually take him into her bed for a night of pleasure. The last place he would have been was where he was now; crawling around on a barn roof that seemed to be the favorite outhouse for every bird in the sky.

“Johnny, what in tarnation is ya doin’ up there?” Jelly yelled from below. “Yer jes tryin’ ta catch pneumonia, ain’t cha?”

As if to accentuate the gruff old man’s claim, a stiff breeze blew in, bringing with it more of the chill that had been in the air all morning. Ignoring the messy glop on his sleeve, Johnny pulled his jacket closed, and then began inching his way backwards towards the ladder. With every move he made, he managed to wipe a little more of the bird droppings off the roof and onto his clothes.

Another blast of cool air whipped by, and Johnny shuddered as he made his descent. Once on the ground, he turned to the older man and answered brusquely, “I ain’t trying to catch nothin’. There was a split shingle up here that needed replacing. Murdoch noticed the light shining through yesterday when we was getting ready to leave for Cross Creek. I promised him I’d fix it first thing this morning, but Walt had me out looking at that creek.”

“Well, I ain’t so sure he’d be wantin’ ya up there if he’d a known it was gonna turn so danged cold. Someone else coulda done that, ya know.” Jelly’s tirade ended with a sour grimace and a series of sniffs to the air. “What’s that awful smell?” About that time he noticed the stains on Johnny’s jacket and pants. “Ain’t never heard a no cold remedy callin’ fer ya ta waller ’round in bird dung.”

“Don’t tell me, tell them danged birds!” Turning on his heel, Johnny headed back for the house, leaving Jelly with his hands on his hips and an indignant scowl on his face. Besides the obvious reason of feeling like he had been nature’s outhouse, Johnny was dismayed by how his head was now more stopped up than it had been during the worst of his cold. He had only been up on the roof a half hour or so, but that had obviously been more than enough time to aggravate his condition.

As soon as he opened the kitchen door, he was immediately overtaken by a soothing wave of warm air. He groaned, knowing that such abrupt temperature changes would only further inflame his condition, but getting into some clean clothes was more important. The foul stench was almost unbearable, even to his own dampened sense of smell. However, his plan to head straight for his room and some fresh clothes was shot down after he got no more than ten feet into the kitchen.

“¡Salga! ¡Usted es muy sucio!” Maria cried out. The broom she had been using to sweep the floor quickly became the weapon of choice to hold him at bay.

“I know I’m dirty, Maria,” Johnny sighed as he pushed the broom bristles away from his chest. “But if I get out, I can’t get cleaned up. It’s just my clothes that are dirty.”

“¡Salga! Out of my kitchen. I will bring you some fresh clothes.”

A simple broom in the hands of the determined old Mexican woman had become a weapon, like one of those lances that Scott had told him the knights over in England used to use, back when they was always feuding about anything and everything. “You gonna make me change out in the cold? Come on, Maria, it’s freezing outside.”

Maria, however, was not about to be persuaded to let him any further into the hacienda. “Sí, Juanito. It is nice and warm inside by the fire, and when you no longer smell of the bottom of the chicken coup, you may come in.”

The broom was jabbed at his chest and Johnny took a step backwards. Hands up in surrender, he reached behind him and lifted the door latch. “I’ll be out in the tool shed. Could you bring me something to change into, por favor.”

“Sí, I will bring you some clean clothes,” she relented as he stepped outside.

“Gracias.” Johnny closed the door and headed for the tool shed out behind Teresa’s garden. “I hope you’re happy, Old Man,” he grumbled under his breath.

“If’n yer talkin’ ta me, then, no, I ain’t.”

Johnny almost leapt out of his skin. “Don’t sneak up on me like that, Jelly!” Johnny groused before sneezing loudly. He almost wiped his nose on his sleeve, but thought better of it the second he caught a whiff of the last of the many gifts bestowed on him by the low-flying flock.

“I ain’t sneakin’ nowhere. Besides, whatcha doin’ runnin’ ’round out here? Ya should be in there by the fire gettin’ that chill off. Ain’t you got no sense at all, Boy, or have ya done blown out all yer smarts with all that sneezin’ you been doin’?”

With a sigh, Johnny explained, “Maria won’t let me inside until I change my clothes. She’s gonna bring me something to the tool shed.”

“Cain’t say as I blame her.” Jelly crinkled his nose. “The air ’round ya is a might stout.”

Choosing to ignore Jelly’s condescending tone, Johnny sighed. At that moment, Maria came scurrying through the garden gate. After shooing Jelly away, she hustled Johnny towards the small building, without getting too close, of course. Once inside, he changed quickly and deposited his soiled clothing in the basket Maria had left by the shed door. “I hope Maria don’t
burn ’em,” Johnny groaned. “That’s my favorite jacket, and shirt, too.”

Another hard sneeze sent a shooting pain between his eyes. He was feeling worse by the minute, which made him angry and dismayed. For nearly two weeks he had been battling the tenacious cold, and he had thought he had just about had it licked.

The kitchen was empty when he entered, so he headed for the great room, and the fire he knew would have the area by the sofa nice and warm. “Shoulda gone to Denver. Traveling through them mountains couldn’t have been any worse than this.”

“It dang well, could, too.”

Johnny jumped again as Jelly caught him off guard. Normally no one could sneak up on him so easily, but there was a roaring in his ears that made everything sound like it was muffled by a blanket or something. “Dang it, Jelly. Quit sneakin’ up on me. I might accidentally shoot you, or something.”

Jelly raised an eyebrow and gave Johnny a wry glare. “Be kinda difficult since ya ain’t even wearin’ yer gun.”

Looking down, Johnny realized that he did not have his gun belt on. Come to think of it, he hadn’t even had it on when he was on the barn roof. He must be really sick if he forgot that he took it off before climbing the ladder. “Figures,” he groaned.

“If’n ya say so. Now drink this,” Jelly held up a large steaming cup of something. “It’ll fix ya right up, or my name ain’t Jellifer P. Hoskins.”

Johnny took the proffered cup, and raised it to his lips, only to move it to arm’s length in a hurry. The stench made his eyes water and his nose run. “What’d ya do!? Boil my clothes to make this!?”

“Course not. That there brew smells a heap better’n them clothes,” Jelly huffed. “That’s a tonic I been workin’ on since last week, when ya was nearly ready fer yer death-bed. Now quit yer  backtalkin’ and drink up.”

He was not about to drink that foul-smelling concoction. Jelly was wrong – his bird turd-covered clothes smelled a whole lot better than whatever was in that cup. “I wasn’t anywhere near bein’ on my death bed,” Johnny challenged, in an unsuccessful bid to distract the older man.

“Well, yer gonna be,” Jelly argued back. “Now drink it.”

“No.”

Sometime later, Johnny felt Jelly’s presence beside him as he climbed the stairs. He wasn’t even sure if he drank that awful-smelling mixture or not, and if he had, if it had tasted anywhere near as bad at it smelled. His head was pounding too hard for him to even care. All he knew was that one minute he was walking down the hallway towards his bedroom, and the next he was experiencing the comforting sensation of sinking down into his own bed.

When Johnny woke the next morning, he would have no idea of how he ended up undressed and in bed, but his cold would be much better.

.

Saturday, December 3, 1870

Denver

“The porter just told me we should be arriving in Denver anytime now,” Scott reported as he entered their hotel car, sitting down in the chair by the window.

“I can’t wait!” Teresa exclaimed, her eyes lighting up as she looked out the window.

“Once we get checked into the hotel, we should get something to eat,” Murdoch replied, putting down the book he was reading.

“I want to take a long hot bath,” Scott commented sighing. “Why don’t we take a little time to unpack, get cleaned up, and then we can find somewhere to have dinner?”

“That sounds like a plan to me,” Murdoch agreed.

“What are our plans for tomorrow?” Teresa questioned, anxious to get out and see the city.

“We’re going to church with some of the local ranchers,” The Lancer Patriarch explained. “After that, we’ll eat dinner, return to the hotel for a few hours and then I want to take you two to meet an old friend of mine.”

“An old friend?” Scott asked with interest.

“Travis MacPherson. He and I go back a long way,” Murdoch explained. “We worked on the docks of Boston together when I first arrived from Inverness.”

“I can’t wait, Murdoch.” There was a teasing gleam in Scott’s eyes. “Someone who knew you when you were younger. Johnny is going to be so sorry that he missed this trip.”

“Let’s get our things picked up,” Murdoch growled, ignoring his son. “I’m anxiously for that bath you were talking about.

They all proceeded to quickly pick up their belongings and put them in their carry on bags. Once finished, Scott looked out the window at the approaching city. He felt like a little boy in a candy store. The former Bostonian had not realized until this trip how much he missed the pleasures of city life, and he mentally reminded himself that he had to find out about those tickets for the theatre on Monday.

Looking over at Teresa, he watched as her eyes grew bigger, the closer they got to Denver. She had never been too far from Morro Coyo, except for a few trips to visit friends near Stockton. This was to be her first experience with the big city and Scott wanted to make sure she got to sample a little bit of everything in the short time they were there. Scott smiled to himself as he thought of the surprise that awaited them in Denver.

Another thought brought a slight frown to his features. He hoped that at least one night while they were there, he would be able to go out on his own. As much as he loved his family, he liked time by himself. Murdoch had mentioned before they left home that he wanted to spend some quality time with his son while Teresa was busy with the cattlemen’s wives. Though Scott agreed that it would be nice for them to have some time together, he was looking forward to an evening of wining and dining with a beautiful young woman, or maybe an expensive bottle of brandy and a night of poker.

That old feeling of loneliness swept over him once more. Scott had wanted to do those things with his brother. Ever since both brothers had arrived at Lancer, it seemed they had spent all their time working, with only an occasional night here and there for them to go to town, play cards, compete over beautiful women. He shrugged those feelings away as the train came to a stop. His brother was no doubt in town right now, having a good old time. Johnny would be laughing his head off if he knew how much Scott missed him.


After claiming their luggage, Scott quickly got them a carriage. The conductor had informed him that the telegraph office was only a few blocks from the rail station, so after a brief stop to wire Johnny that they had arrived safely, they headed for the hotel. A light drizzle had begun to fall, so upon their arrival they hurried inside.

Teresa and Murdoch looked around in amazement at the luxuriousness of the establishment. The ceilings were high, and the building had to be at least three stories tall. The floor was carpeted with rich maroon carpeting. There were chairs and sofas scattered throughout the room, for guests to sit and relax as they waited for their rooms or to be seated for dinner. The furniture was made of cherry wood; it had turned legs carved with acanthus leaf motif with flattened ball feet. Murdoch pulled Scott aside.

“Scott, this isn’t the hotel where I asked you to make reservations.”

“I took the liberty of registering us here,” Scott whispered, glancing at Teresa who was still awestruck by the beauty. “I wanted to make this trip a memorable one for Teresa. She works awfully hard at the ranch, and I wanted to show my appreciation.”

“The money I had you wire couldn’t possibly have covered the bill,” Murdoch protested.

“I paid for it out of my own money,” Scott explained. “Consider it an early Christmas present to us all.” He walked over to the desk, patiently waiting his turn.

“Murdoch,” Teresa’s voice was dripping with admiration. “This place is simply beautiful.”

“Yes, it is,” Murdoch agreed absently. It never ceased to amaze him how thoughtful Scott was, both of his sons actually. They came from such different worlds but were so similar in many ways. It had been such a disappointment when Sam had suggested that it would be better if Johnny did not make the trip. This would have been a rare opportunity for Johnny to learn a little about the world in which Scott had grown up.

A few moments later, Scott returned with a young porter who quickly picked up their bags, carrying them up to their suite. Scott tipped him generously, turning to Murdoch as he left. 

“This is the sitting room. There are three adjoining rooms.” Scott pointed to the doors. “The women’s bathroom is the first door to the right and the men’s is on the left. The porter will be back to let us know when they are available.”

“I’m going to start unpacking,” Teresa said, picking up her suitcase, she headed for one of the rooms.

“This must have cost you a small fortune,” Murdoch complained, once Teresa had disappeared into one of the rooms. “I can’t let you do this Scott!”

“Don’t worry about it, Murdoch,” Scott replied quietly. “I used money from my trust fund.”

“Harlan’s money!” Murdoch barked, frowning deeply.

“No,” Scott countered. “It was left to me by my grandmother.” He felt awkward discussing this with his father. There was no love lost between his father and grandfather, which bothered Scott. He cared about both of them and wished they could get along, for his sake if nothing else. “I’m going to get unpacked, so I’ll be ready for that bath when the porter gets back.” Scott picked up his bags, heading for a bedroom door.

“Good idea,” Murdoch nodded, pausing for a moment. “Scott.”

“Yes,” Scott paused, turning slightly.

“This was a nice thing to do,” Murdoch replied uncomfortably.

Scott grinned widely. “It was a selfish thing to do; I like being waited on.”

Murdoch chuckled at Scott’s comment, disappearing into the third room. He wondered what other surprises his son had in store for them on this trip.


“Are you two ready to go to dinner?” Scott asked several hours later as he joined his family in the sitting room. They all felt better after a bath and a change of clothes.

“I’m starved,” Murdoch growled impatiently. “What took you so long?”

“You’re worse than I am!” Teresa teased.

“I spent a little too much time enjoying my bath,” Scott admitted sheepishly. “Let’s go downstairs, I made us reservations at the hotel restaurant.” Checking his pocket watch he was reassured that he had not spent too much time enjoying his bath. “We still have a few minutes to spare.”

They proceeded to the dining room, where they were seated and ordered promptly.  “Do you both have your Christmas lists written out?” Teresa asked, taking a drink from her glass.

“No,” Scott replied, shaking his head. “I know what I want to get you two, but I don’t have a clue about Johnny. I have to find the right gift. It’s going to be a challenge.”

“I know what I’m getting him,” Murdoch informed them. “He was complaining before we left Morro Coyo that his rifle was jamming frequently.”

“He’s hard to buy for,” Scott complained. “I already purchased a case of tequila for him. It’s hidden under my bed at home.” He shuddered at the thought. Tequila and Scott just did not mix.

“I miss him,” Teresa declared tearfully. “I wish he was here.”

“He doesn’t,” Scott said, a mischievous look in his eye. “Look around you, this is the last place on earth Johnny would want to be.”

“Scott’s right, Teresa,” Murdoch murmured in agreement. “Johnny would be saying this place was too fancy for him. Then he’d be out that door, heading for a nice quiet restaurant.”

Everyone fell silent, each lost in their own thoughts. Murdoch wondered what his younger son was doing right now. Johnny was probably in town with the boys, having a drink or playing cards.

He thought back to when Johnny was a young child, before Maria had taken their son and left Lancer. He had been a happy, bubbly little boy. Always wanting to be where his daddy was. Though Murdoch had missed his older son deeply, in some ways it had been much harder on him to lose Johnny.

Murdoch had never held Scott, had not been there for his first words, to see him take his first step. The first time he had laid eyes on his blond son, he had been five years old, dressed in what he termed to be a ‘monkey suit’. Scott had not looked like a happy, joyful child; his son had been the younger version of his grandfather, quiet and polite.

The Scotsman thought back to the first time he had laid eyes on Johnny after all those years. It had been a shock to see how much Johnny had grown up. Realistically, he knew he would not be the same little child he was so long ago, but he had not expected this handsome, grown-up young man to walk in.

Murdoch remembered he had told Scott that he had his mother’s eyes and his younger son had stood there staring at him. Johnny had not given an inch through their initial meeting and he had not agreed to help his father keep Lancer until after they had battled the latest of Pardee’s fires.

Johnny was the exact opposite of Scott, in fact there were times during those first few days when Murdoch had worried that the gunfighter might change his mind and join sides with Day Pardee. But like Scott, Johnny had chosen to help his father and Lancer had been saved.

The Patriarch would never forget the feeling in his stomach when Johnny signed the legal document at the lawyer’s office. He had asked the attorney to change Johnny’s name to read ‘Madrid’ and his younger son had told him no, he would be using the name ‘Lancer’ now. Everyone in the room broke out with a smile. Johnny Lancer had indeed returned home.

He shook his head, smiling to himself. They were supposed to be in Denver, taking a break from the everyday grind of ranching, having a good time.

“I propose a toast.” Murdoch picked up his wine glass and held it up in front of him. As soon as Scott and Teresa had done likewise, Murdoch said the words from deep within his heart. “To our family, both present and at home. May we find peace and joy in the coming holidays.”

“Let this be the best Christmas Johnny has ever had, and may we be successful in keeping his gifts a secret,” Scott added.

“That above all we remember that family is the most important thing of all,” Teresa joined in.

They touched glasses, everyone taking a drink, the conversation turning to the upcoming cattle rancher meetings. This was Scott’s first time attending them and his father wanted to make sure he was well prepared for the topics of discussion. Scott rolled his eyes at Teresa at one point, bored with the conversation. His gaze roaming around the room, he was just too tired to listen to his father right now.

Just as he was pulling his eyes back toward his father, he saw an incredibly beautiful woman. She had long flowing auburn hair, with the greenest eyes he had ever seen. He was so entranced with watching her that he did not hear his father’s question.

“Scott!” Murdoch demanded. “Are you listening to me?”

“Ah…what?” Scott answered guiltily, pulling his eyes away from the woman and looking at his father. “I’m sorry, Murdoch, but I’m just too tired to listen tonight.” He yawned as if in confirmation. “All I want to do right now, is go to bed.”

“It was a pretty long trip,” Murdoch admitted. “Why don’t we call it an early night? We’re going to be busy the next few days.”

They headed upstairs, each going into their bedroom with a quiet good night. Scott undressed, climbing into bed, pulling the covers over him. He wondered who that woman was and whether he would see her again. Though he missed his younger brother, he had to admit to himself as he fell asleep that this trip was starting to look better and better.


Lancer

“I’ll see you, and raise you two bits.”

Johnny stared across the table over the edge of his cards to study Frank’s face as two bits were tossed casually into the pot.

The black Lancer hand had been a slave before the war. Afterwards, with his freedom and a dream, he had headed west in an effort to leave the horrors of his past behind. Frank was now one of the best cowboys in the whole area. He had been at Lancer a little over a year before Johnny and Scott had arrived, and had stayed loyal during the incident with Pardee. Frank was someone Johnny had come to trust without hesitation.

However, when it came to poker, Frank was a scoundrel. Johnny was determined to win back the four dollars from the last hand. He schooled his features, revealing nothing about the cards he held in his hand – at the least he had a straight, at best he could bump that up to a royal flush, providing he was willing to take the chance.

“You gonna take all night, Johnny? You in or out?” Walt asked impatiently from his seat on Johnny’s left.

Deciding to take the more cautious path, Johnny tossed in his bet. “I’m in. You happy, now, Walt?”

“Took ya long enough, Lancer,” Walt complained as he tossed two cards face down on the table. “Give me two, Frank, and make ’em good ones this time.”

“Sure thing, Walt. Two of the best comin’ right up.” Frank dealt out two cards onto the table in front of Walt, while not doing a very good job of containing the big grin that was just itching to burst out on his lips.

Walt tipped up the corner of the two new cards, and then tossed his hand down on the table in disgust. “If that’s the best you got, I’d sure hate ta see the worst in that deck. I’m gonna grab another beer.”

After pushing his chair back from the table, Walt stood up and headed for the bar. Lester, who was sitting between Walt and Frank, tossed two bits into the pot. “I’m in,” he said without taking any more cards. “Hey, Walt, why don’t you let one of them perty little fillies bring you another drink? That’s what they’re here for, ya know.”

The scowl on Walt’s face deepened. “I know exactly what they’re here for, and I can get my own beer. Don’t like the idea of havin’ ta buy one of them a drink for my troubles. Besides, I got some business ta tend to that they can’t help me with.” Walt headed for the back door, which opened to the alley and was the quickest way to the nearest outhouse.

“Don’t be so sure, Walt,” Lester yelled out to Walt’s retreating back. “Might even be able to give you a couple pointers.”

Johnny barely contained his amusement at Lester’s crude dig at Walt, while Frank and Willie, the fifth man at the table, did not even bother to mask their amused snickers. Walt and Lester could only be described as best friends would did not particularly like each other that much. Popular opinion among the Bar D and Lancer hands – Walt worked at the Bar D, while Lester was one of the Lancer crew – was that no one else could stand being around either man on a regular basis, so they became buddies out of necessity.

Willie had folded before Johnny’s call, and with Walt out, that left Johnny, Frank and Lester to decide who was the winner over the nearly twenty dollars in the pot. “What ya got, Johnny?” Frank asked with a grin.

“Straight, jack high,” Johnny said as he laid his hand face up on the table. The immediate frown on Lester’s face told Johnny that his hand had the man beat, an observation that was confirmed when Lester tossed his cards down and stood up. “I’m gonna get me a beer before you two take me for my last dollar.”

Frank’s grin had faded and he was shaking his head, but the fact that his cards were still in his hand said that maybe things weren’t what they seemed. “Okay, Frank, let’s have a look.”

Very painstakingly Frank laid his cards down, face up, one at a time. As he placed the last care on the table, he looked up at Johnny with a raised eyebrow. “What you reckon the odds are on this one, Johnny?”

A grin slowly spread over Johnny’s face as he watched a mirror image of his own hand laid out on the table in front of him. The suits were different, which didn’t matter for a straight, but the sequence was exactly the same – seven, eight, nine, ten, jack. With a chuckle, Johnny lifted his beer mug in salute to Frank, then downed the last gulp of the yellow liquid.

“That’s a split pot, if I’m rememberin’ right,” Frank stated a little too nonchalantly.

“Got something in mind?” Johnny asked, knowing for a fact that Frank did. Frank was a good poker player, but beyond that he was a con man.

“How about a double or nothin’, three card draw, highest card takes all?”

Johnny eyed the pot speculatively. If Scott were here he would tell Johnny he was a fool for even considering Frank’s suggestion. ‘Pocketing half a pot is better than losing it all,’ the sensible Bostonian would say. Only thing, Johnny was not feeling too sensible at the moment. For the first time in over two weeks, he did not feel like a walking head cold, and to celebrate, he was not above being a little reckless. “Sure, Frank. I feel lucky tonight.”

Walt returned with Lester in tow. The two men sat down and eyed the table, the pot still where it was when they left, and the obvious tie spelled out with the two upturned hands. Lester snorted. “You two gonna split that up, or are ya just gonna stare at it all night?”

“We’re waiting for you two to get back,” Johnny said with a grin.

“Why?” Walt asked suspiciously.

“Cause Frank and me decided to make this a little more interestin’. Ain’t no sense in breakin’ up a happy pot, now is there?” Johnny drawled. “Since it’s obvious none of you is cheatin’, you’re gonna help us out.”

Willie, who had been sitting back quietly contemplating his losses, leaned forward. “Three a us, an’ three draw cards. That what yer thinkin’, Johnny?”

“Yep.”

“Now, Johnny, you’re not insinuating that I’m dealing funny, are you?” In another place and another time, Frank’s question could have gotten a whole lot of trouble stirred up, but the gleam in his eye negated any ill feelings his teasing statement might have otherwise invoked.

“Nope.” Johnny grinned back at the black man.

Frank laughed and gathered up the cards, then passed the deck to Willie. “You shuffle, Willie. Then you, Lester, and Walt can pick Johnny an’ me three cards each.”

While the cards were shuffled and the draws made, Johnny and Frank stared each other down across the table. Johnny had liked Frank from the beginning. The man was easy to talk to and had never once judged Johnny for his past as Johnny Madrid. Frank nearly got trampled by a steer once, and while Johnny was tending to him he found out why.

Scars from the lash of a whip marred the black man’s back. Frank told Johnny a few things about his life as a slave, and Johnny could not help but respect the man for surviving such a life. Through all the hardships he had endured along the border, Johnny had always had his freedom. He was not sure he could survive having that taken away for more than the few short stints he had spend in various jail cells.

In a show of respect, he had been willing to share a bit of himself with Frank, although he had never expected it to be so little. He had barely gotten out that he had been a gunfighter, when Frank slipped his torn shirt back over his bruised shoulders and turned to Johnny, looking him dead in the eye. ‘Do I ever have to worry about you gunning me down for no reason?’ Frank had asked as plain as day. Johnny told him ‘no’. Frank nodded and walked over to his horse. That was the last time Johnny’s past had ever been mentioned by the other man.

“Okay, Johnny, let’s see what you got,” Frank grinned without breaking eye contact.

Both men picked up the cards the others had picked for them and Johnny couldn’t help but grin when he looked down at what had to be the winning card. He tossed out his high card and reached out to rake in the pot when Frank cleared his throat rather loudly.

“Not so fast, Johnny.” Frank tossed down his high card next to Johnny’s. The ace of spades had come from Johnny’s hand, and the ace of hearts from Frank’s. “Guess we’ll have to go to the next highest to break this tie.”

“Reckon so,” Johnny snickered. He had been sure his ace would be enough, but was confident his second would do the trick. “King of hearts,” he announced as he tossed the red card down on top of the ace he had previously played.

Frank laughed and shook his head. He tossed out his second high card and announced just as smugly, “King of spades.”

The three other men groaned at what was turning out to be the most amazing string of coincidences they had seen in a long time. By now several of the saloon gals were huddled just behind Willie, intrigued by the rather unusual display of competition.

Johnny let loose a groan of his own and tossed down his final card – the two of clubs. He was already digging his money pouch out of his boot for the double he had lost when Frank tossed down his last card. Johnny rolled his eyes and sat back in his chair. “You gettin’ the feeling there’s a couple of dollars in that pot that like each other about as much as Lester and Walt?”

Ignoring Walt’s indignant look, Frank gazed down at his two of hearts lying next to Johnny’s two of clubs. “I do believe so, Johnny. I suggest-“

“I suggest that youse two split up them dollars so’s Johnny can git on back home ‘fore he has hisself a relapse,” a grizzled voice joined them from behind Johnny’s chair.

Sighing, Johnny wondered that it had taken Jelly this long to track him down. “I feel fine, Jelly,” he called over his shoulder as he and Frank made quick work of divvy up the pot.

“Sure ya do, now,” Jelly continued grumbling. “Ya push it an’ yer gonna be needin’ a nuther dose of my special tonic.”

Johnny grimaced at the thought of the foul smelling potion he still did could not actually remember drinking. The other men broke out laughing. “That bad, Johnny?” Frank asked.

“Worse, I think,” Johnny lamented as he stuffed his winnings into his money pouch and then put the pouch back in his boot. “I’ll see you guys next week,” he said to Walt and Willie. To Lester and Frank he added a friendly, “see you two in the morning.” With Jelly following close behind, Johnny headed out the door.

Jelly chattered about everything and nothing all the way home, but Johnny tuned out the grumbling. Instead, his thoughts were on how much he wished Scott had been playing with them that night.

Scott would have been impressed by the outlandish streak of matching hands, not to mention that he would have insisted that Johnny and Frank keep on playing. ‘Would have probably put up the matching pot, too,’ Johnny thought to himself. Scott was one of the most competitive people Johnny had ever met, and he did not figure his brother would be satisfied with a tie, especially two of ’em over the same pot.

“Whatcha grinnin’ about?” Jelly asked as the pulled their horses to a halt by the corral.

Johnny reply sounded as melancholy as he felt. “Just wondering what Scott’s doing right now.”

“I’ll tell ya what he’s doin’, he’s sleepin’, like anyone with half a lick a sense’d be doing. Must be near dawn by now. Be gettin’ ta sleep ’bout the time fer the sun ta come up.”

Jelly’s grumbling continued as the horses were unsaddled and bedded down for the night, but Johnny’s thoughts were only of his family and how far they were away from him. As much as he longed to be with them, just the though of having to endure a week in the confines of a city the likes of Denver made him glad it was them and not him. Monday was only a week away, and he had a good story to tell Scott when they got back.

.

Sunday, December 4, 1870

Denver

Scott rolled over, groaning at the thought that he had to get up in a few minutes to attend church with Teresa and his father. He wanted to pull the covers over his head and sleep for another two or three hours. He smiled when he thought about that woman he saw in the restaurant. He threw back the covers, climbed out of bed, walking over to the wardrobe closet, taking out his dress clothes.

He quickly dressed, anxious to start the day. Scott had never been to Denver before, but he had read a lot about it. Looking over at the shelf clock on the dresser, he groaned even louder. It was only seven o’clock in the morning; he did not have to get ready for church for another hour.

He walked over the window and looked out, watching as the sun came up over the mountains. A light powder of snow has fallen during the night and the sun reflecting off it made everything glisten. The former Bostonian felt the memories of sledding and ice-skating wash over him. He remembered many times as a young boy, heading for the big hill just down the road from where he lived with his grandfather.

He would meet up with some of his friends and they would spend the day on the big hill. Then one of the boys would invite everyone back to their house for hot chocolate or cider. Oh, Scott knew he was not supposed to go. His grandfather was very specific in his instructions that he was to come straight home, but he went anyway. There was a sense of family in those homes, something for which Scott had always felt an intense yearning.

Eventually, his grandfather’s butler would come looking for him. As soon as he heard his name being called, Scott would quickly put on his winter clothes, grab his hat and gloves, and run to meet the man. Rollins, as Scott referred to the butler, would take his hand and they would head home. Never once in all those years had the butler told Harlan that the young boy had disobeyed him.

Scott walked back over to the dresser, picking up his rounded dress hat. He had not worn that hat since the day he first arrived in Morro Coyo. His whole world had changed since that day, and he was a better man for it. He stepped out of his bedroom, he quietly shut the door behind him.

“Can’t sleep?” Murdoch asked softly when he looked up from the paper he was reading.

“No,” Scott whispered. “I think my body’s used to getting up with the cows.”

“There’s coffee or hot tea on the table,” Murdoch informed him, pointing. “I went downstairs to inquire about a newspaper and the desk clerk sent one up along with the tray. There are some sweet rolls there, too, if you want one.”

Scott placed his hat on the end table next to the sofa and headed over to the table. He poured himself a cup of hot tea, picked up a sweet roll, sitting down in the chair across from his father. “Teresa still sleeping?”

“Yes, she was falling asleep in her chair at dinner last night,” Murdoch commented smiling slightly.

“I was pretty tired too,” Scott admitted, taking a drink of his tea, sighing. “This is really good.”

“You know, Teresa could make you hot tea at home,” Murdoch informed him, frowning at the possibility that there were things about Boston his son missed, and that could easily be provided at Lancer.

“Coffee’s fine, Murdoch,” Scott replied, setting the cup down. “But, I do like a cup of tea every now and then.”

“Does it feel good to be in the city?” Murdoch inquired, almost afraid of his son’s answer. “Do you miss all the comforts of Boston?”

Scott stared at his father, stunned that he would ask him such a personal question. Murdoch was a lot like Scott in this respect, he did not discuss anything personal as a general rule. “Ah…yes,” he admitted seriously. “It’s nice to be in the city, but,” he paused to gather his thoughts. “I couldn’t live in Boston anymore. Lancer is my home; it’s where I belong.”

Murdoch visibly relaxed upon hearing those reassuring words. “I’m happy to hear that, Son.”

“So,” Scott quickly changing the subject, “tell me what to expect at the meetings we’re attending this week. I was too tired to listen last night.” The blond-haired Lancer was relieved when his father started right in with details on the upcoming meetings. He was afraid the conversation would have turned to his grandfather; a topic that both Lancer men tended to avoid.


Teresa and Scott walked into the church, followed by Murdoch, who was discussing cattle with one of the ranchers they had met for breakfast. The blond-haired Lancer looked at Teresa with a wide grin, knowing they were both thinking the same thing. Murdoch Lancer lived and breathed one thing; ranching.

When Teresa made a move towards the front of the church, Scott nonchalantly put his hand on her elbow and guided her into the last pew, looking around them the whole time. He wanted to be able to see all the people who came to the service, in case……Scott stopped short of his thought, stunned. He had not realized before how much of an affect Johnny was having on him. His younger brother was always trying to beat it into his head that you always sit where you can see everyone, and you make sure you are close to the door. He shook his head in dismay. Like it would do him any good, anyway. His weapon was back in the hotel room.

Scott glanced up as Murdoch sat down next to him, frowning at their location. “I thought you’d feel more comfortable sitting here,” Scott whispered in response to the unvoiced question. “If your back starts hurting, you won’t have to leave in front of the whole congregation.”

Before Murdoch could reply, the minister came out to the pulpit, welcoming everyone to church. As the sermon progressed, Scott tried in vain to keep his thoughts on what was being said. Finally, his eyes started roaming, looking at the parishioners who were attending the service that day, coming to an abrupt stop when they settled on a woman sitting about four rows ahead of him on the other side of the church.

It was her! The woman from the restaurant last night. He hoped that she would be attending one of the dances that he would be attending in the coming week. Realizing that the minister was concluding his sermon, Scott guiltily pulled his attention back to the pulpit. The preacher said his final words to the congregation, finishing with a prayer.

Scott stood up, following Murdoch out of the church, stepping to the right as more parishioners left. Murdoch turned to say something to him, when a smile broke out across his face.

“Travis!” Murdoch yelled across the crowd. “Travis MacPherson!”

Scott’s eyes followed his father’s gaze, watching as a big burly sandy haired man headed there way, slowly moving through the crowd. Murdoch shook hands with him, turning to Teresa and Scott. “Travis, I want you to meet my ward, Teresa O’Brien.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. MacPherson,” Teresa said politely, extending her hand.

“The pleasure’s all mine, young lady,” Travis stated warmly. “Murdoch’s told me a lot about you.”

“And this is my son Scott.” There was genuine pride in Murdoch’s introduction. “Catherine’s boy.”

“Nice to meet you, Sir.” Scott smiled cordially as he shook the man’s hand.

“You and I have to talk about your father,” Travis responded cheerfully. “The stories I could tell you about him!”

“I can’t wait.” Scott grinned broadly. “A little blackmail information could come in handy.”

“Scott,” Murdoch said gruffly, a hint of laughter in his eyes.

“I want you all to come for dinner, my cook is expecting you,” Travis stated firmly, clearly not willing to take no for an answer. “Do you need to return to your hotel for anything?”

“Scott? Teresa?” Murdoch inquired, seeing the shake of their heads, he turned back to Travis. “It looks like we’re all set.”

“Well, come on then,” Travis declared. “We have a lot of catching up to do.” He motioned them to follow him. “That’s my carriage and driver right there.” They got in the carriage and headed towards his home.


After a leisurely dinner, Murdoch and Travis retired to the living room, while Scott and Teresa went for a walk through Denver, wanting to give the old friends a chance to catch up on their lives. Upon returning to the house, Teresa and Scott sat down on the sofa, each with a cup of hot mulled cider.

“Did you enjoy your walk?” Murdoch inquired with interest.

“Oh, Murdoch!” Teresa exclaimed, a smile lighting up her face. “You should see all the stores, we’re going to have so much fun shopping tomorrow.”

“I can’t wait,” Scott groaned.

Travis turned to Scott. “Your father tells me you grew up in Boston.”

“That’s right.” Scott confirmed. “I moved to California recently.”

“I met your mother several times.” Travis murmured quietly. “She was a lovely woman, you remind me of her.”

“Thank you, sir.” Scott replied. He hoped that during their stay in Denver, he would have the opportunity to visit with his father’s friend alone. There were so many questions about his mother that he did not feel comfortable asking his father or his grandfather. Scott wanted to know what she was like, did she like California, and how his parents had met.

“Mr. MacPherson,” Teresa interjected, setting her cup down. “What was Murdoch like when you knew him.”

“Murdoch was always a hard worker,” Travis replied, a mischievous look in his eye. “But when the weekends came, he liked to enjoy himself just as much as the next man.”

“Travis!” Murdoch groaned.

“I remember one time,” Travis began, caught up in his story. “Murdoch and I were playing poker, it was a Friday night and we’d just got paid. Your father went and put his money in the bank, except for a little money for the game.”

“Come on, Travis,” Murdoch pleaded good-naturedly.

“Well, your father got a little bit snookered,” Travis leaned forward, whispering. “He climbed up on the bar, starting singing an old Scottish song at the top of his lungs.”

“Murdoch!” Scott exclaimed, looking at his father, trying to hold back his laughter.

“By the time he finished singing, he had his shirt half off,” Travis continued, starting to laugh himself. “He ended up spending the night in jail. Of course, I bailed him out in the morning.”

“Enough!” Murdoch growled, even though the laughter was easily seen in his eyes. Teresa started to giggle and Scott broke out laughing, soon to be joined by his father and Travis.

Murdoch proceeded to tell an embarrassing story of his own. Scott and Teresa sat there entranced, listening as the two old friends, as they told story after story. Finally, Murdoch looked at the shelf clock. “I didn’t realize it was so late,” he said as he rose to his feet. “We need to return to our hotel before it gets too late. We have a busy week ahead of us.”

“You’re still planning on coming to my Christmas Party,” Travis reminded him. “It’s Wednesday night, I’ll send a driver to pick you up.”

“We wouldn’t miss it,” Murdoch assured him, smiling.

“My driver will give you a ride back to your hotel,” Travis offered warmly. “It was nice meeting you,” Travis said to Scott and Teresa.

They quickly said their good-byes and returned to their hotel. As they approached their suite, Scott noticed the door was partially ajar.

“Murdoch,” Scott warned, pointing to the door, silently cursing the practice of not carrying a weapon in the city.

“Teresa,” Murdoch whispered firmly. “Go downstairs and get the hotel manager.”

Teresa nodded, hurrying towards the stairs. Murdoch and Scott watched until she was safely out of sight and then cautiously entered the room. The first thing they noticed was that all three bedroom doors were wide open.

Scott carefully looked into Teresa’s room, seeing no one in there he proceeded to his own. After checking to make sure no one was present, he walked over to the dresser and pulled open a drawer, it was empty. He went around the room looking through everything, but there was nothing left; his clothes, his gun, and his wallet – they were all gone.

“Scott,” Murdoch yelled, entering the room. “We’ve been robbed!”

“I know,” Scott replied angrily. “We better check Teresa’s room, but I’m sure we’ll find it the same.”

They quickly entered her room, only to find that everything of hers was missing, too. They walked out into the sitting room, just as Teresa returned with the local sheriff and the hotel manager. The lawman had been leaving the hotel restaurant when he overheard the young woman talking to the manager, so he accompanied them upstairs to assess the situation.

The sheriff quickly took a report and told them he would do his best to try to recover their property, but quite frankly he did not have much hope. Murdoch thanked them for their time and they left. Scott and Teresa were sitting dejectedly staring at the floor.

“So, what are we going to do?” Scott inquired angrily.

“Tomorrow, we’ll purchase some new clothes.” Murdoch stated solemnly. “We’ll get up, eat breakfast and then send a telegram to Johnny informing him we’ve had a change of plans, we’ll be leaving Denver Wednesday evening, after the last meeting. We’ll be running low on money by then.”

“That’s fine with me,” Teresa said sadly. “The fun has been taken out of this trip.”

“It’s settled then,” Scott agreed discouraged. “We better all get a good night’s sleep.” They all headed for their own rooms, silently closing the doors.

Climbing into bed, Scott mentally kicked himself for leaving his wallet in his room. He was used to having a tab in hotels such as this, and had in fact opened one when he signed in yesterday. He was relieved they were heading home early, as he didn’t know how he would have paid the bill when they got ready to leave for home at the end of the week. He had sent a deposit, but the balance of the bill he intended to pay when they checked out.

As he fell asleep, he thought of the only good thing to come out of this. He missed his brother, and would get to see him sooner.


Lancer

After spending the morning tending the livestock and performing the necessary chores that did not go away just because it is Sunday, Johnny settle down at the kitchen table. Lunch consisted of another helping of Maria’s fabulous tamales. He savored each bite of the heavenly food, knowing that as soon as his family returned the meals would return to normal. Not that they were bad, just that he sometimes missed some of the few pleasant reminders of the days that had been previous life in Mexico.

He missed his family more, though, but he was also glad that his brother was getting to spend some time in Denver. Although not one complaint had ever been uttered in regards to the life left behind in Boston, Johnny could tell there were times when Scott longed for the hustle and bustle of a being in a big city. As far as Johnny knew, except for the time spent in the Army, his brother had lived his entire life being the toast of Boston society – and Morro Coyo was no Boston.

Johnny did not know much about high society, but he knew enough from the way Scott talked about growing up as ‘Harlan Garrett’s grandson’ – Scott always said the phrase like it annoyed him on some level – to know that Scott’s grandfather was a very important man in Boston, and that he took great pride in Scott’s accomplishments. Not that Johnny could fault the old man for that.

Scott was smart and talented, but there was so much more to his older brother than just his schooling and his maternal heritage. Sometimes Johnny wondered if Mr. Garrett was proud of those other things, too. Not many men Johnny had ever come across were as fair and open-minded as Scott Lancer, and Johnny would be proud to call him brother for those reasons alone.

Maria had departed for the day to be with her own family, so Johnny made a quick clean up of the kitchen and his dirty lunch dishes. He never had anyone to clean up after him before, and it had taken some getting used to when he had first arrived. From the way Scott talked, his grandfather employed a numerous people to take care of just about everything, yet, without hesitation, Scott still helped out in the kitchen on those rare occasions when the women where away.

Having stalled as long as he could, Johnny poured himself a fresh cup of coffee and headed for the great room and the task he had been dreading all morning – bookkeeping. He hated the paperwork part of being a ranch owner more than any other job.

In contrast, Murdoch loved it. He actually seemed to gain quite a lot of satisfaction from getting the figures to add up and down and across and every whichaway, and then would get to adding and subtracting and come up with what he called the ‘bottom line’. Scott was not nearly as bad, but even he got a triumphant smile on his face whenever things worked out the first time.

For Johnny, fighting with numbers on a piece of paper was something he did not understand. Murdoch was always on him to take more interest in the financial end of the business, but Johnny just could not seem to find any satisfaction in what he viewed as a boring and useless chore. Scott had tried to explain to him about profits and margins and a bunch of other terms that Johnny could not care less about, but in the end, Johnny still could not get beyond the waste of time, as he saw it.

“If ya got money in the bank at the end of the month, then it musta been a good month. If you ain’t, it’s too late to be doing anything about it,” he muttered as he sat down in at his father’s desk. He pulled the ledger book from the bottom draw, the stack of receipts from the top drawer, and began working.

Very carefully he logged each piece of paper, one at a time, making sure each line balanced out before he went on to next. His methods irritated Murdoch, who said that the totals at the bottom – footings, Scott had said they were called – would be off if you had any problems. Murdoch seemed to think it was a waste of time to look for something wrong before you even knew if there was something wrong.

“Make sure you do it right in the first place,” Johnny grumbled to himself. “Then you ain’t gotta worry about them footy things being off balance.” So Johnny did things his way, Murdoch complained and grumbled about him taking too much time, and Scott just smiled and shook his head.

“Dang, I wish they was here.”

Almost instantly, Johnny was laughing at his own sentimental foolishness. It wasn’t like he they had been gone that long. The first day he had spent most of the time on the road between Lancer and Cross Creek, with a stop in Green River to do some important banking that Murdoch had to have thought would prevent pestilence and famine from descending on Lancer. Then, he went to bed early, after finishing dinner.

He had slept away most of the next day, except for this time on the barn roof wallowing in bird poop. Thankfully, he had woken yesterday morning to find his favorite shirt and jacket all clean and fresh smelling right there on top of the laundry. He would have to think of something real nice to do for Consuela for getting them cleaned up for him. He also awoke to a clearer head, though from what he could remember of the night before, he felt better if he did not dwell on that aspect too much.

Yesterday was Saturday, and he had covered just about every inch of the ranch – at least it felt like it, anyway – checking on the various work crews, and gathering information to plan out the next week’s work schedule. That was paperwork he could understand; not like these books of numbers that made him cross-eyed.

There really had not been much time to miss his family until last night. Johnny had needed and enjoyed the distraction of the trip to town and the rather interesting poker game, but the whole time he had the niggling feeling that something was missing – he knew that something was Scott. He could not remember the last time he had played a game of poker without Scott being in a chair at the same table. He found he missed his brother’s steadfast presence more than he would ever have dreamed possible.

“You’re acting like some lovesick puppy,” Johnny scolded himself and grabbed the next receipt. “They’ll be back in a week, and then you’ll be wishin’ you had some more time to yourself.”

Johnny ignored the laughter he heard in his head. Truth was, he had lived most of his life alone, had depended on no one, and had answered to no one, either. Only when he was on a job did he take orders, and then he followed them only to the extent that they went along with his own way of thinking. All that was in the past, though, and now that he knew the comfort and peace of having a family around him, the solitude that had once been considered a blessing was now turning out to be more of a hardship.

Pushing the pointless thoughts aside, he worked at a steady pace to demolish the stack of receipts from the prior week. He initialed, dated, and put the ledger page number in the bottom right corner of each receipt, tallied the columns, checked the footings, and with a sigh of relief, closed the ledger just in time for the grandfather clock begin chiming the hour of six o’clock.

He pushed himself up out of the cushioned leather chair, stood and stretched out his back and shoulder muscles, before grabbing his empty coffee mug and heading for the kitchen. An hour later, he returned to the great room. The evening chores had been done, his stomach was full, and he had a fresh cup of coffee in hand. It was time to plop down on the sofa and relax.

Jelly would probably be around later for a game of checkers, so in the meantime, Johnny read the newspaper from Boston that Scott’s grandfather has sent him in a package that arrived the prior week. Most of it was boring and inconsequential, and before long he was sound asleep.

.

Monday, December 5, 1870

Denver

Scott sat his cup of coffee down on the table, looking across the table at Teresa. He could tell from the dark circles under her eyes that the young woman had not slept well the night before, and who could blame her. The young man felt sorry for his honorary sister, she did not get away from the ranch all that often, and to have such a prime opportunity ruined at the hands of greedy cowards made him just plain angry.

“You’ll need some money for clothes,” Murdoch commented. He handed his son some bills. “As soon as we’re done here, I’ll head over and send the telegram to Johnny to let him know that we’ll be returning sooner than expected.”

“Fine,” Scott acknowledged, putting the money in his pocket. “Do you want to meet back here for lunch?”

“I have some business I need to take care of,” Murdoch explained, glancing at his young ward. “Why don’t you and Teresa spend the day exploring Denver. You should have enough money between what I gave you and what you brought to buy lunch.”

Scott looked down quickly. He nervously picked up his fork and took another bite of his scrambled eggs. The Harvard graduate prided himself on always acting responsibly, but leaving his wallet in his hotel room and been plain foolish. Thoughts of what Johnny would have said had he been there made him smile. Despite being a former gunfighter, Johnny was always telling Scott that he was too trusting. In this instance, his younger brother would have been correct.

“I’m ready when you are,” Teresa said, breaking the silence that hung over the table.

“Let’s go then.” Scott stood up, pulling out her chair he sighed in relief. You could have cut the tension at the table with a knife. “We’ll see you later, Murdoch?”

“I’ll meet you two here at five o’clock,” Murdoch informed them. “We can go over the meetings for tomorrow while we eat dinner.”

“Fine,” Scott agreed.

Murdoch watched them until they walked out the door. He drank the last of the coffee in his cup. Grabbing his coat off the chair next to him, he paid his bill and headed towards the telegraph office.


“There are so many shops,” Teresa exclaimed, her eyes bright with excitement for the first time that day. “I don’t know which one to go into first.”

Scott groaned inwardly. The young woman was known for spending hours in the one store they had back in Morro Coyo. He would be lucky if they managed to get back to the hotel in time to meet Murdoch. “There’s a dress shop,” Scott suggested, pointing across the street to a store with a dress on display in the window. “Why don’t we start there?”

“What a beautiful dress,” Teresa sighed.

Scott could tell she was thinking it would have been perfect for the party at Murdoch’s friends on Wednesday night, if they had not been robbed and forced to leave earlier than expected. “Maybe this store is a bit too fancy,” He steered her away from the window towards a store that looked to carry more casual clothing; Scott hoped it would carry clothes for both men and women.

He opened the door for his sister and stepped in behind her, groaning out loud as he saw it was filled with women’s things – and only women’s things. “Ah…maybe I’ll wait outside.”

“Chicken,” Teresa laughed as Scott handed her some bills to pay for her purchases.

Scott leaned against the building and looked up the street at a couple men going into a saloon. He had a sudden urge for a cold beer and a hand of cards, something he would have been doing with his brother right now if Johnny had been allowed to come. A couple of pretty saloon girls walked past him, and Scott smiled, keeping them in his sights they crossed the road and entered a bar just down the street. Grinning, he hoped that after dinner that night he would be able to slip away and spend some time getting to know one of them.

“I’m all set,” Teresa announced as she came out of the store. She handed him the money that was left.

“You didn’t spend very much,” Scott frowned, taking her packages. “Are you sure you got everything you needed?”

“Yes,” Teresa assured him. “Now, let’s find a store for you.”


Scott and Teresa walked through the park, stopping to sit on a bench. The air was brisk but the sky was clear which made sitting in the sun more enjoyable. They had spent the afternoon, walking along the river, pausing for a time to watch a grizzled old man panning for gold, and were ready for a break before heading back to meet Murdoch.

“I’m sorry we have to cut our trip short,” Scott consoled. “I know how much you were looking forward to this trip.

“It’s okay, Scott.” Teresa smiled, trying to put on a brave front. “It’s not your fault we were robbed.”

“I know,” Scott admitted. “But I can’t help somehow feeling that I should be able to fix it so we can stay.”

“That’s because you’re used to fixing things for everyone,” Teresa explained. “And you’re very good at it, too. If it wasn’t for you, Johnny would have left Lancer a long time ago.”

“No, he would have worked things out with Murdoch,” Scott disagreed. “All I really do is listen to them.”

“No, you do much more than that,” Teresa said sincerely. “You stand up for Johnny. I don’t think you realize how much that means to him. Unlike you, and even me, Johnny has had to fight Murdoch every step of the way to make a place for himself in this family.”

“That’s because they are too much alike,” Scott acknowledged. “Murdoch doesn’t want to give an inch and Johnny won’t back down either. Sometimes I feel like I’m the parent.”

“You’re a peacemaker, Scott.” Teresa smiled. “I wonder where you get that from?”

“I like to think I was born that way,” Scott said quietly. “I spent my life in Boston doing whatever it took to make my grandfather happy. I succeeded, too, until I defied him and joined the war effort. That changed things between us.”

“I’m sure your grandfather loves you,” Teresa murmured.

“Yes, I know he does,” Scott confirmed. “But his type of love is conditional; as long as I am doing whatever he wants me to do, I am a good grandson. When I do what I want to do, then I’m being disrespectful and unappreciative.”

“Maybe he’s just afraid of losing you. Of being alone in his old age.”

For Scott, nothing could have sounded more absurd. “I can assure you that my grandfather isn’t afraid of anything. He just can’t handle not being in control. For too many years I let him have his way, so much so, that now it’s hard for him to realize he can’t push me around anymore.”

Scott stood up as the conversation became a bit too uncomfortable. He checked his pocket watch, and cringed when he saw the time. “We better head back to the hotel, it’s already past five. Murdoch is going to be livid.”


Murdoch sat at a table in the dining room, scowling at his son as he escorted Teresa to the table. “You’re an hour late,” he growled.

“I’m sorry, Sir,” Scott apologized as he sat down across from his father. “After we purchased our clothes, we spent some time looking around and we lost track of time.”

“The scenery is breathtaking, Murdoch,” Teresa interrupted her guardian.

Scott smiled at her attempt to change the subject. One thing his father hated was for anyone to be late for dinner.

“I’m sure it was,” Murdoch agreed. He looked up at the waiter as he approached the table. “Shall we order? I’m starved.”

Murdoch and Scott were deep in a conversation over tomorrow’s meetings when a man walked up to the table and slapped the older man on the back. “Murdoch! You made it,” the dark-haired man spoke loud enough for half the restaurant to hear him.

“Ted!” Murdoch exclaimed. He shook the man’s hand. “Have a seat.” The rancher turned to his son. “Scott, I want you to meet Ted Crosby. He owns a ranch near Stockton. Ted, this is my oldest son, Scott.”

“Nice to meet you, Sir.” Scott shook the man’s outstretched hand. If he didn’t know better, he would think the man was Murdoch’s brother. They were very similar in appearance, both very tall, with graying hair, and the same weathered appearance that spoke of many long years out on the range and worrying about cattle. Their eyes were even the same deep shade of blue.

Ted sat down between Teresa and Scott. “I thought I wasn’t gonna’ make it,” the Stockton rancher explained. “There’s an ice storm coming through west of here. My train barely made it through, and even then, some of the tracks were pretty bad.”

“I hope it clears up so we can leave Wednesday,” Scott remarked, worried by the thought of their departure being delayed.

“I’m sure we’ll be fine, Scott,” Murdoch dismissed his son’s concerns. “In this part of the country the weather can change in a blink of an eye. By tomorrow no one will even remember that there was a storm.”

Scott hoped his father was right. The young Lancer was feeling homesick, and added to that, he did not have much money left after purchasing new clothing and necessities. He was hoping to get back to Lancer without Murdoch ever finding out how irresponsible he had been, but the long they were trapped in Denver, the more likely it was that he would have to confess his costly error in judgment.


Lancer

“Sorry, Johnny, but them’s Jelly’s orders.”

Frank’s unexpected explanation only served to stoke the fire of Johnny’s ire. “Jelly’s orders? What about my orders? Last I heard this ranch was called ‘Lancer’, not ‘Jellyland’.”

From behind him came a rather indignant reply. “Not that Jellyland wouldn’t be a right nice name fer a spread somewheres, but I promised Murdoch I’d keep ya outta trouble, and that’s what I aim ta do.”

With his jaw clenched tightly, Johnny turned slowly to face the family friend who was coming very close to becoming a former family friend. “Where’s Barranca?” he ground out in a low menacing tone.

Jelly pulled at his suspenders and puffed his chest out. “I had the boys take ‘im out ta the bottom pasture ‘fore you got up this mornin’. I’d say he’s grazin’ high on the hog ’bout now.” The suspenders slapped noisily against his chest as he released them and smiled like a cat that had just snuck the cream out from under a very watchful old maid.

“Why’d you do a dang fool thing like that?” Johnny demanded.

“Ta keep you from doin’ a dang fool thing like what youse about ta do!”

“You’ve gone plumb loco,” Johnny snapped. “I was going to ride out to check on the herd, and on the way back, then I planned to stop by that dry creek bed to make sure it’s still dry before we try to move the herd to the winter pasture next week. Now what part of any of that is danged foolish?”

A whiskered chin jutted forward. “The part that says you’d jes be repeatin’ what Frank’n Lester’d already been doin’.”

“I already gave Frank and Lester their orders for the day,” Johnny turned his head and gave a piercing glare in Frank’s direction. The wrangler was still standing beside Barranca’s empty stall looking slightly nervous. “You’re supposed to be out checking that fence line, not stealing my horse.”

“Don’t look at me, Johnny,” Frank argued even as he took a step back, hands up in surrender. “I didn’t have nothing to do with taking Barranca. Dan and Carl done that.”

“Dan and Carl!” Johnny’s head whipped back around, and his eyes narrowed as he glared at Jelly. “They’re supposed to be checking out that footbridge up near the lake dam.”

Jelly’s eyes rolled and he frowned very condescendingly right before he addressed Johnny. “An’ I told ’em ta check out that creek bed so’s you wouldn’t have ta. Don’t take two men ta check out that little ol’ footbridge, no how. José kin take a look-see without no one holdin’ his hand.”

“José?! He’s supposed to…dang it, Jelly! Is anyone where I told ’em to be?”

“Course they are,” Jelly replied indignantly. “The biggest bunch of ’em are out lookin’ fer strays, jes like ya said.”

“Why? You run out of other things to tell ’em to do?” Johnny deadpanned.

“Ain’t no need ta be sassin’ me, Boy,” Jelly complained with genuine innocence. “I was jes doin’ what I promised Murdoch before he left.”

“Murdoch asked you to make me crazy?”

“No, he did not, Mr. Smarty Britches. He asked me was ta keep an eye on ya and ta make sure ya wasn’t overdoin’ it, or doin’ somethin’ foolish like bein’ out in the rain all day. Yer jes now gettin’ over that cold. You wanna be laid up again?”

“Rain?! What rain?” Grabbing Jelly by the arm, Johnny forcefully dragged the older man out the barn door and into the middle of the corral. He waved his other arm in the direction of the clear blue sky. “Look! There ain’t a cloud in the sky. You wanna tell me exactly how it is supposed to rain?”

Pulling free of Johnny’s grasp, Jelly smoothed the imaginary wrinkles out of his sleeve. “There ain’t no clouds now, but there’s gonna be. I kin feel it in my elbow.” Jelly held up his left elbow for Johnny’s inspection, as if that would make it more believable to the irate young rancher. “It started achin’ on me last night. Always aches right ‘fore it rains.”

Exasperated to no end, Johnny threw his hands up and paced over to the corral fence. “I can’t believe this. I had this whole week planned out. Everything was going to get done just like the Old Man wanted. But not anymore. And why?” Facing Jelly with his hands on his hips, Johnny answered his own question. “Because some old fool’s achy elbow says it’s gonna rain!”

“Now you jes wait a minute, Boy! Who you callin’ some old fool?”

Ignoring Jelly’s sputters, Johnny stormed back into the barn. “Frank! If you wanna still be working here come sundown, get Charlie saddled up for me, pronto.” Johnny’s tone left no question that he meant every word, and Frank issued a prompt ‘yes, Sir’ before making a beeline for Charlemagne’s stall.

“Ya cain’t take Scott’s horse!” Jelly huffed.

“I can and I will.” Johnny turned back to Jelly, his gaze as chilling as his voice. “However, Barranca better be back in his stall by the time I get back this evening. If he ain’t, you’re gonna have more than that elbow hurtin’ you.”

Jelly’s eyes got wide with disbelief and he sputtered after Johnny. “Well, I never!”


It was well past sundown when Johnny finally made it back to the hacienda. He tended to Charlemagne, feeding him and bedding him down for the night with a practiced ease that allowed him to ignore the aches and pains shooting through his backside and down left leg. The only good thing to come out of the day was that Scott would never know that his horse had spooked when they inadvertently stumbled into a showdown between a territorial jackrabbit and hole-jumping gopher, unseating Johnny and landing him on his backside on what had to be the only patch of rocky ground anywhere near the south pasture.

Tired and sore, Johnny walked right by Barranca’s stall without even noticing his horse was back, that is until the disgruntled palomino reached out and snagged his jacket sleeve with his teeth just before Johnny moved out of reach. Smiling, Johnny turned and rubbed the gelding’s velvety nose. “Missed you, too, fella. Reckon you enjoyed yourself, though.”

Barranca eagerly pressed his forehead against Johnny’s chest, nearly pushing the man over in the process. “Take it easy, will ya?” he groused affectionately. “‘sides, you’re gonna get yourself all wet.”

It annoyed Johnny to no end that a sudden downpour less than an hour after he had left that morning left him drenched him to the bone. And he was still wet. For some reason a malicious bunch of rain clouds had relentlessly dogged his trail from one end of the ranch to the other. Of course, from the looks of things, not a drop had fallen anywhere near the hacienda.

Johnny couldn’t help but feel like he was on the receiving end of some kind of divine conspiracy to keep Jelly’s achy elbow’s record intact. He didn’t figure God would be too interested in protecting someone who had lived the life Johnny had during in his short time on this Earth, but Jelly could probably manage to get a few words into the right ear. The old man might be a bit rough around the edges, but he had a heart of gold and that was sure to count for something.

With one last pat to Barranca’s neck, Johnny headed for the door, wishing his bed would be as warm and snuggly as the soft coat beneath his hand. Wishful thinking it was, too, as was the fire that would not be lit in the fireplace, and the warm cider that would not be waiting on a tray held by a little sister who would not be giving him a stare pointed sharp enough to poke a hole right into his empty head.

He had just reached the porch, was within ten or fifteen feet of his save haven, when it happened. ATCHOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! Johnny swore under his breath while he checked to make sure his eyeballs were still in place. He was positive that something had rattled around in his head from that sneeze. All he wanted to do was put his head to bed and sleep until spring. His hand was still on the front door latch when the perfect day came to a perfect end.

“Not a rain cloud ‘n the sky,” a grizzly familiar voice could be heard from behind the courtyard walls. “Guess ol’ Charlie musta dumped ‘im in the lake, ’cause there sure ain’t no other reason for ‘im ta be comin’ in all wet like that. No, sir, not with that sky plumb empty a rain clouds.”

Johnny ignored Jelly’s sarcastic taunts and entered the dark hacienda with a resigned sigh and a sniffle. He made a concerted effort to ensure the door was securely latched, then he headed for the stairs. As hungry as he was, he was more tired. His belly would just have to wait until morning.

.

Tuesday, December 6, 1870

Denver

Murdoch sat down on the edge of his bed and pulled his boots on. The California rancher sighed at the day ahead of him. The morning was pretty clear, but they had to meet with a couple other ranchers, one of them being Ted Crosby, for lunch. After that, they had an afternoon filled with meetings.

As he finished dressing, Murdoch wondered how Johnny was doing back home. He had every confidence that his younger son could handle the ranch; it was that persistent cold he kept his paternal nerves on edge. Johnny had a tendency to ignore his health, especially when it came to keeping his word or living up to his responsibilities. Some relief was found in knowing that Jelly had strict instructions to keep an eye out for his son. The handy man would take that job seriously; Johnny was like one of Jelly’s boys, and the older man would fight tooth and nail, even resort to trickery, to keep Johnny from doing anything foolish.

“Murdoch?” He heard the soft voice of his older son, followed by gentle knock. “Murdoch, are you awake?”

The rancher got up, walked over and opened the door. “What is it?” He could sense the note of urgency in Scott’s voice.

“I just went down to see about breakfast,” Scott explained a worried look on his face. “The desk clerk said that the telegraph lines went down yesterday.”

“We better go check and see if our wire went through,” Murdoch grumbled. The two men walked out of the room, Murdoch grabbed his coat off the rack. “Teresa still sleeping?”

“Yes,” Scott confirmed. “She is meeting with the ranchers’ wives for lunch today. I left a message with the front desk to send a maid up to wake her in time to meet them. She looked a bit tired yesterday so I thought she could use the extra rest.”

“Good thinking,” Murdoch agreed. They headed out of the building, towards the telegraph office.


“Can I help you,” The telegraph officer asked.

“Yes,” Murdoch replied. “I was in here yesterday and sent a telegram to Morro Coyo.”

“Ah, yes…” The red-haired man nodded his head, a frown on his face. “I’m afraid it didn’t go through.”

“Are you sure,” Murdoch barked. “I need to know for certain if it got there.”

“I’m positive,” He reaffirmed. “According to our field operatives, the lines were already down in California before I sent it.” He opened the cash box. “I will refund your money, if you wish to send another one, you can come back when the lines are back up. I’m afraid that won’t be for quite some time.” When Murdoch shook his head, the telegraph officer handed him the money.

“Maybe we can send a telegraph tomorrow evening,” Scott suggested. “When the train makes the stop in Cedar Junction on the way home.”

“Excuse me,” the telegraph clerk interrupted. “I couldn’t help but overhearing you. Might wanna’ check with the depot before you count on going anywhere. Man came in here earlier an’ said the weather’s got the rails shut down west of here, from Canada all the way ta Mexico.

“We better head over there and find out,” Scott urged his father. If the train was shut down until further notice he was going to have either confess to his father he had left his wallet in the hotel room or hope that he would be able to send a wire to his grandfather. That latter made him cringe; he had just received a substantial amount of money from Harlan for this trip. He would surely want an explanation as to why his grandson required and additional amount.

The two men walked down the street, Scott listened to the sound of their boots on the ground, feeling like he was walking to his execution. It was not that he was afraid of his father, but when Murdoch was angry he tended to go off like a roman candle.

“Murdoch!”

The two men stopped, looking back down the street as Travis MacPherson sprinted toward them.

“I went to your hotel,” the sandy-haired man explained breathlessly. “The desk clerk said he thought you headed to the telegraph office.”

“We just left there,” Murdoch explained. “They said they thought the trains might be shut down. We were just on our way to the depot to find out.”

“It is,” Travis confirmed. “My driver told me this morning that his cousin was supposed to be leaving for Philadelphia tomorrow, but the train never made it back through the mountains from San Francisco.”

“Damn,” Murdoch swore, he walked to the end of the sidewalk and looked back at Scott. “How much money do you have left?”

“Ah…well,” Scott stumbled over his words. He did not want to have this discussion in front of his father’s friend.

“Don’t worry about that, Murdoch. I want you all to come and stay at my house,” Travis offered.

“No, Travis,” Murdoch shook his head. “We couldn’t possibly impose on you like that.”

“Murdoch Lancer,” his old friend declared loudly, his hands on his hips. “You are a friend, not a stranger. How many times have you helped me out over the years?”

“I know, Travis, but-” Murdoch began.

“But nothing,” Travis persisted. “I have plenty of room now that my children are grown and on their own with families of their own. You have no reason to refuse my offer, except pure stubbornness, and you know it.”

“All right,” Murdoch gave in. He turned to Scott. “Do you think you can get a refund from the hotel for the remainder of the week?”

“I’m certain of it,” Scott assured him. “Especially considering the circumstances.”

Murdoch nodded, turning back to his friend. “I can’t thank you enough, Travis.”

“Think nothing of it.” Murdoch’s words were waved off with a pleased smile. “I’m looking forward to the company.” With a wink towards Scott, Travis added, “Besides, I have plenty more stories to tell Scott from your days in Boston.”

“Travis,” Murdoch groaned good-naturedly. “I think he’s heard enough.”

“I’m looking forward to it, Sir,” Scott grinned. It would be great to have a few stories about their father to share with Johnny when he returned home.

“Why don’t you head back to the hotel and get your things?” Travis suggested. “I’ll send my driver to pick you up later.”

“We have meetings until about four o’clock,” Murdoch informed his friend. “Would four thirty be okay?”

“Perfect. I’ll head home now and make the arrangements.” Travis departed down the road towards his home.

“He is a good friend, Murdoch,” Scott commented quietly.

“If it wasn’t for him,” Murdoch admitted, “I would have gone back to Inverness long before I had a chance to meet your mother. He convinced me to stay, and for that I will always be grateful.”

They stopped as a carriage went by, before they crossed the street. “One of us should go to the depot and find out if they have an estimate of when the train might be able to leave,” Murdoch said as he peered up at the low clouds blanketing the sky above them.

“I’ll go,” Scott offered quickly. Murdoch raised his eyebrows at his son’s exuberance. “We’ve been doing a lot of walking, it can’t be good on your back,” the younger Lancer explained.

“That train ride played havoc with my back,” Murdoch confessed.

“I’ll be back shortly,” Scott said and headed back towards the depot. He had every intention on checking into how long it would be before they could leave Denver, but first he needed to send a telegram to his grandfather. The decision was made; Scott would much rather ask Harlan for money than tell Murdoch what had happened.


Teresa sat holding a teacup, smiling when an elderly woman sat down next to her. She was a well-rounded woman with blond hair and a little too much makeup for the young woman’s taste. She had been at the party for over an hour and was feeling a bit out of place, not knowing anyone, and being the youngest one there.

“You’re Teresa O’Brien,” The gray-haired woman smiled in return. “I remember you from when you were a little girl!”

“I’m sorry,” Teresa apologized. “I don’t remember you.”

“Forgive me, I used to live in Morro Coyo,” she explained. “My name is Rose Fitzgerald. I was a seamstress there for about five years.”

“Did you know my mother?” Teresa asked anxiously. She always wanted to ask her late father and Murdoch about Angel, but was afraid she would upset them.

“I’m sorry,” Rose said sadly. “I never met you mother, though, I’m afraid that at the time I only had eyes for Murdoch Lancer.”

“You and Murdoch courted!” Teresa sat up, interested in learning something about her guardian’s younger days.

“I wouldn’t exactly call it courting,” Rose frowned good-naturedly. “The man never even knew I was there. It was rather insulting.”

“I see. He was interested in someone else.” Teresa sympathized.

“Yes, he was,” the elderly woman smiled. “Those cows of his. His whole life centered around one thing, and that was making something of that ranch.”

“He succeeded,” Teresa said proudly. “Lancer is the biggest ranch in the area.” She looked up in time to see Scott enter the room, his hat in his hand. He walked towards her, his face colored from the daring stares coming from the younger women in the room.

“Teresa,” Scott greeted her. “Murdoch sent me to pick you up.”

“So, this is what the ranch hands look like in California now,” Rose’s eyes sparkled with mischief. “Is he yours?” she asked Teresa.

“No!” Teresa said emphatically. “Scott is like a brother to me.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Scott,” Rose flirted outrageously.

“Ma’am.” Scott smiled politely, his hands giving away his nerves as he fidgeted with his hat.

“Scott is Murdoch’s oldest son,” Teresa offered, smiling at her brother’s discomfort. It was not often she saw the blond-haired Lancer nervous.

“No wonder he’s so good looking,” Rose declared. “You’re a chip off the old block.”

“We better be going,” Scott said quickly. “We’re going to be staying at Mr. MacPherson’s house for a few days.”

“Why?” Teresa asked.

“I’ll let Murdoch explain,” Scott returned, turning to the elderly woman. “It was nice to meet you, ma’am.” He took Teresa’s arm and they left the room. “You enjoyed that way too much.”

The young woman broke out in a laugh as they headed for their room.


Scott lay in bed at the MacPherson home, unable to sleep. It was ironic that he had insomnia when he felt more comfortable there than he had at the hotel. Murdoch’s friend was a gracious host, and he made the Lancers feel as if his home was theirs. The dinner had been excellent, and was followed by an after dinner brandy, which had made the evening complete. Rolling onto his side, Scott stared out the window at the moon, shining so clear and bright in the nearly cloudless sky.

Most of the day had gone without a hitch. The meetings were very informative and he had met a lot of influential ranchers. Upon returning to the hotel, the manager and Scott had come to an agreement, which had left some money in the young man’s pocket, but not nearly what his father would expect him to have. Scott hoped that by tomorrow he would have an answer from his grandfather and some idea of when the train would be able to take them back to California. The attendant at the depot had explained that with the wires down, the railroad had dispatched scouts to bring word of the condition of the tracks further into the mountains.

He tossed and turned for the next hour, knowing in his heart that muddled finances were not the cause of his restlessness – he was homesick, for the ranch and for his brother. It was funny that when the young rancher had left Morro Coyo to come here a few days ago he was excited about being in a big city, but now all he wanted was to go home and ride the open range with Johnny. Scott yawned, his eyes flickered shut and he smiled as he fell asleep, dreaming of a land far away – the most the most beautiful place in the whole wide world.


Lancer

Pulling the wagon to a stop in front of the general store, Johnny very stiffly got out of the seat and lowered himself to the ground. His left hip and leg protested the movement, but he stifled the groan that tried to slip free.

Even though his body ached from the tumble off Charlemagne, he was still thankful that the rain had not been enough to spark his cold back to life. He had expected to wake up barely able to breath again, and had been pleasantly surprised when that had not been the case. Content in that thought, he stepped up on the boardwalk, only to stop when he heard someone calling his name from across the street.

“Johnny Lancer!” As soon as Johnny turned around, Evan yelled out, “Come by the office before you head back to the ranch. There’s a telegram for you, and some mail, too.”
With a nod, Johnny tipped his finger in the other man’s direction. “Will do, Evan. Be over just as soon as I get these supplies loaded.”

The middle-aged man nodded, before disappearing through the doors of the hotel where his wife was the desk clerk. Johnny resumed his previous course and entered the general store, list in hand.

“Señor Lancer,” Mrs. Baldermero greeted him with her usual exuberance, which included a pinch to his cheek.

“Now, Señora, you know I’m just plain Johnny,” Johnny teased. “Señor Lancer is my father. You know, bigger’n me and mucho loud.”

The shopkeeper’s wife slapped him gently on the arm. “You are Señor Lancer, too. Though not so loud as your padre.”

Johnny laughed as she grinned and walked behind the counter. Murdoch’s temper was no secret; in fact, most people knew about it long before Johnny had ever experienced the roof-raising bellows. During his first few months at the ranch, it seemed to Johnny that his father had been worked very diligently to make up for the lost time. Things had settled down lately, though, and there had been less arguing and more discussing between father and son.

“Señor Juanito,” Señor Baldermero entered through the door to the store’s stock room.

Although he had refused to drop the respectful title of ‘señor’, the older man at least called Johnny by his first name, for which Johnny was grateful. “Señor Baldermero,” Johnny nodded his respect. “Had to come drop off a wagon wheel over at the blacksmith, so I thought I’d come by see if them supplies that wasn’t on the freight wagon last month had come in.”

“Sí,” the shopkeeper nodded. “The supplies came in yesterday morning. I will get them for you.”

Having lost the formality of customer to shopkeeper months before, Johnny followed the older man back into the stock room to help. The Baldermero’s had treated Johnny with only warmth and caring since Scott had first introduced him to the Mexican couple a couple of weeks after Johnny had recovered from the bullet wound he got during the gun battle with Pardee.

Mrs. Baldermero handed Johnny several items wrapped in brown paper, and a piece of the hard candy Johnny liked so much. “These are for Señorita Teresa,” she said as he popped the candy into his mouth.

“Gracias, Señor.” Johnny thanked her with both words and an affectionate kiss on the cheek. “Now, if you can call Teresa ‘Teresa’, then why can’t you drop that ‘Lancer’ bit for me?”

As usual, the older woman scolded him with a sigh. “You are different. You are an owner of a grande estancia. It would be disrespectful.”

Johnny threw the packages in the back of the buckboard. This was an argument he and the shopkeeper’s wife had quite often, and he always lost. It still amused him though when he came to town with Murdoch and Scott that she would address them all as ‘Señor Lancer’; none of them was ever sure who should answer, so they usually all did.


“Jelly!”

“What in tarnation ya yellin’ fer? I ain’t deef, ya know.”

“Sorry, Jelly,” Johnny apologized. “I figured you was out in the barn.”

Jelly rolled his eyes and put down the feather duster he had been using to keep the dust from getting too thick while Teresa was gone. “Then why’r ya yellin’ fer me in the house?”

Unwilling to admit that this made no sense to him, either, Johnny shifted the fault to something else. “Guess that concoction you’ve been force feeding me has made me a bit daft.” With a grimace, he added, “What did you put in that stuff, anyway. Turpentine?”

With his nose in the air and a slight roll of his shoulders, Jelly took the bait. “How’d ya guess? Figure if a man can survive drinkin’ that, there ain’t nothin’ kin keep him down fer long. I ain’t heard you sneezin’ like ya was before, so I guess ya kin start thankin’ me any time, now.”

“Thank you,” Johnny said dutifully, but with no conviction. “When I was in town, Evan gave me a telegram for you.”

This news startled the older man. “A telegram? Fer me?”

“Yep, that’s what the envelope says. Jellifer B. Hoskins.”

Jelly tore open the telegram while Johnny sifted through the rest of the mail. As he suspected, most of it was for Murdoch. He had pulled out a couple of pieces that might need attention before Murdoch returned, but before he could read any of them he noticed the deep frown on Jelly’s face.

“Bad news, Jelly?”

Jelly nodded, but did not look up from the paper. “It’s my sister. Says here she’s sick.”

“Sister?” For the life of him Johnny could not remember Jelly ever talking about having any family, other than the orphans he was taking care of when he first arrived at Lancer.

“Says here she ain’t expected ta live much longer, an’ that if I wanna see her ‘fore she passes on, I’d best get a movin’.”

That was sicker than what Johnny had been thinking Jelly meant, and the whys and wherefore’s of everything else evaporated into thin air. “Then what are you standing here talking to me for?” he asked softly.

Jelly looked up. “I cain’t leave now. Not with everyone gone.”

“In case you ain’t noticed, everyone isn’t gone. I’m still here,” Johnny argued with compassion.

The older man looked at him and groaned. “Yeah, and yer sick, too.”

This time Johnny groaned. “I ain’t sick, Jelly. You just got through saying how good that tonic of yours was working. Besides, I’ve had lots worse than a run nose, before.” Tactically changing the subject, he asked, “Where’s your sister live?”

“Oregon. Heard last month they was gonna open a new railroad spur headin’ up thaterway. Was thinkin’ ’bout goin’ ta see her, after spring roundup an’ all.”

“I guess you’ll be making that trip sooner.”

“Johnny, I ain’t gonna run out on ya,” Jelly protested.

“You ain’t running out on me, Jelly. I’m telling you to go.” Johnny appreciated his friend’s concern, but it was not necessary. “If you don’t go now, you might not ever see your sister again. She needs you more than I do. Besides, Murdoch and Scott and Teresa’ll be back in a couple of days.”

Jelly hedged, his eyes darting back and forth from the telegram to Johnny. “Well, I guess I could, seein’ as how you’ll-

“I’ll be fine and dandy,” Johnny finished for him. “Now go get packed and try to rest up. I’ll take you into town to catch the stage first thing in the morning.”

“‘fore I leave, I’ll be sure an’ mix up another batch of my special brew fer that cold a yers,” Jelly said as he headed for the door. “In case ya have one a them relapses ’cause ya spent yesterday ridin’ around in the rain instead a listenin’ ta my elbow. Stubborn fools, all of ya Lancers.”

Despite the grumbling, Jelly’s rather easy capitulation told Johnny that the old man was more upset about his sister than he was letting on. Johnny felt a sudden chill he as his mind considered the unacceptable possibility of something happening to Scott. Realistically, the ex-gunfighter knew all too well that death had a habit of creeping up on a person, unsuspecting like, but in his heart Johnny desperately hoped that it would be a long time coming for anyone in his family.

.

Wednesday, December 7, 1870

Denver

To all those that were present, Scott Lancer looked as if he were listening intently to the rancher from Colorado describing his ranching operation. In truth, the young man’s thoughts were far away from the conference room and everyone in it.

First thing that morning, he had gone to the telegraph office, only to find out that his grandfather had sent him a wire questioning why his grandson needed extra funds. Scott had debated on what to tell him, and finally settled for a simple explanation. His reply stated only that he did not have sufficient money to secure an acceptable place to reside while in Denver. Scott felt a bit guilty about misleading his grandfather, but he had not lied; it was true, he did not have enough money for the hotel.

What rankled the young man more than anything was that he had to justify his request in the first place. The funds he was using were his, set aside by his grandmother for him when he was just a baby. She had passed away a few months later. Unfortunately, she had stipulated that her husband regulate the funds in the trust until Scott reached the age of thirty.

Accepting that there was no point in brooding over that could not be changed, Scott sighed and tried to concentrate on what was going on around him. How long could this meeting possibly continue? While the blond-haired man enjoyed ranching, loved being outdoors, and felt more alive because of the hard work that was demanded of him as a partner in such a large operation, there was only so much he needed to hear in a day about cows.

Truth be known, the he thought that bovines were some of the dumbest animals ever created. The young rancher looked at his father who seemed enamored with the topic and grinned slightly. It would not surprise him to find out Murdoch had a name for each head of beef back at Lancer. The older man lived and breathed cattle, sometimes to the exclusion of all else.

Not too long ago, Johnny had brought up the idea of raising horses as a side business. Scott had been interested and thought it was an excellent idea. The problem was that Murdoch was totally against it. He called the tune so that was the end of that.

The blond-haired man frowned at that thought. He knew that both he and Johnny had agreed to the stipulation that Murdoch would have the final say when it came to the ranch business, but at some point there would have to be a change in that agreement. Scott did not mind following orders, however, as a partner he wanted to be able to make some of the decisions; one of those decisions would be to branch out into other things. Having all one’s eggs in one basket went against everything he had learned at Harvard, and even from his grandfather.

Scott once again pulled himself back to the present when he heard his father mention his name. Murdoch was singing the praises of his two sons who had recently come home to help with the ranch. Like any proud father, he was telling his friends how his older son had graduated from Harvard and was quite an asset when it came to the books and management.

Then, to Scott’s surprise, his father went on to tell them how efficient his younger son, Johnny, was at delegating work to the hands, that he knew within a short time which hands were best to do which jobs, and that, despite his youth, the men showed him the respect that was due any man in charge. Murdoch ended with a firm show of his own respect; when Johnny was in charge of a job it would be done on time and right.

Scott wished his brother was with them, though this time it was for an entirely different reason. Johnny needed to hear what his father had said about him. Too often, Murdoch came down on Johnny very hard for anything done wrong, without giving him the same level of praise when it was done right.

A few minutes later, the meeting broke up with the President of the Colorado Cattle Association reminding them that the next gathering would be held in California, and that Murdoch Lancer, as acting President of the California Cattle Growers Association, had volunteered to plan the conference.

“We need to go to the depot,” Murdoch informed his son as they walked out of the building. “I want to find out if they know anything about the train schedules.”

“Travis is having that dance tonight,” Scott reminded him. “And I have a couple errands to run. Why don’t I meet you back at the house?”

“We have to be careful with our money, Scott,” Murdoch warned him. “If that storm did as much damage as we were led to believe, then there is no telling how long we’ll be stuck here.”

“There’s no denying that, Sir, but this is Teresa’s first trip away from the ranch in over two years, and our first trip as a family,” Scott elaborated. “She works hard at the ranch and seldom asks for anything. I hardly think it would bankrupt us if we were to try to make the most of a bad situation.”

“You’re right, Son,” Murdoch conceded. “Just be careful how much you spend.”

Scott nodded, stifling the urge to remind his father that he was still the same business-minded Harvard graduate that had deserved Murdoch’s praises less than an hour ago. He was still irritated by his grandfather’s required explanation for the additional funds, but he refused to let that make an issue between himself and his father.

Earlier in the day, when he had gone to find out about the telegram to his grandfather, he had stopped in at the little shop that he and Teresa had been by the day before. He inquired about the dress he and Teresa had seen in the window, and as luck would have it, the dress was the perfect size for his sister. He had paid for it, with the promise to come back that afternoon to pick it up.

The dress was a bit expensive, considering the small amount of money he had left, but Scott did not need to purchase an evening suit for the party. Fortunately, he had been wearing his best suit when the rest of their things had been stolen. Teresa had worn a very pretty dress that day, but it was different for ladies. She should have a different dress for the party, and he was not going to let her down to save a few dollars.


With his errands complete, Scott entered the MacPherson house. He set his package on the small table, and took off his jacket and hung it on the coat rack.

“Scott,” Teresa greeted him. “Murdoch came in just a head of you.”

“What did he find out about the train?” Scott asked.

“There has been no word since yesterday,” Teresa explained. “But the scouts the railroad sent out did not come back today. They are hoping for to get word sometime tomorrow.”

Scott picked up his package and turned to the young woman. “I bought something for you.” He handed the bag to her.

“You shouldn’t have,” she exclaimed. “We don’t-“

“Consider it an early Christmas present,” Scott said quietly. Teresa smiled nervously looking at the gift in her hands, wrapped in brown paper. “Well go ahead and open it,” he urged her.

Teresa carefully pulled the paper open, a stunned look on her face at what it contained. “Scott!” she whispered. “You really shouldn’t have, this must have cost-“

“Don’t worry about it,” Scott interrupted, a smile on his face. “I know how much you wanted to go to the dance tonight and that dress will look beautiful on you.”

“Thank you!” she reached up, kissing his cheek. “I’m so excited!”

Scott watched her as she hurried up the stairs. Teresa was going to make someone a lucky man someday.


Murdoch and Scott stood by the punch bowl as they watched Teresa dance with yet another young man.

“Teresa is having the time of her life,” Murdoch commented as the young couple danced by. The patriarch had not seen his ward that happy since before Day Pardee had murdered her father.

“It will be a night she won’t forget for a long time,” Scott agreed. He looked across the room and his eyes fell upon a pretty young woman, standing at the edge of the dance floor. “Excuse me, I think I’ll join the fun.”

Murdoch watched his son walk away. It felt good to have him home at Lancer where he belonged. The rancher had spent so many years making land and cattle his only family that he did not realize what he had lost until Johnny and Scott had come home. The hacienda was now filled with laughter; he had someone to share the ranch with. His sons were home, and would someday accept the legacy and carry on in the Lancer tradition.

He wondered for a brief moment if the brothers would be able to handle being equal partners, without a third party to have the final say, but he shook off those dark thoughts as totally unfounded. Scott and Johnny were raised in two different worlds, were two different people in attitude and thought, but what they both shared was a willingness to compromise, especially with each other. No matter what happened in the future, his sons would take care of each other, respect each other, and find a way to meet halfway when it came to running Lancer.


Lancer

Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt as they reached the crest of the steep mountain path. With eyes all too accustomed to taking in every tiny detail, he surveyed the devastation that was laid out before them. For a brief moment he was unable to think of anything. The site of the mangled remains of wood and metal was enough to have his stomach knotted in a painful mass – somewhere under all that debris were the bodies of people who had not expected to die that day.

“Dios,” he breathed.

Val had showed up in the wee hours of the morning with the request for able-bodied men to help with a train derailment. A US Marshal had sent word to all the towns to the west within fifty miles, requesting men, supplies, and doctors because everything to the east was cut off by downed telegraph lines and icy mountain passes.

A group of fifty-eight men had headed out within an hour, leaving behind only a bare crew to work the most pressing jobs at the ranch. Jelly had been torn on what to do, but Johnny insisted that he go on to Oregon to be with his sister. Any man could help with the train, but only Jelly could do his sister any good. Jelly rode with Val back to town, while Johnny and the rest of the volunteers headed towards the disaster site.

It had taken the men from Lancer over half the day to get there. When they arrived, there was about that many men already scattered up the mountainside already working hard to save anyone that had survived the crash. The first winter storm of the season had plowed the mountains east of the ranch during the middle of the night. The combination of the ice and snow and the westbound train had been too much for the lumber braces. They had snapped under the weight, sending the train and it passengers plummeting into the river below.

Train cars, crumbled trestle, and twisted railroad ties littered the landscape from the top of the ravine all the way down into the frigid waters of the icy river. Back when he was still running the border, Johnny had seen a train jump the tracks somewhere in south Texas. He thought he had an idea of what they would find, only now he was seeing that his ideas fell far short of the reality.

“How many men you got with you, Boy?”

Johnny’s head jerked up to see a man walking towards him. The tin star pinned to the man’s chest glistened in the afternoon sun. “Name’s Lancer,” Johnny replied. “There’s about sixty of us.”

The man looked bone tired as he nodded, but he kept his eyes focused intently on Johnny. “Lancer? You one of them Lancer’s from over Morro Coyo way?”

“Yeah. We headed out first thing this morning, after Sheriff Crawford from Green River brought word that you’d sent for help.”

The marshal nodded, losing interest in Johnny as he got down to brass tacks. With curt but decisive orders, he instructed the men on where they were needed most. He told them who was in charge at the various points of the rescue operation, and made it clear that they were to take orders only from those individuals. The worst thing that could happen during a disaster was to lose control of the rescuers.


Tired and sore and more than a little unnerved by some of what he had seen, Johnny sat down on a salvaged railroad tie that had been turned into a makeshift bench. The roaring bonfire helped to chase away the chill from the frigid night air, and the beans were not the worst he had ever eaten, though he had to force himself to ingest the morsels of food. His weary body was demanding sustenance, while his queasy stomach was rebelling against the invasion. He hoped he would never again have to face the grotesque sites he and seen today.

“How’r the beans?” Without waiting for an invitation, the marshal who had greeted them when they arrived sat down on the displaced tie next to Johnny.

“Had worse,” Johnny stated with little conviction.

“At least you’re smart enough to be eating ’em,” the lawman sighed. With his fork, he gestured towards a huddle of men on the other side of the fire. They were talking among themselves, and there was not one plate between them. “Those fools are gonna be wishing they had come morning.”

Johnny stirred the beans around on his plate. Flashes of the mangled bodies he had drug out of the river made his stomach churn. “Ain’t fools. Just ain’t no point in eatin’ if it ain’t gonna stay down.”

The lawman sighed again. “Guess not. Takes a strong gut to see what they’ve seen today and still be able to stomach eating. Still, they ain’t gonna be no good tomorrow if they’re too weak to work. There might be more survivors buried under that mess.” Using his fork as a pointer again, he indicated Johnny’s half-eaten dinner. “You understand that, don’t you, Boy?”

“Yeah, I understand plenty,” Johnny agreed. Too many times his belly had screamed for food when there was none to be had. And yes, he knew the value of not allowing his body to become too weak to put up a proper defense. One never knew when things would go from bad to worse and taking that chance could make worse a living hell.

“How many have been found?” Johnny didn’t bother to specify what he knew the marshal would already know.

“Fifty-seven. Don’t know exactly how many were on board, but there coulda been as many as one hundred.” The marshal’s grim countenance got grimmer. “Only found five alive, so far.”

“Damn,” Johnny cursed.

A silence settled between them, broken only by the constant popping of the fire, and the occasional sound of a cough, or a stomach rebelling against food.

“How long’s it been since you quit being Johnny Madrid?”

Startled, Johnny looked over at the other man, but the marshal was staring intently into the fire in front of them. “A few months,” he answered cautiously. “And I’m still Johnny Madrid, when I need to be,” Johnny added as a warning.

The marshal’s head bobbed a few times, but he continued staring into the dancing flames. “Good.”

That single word sent a shiver down Johnny’s spine. The marshal had known who he was before he sat down, so it was unlikely that he was concerned about having a gunfighter in the mix. That left only one possibility. “What kind of trouble you expecting?”

For the first time since he sat down, the marshal looked over at Johnny. “The greedy kind,” he said softly.

“Metal or paper?”

“Both.”

Johnny sighed. There was gold and greenbacks in the rubble, and it had to be quite a bit to have the marshal worried about trouble showing up. Glancing over at the crowd of workers on the other side of the campsite, he wondered if maybe it wasn’t already there.

“Things get bad, can I count on your gun?” the marshal finally got to the point.

“Yeah,” Johnny answered soberly. “If there’s trouble, Lancer’ll back you.”

The marshal nodded again. He stood up, but did not move away. After a minute, he said quietly, “Rumor is that you got yerself killed in Mexico back in the spring.”

That was one rumor that Johnny was more than happy was only a rumor. Sometimes he still lay awake at nights, pondering just how close he had been to taking his final breath, and wondering at the irony that the man who had saved him from that fate was the man Johnny had hated for most of his life.

“Didn’t like hearing that one. Glad to know it ain’t true.”

Johnny watched the marshal as he walked away. He couldn’t imagine a lawman caring one way or the other about whether or not a gunhawk got caught on the wrong end of a gun or not, unless that lawman was a friend. Try as he might, though, Johnny could not remember ever crossing paths with that particular marshal.

“Johnny.” Frank sat down in the spot recently vacated by the marshal.

“Frank.”

“Marshal givin’ you trouble?” the Negro man asked before taking a drink from the steaming cup held tight in both hands.

A smile tugged at Johnny’s lips. With Scott in Denver, it was nice knowing there was someone he could count on to watch his back. “Nope. Could be some trouble, though. If it comes, Lancer’ll stand by the marshal.”

After a moment, Frank nodded.

The crackling of the fire and the occasional clink of Johnny’s fork against the tin plate as Johnny finished off the last of his dinner was the only sound that broke the silence between the two friends.

“About ready to get back to it?” Johnny asked as he stood up and stretched.

Frank stood too, but kept his back to the carnage just beyond the small clearing the marshal had used to set up the base camp. “Ain’t seen nothing like this since the war.”

In the glow of the fire, Johnny studied Frank’s face and wondered at the sorrow he saw in the haggard expression. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Frank nodded.

“Let’s go.” Without looking back, Johnny headed for the makeshift chuck wagon to dispose of his empty plate. He had taken an hour to eat and rest, and now it was time return to the grisly task of digging through the wreckage, desperately clinging to the hope that the next body he uncovered would still be breathing.

.

Thursday, December 8, 1870

Denver

Scott leaned back in the tub, he knew he needed to get dressed and head for the telegraph office but the warm water felt so good he did not feel like getting out yet. The former Bostonian had been used to taking a bath every day back East, but since moving to California he had learned a whole new way of life; coffee was so strong it could jump out of the pot and walk, and baths were had once a week, if you were lucky. The worst, however, had been getting used to wearing the same clothes for more than one day.

The first time he had gone out on the range with Johnny to round up cattle they had to spend the night away from the hacienda. Before leaving, his brother had rather bluntly informed him that he did not need to take a change of clothes; he could manage with what he had on. Scott grinned at the thought. He could only imagine the look of horror that must have been on his face. It became a brotherly joke between them after that; every trip they would go on that required a night out on the range, Scott would find a spare shirt tucked at the top of in his saddlebags. His friends back in Boston would be aghast!

That thought made him remember the dance they attended last night. The blond had seen her while he was dancing, late in the evening, the elusive red-haired beauty with the beautiful green eyes. The young woman smiled, her eyes almost laughing at him, as if this was a game to her. She had worn a Christmas red dress that was a little too revealing for society’s rules, but Scott had appreciated the opportunity to gaze at her lovely features. Scott was impatient for the music to finish and when it did, he quickly thanked the young woman who had partnered with him and left the dance floor to look for her, only to find she was nowhere to be found.

Scott sighed, the water was cooling off and he needed to get dressed and head for the telegraph office to see if his grandfather had sent him the requested funds. He smiled as he thought about how much it must have hurt Harlan to withdraw the money from his grandson’s trust fund once again. His grandmother had left him a healthy amount of money, but it did not make him rich by any means. Scott knew his grandfather would never understand that the young blond got more happiness out of spending it on others than he would hoarding it for himself.

The water sloshed as Scott stood up, the water running in rivulets down his well-toned body. He reached for the towel he left lying on a chair near the claw foot bathtub. Stepping onto a rug the young rancher wrapped the cloth around his waist and headed towards the clothes he had set out the night before.

Scott jerked around as his door opened and Teresa walked in.

“Do you mind!” Scott bellowed as the young woman stared. “Teresa!” he again yelled at her.

“Oh…ah…” Teresa stuttered, embarrassment washing over her face, she turned and fled from the room.

“Someone needs to teach her to knock!” Scott cried as he walked over and slammed his door. It was not as if no woman had ever seen him improperly attired, but Teresa was like a sister and it was embarrassing for her to see him with so little on. The young rancher quickly donned his newly purchased blue checked shirt with black pants, in case someone else decided to walk into his room unannounced.


The most important meal of the day was breakfast, at least that is what Scott had been brought up to believe, and he smiled with satisfaction as he walked towards the telegraph office. The table had been covered with dishes containing eggs, ham, sausage, bacon, fried potatoes, pancakes and even French toast among others.

The young Lancer grinned as he recalled the look on his father’s face as Scott filled his plate a second time. The blond was known for not being a big eater compared to his brother but for some reason, he had been very hungry this morning. It was either that or he had missed eating home cooked meals for the past few days.

He opened the door and stepped inside, quickly walking up to the counter. “Do you have a telegram for Scott Lancer,” he asked anxiously.

“Yes I do, sir,” The telegraph officer nodded.

Scott took the telegram and slowly read it, a frown settled on his face, quickly turning to anger. “I’ve just about had it!” He exclaimed out loud.

“Sir?” The officer said puzzled.

“I would like to send an answer back,” Scott barked.

“Yes, sir.” The attendant picked up a pen and paper. “What would you like it to say?”

“It is my money, stop,” Scott said angrily. “Send it now, stop.” The young rancher put some bills on the counter, he knew he really should not be using what money he had left to argue with his grandfather but the man really made him crazy at times. He was just too controlling when it came to his grandson’s life and the former Bostonian was getting very tired of it.

“I’ll send it out right now,” the telegraph officer assured him. “Would you like me to send someone with a message if a reply should come in?”

“No,” Scott exclaimed. “I’ll stop by early tomorrow morning.” The last thing he needed was for Murdoch to find out. Between his father and Harlan they both wanted to run his life and if he had them both on his back, he was sure to show them that the calm, cool Scott Lancer they were used to could assuredly lose his temper.


Murdoch walked into the MacPherson home, frustration evident when he practically ripped his coat off and hung it on the rack.

“Train still held up,” Travis guessed.

“Yes,” Murdoch growled. “Every day is the same answer, they are not sure when it will be moving again!”

“What are you worrying about?” Travis asked as they walked into the parlor and sat down. “You said Johnny was more than capable of running the ranch.”

“He is,” the gray-haired man agreed. “But he’s been sick and I’m worried about him.”

“That’s not all of it, my friend,” his host replied. “Come on, out with it.”

“It’s the first time I’ve left him to run the ranch alone,” Murdoch confessed. “As a matter of fact, neither of the boys has ever had independent run of Lancer. What if something happens? If he needs to get a hold of me?”

“Murdoch,” Travis remarked. “You’ve been telling me for three days what fine ranchers both your sons are. What are the chances the first time you go on a trip, a catastrophe will happen?”

“You don’t know Scott and Johnny,” Murdoch joked, though part of him knew this was the simple truth. “Those two can’t go to town to pick up supplies without something happening.”

He smiled at his friend. “I trust him, Travis. I really do.” The rancher paused, trying to find the right words. “It’s just for so long that ranch was the only thing that kept me going. I lost Johnny to Maria and I let Scott stay in Boston to be raised by his grandfather, while I built a legacy for when they were older.”

“How do they feel about that?” The Denver businessman asked interestedly.

“Johnny knows I looked for him, but he still harbors some resentment that I didn’t try hard enough,” Murdoch confessed. “And I have to admit he’s probably right. I had already lost Scott. After a while I had to go back or I would have lost everything I had worked for.”

“Everything?” Travis questioned, a look of disbelief on his face.

“I hired the Pinkerton Agency to look for him after I went back,” Murdoch said defensively. “I had not given up on him, I just couldn’t afford to be away from the ranch any longer.”

“The truth is you couldn’t handle the thought of your little boy being missing out there,” the sandy-haired man insinuated. “So you buried yourself in the ranch, using it as a replacement for the children that you missed so much.”

“Yes,” Murdoch admitted, he turned away, quickly wiping the wetness from his eyes.

“And Scott?” his friend continued. Travis knew Murdoch felt a great burden here and hoped he would be able to help him. “How does he feel?”

“When it comes to Scott, I just can’t talk to him.” Murdoch felt his frustrations building as they always did when his mind turned to this subject. “I know he wants to know why I left him in Boston, but what can I tell him?”

“The truth,” Travis murmured. “Maybe that’s all it will take.”

“The truth is that at first it was the best thing to do,” Murdoch growled. “I was working sunup to sundown just to hang on to the ranch, how could I handle a newborn baby? Scott’s grandmother was still alive then and I knew she would take excellent care of her grandson.”

“Why didn’t you go after him later?” The sandy-haired man inquired. “From the letters you sent me, you’ve turned it into the best ranch in the area, surely you could have hired someone to watch over him.”

“I went to Boston to get him,” Murdoch explained. “I left my foreman in charge of Lancer.”

“What happened?” Travis urged him to continue.

“Harlan was having a birthday party for Scott,” the Californian spit out. “My son’s fifth birthday and I had forgotten, some father I was.” He stood up and paced the room. Travis did not say a word as his friend continued. “Garrett threatened me with dragging Scott through the courts, I couldn’t do that to him. Besides that I did not have the money it would take.”

“Not an easy decision for you to make.” Travis commiserated. “You did what you thought was best for him at the time.”

“Did I?” Murdoch barked. “To this day I have to wonder how Scott ended up the way he did. Harlan has always been a selfish son of a bitch, whereas Scott is always helping those in need. He would give the shirt off his back to help ease someone else’s hardships.

“Maybe Scott became who he is in spite of his grandfather,” Travis offered. “Children of murderers don’t always become one themselves.”

“I just thank God everyday Scott and Johnny agreed to come when I sent for them,” Murdoch said sincerely. “I may have missed both of their childhoods but we have the future ahead of us now, together.”

Travis nodded, the conversation ended as Travis’ housekeeper informed them dinner was ready.


Lying in bed later that night, Murdoch’s thoughts kept going back to the conversation with Travis from earlier. He wanted so badly to talk with Scott and explain to his son why he’s been left in Boston, but every time he tried, he clammed up. Travis had told him that maybe all it would take to remove the barrier between him and his son was the truth.

Perhaps Travis was right. The decision was made then and there; before they left Denver he find the opportunity to have a heart to heart with his elder son. It was more than time.


Lancer

By mid-day, Johnny was more tired than he could ever remember feeling. He had worked throughout the night, and now the unceasing effort was taking its toll. The nearly full moon made it possible to keep the rescue efforts going, but the biting cold had slowed them all down. It was the deadly winter chill that had them all pushing themselves to the limit.

If it wasn’t for the bone-chilling cold, the urgency would not be nearly as unyielding. As it was, anyone who had survived the wreck, would freeze to death if they were not found soon. A few might have died from their injuries, but there would be a greater chance of finding survivors if the weather had been less fierce. Then again, if it had not been for the wintry ice storm, the train trestle not have collapsed in the first place.

“Coffee?”

Although phrased as a question, the steaming cup exchanged hands with no thought of a refusal. Ignoring the bearer, Johnny took a big gulp of the bitter brew, not caring that it burned his mouth or his insides. The physical pain was almost as much a relief as the warmth. Less than an hour before, he had pulled a small child out of the wreckage. Clamping his eyes tightly shut, he fought back the almost overwhelming wave of nausea.

The child was a little girl. She was about four or five, at least that’s what Johnny figured. She had dark brown hair and the prettiest blue-green eyes that stared up at him as if they could see right into his soul. They could not; the beautiful little girl was dead. She wasn’t the first dead child he had pulled from the mangled ruins of that particular train car, but she was the one that he could not get out of his head.

With trembling hands he had wrapped her tiny body in a blanket, and carried her with care to the river bank. There had not been a scratch on her, at least none that Johnny could see. Her arms and legs were still attached, which was not the case with all the bodies that had been found in the wreckage. Even her dark green dress had barely been wrinkled as it lay draped over her tiny body. For all the outward appearances, she should not have been dead; but she was.

“How many?” Johnny asked that damnable question for the second time in as many days.

“Seventy-seven.” The marshal’s response was surprisingly gentle from a voice that had been bellowing orders all through the night. “Up to seventeen alive, though.”

A firm hand gripped Johnny’s shoulder, causing him to tense. When useless words that could not possibly bring any comfort were not forthcoming, Johnny relaxed. He and the marshal had not talked directly since the prior night when they were eating by the fire, but Johnny still felt a connection to this man. He could not explain it and did not have the strength to put much thought into it. He just accepted it like…

Johnny studied the man’s profile. The marshal was not young any more, but he was not old, either, maybe forty or so. He had dark blond hair, darker than Scott’s was after months of working in the sun, but close to the color his brother’s hair had been when he had first arrived from Boston. High cheekbones were accentuated by a lighter skin tone, but one that had seen more than a few years in the sun and weather. It was the marshal’s eyes, though, that brought it all together. They were gray-blue, and in them Johnny could see a world of tolerance and understanding.

Turning back towards the river in front of him, Johnny relaxed even more. Add the integrity and fortitude that Johnny had witnessed during the past day to the general physical resemblance and this man could be Scott in another fifteen or twenty years.

“Ever been to Boston, Marshal?” he asked without preamble.

Out of the corner of his eye, Johnny could see the somewhat startled expression on the older man’s face. “No.” After a slight hesitation, the marshal asked, “You?”

“Nope?” A sad smile washed over Johnny’s tired face. “You remind me a little of someone I know. He grew up in Boston.”

“Your brother, Scott?”

The unexpected response ripped away Johnny’s calm and set his senses on alert. Pulling away, he stared at the marshal, a hard cold stare that reflected the fear in his heart. “How’d you know about Scott? And Madrid? I don’t like being played, Marshal.”

The marshal expression remained soft and reflective, despite the chilling threat in Johnny’s voice. “I didn’t always wear this badge, Son.”

Johnny kept his hard stance, his body coiled and ready for whatever threat might come his way, and waited. Patience was something that Johnny Lancer had very little of, but Johnny Madrid considered her to be his most faithful mistress.

“Up until five years ago, I worked for the Pinkerton Agency.” The marshal looked over at Johnny and smiled. “I spent four years looking for you.” The smile faded. “It was the only case I was still working on when I decided to leave the agency to accept this job. Didn’t like letting your father down. You, either.”

“Four years?” Johnny asked softly.

“Yeah,” came a rather choked reply, then the marshal looked away. “Finding you was my first assignment, and my only failure. I’m sorry, Boy.”

“Marshal Canton! We need you over here.”

Johnny watched as the marshal walked away, headed for a group of men a little further upstream from where Johnny was standing. It took a few minutes to work through this new information. While Johnny knew that Murdoch had hired detectives to find him and his mother, he had never really thought about the men who had done the looking. It was just their job, after all. Not once had he considered that any of them would take the task personally. Obviously he had been wrong.


Later that night Johnny was still wrestling with his emotions. Between those blue-green eyes – beautiful in color, but cold and empty in death – that kept staring at him out of the darkness, and the words the marshal had said that kept rattling around inside his head, he was more than ready to get away from that place and return to Lancer.

He and the men who came with him would be heading back to the ranch in the morning. A rider had arrived just before the dinner break to tell the marshal that the railroad crews would be arriving first thing in the morning. The two men moved away and there were a few heated words exchanged, but Johnny had only gotten a sense of the anger; he was too far away to hear the actual words. The marshal was clearly upset when he stormed past Johnny. That had been a few hours ago, and now the marshal was standing over by the stream, at nearly the same spot where he and Johnny had talked earlier.

“Frank, there another clean cup over there?” Johnny asked as he refilled his own cup.

The metal cups clinked together when Frank pulled one out of the bucket of recently washed dishes. He held it out to Johnny, who filled it to the brim. “Thanks, Frank,” he said as he took the second cup and headed for the forlorn figure of the marshal.

“Coffee?”

Just as Johnny had done earlier, the marshal accepted the offering without acknowledgement. Johnny stood there, waiting for the marshal to make the first move, listening to the rushing water and the more distant sounds of the men behind them. Some were preparing to leave in the morning, others were content to wait until daybreak to make the fuss. A few were talking by the fire, discussing the day’s work, without revealing anything about how the grizzly scene had gotten to them.

“The railroad will be here tomorrow,” the marshal said bitterly.

“That bad?”

“Yep.”

“Why?”

“Money.” More bitterness crept into the marshal’s voice. His eyes were focused on the bodies laid out on the ground on the other side of the stream. “Don’t matter that them folks over there are dead. All that matters is getting this rail back into operation so they don’t lose any more money.”

There was a time when Johnny knew he would feel the same way. As a businessman, though, he could now appreciate the dilemma of having to decide what was really the right thing to do, when letting business suffer could hurt even more people. “There’s families that depend on the wages from the railroad.”

The marshal nodded. “I know, but giving me a chance to find the bastards who caused this is important, too. Stupid fools had no business putting that kind of money on a passenger train.”

Johnny’s blood turned cold. “The ice storm didn’t cause this?”

“Hell no!” the marshal snapped. He took a deep breath and then a sip of the coffee. “I found some cut timbers at the base of the trestle, and a couple dynamite bundles tied to one of the main supports. Looks like they planned to blow the bridge, but the ice storm took ’em by surprise while they were waiting for the train. The cut timbers was weak enough that the ice brought the whole thing down without ever having to use the explosives.”

“They get anything?”

“Not what they was after,” the marshal sounded somewhat pleased.

“Do you think you could find ’em if the railroad gave you the chance?”

The marshal turned towards Johnny, his expression full of rage. However, that lasted for only a brief moment, then it faded into disgust. “Probably not,” he snorted. “Couldn’t even find one scrawny little kid.”

Johnny could only watch as the marshal walked away, his shoulders slumped in defeat.

.

Friday, December 9, 1870

Denver

Murdoch sat at the table, staring into the cup of coffee in front of him. Time seemed to pass so quickly; it seemed like just yesterday he was a young man working on the docks in Boston when his eyes had met those of Catherine Garrett. The Scotsman had immediately been enamored with her but he knew a man of his status stood no chance with a woman of her breeding. Travis had laughed at his friend when he had resorted to asking questions about who she was and where she lived. Murdoch smiled to himself as his thoughts turned to that day in the park. He had brought Travis with him, as if he could have kept his friend from coming along, and had sat on a bench watching the young woman as she walked her dog in the park. Catherine had stopped suddenly, turned and looked at both of them, walking towards them with a purpose, her young friends trailed behind her giggling.

The Scotsman had wanted to get up and bolt but Travis held his arm, stopping him. The blond-haired woman had demanded to know why he was following her, if he had something to say to her why didn’t he just talk to her. The young immigrant had surprised himself when he had asked her out, and was even more shocked when she said yes.

Murdoch had taken Catherine to a very nice restaurant on their first date, wanting to impress her. They had enjoyed a wonderful evening and he had returned her home right on time. It was a couple weeks later and a few more dates after that when Harlan Garrett had paid him a visit at the docks to inform him he was not good enough for his daughter and he had better stay away from her.

Three days later, Catherine made her appearance asking him if he had meant what he said, that he loved her and wanted to marry her. The Scotsman had been a bit embarrassed, with all the other dockhands standing around waiting for his answer. Murdoch quickly took her aside and told her that he had meant every word, but he was concerned that he could not keep her in the lifestyle she was accustomed. The blond-haired woman had fire in her eyes, seeing through his words immediately. She told him she would handle her father and that if he wanted to marry her he had better be at her home that evening at five o’clock sharp for dinner.

Murdoch Lancer and Harlan Garrett had never seen eye to eye, butting heads at every turn. The Boston gentleman had even gone so far as to hire a couple men to persuade the dock hand to break his engagement, but that had been a wasted effort. True love could not be bullied.

The wedding had gone off without a hitch. Catherine’s parents wanted to have a huge society wedding but the young couple chose to get married at the park with family and a few friends. Bess, the young woman’s closest friend had stood up for her and Travis for him. It was not long after that Murdoch was best man at his friend’s wedding. The sandy-haired man had fallen for Bess and shortly after that they had moved to Colorado.

In the spring after their wedding, Murdoch and Catherine had packed up all their belongings and headed for California. A young couple filled with hopes and dreams of a future together.

“Murdoch?” Scott spoke, interrupting his father’s thoughts. “Are you okay? I called your name three times!”

“Yes,” his father replied uncomfortably. “I was lost in thought.” He waved to the dishes laden with food. “Sit down and eat. We have the cattle auction this afternoon and I have an appointment this morning with a Denver banker.”

“What for?” Scott asked, frowning.

“If we’re going to bid at the auction,” Murdoch explained. “We’ll need some funds to do that with. Travis is going with me to work out the details.”

“I could borrow the money,” Scott suggested though he knew what his father’s answer would be.

“No!” his father bellowed, slamming his fist on the table. “And you should know I would not take one cent from that man.”

Scott nodded, picking up a biscuit he took a bite. Normally he would argue with his father but there was no point. At times the blond wondered if Murdoch and his grandfather hated each other more than they cared about him. He finished his breakfast in silence, looking up as Travis came in and sat down.

“Excuse me,” Scott said quietly, not looking in his father’s direction. “I have an errand to run, I’ll meet you at the auction, Murdoch.”


Scott walked out of the telegraph office, a smile on his face. Harlan had relented and agreed to send him the funds, though they would not arrive until tomorrow morning. His grandfather had stipulated that he was not pleased about releasing money from the trust so his grandson could consider it a birthday/Christmas present from him.

The blond headed towards the railroad station, hoping that his good fortune would continue and they would be heading for California shortly. Scott wanted to go home and see his brother for more than one reason. He missed Johnny terribly and he needed to talk to him. Johnny was the only other person who could appreciate the burning desire to knock some sense into Murdoch.

“Scott!”

The young rancher turned, frowning as he saw his father making his way across the street. Scott had hoped he would not run into Murdoch until the auction started.

“Murdoch,” Scott greeted succinctly as his father walked up beside him. “I was just headed to the station.”

“It didn’t take me that long at the bank,” Murdoch informed him. “What have you been up to?”

“Just running errands,” Scott replied evasively as they headed towards the building. “Nothing that concerns you.”

“Scott,” Murdoch stopped in front of the station. “About this morning-.”

“I don’t want to discuss my grandfather with you,” Scott firmly, interrupting his father. “We always end up fighting, I think it would be wise if we just avoided him in future conversations.” Scott opened the door to the station and stepped inside, his father following behind him.

“Excuse me,” Scott walked up to the desk. “We were wondering if you’ve heard when the railroad will be operational again?”

“I’m sorry, Gentleman.” The attendant looked haggard, like he had made this speech one too many times, already. “There is no way the train will be able to leave before the first of the year.”

“What!” Murdoch bellowed. “We have to get home by Christmas!”

“I’m sorry, Sir,” the man apologized, “but there’s nothing I can do.”

“Thank you,” Scott said politely.

The two dejected men turned and walked out of the station.

“I promised Johnny this would be a special Christmas,” Scott whispered, sadness evident in his eyes. “Our first Christmas as a family.”

“There has to be a way!” Murdoch barked. “Somehow we have to make it home.”

“Well, if you think of one, then you’re a smarter man than I am,” Scott returned.

“We might as well head for the auction. It will do no good moping around,” his father pointed out. “When we get back to the house we’ll try to think of something.”

Scott reluctantly followed after his father. The last thing he wanted to do was go to the auction, but realistically he knew there was nothing either of them could do and they might as well take care of the business they could.

He had planned this first Christmas to be special, especially for Johnny. Instead, his brother would be spending it all alone. The young rancher wished with all his heart he could have changed places with his brother. The former Bostonian had experienced way too many Christmas’ where he was buried in presents, though not always what a little boy would want. Scott had attended one party after another at Harlan’s business associates homes, not to mention the gatherings at his friends, but not once had he been abandoned.

Johnny on the other hand, had grown up without knowing any of those things. The best his brother could have hoped for was a warm bed, a good meal and to stay alive. There was no Christmas tree with presents wrapped in pretty paper under it with his name on them. All he had was his gun, a horse and a bedroll laid out on the ground.

“Scott,” Murdoch said quietly, stopping a block from the auction. “I know you’re upset. So am I. If there’s any way possible to get home before Christmas, we will find it.” He placed his hand on Scott’s shoulder in comfort.

“We have to, Murdoch.” Scott implored.


Teresa lay in bed that night, tears silently falling onto her pillow. She had tried not to cry when Murdoch and Scott broke it to her that they would not be home in time for Christmas, but she had failed miserably. Her guardian and brother had tried to comfort her through their own feelings of heartbreak. None of them had been able to say anything that would ease the pain.

Dinner had been a solemn affair with all three of them pushing the food around on their plates until finally Scott set his fork down, claiming that he simply was not very hungry. Mr. MacPherson had tried in vain to find a way to cheer his sad guests up, but to no avail. Finally, they had retired to the parlor.

Scott started playing a game of checkers with their host, only to beg off that he was tired and was headed for bed. Teresa knew that truth be known, the her brother was either lying awake in bed or standing at the window staring out at the sky, wishing he were back home.

All of the plans she had made to make this a special first Christmas for Murdoch and his long lost sons were ruined. A special menu had been worked on for months. It included dishes from Boston, Scotland and Mexico. She realized the tremendous amount of work it would be, but to see the happiness on each of their faces would have made it all worth it.

She closed her eyes and prayed that God would somehow find a way to get them home by Christmas. It was a season of miracles and she wanted one very badly. Johnny did not deserve to spend another holiday alone and her only hope was that if they could not get back that those that were at the ranch would see that he was not forgotten. She smiled at that foolish thought; Jelly would make sure that Johnny was remembered. Scott and Johnny were like replacements for his boys, he would see that the younger Lancer had a nice holiday.

Still, she knew that no matter how much he was remembered, there would still be a sense of loss for Johnny. It was important to each of them that this first Christmas be spent together, as a family, but it seemed the fates were against them at every turn.


Lancer

It was good to be home. Johnny had barely slept the night before, even after working late into the night clearing away more of the debris. There were just too many ghastly images rolling around in his head. The men from the railroad arrived at dawn and had pretty much taken over the entire scene. Johnny and men from Lancer, along with the rest of the volunteers, had been summarily dismissed. Yes, there was mention or two of being grateful for their help, but Johnny felt like they were all looked upon as nothing more than a nuisance. By the time they were saddled up and ready to head for home, Johnny was more than ready to get away from the greedy men who had no interest in anything but protecting their precious profits.

There had not even been an opportunity to say goodbye to the marshal – Marshal Jack Canton. The man’s name would have remained unknown if the disgruntled cowboy had not overheard a couple of railroad vultures talking about the marshal like he was nothing but an incompetent fool. A smug grin tugged at Johnny’s lips as he recalled the stunned look and bloodied nose of the loudest mouth of the pair. Johnny’s hand still throbbed, but the satisfaction he had gotten from decking the pompous ass was more than worth the minor discomfort to his knuckles.

It was well after noon when the group of riders reached Lancer’s borders. Johnny sent the men home to their families, or to sack out in the bunkhouse, as the case may be. There was only a few hours of daylight left, and Johnny needed to meet up with Cipriano before he started issuing orders that could create a mess instead of being productive. Besides, after all their hard work, the men needed this time. Johnny knew he did, and he would not deny his men the same consideration.

On his way to the hacienda, Johnny took a short detour to check the fencing along the southern edge of the south pasture. It would save someone else having to ride out in the morning, and Johnny wanted to be extra sure that everything was in order for the herd to be moved first thing Monday morning. Although he was sure that Murdoch would not object to the decision to send help to the train derailment, Johnny still wanted to be able to report that all was ready for the move when picked up his family at Cross Creek in the morning.

“How’d it go, Cipriano?” Johnny asked as soon as Lancer’s segundo entered the barn.

“Muy bueno. It is good you are back, Juanito.” There was both respect and affection in the man’s greeting as he approached Barranca’s stall. “The strays have been gathered, and the herd is  ready.”

This news was a tremendous relief to the young man. He had hated putting the ranch off on the older man, but Cipriano was more than competent, and Johnny had not been able to resist the need to offer his help. “That’s great news, Cip. Gracias.”

Cipriano proceeded to inform Johnny of the status of the lesser projects that were always underway on a working ranch while Johnny groomed Barranca. The brush was returned to the cubby hole at the head of the stall, the golden neck was given a loving pat, and Johnny exited the stall, an appreciative smile on his face for the segundo that was both employee and friend. “Muchas gracias, Amigo.”

Cipriano retuned the younger man’s smile with a nod, then said in a low voice. “Was it bad, Juanito?”

The good feelings slipped away, but Johnny was grateful for the wise old man’s steadfast presence. “Yeah, it was muy malo,” he mumbled. “Join me for a drink?”

“Sí.”

As they walked towards the house, Johnny could not help but remember the way things had been before the two men had reached an understanding. Cipriano had been polite towards the Patrón’s younger son, but there had been a coldness in his attitude. Johnny had found out later that it had been Cipriano who informed Murdoch of Johnny’s meeting with Pardee in the cantina.

Afterwards, when Johnny had no ridden with his brother in the attempt to trick Pardee, a touch of resentment was born because Johnny’s refusal to go along with his Scott and Murdoch’s approach. The Mexican segundo was of the old country, and adhered to the old traditions, which held that the young always yielded to the wisdom of those who were older. Eventually, Johnny had gotten fed up with the condescending looks, and that’s when things changed. The segundo had been cornered in a dry creek bed, and the gauntlet thrown down.

With a brutal honesty, Cipriano had answered Johnny’s demand for answers with an assessment that left Johnny feeling both defeated and angry. Thankfully, he had already forced himself to accept that he would have to prove himself to those who saw him as nothing but, Johnny Madrid, and troublesome gunfighter who had fallen into a very good deal. With equally brutal honesty, Johnny had explained himself, his actions, and his desire to make the most of this second chance he had been granted.

Why he had done so was still a mystery to even him. To open himself up to a stranger, a stranger who had already decided that Johnny Madrid had no place at Lancer, had been more of a gamble than Johnny had ever taken before. The gamble had paid off, though, and he had never regretted that moment of trust that could have proven to be a monumental mistake if Cipriano had been lesser of a man.

The sage Mexican had said nothing more than a few words of acknowledgement, but from that moment on there had been nothing but respect in his interactions with Johnny. During the months following that verbal showdown, an affection had grown between the two men, and now they both trust the other without hesitation.

Johnny used his hat to slap some of the trail dust off of his pants, then entered the hacienda through the French doors, with Cipriano following closely on his heels. The tantalizing smells of fresh baked bread and roast beef immediately assaulted Johnny’s olfactory senses and had his mouth watering. There would be no beans tonight, and for that he was extremely grateful. He poured two glasses of tequila, and smiled when he turned around to see Cipriano sitting in nearer chair at the front of Murdoch’s desk.

That chair was where he or his brother would sit when Murdoch was issuing orders, or other ranch business was being discussed. Johnny would have preferred the informality of a place nearer the fireplace, but Cipriano seemed determined to make sure that Johnny accepted his role as the man in charge. Given their rocky start, Johnny appreciated the sentiment very much.

He handed Cipriano one of the glasses and then sat down in Murdoch’s chair behind the desk with a contented sigh. “It’s good to be home, Amigo.”

For the next half hour, Johnny talked and Cipriano listened. Some of his memories were just too painful to put into words – those blue-green eyes that still haunted him – but for the most part, he was able to relay what he and the other men had seen, and done.

When he was finished, Cipriano raised his glass. “You did well, Juanito, but it is good you are home.”

Johnny raised his glass in return of the gesture, then downed the remaining liquor in one gulp. “It’ll be good to have the Old Man back in this chair,” he said softly. Realizing that Cipriano had not responded, Johnny looked up and saw the sad questioning look on the older man’s face. “What is it?”

Cipriano hesitated. In a very low voice, he said the words that had Johnny’s joyful anticipation crashing down at his feet, “If the train bridge is no more, how will el Patrón and your hermano and hermana return from Denver?”  

.

To Part Two: Saturday December 10 – Sunday December 18, 1870

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